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Chapters in Verse

by John Lennard

                     An editor [...]
[...] seized my arm: “Dear fellow,
What’s your next work?” “A novel ...” “Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr. Seth—”
“In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.
“How marvelously quaint,” he said,
And subsequently cut me dead.

Professor, publisher, and critic
Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.
A writer is a mere arthritic
Among these muscular Gods of Taste.
As for that sad blancmange, a poet—
The world is hard; he ought to know it.
Driveling in rhyme’s all very well;
The question is, does spittle sell?

                                      Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate, 5.1.5–5.2.8

And the answer, at least since The Golden Gate became so unexpected a bestseller in 1986, is yes, it does. The verse-novel is certainly being written in surprising numbers, though the critics don’t seem to have noticed it, and the form has of late boomed mightily. The box below lists 54 book-length poems in English published since 1960 by 29 poets, and all but six have appeared since 1980.

John Betjeman, Summoned By Bells (1960)
Charles Causley, The Tail of the Trinosaur (1972)
Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns (1972), The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1984)
Derek Walcott, Another Life (1973), Omeros (1990), Tiepolo’s Hound (2000), The Prodigal (2004)
Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants (1973), Ancestors (2001)
Anne Stevenson, Correspondences: A Family History in Letters (1974)
Les Murray, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980), Fredy Neptune (1998)
John Fuller, The Illusionists (1980)
James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982)
Marilyn Hacker, Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons (1986)
Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)
George Elliott Clarke, Whylah Falls (1990)
John Tranter, The Floor of Heaven (1992)
Dorothy Porter, Akhenaten (1992), The Monkey’s Mask (1994), What a Piece of Work (1999),
Wild Surmise
(2002), El Dorado (2007)
David Dabydeen, Turner (1994)
Craig Raine, History: The Home-Movie (1994)
Kwame Dawes, Prophets (1995), Jacko Jacobus (1996)
W. D. Snodgrass, The Fuehrer Bunker (1995)
Stephen Herrick, Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair (1996), The Spangled Drongo (1999), A Place Like This (1999), The Simple Gift (2000), Tom Jones Saves the World (2002), Do-Wrong Ron (2004),
By the River
(2004), Naked Bunyip Dancing (2006), Lonesome Howl (2006)
Chris Orsman, South: An Antarctic Journey (1996)
Karen Hesse, Out of the Dust (1997), Witness (2001)
David Foster, The Ballad of Erinungarah (1997)
H. R. F. Keating, Jack, the Lady Killer (1998)
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (1998), The Beauty of the Husband (2001)
Sonya Sones, Stop Pretending: What Happened when my Big Sister Went Crazy (1999),
What My Mother Doesn’t Know
(2001), One of those Hideous Books where the Mother Dies (2004),
What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Maori Battalion (2001)
Ralph Thompson, View from Mount Diablo (2001)
Robert Sullivan, Captain Cook in the Underworld (2002)
Margaret Wilde, Jinx (2004), One Night (2006)

The Arrivants
collects Rights of Passage (1967), Masks (1968), and Islands (1969)
Ancestors is a “Reinvention of Mother Poem [1977], Sun Poem [1982], and X/Self [1987]”
The Changing Light at Sandover collects (with a coda) The Book of Ephraim (1976),
Mirabell’s Books of Number
(1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980).
The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress (1977) was added to throughout
the 1980s and early 1990s before reaching its final published form.
The Ballad of Erinungarah is the verse half of a diptych novel; its prose partner is The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

Not all, of course, are obviously verse-novels. Some are verse-novellas; Betjeman’s Summoned By Bells, Walcott’s Another Life, and Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover are verse- autobiographies; the works by Causley, Herrick, Hesse, Sones, and Wilde, though narratives in verse, tend to be labelled as ‘children’s’ or ‘young adult fiction’ rather than admitted as novels; Sullivan’s Captain Cook in the Underworld began as an operatic libretto; and Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband is “a fictional essay”. But all 54 are long enough to have warranted individually-bound publication, pass far beyond the lyric and lyric assemblage, and deploy large casts that explore complex themes in a novelistic manner, and that challenge prose as a narrative medium. Collectively, they limn a sustained revival over five decades in the narrative family clustered around the verse-novel, and raise intriguing questions.

There is, to begin with, a striking geographical distribution of authors. Separating the six US citizens (Stevenson, Merrill, Hacker, Snodgrass, Hesse, Sones) leaves 23 Common-wealth poets, of whom six are Britons (Betjeman, Causley, Hill, Fuller, Raine, Keating), six are West Indians (Walcott, Brathwaite, Clarke, Dabydeen, Dawes, Thompson), and nine are Antipodeans (Murray, Tranter, Porter, Herrick, Orsman, Foster, Te Ariki Campbell, Sullivan, Wilde).

With poets, such various generalisation is dangerous, but all show concern with ‘difficult’, emotionally complex and politically sensitive matters, to which novelistic complexity permits an access that the monovocal lyric denies. One clear issue across the Commonwealth grouping is the intractable damage of the imperial legacy, especially in experiences of persisting racial prejudice and fractured post-colonial identities. The Australian and New Zealand cluster awaits a specialist in those literatures, as must the absence (saving Seth) of Indo-Pakistani work. My own interest arises from work on the Caribbean cluster, where some further points may be argued.

