The author of four critically acclaimed collections of poetry, the latest of which, Corpus, won the 2004 Whitbread Poetry Prize, Michael Symmons Roberts first novel, Patrick’s Alphabet – a literary thriller – is published this week. He explores the unstable ground between poetry and prose with his top 10 verse novels.
“It sounds like a publisher’s nightmare: too long and prosaic for poetry fans, but too concerned with its own form and music for readers to dip into on the train. The verse novel (like the rock opera or the sound sculpture) is the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them. The pitfalls are many. Verse novels can be full of bad poetry: essential but dull building blocks to get from A to B. Or they can be strong on music but light on narrative. Reading a bad verse novel is very hard work with little reward. You think it must be good for you; you just can’t work out how.
“But that’s not the whole story. The best verse novels can be remarkable. One or two might even creep into my top 10 novels, or my top 10 books of poems. The problem is the definition. It’s a slippery one. I’ve drawn the line at poetic, lyrical fiction writing. There’s plenty of that, but a true verse novel attempts something different. It is as intricate in form as any poem. It is often set out in stanzas. It may have a rhyme scheme. Most true verse novels are written by poets, and they often only do it once or twice in a career. So how does it differ from an epic poem? Something about the scale and complexity of the story which pushes it into novel territory? Something about intent? You could argue that a verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form, which counts out Beowulf and Paradise Lost, despite their scale and richness of story and character.
“Here, in no particular order, are my own top 10 verse novels.”
1. Eugene Onegin by Aleksander Pushkin
The classic verse novel? This tale of love and class showed that a major poet could take on a novel without compromising the music.
2. In Parenthesis by David Jones
Jones’s extraordinary account of his experience as a soldier in the first world war. Complex and lyrical, hugely ambitious in its interweaving of history and myth with the horrors of the trenches, In Parenthesis is a neglected masterpiece of 20th-century literature.
3. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
Already an accomplished poet, Seth flexed his narrative muscles here before embarking on ‘A Suitable Boy’. A witty and urbane San Francisco story.
4. Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Barrett Browning spent at least a decade conceiving and crafting this story of a struggling poet and her agonies about her vocation. Her work gave the verse novel a radical edge, raising issues about poverty, women in society and the role and value of art.
5. History: the Home Movie by Craig Raine
In the mid 1990s, Raine created a semi-fictionalised account of journey of the Raines and the Pasternaks (his wife’s famous Russian literary family) through the 20th century. Built in three-line stanzas, it observes the same formal rigour as Raine’s poems.
6. Fredy Neptune by Les Murray
Australian poet Murray also took on 20th-century history, but with longer, eight line stanzas. Central to this book is the extraordinary image of a character (Fredy) so shocked by his inability to prevent a massacre that he loses his sense of touch.
7. Shamrock Tea by Ciaran Carson
Carson is one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of award-winning poetry books and novels. Though they are published in their distinct categories, many of his books could hold their own in either camp. His mastery of the long poetic line enables him to build stories and characters in the most wonderful lyric poetry.
8. The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
Canadian poet Anne Carson’s tracing of a single love affair through to the breakdown of a marriage has won her many admirers. This book is an amazing balancing act – classical and colloquial, surreal but rooted in telling everyday details.
9. The Sugar Mile by Glyn Maxwell
Maxwell is a virtuosic writer regularly drawn to the borders of poetry and fiction. The Sugar Mile interweaves two stories – one set in New York the weekend before 9/11, and one in London during the second world war – and does it in poems that stand up by themselves. His skills as a dramatist allow him to write convincingly in many voices.
10. Byrne by Anthony Burgess
Never a writer to rest on his laurels, Burgess launched into this hybrid form in his final years, finishing his first verse novel shortly before his death. It’s a darkly comic novel in full rhymed verse, brimming with Burgess’ heady brew of sex and religion.