The Verse Novel: a conversation and exploration

Jul 2023 | Hybrid

Linda Weste, with Diane Brown, Joan Fleming, John Newton & Harry Ricketts

Compered by Sophia Wilson

In November 2023, the NZSA Otago Southland hosted a panel discussion on the verse novel. The panel was hosted by NZSA member Sophia Wilson.

Linda Weste has edited two non-fiction collections of interviews with writers about verse novel poetics, most recently The Verse Novel: Australia & New Zealand (2021). The discussion in November included Linda, along with New Zealand poets Diane Brown, John Newton, Harry Ricketts and Joan Fleming.

The video can be viewed here:

Following that conversation, we asked the participants to suggest a few verse novels that they recommend, and to share more of their own work.


Verse novel recommendations


Byron, ‘Beppo: A Venetian Story’ (1817)

This reads like a trial-run for Byron’s picaresque verse-novel Don Juan (1819-24). Like Don Juan, ‘Beppo’ is written in ottava rima. It displays the wit and energy, and several of the authorial games and narratorial devices of its great successor. Still a treat to read and a possible spur to a modern verse-novelist.


Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1833)

This is usually accepted as the great verse-novel and, even in translation, it’s easy to see why. Eugene Onegin is a witty, highly wrought, sometimes poignant comedy. The story twists and turns around naïve, romantic Tatyana’s love for the dandy Eugene and is set against (and often satirises) a series of intricate social worlds. The overall effect is not unlike that of a verse version of a Jane Austen novel. Pushkin’s poem was heavily influenced by Byron’s Don Juan and a century and a half later heavily influenced Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (1986), in which the latter brilliantly deploys Pushkin’s tricky, idiosyncratic sonnet rhyme scheme to tell a similarly askew love-story set in contemporary San Francisco.


Lloyd Jones, The Book of Fame: A Novel (2000)

This semi-fictionalised account of the 1905 (Originals) All Blacks’ tour of the UK has some claim to be the first Aotearoa New Zealand verse-novel. It’s certainly a deliberate hybrid, written throughout in an extremely adroit combination of short prose, free verse and ‘found’ poetry. With Bill Sewell’s two book-length verse sequences, Erebus (1999) and The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003), The Book of Fame might provide a helpful model for anyone trying to write a verse-novel about an iconic and/or ‘lost’ event in Aotearoa New Zealand history.


An extract from the Stella Poems

Below is the original Stella poem, which appeared in Turbine 2022. At the time, I thought of it as a stand-alone piece but I soon started imagining what Stella’s life might have been like, and a sequence about her took shape. – Harry Ricketts


How It Strikes a Neighbour

            (for Steve)

Down here is where the poet lived;

white-roofed now, but blue in her day.

She used to sit on the car pad,

staring across at Somes Island

where her father, Johnny (Johann)

was interned during World War 2 –

an alien ever after,

she always claimed; her hare-lipped smile.

No, you can’t go down. The current

owners tend to be, shall we say,

unfriendly. The sloping garden

is just as she left it: dwarf daffs,

the lemon trees, random pansies.

Stella was what she called herself.

It’s rumoured a leather notebook

of unpublished poems survives.

A niece or a nephew has it

and occasionally puts up

odd lines, phrases, on a web site:

“The natural architecture

of trees”, for instance, and “I hold

your body’s soft against the cold”;

“Grey warblers practise their brief turn”

– like that one just now down the street.

“Unheimlich”, the title poem

of her single slim collection

(Longman Paul, 1975)

remains her anthology piece,

mostly for its final couplet:

“Love, so unheimlich in each part,

the true Voynichese of the heart” –

although what that means goodness knows.

That’s all I can tell you, really.

We were neighbours but never, shall

we say, friends; more on g’day terms.

Her body wasn’t found for a week.


