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Contemporary Verse Novels: Robert Walser’s SPEAKING TO THE ROSE and Harry Mathews’s 20 LINES A DAY

Contemporary Verse Novels continued . . .

Okay, so, this is important (and many thanks to A. D. Jameson for pointing this out in my previous post’s comments):  A book should probably not be called a Contemporary Verse Novel if it is not written in verse, which is to say, if it is neither lineated nor metered. Seems obvious, right?


Verse vs. Prose Poems

Well, this raises some interesting questions. First, I suppose we should talk about prose poems (which share a tricky, fine line with that so-called “flash fiction” that at one very small time in our recent history seemed to be all the rage but mostly now people just sort of are annoyed by, as they’d much rather just consider these to be stories, and not even short short stories or very short stories or sudden fictions or anything other than, simply, you know, stories. Am I wrong about this?). I should also clarify that the reason I have these more prose-oriented books on my reading list (Walser, Mathews, Boully, Saterstrom, Ruefle, the Roubauds) is because I’m very interested in hybrid genres, that this study is probably more about hybridity than anything else. But, when studying poetry, one must make arguments for reading what the establishment might consider “not poetry,” especially where credits toward degrees are concerned, yes?

So, I included these non-lineated, non-metered books on my reading list because they are what I believe to be books made up of interconnected “prose poems” (at least, this is my argument). These are not simply collections of (randomly organized) prose poems; no, I argue that these books go beyond the random collections of prose poetry and veer into novel territory by delivering the same reading experiences that one has after finishing novels — that these books are, in fact, novels, in that they take on and meet the challenges of novelistic scope (Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad), or extended, book-length character development (Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, as well as the Roubauds, and now Mathews), or perhaps extended, book-length conceit or constraint (Boully, and Mathews and Walser), or even extended, book-length tones and extended, book-length themes that recur and repopulate the pages again and again (Ruefle, Mathews, Walser).

Do I really care if these are prose poems or fictions? No. Good lord, spare me from having to make these distinctions or argue these things seriously in serious settings because I find it all ridiculous. A writing is a writing is a writing. (Just kidding! I love this stuff! Hello future search committees! Are you reading this? Ha ha?) But you know, probably, the establishment really does care. So this is my argument for why I am calling these Contemporary Verse Novels, so that when the time comes to maybe apply for a teaching position, I might have a decent argument about the historical and contemporary reaches of hybridity? (See? Because prior to this Contemporary Verse Novel study, I was reading and examining those famous prose poetry predecessors, Baudelaire, Jacob, Ponge, Follain, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Fargue, Remizov (who’s my fav!), etc.)


Contemporary Verse Novels and Robert Walser

Oddly enough, I find Walser’s Speaking to the Rose: Writings, 1912-1932 to be more of a collection of fictions and essays than a novel. In fact, the back cover text reads: “With a brisk preface and a chronology of Walser’s life and work, this collection of fifty translations of short prose pieces covers the middle to later years of the writer’s oeuvre. It provides unparalleled insight into Walser’s creative process, along with unique opportunities to experience the unfolding of his rare and eccentric gift.” Walser’s writings are philosophical and engage in serious questions:

From “Dreaming” (pp 20-21):

“I imagine China to be a country of love and peace, where the laws are as soft as the breeze that wafts across regions where gracious behavior is everything. Cities and countrysides are like songs being sung by poets, and heaven is closer to earth than anywhere else. Why do I picture it so? [. . . ] On the mountains stand temples which are consecrated to the gods. Innumerable lamps shimmer at night. Behind the house there is a garden where birds twitter in the moonlight or in the sunshine. The human traffic is like an ocean. All people have only good intentions. Evils and sorrows have long been overcome.”

You know what’s interesting about this today?

The March 19-25th issue of The Economist reports that China’s National People’s Congress maintains that increasing happiness “is more important than increasing GDP. A new five-year plan adopted at the [annual session] has been hailed as a blueprint for a ‘happy China.'”

