Friday, 3 October 2014

The verse novel

Yesterday Rowena Wiseman wrote about coming to terms with the fact that her latest work is probably going to be a novella. Fortunately she goes from 'dealing with it' to embracing the form and promoting  publishers currently publishing novellas.

I responded to her that when novella is the right length for the story, it's the right length for the reader. Maybe I'm more open to forms and lengths than "the market" but surely the examples Rowena lists as successful novellas are enough to validate the form. 

And as I happen to be reading a verse novel at the moment, I thought we should celebrate these too.

Poetry was my writing beginning, and still a form I treasure, perhaps even covet, thanks to my first love, David Malouf.

From 'Poem'
"You move by contradictions:
out of a moment
of silence far off
in Poland or January
you smile and your body
returns to my touch"
What hit me when I first read this was the line that offers 'in Poland or January' as though they are related, as though they could be alternatives when there is nothing that they share. Unless they are both far off. As a teenager this was remarkable, an opening to putting together all sorts of random thoughts and things, like the way I thought could translate if I could listen to rhythm and look at layout. 

It was incredible, too marvellous to speak of.

For poetry I'd always been more familiar with collections and anthologies than the verse novel, and read them with long pauses in between poems, or felt guilty if I didn't. I'd feel the author's hours or agonies searching for every word and placing it carefully, and if I finished a poem and moved on to the next, like turning a page in a novel, it felt disrespectful.

Then I read 'Rapture' by Carol Ann Duffy. I was on a train from Clapham to Haslemere and remember the journey just wasn't long enough. I was visiting family friends so I couldn't get off the train and ask them to leave me alone for another hour though I wanted to. This book was another marvel for me. Another world opened.

Recently I caught up with Melbourne poet Kristin Henry, who had taught me in short story classes more than a decade ago, which prompted me to read some of her recent work. And so I found her verse novel, 'All the way home'.

I'm still reading it, but this book is another marvel for me. Perhaps this time a stunning reminder rather than an introduction, but no less powerful.

I feel like we're in a time where forms are all sitting down to the table together - short stories and flash fiction and poetry - like an extended family. As I've been reading Henry's work I feel like the verse novel is the relative that sits alongside the anthologies, novels, best-of essays and poetry collections, and is the one that can hold court with everyone. There's the story arc, character development, plot, dialogue, all the bricks, but there's also scaling and refining that results in tightened, necessary prose. And that doesn't mean it is dense. Henry's poems are conversations and thoughts that we can all, as readers, access and respond to.
"This story is irresistible. Kristin Henry untangles the yearnings and frailties of the human heart. Her characters are real." Andrea Goldsmith
Yesterday was National Poetry Day in the UK, an event held on different dates internationally. Perhaps in the future we'll take time to acknowledge verse novels, and novellas, and and and...

Some of my published poetry:

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