Verse novel recommendations


Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014)

Docu-poetry? Discontinuous essay? Verse novel? Yes it is. An acute meditation on the effects of small, daily acts of violation, through vignettes and reflections on everyday racism. Powerful use of white space and the apparent paragraph. Whips you awake.


Sara Torres, Phantasmagoria (2019)

A mysterious, unsettling, exquisite dream-narrative by Spanish writer Sara Torres. A book-length poem that journeys to the underworld with the pain of sexually acute intimacy between women at its centre. Unfortunately, not available in English translation – yet!


Homer’s The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson (2018)

With Athena as the presiding deity, and with its abundance of complex and sympathetic female characters, The Odyssey has long been associated with the feminine, if not with feminism. This is the first published version of Homer’s epic to be translated by a woman, but that hasn’t made it a manifesto: Wilson maintains the moral undecidability, the ethical kaleidoscopism, that makes the story such a fascinating puzzle. 


An excerpt from Song of Less


In this new camp, I keep thinking – what can song do, anyway? On cave nights, I ask my love for a fresh tune, and he obliges, but then I come back to myself and the new songs I try to make are warped and wefted with the ones I have been carrying all along. What the child – oh lolly, freckled moonlight, come let us adore him – what the child managed with her drawings was to help us see the dilating Radius of what we had caused, and that glued us to one another as the feathers of a plucked bird are glued together by its blood.


I try, as Grandmother says, to hum it all facing backwards. But the mouth of me wants to tear up the hollow river right to the dust horizon, make the shattered dirt spit up its roots and sticks and fanbelts, take all that and make a tower – no – not a tower, there is another word, a thing birds make, a shape to show off.

What I long for is waste, extravagance, decoration.


Cousin Groundpigeon has found the uphill crouching way to prick a blister and spear the jellied heart in the single gesture that recovery requires. A starry heat spread into the cousins’ faces as he lumbered into camp, carrying the globe of it in an unthinkable bare hand.


Cousin Frogmouth, who had acquired a chronic gash on his dragging foot, asked to be anointed and we watched as, open-mouthed, the borders of his wound fizzed and knitted over the days. When he no longer winced, he danced. A bird with a rubbery neck. A muddle of electrified cable.

How I missed the child then. She would be grown now, the age I was when we set out into the blistering green-desert with nothing in mind but continuation.


One night, a devil comes, loud on dusty wind. This is Groundpigeon’s devil, the one with shreddings seething in his head where eyes should be. Blind, and infinitely reaching.

The devil reaches and reaches and reaches and suddenly I am on my feet beside Grandmother, a new sound spilling from my mouth, hot and spunk and pink as entrails. I hold the devil in my song as he goes through his changes, morphing into monster after monster, as he becomes every cousin.


Finally, he takes the form of my love, unscarred and wearing proper clothes. With a cry, I open up my arms and welcome him inside.

The blame he took on, as well as his love, is ‘like a shadow on me all of the time.’


What does it mean to continue? Grandmother says that now is the time to ask ourselves what we are, other than ourselves. A piece. This is a moment mad for understanding. The body is a fence but it is also a wave and a thread in a fabric.

‘All the leaves are brown, and the sky

is’ a lid on this ruin of Story.

Lift it up.


Verse novel recommendations


Dorothy Porter, The Monkey’s Mask

A true crime verse novel in taut, witty lines. A combination of Hugh art an genre fiction that thrilled me beyond words. 


Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

Much more high art than The Monkey’s art, this powerful work creates character and plot from fragments of the Greek poet Stesichoros. 


Donald Hall, This Old Life

Because I am particularly interested in memoir. An autobiography in verse, traversing a life in finely crafted long lines, moving, finny with attention paid to poetic form.


An excerpt from Here Comes Another Vital Moment



One morning in Berlin I pull open the curtains and see a sign painted on the side of an old fruit box, and taped to a grating over the window of a derelict building directly opposite our apartment. Berlin is a much graffitied city. There is, it seems, a lot to say, be it political, personal or philosophical. But neither Philip nor I have ever seen this particular message: HERE COMES ANOTHER VITAL MOMENT. Being in English, I wonder if it is intended especially for us. After all, the sign over the archway to our building, declares in English, WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU DO.