The article continues:

“The idea of promoting happiness spread over the country like a huge grin early this year when provincial governments began laying out their own five-year plans. Guangdong province declared it would become ‘happy Guangdong.’ Beijing (which is a province-level administration) said it wanted its citizens to lead ‘happy and glorious lives.’ Chongqing municipality, another province-level area, said it wanted its people to be among the happiest in the country. Officials now often talk of setting up ‘happiness indices’ by which government performances should be judged.”

And the article concludes with:

“Some websites in China recently carried a report that 11% of respondents to an opinion poll believed national happiness is boosted when they express themselves freely on the Internet. If only they could.”

I share this article from The Economist because this is what Walser’s writing inspires in me. When I read him, I care less about hybridity or literature than I do the larger philosophical questions he seems to be asking himself. Having read The Economist yesterday, in fact, my mind immediately went to the article when I encountered Walser’s “Dreaming.”

Likewise, when I read his piece, “The Robber,” which is only one page, I am reminded of Boully’s Beginnings and Endings. Walser’s piece opens with:

“A pretty woman loved a robber. She was rich, gave parties. Of him it can be supposed that he lived in a hut. She wore loafers as well as high-heel shoes, and she thought well of him because he was brave, and fair match for hundreds. What an interesting affair. She had a cage full of lions and tigers and tubs full of snakes. What had he got? Countless sins on his conscience. But at least he wasn’t dull”

As the piece goes on, it feels very much like a fiction, as if we are entering into the personal lives of this woman and the robber. It is not until the final two sentences that this changes:

“The tigers and lions, the polished bootees, dazzling parties, the impeccable suits, the hundreds he was a fair match for, the relationship full of sacrifices, the whistlings, signals, and shaggy hair, are figures of fantasy. The person who hatched them now glances at the dial and thinks it is time to get up from his desk and go for a little walk.”

It is jarring, not unlike the shift from beginning to ending in Boully’s book, but interesting because the ending raises questions of authorial intent, author-as-subject, and calls into question the entire idea of writing-as-creation. Walser becomes a character, becomes the character. His “little walk” is perhaps more interesting now than the details about the lives of these other, not real, fantastic people, if for no other reason than that a walk is more interesting to him.

Ultimately, where does this leave us? I’m not sure. Although I would say that Walser’s Speaking to the Rose, perhaps, does not fit so easily into this category of Contemporary Verse Novels.


Contemporary Verse Novels and Harry Mathews

Above, I said that a book could be a contemporary verse novel if it is written in prose poems and if it has the novelistic concern of establishing book-length, extended conceits, constraints, characters, or themes. Mathews’s 20 Lines a Day does all of these.

As for the conceit, this book’s preface explains:

“I began many writing days with a stint of at least twenty lines, written about whatever came into my head on a pad reserved for that purpose. As a background to these intermittent annotations of my life, I should mention that at the time I wrote them I was established in Lans-en-Vercors, a French mountain village half an hour outside Grenoble; that I had been living there since 1976 with the writer Marie Chaix and her two daughters, Emilie and Leonore; that I spent considerable time in or near New York, visiting my mother and teaching at Columbia College; that I made frequent short trips to Paris. In addition to my family life, two concerns preoccupied me: the completion of my fourth novel, Cigarettes, begun in 1978, and the death in 1982 of my closest friend, the French novelist Georges Perec.”

Let me say now that this book is a book I will always turn to for inspiration. Mathews teaches me, with this book, that 20 lines a day is all it takes to get going. His musings are not unlike many of my own, so to feel connected to his 20 lines reassures me that I can do this too. Here are a few random lines from throughout the book:

“One daffodil, one only, is blooming on the terrace under my office window. Although it’s apparently withstanding today’s frost, I can’t help feeling not only pity for its mistaking the weather but a certain derision — the kind I feel when I pass a beautiful, fast car that has been stopped for speeding” (p. 8).

“If, as I.C. said the other night, description is an activity in which the writer can begin to resolve the irreconcilability of the written word and the unwritten world, is there a hierarchy of preferences of things to be described?” (p. 12).

