Verse Novel Reflection #1

April 26, 2013

Some time in the last two years, I decided to undertake a reading of epics (The Odyssey), verse novels (Omeros and Prophets, by Derek Walcott and Kwame Dawes, respectively). I called myself doing research for my own verse novel. Well. I got about more than half way through The Odyssey before I gave up the ghost. I barely made it past the first chapter of Omeros, although, truth be told, that was due to me being so enraptured by the language of that first chapter, that I just stopped in awe. And that is where I am at with that book. Transfixed. Earlier this month, I picked up Prophets and started reading it again. I admit to being fascinated…by the story, by the language AND by the three-line format.

Here is the back blurb:

From the winner of the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize for the best first collection comes this major new narrative poem.

Drawing on inspirations as diverse as Derek Walcott, the Bible and Peter Tosh, Dawes brings a live a world where 24-hour satellite television, belching out the swaggering voices of American hellfire preachers, competes with dance hall, ‘slackness’ and ganja for the Jamaican mind. Against this background, Clarice and Talbot preach their own conflicting visions.

Clarice has used her gifts of prophecy to raise herself from the ghetto. Thalbot has fallen from relative security onto the streets. Whilst Clarice has her blue-eyed Jesus, Thalbot brandishes his blackness in the face of every passer-by. Clarice’s visions give her power. Thalbot is at the mercy of possession by every wandering spirit. But when, under the cover of darkness, Clarice ‘sins’ with one of her followers, Thalbot alone knows of her fall. From the heart of the Jamaican countryside he sets  out to denounce the prophetess and, like Jonah, to warn the Ninevite city of its coming doom. An epic struggle begins.

Now. Narrative poem. That may be a better, more poetic term than verse novel. Verse novel sounds so plain and well, teenage-ish; at least to my ears. So the next conceptual step on my journey to completing my own narrative poem is to call it that. As I tell my son, words have power/words matter.

The three-line format of both Omeros and Prophets is fascinating. It is a definite plus in reading poems which possess an extended narrative nature. Why that is the case, I haven’t yet figured out.  I started out trying to mimic that format for my own work. However, the characters rebelled. They didn’t want line cohesion. They just wanted to tell their stories in their own ragged and mismatched lines (aka free verse). Even though I am the author, I got out of their way.  After all, I want the narrative written,  not blocked because of an allegiance to a format that, however fascinating, doesn’t work for this particular narrative.

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