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?

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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

vs.

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.

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“Twenty lines a day, genius or not.”

Who’s this guy? What? You don’t know? It’s Stendhal! Who decided at one time or another that he would write “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” If that isn’t genius, I don’t know what is.

Some time later, Dalkey Archive author Harry Mathews followed in Stendhal’s footsteps and also decided that he would write “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” And he got a book out of it.

From his Preface:

“Like many writers, I often find starting the working day a discouraging prospect, one that I spend much energy avoiding. Four years ago I was reminded of an injunction Stendhal gave himself early in life: Vingt lignes par jour, genie ou pas (Twenty lines a day, genius or not). Stendhal was thinking about getting a book done. I deliberately mistook his words as a method for overcoming the anxiety of the blank page. Even for a dubious, wary writer, twenty lines seemed a reassuringly obtainable objective, especially if they had no connection with a ‘serious’ project like a novel or an essay. For the next year or so 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 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.”

So, for the month of November, I invite you to join me in the goal of writing at least “twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Perhaps even think about what two concerns are preoccupying you now (besides your family life), and use the month to reflect and write on those.

I was even thinking it could become a regular thing, every November. I was also thinking, Hey, let’s get really goofy about it and see how many people will sign on to write at the same time every day! I know: that’s goofy. Still, if you like, join me and Lily as we write every morning at 8 a.m. or join me and Rose every evening at midnight. It’ll be a spiritual meeting of the minds. I’ll even say a little prayer for you before we begin.