The first is that – with the exception of Walcott’s Another Life, indebted to The Prelude – the relevant tradition is less the canonical mid-19th Century cluster of British verse-novels centred on Clough and the Brownings, and more one drawing on 20th Century Caribbean works in other languages. The Curaçoan Frank Martinus Arion’s Stemmen uit Afrika (Songs from Africa, 1957) is little known outside Dutch-speaking cultures, but has currency across the Caribbean; and greater weight comes with the Francophone tradition stretching from Guadeloupean Nobel Laureate Saint-John Perse’s Anabase (1924), translated by T. S. Eliot, through Martiniquan Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to my Native Land, 1939), to Martiniquan Édouard Glissant’s epic Les Indes: poèmes de l’une et l’autre terre (The Indies: poems of one and another world, 1955). Racially conscious, formally experimental Modernists, these authors offer models of blended fiction and autobiography, narrative and analysis, that even for Walcott supplement the British canon and for others are primary.

The second is a generational movement marked by lessening optimism between, first, Walcott & Brathwaite, and subsequently Dabydeen, Dawes and Thompson. For all their registrations of horrors in the Middle Passage and the psychic burdens of slavery and post-colonialism, The Arrivants and Another Life (both 1973) live up to the hopes their titles imply. Turner (1994), Prophets (1995), Jacko Jacobus (1996) and View from Mount Diablo (2001), conversely, imply no titular hope, and the last two, summoning Christopher Columbus and the Temptation of Christ, point the other way. Dabydeen returns to the Middle Passage but finds eternal rather than past suffering, and both Dawes and Thompson, for different reasons, pass beyond the criminal history of enslavement to the living criminals who have since the 1970s flourished in Jamaica and populated Jamaican diasporas to the US, UK, and Canada. Lacking the narrative upturn of Emancipation and Independence, all the later works acquire a bleak openness to tragedy that is new in the region’s literature.

Thompson in particular has engaged that bleakness, and as a white Jamaican, denied recourse to metaphors of the Middle Passage, offers a searing account of the nation’s history since the later 1930s. Mount Diablo is a central Jamaican height, and the View from Mount Diablo that readers are shown is finally dominated by prophylactic fratricide — one body “stuffed in a handcart, head severed, torso turned / to the mountain, blank eyes staring down the valley”, another floating in the docks, a third in a room with “a sweet breeze blowing steady from the sea”. The lessons, though hardly morals, are that “Blood / cheaper than drugs” and (with the villain’s stutter) that “Drugs / dealing more s s simple than faith if you play by the rules”. Historical chapter and verse are there also, from the 1970s–80s

           Russian fishermen who traded

AK47s for ganja; bribes and bullets
by the Colombian cartel clearing safe passage
north for the White Lady; the world flushing
its jails of Jamaican gangsters, a new rage
infecting the fight for turf back home in Kingston;

and on to extra-judicial police killings by a politically sanctioned, then sacrificed, ‘Senior Inspector’ who “giggled, blood / blurring his Balaclava, a covenant of silence declared”. As this last suggests, Thompson (a devout Catholic) is very good with religious implication, but if salvation may lie beyond death, and providence is not wholly absent, neither seems of much earthly use and View from Mount Diablo is as bleak a poem by a believer as I know. Ultimately, it shows cocaine as a new triangular trans-Atlantic trade that has proven as bad for Jamaicans as the old slave trade, as fratricidal, hungry for victims, grossly profitable to few and corrupting to many. And if at 1,048 lines, with a prologue and 12 chapters, View from Mount Diablo is more verse-novella than novel, it is plainly the curious, hybrid qualities and tonal malleabilities of the verse-novel that enable both its rage and its balance, driving and validating its acts of witness.

Looking back to the birth of the modern verse-novel with Byron’s Don Juan and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is plain that ironised lightness of tone and touch is vital to their success, supported by their stanza-forms’ respective demands for triple and unstressed rhyme. In each poem much is narratively noticed, from the terrible to the trivial, and more is implied, some of it searing. Seth in The Golden Gate stuck closely to the Onegin stanza, including unstressed rhymes (as with ‘fellow/yellow’, ‘critic/arthritic’, and ‘poet/know it’), and like Byron and Pushkin maintained a detached, primarily comic tone to encompass tragicomic narrative with ironic observation. Fuller’s The Illusionists and Keating’s Jack, the Lady Killer also use Onegin stanzas and rely on their tone, but innovative choices of stanza-form – Dantean terza rima, blank heroic tercets, or Thompson’s single-rhymed, loosely heroic quatrains – are commoner, and bring a greatly expanded range of tones to match range and difficulties of subject-matter. And whatever it was Seth’s doubting interlocutors so scorned (or feared?) in the revived verse-novel, its modern authors are overwhelmingly poets far from “sad blancmange”, who know very well that the world is hard, and potently chart in their work some of the reasons that they and their countrymen find it so.

Quite where the modern verse-novel is going remains to be seen, but notions of a ‘post-Seth’ revival will clearly not do while, conversely, his Commonwealth identity looks as if it matters far more
than was observed in the reception of The Golden Gate as a great Californian novel. Those still suspicious of the form, artistically or commercially, should also think again, for we are in a new ‘Golden Age’ of the verse-novel, and fresh attentions to all chapters in verse is increasingly overdue.

John Lennard is Professor of British and American Literature at the University of the West Indies
at Mona, Jamaica. His annotated edition of Ralph Thompson’s View from Mount Diablo is
published by Peepal Tree and Humanities-Ebooks.

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