Aaron Poochigian

The Novel Novel: On The Recent Resurgence of Verse Narrative


I first heard about Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986) when I was an undergraduate in Classics. A fellow student, studying English Literature, introduced it to me as “a novel novel.” It was a curiosity to him because it was both narrative and poetry. I was immersed in Homer’s Iliad at the time, the foundational work of Western Literature (most emphatically both narrative and poetry), so his amusement at the thought of verse narrative amused me in turn. The majority of narrative in the West was in verse until a revolution of literacy and leisure sparked the rise of the novel at the end of the eighteenth century. Certainly in the nineteenth century there were great verse narratives, Byron’s Don Juan and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, for example, but neither of them was a through-conceived epic, like, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Epic adapted to the demands of the reading public. Don Juan was published in sections years apart, and, as that work progresses, Byron shows less and less interest in advancing the already episodic plot and, thank goodness, just lets himself mouth off more and more in Ottava Rima. The Idylls of the King, completed over the course of Tennyson’s long life, is neither epic nor novel, but what would today be called a collection of linked short stories. It was in the twentieth century that book-length narrative poems became a rarity. Yes, the Australian C.J. Dennis had some success with masterfully vernacular verse novels during WWI, and Alice Duer Miller’s bestselling The White Cliffs swayed American sentiment to support the British during WWII, but the reputations of these anomalies did not succeed them. The various modernist movements focused on the lyric, and post-modernist aesthetics, with its emphasis on the fragmentary, did not lend itself to sustained narrative. So there was my friend in the mid-1990s, telling me that verse narrative was a curious idea.

Though far from the first verse novel in English, The Golden Gate is paternal to the recent bourgeoning of the genre, partly because of its literary ambition and partly because of the attention it received. Everyone was curious as to why the wunderkind Vikram Seth chose to write it in the same tetrameter sonnets that Pushkin had used for his famous Russian verse novel, Eugene Onegin (1833). In the apology at the start of Book 5, Seth refuses to justify using “the dusty bread molds of Onegin / in the brave bakery of Reagan.” He does not “have world enough and time / to wait for reason, rhythm, rhyme, / to reassert themselves” and is simply going to “have fun and try it”. No doubt the novel did seem strange not just to readers of novels but to lovers of lyric poems as well. I mean, if poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” the following bit of exposition is not poetry:

A tow-haired boy sits with his father
Upon a rock that caps a hill.
The son (Paul) says that he would rather
Catch centipedes. The father (Phil,
John’s school chum, whom we mentioned earlier)
Looks on amused as Paul grows surlier.

A traditional novel does demand that characters (usually not the writer themselves) move about and do things other than emote. In verse narrative, one can sustain the supercharge of poetry even in such “setup” passages, as Homer does, or, like Seth, describe a humdrum situation in a plain (and dare I say “prosaic”?) way. The consequence of the latter is that some readers will declare such descriptions “not poetry.” Still, neither lyric nor epic, the verse novel needs to be flexible enough to represent other situations than epiphanic rapture, on the one hand, and Greeks and Trojans killing each other, on the other. Seth, therefore, often goes “light” and occasionally prosaic.

Since The Golden Gate gave cachet and brought attention to the genre, the verse novel has exploded as historical and genre fiction for adults and YA audiences. It can recreate, under the name of “epic,” specific events like the 1914 Ludlow Massacre during the Colorado Coalfield War (David Mason’s Ludlow in 2011) and capture the Caribbean colonial experience in general (Dereck Walcott’s Omeros in 1990). The genre fiction verse novels are a particularly interesting mishmash: “literary” by virtue of being poetry; “popular” by fitting into stock modes and plot types. In the Australian Dorothy Porter’s mystery The Monkey’s Mask (1995), Jill Fitzpatrick, a lesbian private investigator, talks like a character in a hard-boiled detective novel. During an escape to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, she reflects:

. . . thick mists
thick neighbors
and involuntary celibacy

are as inducive to hard drinking
as diesel fumes, high rent
and corrupt cops.

