I’d like to state my thanks to the Big Other crew for letting me think aloud and formulate ideas about this strange hybrid form I’m trying to define. Comments along the way have helped me think and rethink, and I believe, for this final installment, I’ve got a much clearer idea of what a contemporary verse novel is or can be.
Contemporary Verse Novels and Subversion
The “Contemporary Verse Novel,” as I see it, is, first and foremost, subversive. If, back in Baudelaire’s day, a “prose poem” was neither like the prose nor poems that came before it, then I’ll just go ahead and say, too, that today’s “verse novel” is neither like the verse nor novels that came before. And because I wish to align my study most closely with the study of the historical tradition of prose poetry (which was subversive to the traditions of metered, lineated poetry as well as extended, narrative prose), I believe that the Contemporary Verse Novel is subversive to both verse and novel — in that it refuses to fit into the neat categories of “verse” or “novel.” In fact, it will challenge our ideas of “verse,” and it will make us reconsider what we mean when we say “novel,” including, of course, the idea that novels must be fiction and therefore are not memoirs. I can think of so many book-length essay collections that read like novels and are also at times lineated or made up of small prose sections. These, too, seem perfect fits for what I mean when I say contemporary verse novel. Books like Marie Carter’s The Trapeze Diaries, David Barringer’s American Home Life, Eula Biss’s The Balloonists.
Still, I have to say, I, like others here, would for so many reasons rather call these books “books.” Or “literature.” To define seems to limit, even if the definition calls for expansion, progression, movement beyond categorical limitations. But let’s leave this for now and return to it later, in another post perhaps.
Aureole by Carole Maso
The reason I’ve chosen Aureole over AVA is in fact because of the subversion I want to discuss. AVA is a perfect definition of a “contemporary verse novel.” It is one long, multi-layered, fragmented narrative, and it is lineated. It is a book everyone should try to read at least once, and if anyone needs help with that, go on over on Dalkey’s website, where there is a handbook, or “casebook,” filled with others’ essays about how to read and better understand AVA.
As for Aureole, the entire title is: “Aureole: An Erotic Sequence.” Here, the word “Sequence” makes one think of poetry. Fiction writers say, “I’m working on a collection of stories.” Poets say, “I’m working on a sequence.” But is Aureole a sequence? Maso says it is, so of course it must be. But it also seems very much like a short story collection. The reason it is not a short story collection, however, is that the stories (most of them, but not all of them) are lineated.
Aureole works, then, as a contemporary verse novel, because it is subversive to verse in that not all the stories are lineated. It is subversive to the novel because it is made up of short stories, it is a sequence, and it is lineated.
Because, ultimately, this is my finding and this is what this small study has led me to, I’ll stop here. I feel like I could go on and on, but I won’t. I don’t want to do a close reading of Aureole, and I don’t want to compare it to Carson or Conrad or Saterstrom or Ruefle.
Contemporary Verse Novels, Concluded
I sort of want this post to bask in its own understanding of what a contemporary verse novel has the potential to be. It has the potential to be Aureole.
Or Catherine Sasanov’s Had Slaves.
Or any of the books from Kate Bernheimer’s trilogy.
Or Arielle Greenberg’s and Rachel Zucker’s Home/Birth.
Or Joe Hall’s Pigafetta Is My Wife.
Or Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth.
Or Robert Lopez’s Asunder.
Etc., etc., etc.
In the end, or in the beginning, a contemporary verse novel has the best of all worlds. It gets the honor and distinction of caring about language the way poets care about language. It has the marketability potential of a novel. It gets to be badass and say fuck the traditions. It gets to break all the rules. It gets to have fun and try new things, explore new ways, and even if it fails in one area it ultimately has the chance to find success in other areas.
So, good luck writers. Good luck, verse novelists. And have fun!
That’s all you have to do.
Just have fun. . . .