“A week without writing, a week worrying about not writing — Billy Bodega doesn’t like it, and yet he wasn’t doing much about it while it passed. He said (more to himself than to me) that life will always take first place in his heart — as though writing weren’t a part of life, or were somehow a lesser part. Is writing less a part of life than talking on the phone? Than riding in taxicabs? Than taking naps? Billy insists it’s not that simple, although he admits he neither understands the situation nor controls it” (p. 15).

“My desk is clear, all business done, and my first reaction is to miss the clutter and chores. But they aren’t chores. Most of them are chances to communicate with others, even if only by phone or letter. ‘Only’: that’s inaccurate, because being face-to-face with someone usually leads to a consciousness of opportunities missed, of things that couldn’t be said; while the further removed a person becomes from that ‘real’ presence (the order being: telephone, letter, thought) the more completely the possibilities are realized” (p. 22).

These little prose poems, these little meditations as he struggles through his own daily writing and personal lives, are consoling, healing, instructive. The pleasures of the novel are here, but, more importantly, the pleasures of being mentored feel more accurate. A guiding hand and a gentle pat from a friend, who’s been there, leading the way.


Today’s Conclusion?

Walser and Mathews weren’t perfect fits for the Contemporary Verse Novel category, but Carole Maso’s Aureole, which is next on the list, will surely offer further insights into this exciting and strange hybrid form.


4 thoughts on “Contemporary Verse Novels: Robert Walser’s SPEAKING TO THE ROSE and Harry Mathews’s 20 LINES A DAY

  1. I really this Molly. Maybe using literature as an all encompassing name would be justified. Then there is no poetry and prose, it’s just literature. I’d like to think of it like that, but I know it’s a muddy issue.

    Thanks for the Walser commentary. Great excerpts. Another one to read. I had just encountered Gass’s essay on Walser in FINDING A FORM. Apparently he died in a snowy field. He spent the last 23 years of his life in asylum, where, Gass says, “…taking his walks, busy about the idle business of being mad, waiting for the blank which would blanket his attendant blankness (such wordplay was characteristic of Walser), and finding it, we might say, when his heart failed in a field full of snow.”

    My first writing teacher gave me that Mathews book. Wonderful.

    Perhaps adding Peter Handke’s THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD, which is like Mathews in a way, little notebooks in another, to your list might be interesting. Also The Notebooks of Malte Laurds Brigge by Rilke. If that is not a verse novel, I don’t know what is, but I really don’t know what a verse novel is, it’s confusing. But that book should be read.

    1. Good suggestions, Greg. Thanks!

      Yeah, “literature” would certainly help out a lot here, but, like I said, where credits and degrees and jobs are concerned, I really have to make an argument for “poetry.”

      Well, maybe not so much for “poetry” but, in working with the historical and contemporary movements of prose poems, all I really have to do is discuss subversion.

      Historically, the prose poem asserted itself as subversive to lineated, metered poetry, as well as to the traditions of prose.

      And I think this is where some of these books fit into the picture.

  2. While reading this article, one immediate feeling comes to my mind:


    I try not to bat the ball today.
    Neither I opt to leave nor pick the time of good ball
    nor I do care for the bowler’s running
    and last limping over the crease on the cricked ground.
    But I try to fix my feet on the wicket
    that may keep my team in advantage turn.

    That time I face a fall of wicket
    and my dependence with the partner collapses
    that leads me to think twice of my strategy
    and I cannot let my contribution be isolate one.
    The fall of wicket calls me dwindle
    such a game we do not want,
    and there is one proverb:
    cricket playing cannot come under omega pricing,
    the more you expect, the more you dwindle.

    The sweet term thus ends to a draw-game.
    When I am coming out of the pavilion
    I find someone standing with a smile:
    I remember the game is elsewhere
    and I cannot take that opportunity
    while large number of spectators are only patient observers
    and this settles the match like a stone.

    And before the media I declare that “ I do my best.”

    -Asim Kumar Paul

    Can I call this a poetry?

    I think
    Mind creates prose
    Mind creates poetry
    Mind creates mathematics
    Mind of Derrida creates deconstruction theory
    In society mind creates postmodernism
    Overall there is an evolution, a systematic change.
    To hold that truth, I write: The Revision at

    and poems on

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