In her investigation into the disappearance of a female poet named Mickey, Jill has an affair with Mickey’s married poetry teacher, Diana. All tough talk, Jill accepts that she will inevitably call Diana again:

because something’s better than nothing because her voice
because her breasts her mouth her smell make me stupid.

The novel earns its subtitle (“An Erotic Murder Mystery”) both through this fling and because, as it turns out, Mickey died during a sado-masochistic ménage gone wrong involving Diana and her husband. A running joke in the novel is that the poets are self-indulgently bad at their art as well as sexually promiscuous. Jill, though no prude in her own right, provides the antidote to their juvenile academic poems by thinking and speaking in taut, cynical free verse.

Science Fiction is well represented with the verse novels The New World (1985) and Genesis (1990) by Frederick Turner and Happiness (1998) by Frederick Pollack. Genesis fuses sci-fi and Greek mythology in a detailed account of controversial human terraforming on Mars. The scientists and industrialists in favor of making that planet a habitable Eden (called “the transformers”) ultimately prevail over the environmentalist “ecotheists”, and the plot of Milton’s Paradise Lost is inverted. The ending is not treacly in its happiness, however. Since it is now like Earth, Mars is doomed to participate in the cycle of life, and forest-fires and disease are part of that cycle:

Let there be forest fires to purge the ridges;
Let there be herbivores to mow the parkland,
And predators to cull their gene pools clean
And viruses to kill the carnivores
That sheep may safely graze. Each form of life
Shall feed upon the wastes of its convivors;

The elevated diction skews technical rather than Miltonic, but Turner, fortunately, grounds all this heady hypotheticality in a central family, the Van Riebecks, that has split along transformer and ecotheist lines. So, in genre fiction, a range of verse narratives for adults can be found doing everything from skulking in the back alleys of pulp to floating among the stars in epics of the future. None of them, however, have achieved anything like the commercial success of the YA verse novels.

In Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2020), Xiomara Batista, a Dominican-American high school sophomore living in Harlem, discovers herself as a spoken-word poet. Self-discovery is not uncommon in the YA novels. In Joy McCullough’s semi-historical Blood Water Paint (2018), for example, seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi comes into her own as a painter in seventeenth century Rome. Acevedo plots Xiomara’s artistic coming of age in easily digestible sections, two or three pages at the max, usually less, some only a haiku. The style of the free verse is straightforward, convincingly teenaged and spiced with Spanish. The Caribbean word sancocho (stew), which X uses to describe her emerging sexual feelings, captures the mixture of languages as well. Acevedo primarily tells the story through what I call the “auto-epistolary” mode, as if the sections were entries in a diary. In an essay entitled “The Most Impactful Day of My Life”, written for an English class, X describes the journal given to her by her twin brother and opens up about its numinous significance:

Every now and then, I dress my thoughts in the clothing of a poem. Try to figure out if my world changes once I set down these words… Sometimes it seems like writing is the only way I keep from hurting.

Consisting of a pastiche of journal entries, high school assignments and notes passed between friends, the sectional approach allows Acevedo to focus on X’s mindset and what affects it and to eliminate the transitional exposition necessary in a straightforward narrative.

Though presented in a similar fashion, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover (2014), about a high school basketball star known as “Filthy McNasty”, mixes action in with the self-discovery. In the following internal monologue, rap and athletics become one:

. . . A bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .
The court is SIZZLING
My sweat is DRIZZLING
Stop all that quivering
Cuz tonight I’m delivering

While scoring poetically and literally, The Crossover manages to present and discuss serious issues such as ageing (Filthy’s father dies) and that most thorny of 21st-cenutry topics: masculinity. After their father’s funeral (and a championship victory), Filthy and his twin brother JB accept that “We Da Man.” Other YA verse novels also address larger issues: homelessness, for example, in Sonya Sones’ Saving Red (2016), and political conflict in Pamela L. Laskin’s Ronit and Jamil (2017), a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with the Capulets as Israelis and the Montagues as Palestinians. It is no doubt far better for the teen audience that Ronit and Jamil, instead of committing suicide, change their names to Rachel and Jack and run away not to Mantua, but America. Romeo and Juliet get their happy ending after all:

