Verse novels have been with us for millennia, yet when you publish one, many are surprised by your breach of the prose-novel tradition and also somewhat fearful of trying something new.
It is curious how we love poems as children, and as adults drag them out for weddings and funerals – and yet in our day-to-day lives feel poetry doesn’t belong to us. When I speak at events the overwhelming refrain from my audiences is that poetry is difficult and makes readers feel ignorant. But the verse novel, well that’s something slightly different. As a poet I write with melody in mind, but as a novelist, story is king, so if showing off with language will muddy my reader’s ability to engage with the characters, I scratch it out and try again, and most verse novelists I read do the same.
If you haven’t read verse before here are some of my very favourites, and in the same vein as my new book Here Is the Beehive, most of my picks are short novels that can be read in a couple of sittings. Verse doesn’t require the same-sized canvas as prose; sparsity is what lends these novels their magic, the white spaces on the page revealing almost half of what the chosen words express and sometimes that space says even more.
1. Charlotte by David Foenkinos
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Charlotte is an international bestseller. Though the verse is not particularly complex or gruelling, its simple and unsentimental tone makes it all the more heartbreaking. A story about loss and resilience, set in Nazi Germany, Charlotte is an inspiring novel made all the more powerful by being based on a true story about the life of a relatively unknown artist. The ending comes as no surprise, but I still found myself devastated by it.
2. The Long Take by Robin Robertson
Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018, this is a novel I read in one gulp, realising as I did that the verse form I had long used to write for children absolutely could work for adults. I then listened to the audiobook, and hearing the melody of the poet’s voice at work (though read by an actor) left me in awe. It is an overwhelming story, using dialogue to stunning effect, about Walker, a war veteran moving between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, suffering from PTSD and unable to return to his home, and his lost love, in Nova Scotia. I refer to it when I want to remember how verse novels should be written and how much harder I need to be working.
3. The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
I have had this translation on my bookshelf for years, and I suppose I thought that if it remained there, a couple of Post-it notes in its pages, I could pretend to myself and others that I had read it in its entirety. But I had not, and am ashamed to admit I did not finally succumb until I was overwhelmed by the The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. The story opens near the end of the 10-year war between the Greeks and Trojans, men and Gods battling for power, the legend of Achilles at its core. And this translation is entirely modern, with helpful footnotes throughout, so you won’t need a PhD to understand it. May take longer than a couple of sittings, however!
4. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
I was a middle-school teacher in New Jersey when a colleague handed me a copy of Hesse’s Newbery medal-winning novel and suggested I teach it to the kids. A coming-of-age story set during the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s, this centres on 14-year-old Billie Jo and her navigation of grief. This I was on board with, but when I saw the layout I practically spat out my bagel. I had been a teacher for years and knew one thing: teenagers would not endure an entire novel made up of poems. Teenagers hated poetry. Ah, how wrong I was – the students loved it. And less than six months later I began my own project in verse, which later turned into my debut novel.
5. The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber
The most incredible thing about Barber’s phenomenal novel, which supposes Christopher Marlowe did not die in a brawl but lived and wrote under the name William Shakespeare, is that it is written entirely in iambic pentameter. It’s original, clever and gripping – I don’t know how she pulled it off.
6. Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
This slip of a thing will be devoured by your children, and then by you, in mere minutes. It is the story of a boy who cautiously begins to engage with poetry, and his own feelings, through his homework assignments. If you aren’t sure poetry speaks to you any longer, let Creech heal you by reminding you that it is everywhere and can be accessed by anyone. A fabulous, fun novel you’ll read again and again.
7. Booked by Kwame Alexander
I shudder ever so slightly when a new YA verse novel is presented to me, fearing it will be nothing more than cut-up prose. Kwame Alexander, however, is a true master of the form, using sophisticated poetic devices throughout each of his novels to propel story and engage even the most reluctant teen reader. If I’m forced to choose a favourite from his oeuvre it’ll have to be this story about a football-obsessed boy who’s troubled by his parents’ separation. Alexander is already a superstar stateside, and on his way to snapping up the teen verse market here, too.
8. Brand New Ancients by Kae Tempest
I’ve seen Tempest perform twice and both times came away altered and gibbering slightly. They communicated on some ethereal level that defies explanation as the work is accessible, relatable and without pretence. This is a story about violence and love, which confronts the reader with what it means to be human in all its agonising complexity. If you can, listen to the audiobook, too.
9. Citizen by Claudia Rankine
This book pushes form to create a kind of documentary novel about injustice in the US. As a white reader I felt exposed, and rightly so. As a poet, I felt jealous; the text’s refusal to be defined and the way it forces the reader to constantly adjust to its shifting form makes this a masterfully brave and important piece of literature.
10. The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
This list would not be complete without Seth’s prize-winning first novel. It was inspired by the poetic structure of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and is written in the iambic tetrameter he used. Like The Marlowe Papers, this is a triumph simply for managing to sustain its form throughout (whereas most of the other verse novels I have included are written in free verse). Set in the 1980s in Silicon Valley, the story opens with the successful but lonely John Brown placing a lonely hearts advertisement. The novel trots along at quite a pace, a plethora of characters coming into and out of the narrative, with themes from sexuality to war being explored. This is a chunkier read than the others but certainly worth the effort.