Here’s Michael Symmons Roberts’s top 10 list of “verse novels.” I’ve never read a “verse novel,” except for portions of Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Roberts asks, trying to distinguish verse novels from epic poems:
“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.”
I suppose so. I wonder what would draw a writer to write a verse novel. If you have a story to tell, why not choose full-on prose, or write lyrical prose that’s prose nonetheless? Now that I re-read Roberts’s two paragraphs or so on the genre, I see that most of his analysis is negative, listing all the ways the verse novel can go wrong:
“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.
This must be a big part of the draw then: the challenge. What can I write that is highly likely to fail and that nobody will read? This is the sort of thing that makes me feel like a lazy reader. I would like to read Eugene Onegin, first on his list, but I doubt I will any time soon.