Hand and hand we can walk.
You, me, kissing outside of shadows.
It will be nice, Rachel.
It will be wonderful, Jack.
One day we can reclaim our names,
but for now,

The popularity of the YA verse novels begs the question “Why? Why in the world does narrative poetry so appeal to twenty first century teenagers?” Their popularity is, in fact, one expression of the growing popularity of poetry in general among the young. The American National Endowment for the Arts, for example, reported in 2017 that the share of eighteen- to-twenty-four-year-olds who read poetry had doubled since 2012, and the popular success of Acevedo’s The Poet X and Alexander’s The Crossover suggest that the trend has continued. On receiving this news in 2018, we poets who had long since come to terms with no general reader ever being interested in poetry slapped our foreheads in astonishment because there was, at long last, reason for optimism. Still, the question remains: Why do young people eagerly purchase these YA verse novels?

First, the poetry in them tends to be presented in bite-sized and easily digestible chunks. This brevity corresponds with other forms of discourse popular among teens. The character-limit for a text message is 160 characters, for example, and the limit for a TikTok comment is 150 characters, while the limit for a TikTok video-caption has just been increased from 300 characters. There has been a great deal of worrying in some circles that interaction with such technology has been shortening the attention span of the rising generations. Rather than weigh in on that issue, I’ll just say that teens are familiar and comfortable with receiving information in comparatively short bursts, and that’s what the YA novels give them.

Secondly, in many of these novels, the main characters develop autonomy and individuality through personal expression. As their respective character-arcs progress, the main characters, X and Filthy McNasty, for example, not only define their differences from their parents but, significantly, from a twin. Teen readers in turn find in these novels a space in which they can come to terms with their uniqueness and work out what their adult personality will be. Intense by virtue of its compression and very nature, poetry reflects and accommodates this intense (and at times melodramatic) process better than prose. It is significant that a high percentage of main and supporting characters in verse novels (adult and YA) are gay and that others are “outsiders” who feel excluded from “most people.” Their difficulty fitting in mirrors the verse novel as an abnormality. Amazon.com has still not figured out a way to categorize it as a genre in its own right. In their defense, the genre-makers there may be reluctant to classify these novels as “poetry” because it is infamous for selling abysmally badly. I look forward to a time when the verse novel is no longer the redheaded stepchild of the literary family.

Poetry can do all sorts of things: it can tell stories (short and long), it can teach complex subjects, and it can leap from the mouths of actors, just as well as sparkle in the form of gem-like lyrics. As I see it, right now in the 21st century, poets, by focusing almost exclusively on the lyric, are tapping into maybe a quarter of poetry’s potential. The verse novel is important because it is a step toward recouping some of the range and popular appeal that poetry lost during the twentieth century. What will be next? New verse dramas? I mean, God bless Shakespeare, but it is time to add to the verse-drama repertoire. In Dramaturgy of Form: Verse in Contemporary Theatre (2021), the scholar and actor Kasia Lech gives some 21st-century examples of plays that use verse to test linguistic, geographic, national and temporal boundaries but, I confess, I long for a verse drama that is a hit with our contemporary groundlings. I want to see it on Broadway. And what about verse television? Verse cinema? A television series based on Alexander’s The Crossover started streaming on Disney Plus on April 15th of this year, but the director, alas, chose to exclude all but snippets of the spoken-word poetry. Though cinépoetry has become more popular as more poets embrace the visual to promote and even become their art, I am still left longing to enjoy an original, non-Shakespearian feature-length film in which the actors don’t speak in prose, don’t sing, but utter poetry – memorable and incantatory words in a space between Chekhovian realism and razzmatazz Musical or Operatic fantasy. May there come a day when poetry is again a vital part of our culture, both for young people and adults.



Aaron Poochigian earned a PhD in Classics from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. His latest poetry collection, American Divine, the winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, came out in 2021. He has published numerous books of translation with Penguin Classics and W. W. Norton. His work has appeared in such publications as Best American Poetry, The Paris Review and POETRY.

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