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Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

What is a beginning? What is an ending? What makes a particular grouping of words become a poem or a story or a fiction or a non-fiction? And do these labels, these distinctions, even matter?

For anyone who does not know, I’ve been reading and thinking about books that may or may not fit into the category of Contemporary Verse Novels. In attempting to define “contemporary verse novel,” I turned to several presses, books, and authors that I wanted to study and better understand.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Novel in Verse (vs. Novel vs. Poetry)

I first looked at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. In grouping together these three books, I examined the role of family as both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. I spent some time discussing the mother/son relationship in Autobiography, the abusive father in Pink, and the strange mother who keeps jars of fetuses in Frank. In better understanding the families, readers also gain further entrance into the lives and minds of the protagonists. Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or short story collection, family is a solid theme that many authors write about.

I did not spend time, however, looking at the structure of these books. Autobiography of Red is labeled a “Novel in Verse.” The Pink Institution is labeled “A Novel,” and The Book of Frank is labeled “Poetry.” These are interesting distinctions on the part of the publishers, I think (and on a side note, I’d be interested to know the sales numbers for these books — to confirm or deny speculations that a book of poems labeled “fiction” sells better than a book of poems labeled “poetry”). All three of these books are made up of many poems that function just like chapters. The difference between them is that Autobiography‘s line endings consistently alternate between long and short, without the use of stanza breaks; the poems in Pink are presented as either strange, open field-type poems or recognizable prose poems; and the poems in Frank are pretty much consistently made up of short-line couplets, tercets, or quatrains.

If I were to call these three books contemporary verse novels — where “novel” is the common denominator — I would also say, then, that the contemporary verse novel has more freedom and range to play with its chapters (its poems) than traditional novels, and that the contemporary verse novel has the same range to play with its chapters (its poems) as any collection of poetry.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Contemporary Verse Memoir?

I also looked at Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black and Alix Cleo Roubaud’s Alix’s Journal. The former is a collection of poems on the same theme — the loss of Alix — and the latter is Alix’s diary up until the time of her death. Do these fit into the Contemporary Verse Novel category? I’m not sure. To be honest, I don’t even really know why I care if they do. I don’t think I care if they do. I guess I’m just thinking aloud and making arguments. I would say that these offer the same payoff as novels, just like the first three books, but because they’re more closely aligned with non-fiction, perhaps they’re more like Contemporary Verse Memoirs. It doesn’t matter. What mattered to me was the use of fragment as a reflection on pain and grief:  fragmented experience as something less than the whole experience; the fragment as the most someone is willing to share, a small piece of the whole of his or her suffering.

In this way, the relationship between fragment and sentence became very interesting; I began to think of it as not unlike the relationship between chapter and novel.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Essays (vs. Prose)

Today I want to talk about Jenny Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings and Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It. Sarabande labels the former “Essays” and Wave Books labels the latter a “Book of Prose.” Again, these are interesting distinctions, especially because Boully’s book is made up of many beginnings (without endings) and endings (without beginnings). The questions for me became:  What is a beginning? What is an ending? And to compare this to Ruefle’s book, in which the first prose piece runs 2.5 pages, I started to wonder about how long it takes to establish a beginning, how long it takes to create a sense of an end, a resolution, and how these parts matter to the overall telling of a story.

Further, if the relationship between fragment and sentence is like the relationship between chapter and novel, then the argument could also be made that this is the relationship between beginning or ending (each being fragments) and the complete story. Perhaps the bigger question here is: Why do contemporary verse novels engage so often with fragments (as opposed to standard novels, which consist of chapters that often feel self-contained, in that they have beginnings, middles, and ends)?

Ultimately, I do not have answers, but I’m very interested to hear what anyone has to say. Please chime in.

In any case, I feel the need to add here that The Most of It is one of my favorite collections of short prose. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the collection reads like a novel and the individual pieces feel like chapters. The overall reason for this is the similarity between narrative voices. There is a strength of tone and control that these narrators share, and this is what allows for having a sort of single reading experience (as opposed to reading a short story collection where you have to regroup and re-enter the book from a new place with every new story, each new setting, each new character).

And of course, Boully’s book, with its multiple beginnings and endings, takes this in the other direction — every time I read the book, I feel jarred, disrupted, and, happily surprised that I so often expect the beginnings to make their way toward endings, conclusions, even though this never happens. For me, this is the joy of reading Beginnings and Endings, that shock every time I turn the page that the beginning so abruptly ends. And the joy of reading Ruefle is that I love, absolutely love, her narrators. I want to call her narrators on the phone, and I want them to invite me into their homes, into their lives. I want to have tea with them. Her women are women I want to know.


Contemporary Verse Novels continued . . .

Coming Soon:  I’ll be posting my thoughts on Harry Mathews’s 20 Lines A Day and Robert Walser’s Speaking to the Rose, as well as my thoughts on Carole Maso’s Aureole.


3 thoughts on “Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

  1. Hi Molly,

    I’ll look at this, and the books you mention, more closely later, because this is a subject that very much interests me.

    All labels are ultimately arbitrary to some extent, and there are always hybrid cases, but I think it’s useful to reserve “verse” for writing that’s actually written in verse. Which I suppose these days includes free verse (do people still actually use that term any more?). But, for me, prose is a separate thing; the different is one of line breaks (and, to some extent, meter).

    The way I think about it is: fiction and poetry are classes of literature. Either one can be narrative. Either one can be written in verse, or written in prose. I’m sure those distinctions invite some problems somewhere, but overall, I think that keeps things pretty simple. (?)

    My first novel is written in mostly in prose, but that prose is mostly in alternating meters, and the final chapter is in verse (and in a different meter). Rather than anything new, I think of this as something pretty ancient. Steven Moore points out (in The Novel) that a lot of ancient long “poems” might actually be prose; there’s not always good reason as to why scholars have interpreted certain lines on a tablet as lines of verse.


    1. Yeah, I totally overlooked the obvious about “verse,” but you’re right: “verse” probably should be considered that which was written with lineation or meter in mind.

      I’m willing to go back now and rethink “Contemporary Verse Novels” and simply investigate “Hybrids,” which is probably where I was going with all of this in the first place . . . ? Maybe.

      Yes, please do revisit this with me, Adam. Thanks!

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