The idea that the message was meant for us was fanciful but serendipitous, like walking into a bookstore, your mind free of any preconceived ideas, and seeing the book you didn’t know you needed there in front of you. It will change your life, you’re sure of that, like a glance between two strangers or a shimmer in the light which transforms the ordinary into the radiant. Sometimes such a moment is recognised instantly, labelled an epiphany perhaps. In busy lives such recognition mostly comes later, with reflection. It was the same with me. I set out each day, with no predetermined plans, apart from noting whatever caught my eye. The vital moment, though I didn’t have the words until I saw the sign on the fruit box.

But what to do with those moments and how to tell those at home who look in vain in the letterbox for a word or two? Postcards are not adequate, the photos too clichéd and the space on the other side not big enough to record the exterior and interior landscape. Wait, I said to those who asked about my journey.

I need seasons. A year at least
to gather those vital ingredients
to make of them what I will



The point is to leave
your life one way
or another
for a moment
or more, before
you return
via a different
route; not the same.
From the plane
I look down
over a desert
featureless, dun
in the fading light.
It would be easy
I think, to open
the door, put an end
to the droning
but I’d want
guarantees — say
a soft landing
compass, companion
and a skin equipped
for all eventualities.

John Newton

Verse novel recommendations


John Tranter, The Floor of Heaven (1992)

If Les Murray’s bush lore isn’t your speed, try the ‘city’ poet John Tranter. He wants to be to Sydney what Cavafy is to Alexandria or Ashbery, Koch and O’Hara to New York. The Floor of Heaven is Tranter at his bohemian best: hip (in a ‘70s kind of way), sophisticated and compulsively readable.


Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood (1954)

Not a novel but a radio play, later adapted for stage and then screen. But although it’s not fiction, it does show us a lyric poet breaking out into an extended narrative form, and it’s full of useful lessons for the would-be verse novelist (certainly it has been for me). If you’re an e-book lover, you can hear it read by the incomparable Richard Burton.


An excerpt from Escape Path Lighting


How much Manfred Singleton can see is

subject to dispute. No one on sleepy

Rock Oyster Island has ever observed

him without his shades, heavyweight Aristotle

Onassis numbers, with lenses like the butt ends

of plus-sized Heinekens. Mind you, Manfred

keeps to himself, he’s not the sort of person

you meet at the store. Talk to the locals,

you’ll learn there’s a lot not to know about him.

Like where he got four million bucks (give or

take) for a concrete monstrosity by Richwhite &

Crotch. Like whether the godawful squealing

noise that he pipes from a sound system

hidden in the spinifex really is some kind

of ‘difficult’ music or just meant to scare

the little shits who throw stones on his roof.

Cranky old Manfred! Where would the gossips

at the Bali Hai Tearooms be without him?

Just as well, really, they can’t see him now.

What kind of creep (they might plausibly ask)

needs to wear military night-vision goggles

to stare at himself in a mirror in

a darkened room? A room that resembles

an underground bunker, or some dire

modernist concert hall: off-form concrete,

mean leather couches, electronic

keyboards, a mixing desk. And a portable

clothes rack, on which he first tidily

hangs up his jacket and Hugo Boss shirt,

and now wheels aside gaze neutrally

at the insensate void where his breasts

used to be. No one could call him a clubbable

fellow, you can’t blame the locals for

having their doubts. But fear not, amiable

reader: Manfred sees everything.


On the darkened headland, across the bay

at the Blue Pacific Wellness Farm,

scented tealights in thick glass tumblers

burn on the doorsteps of two dozen cedar

chalets. In 500 thread-count Egyptian cotton

the worried well sleep their dreamless sleep:

the well fed, the well stretched, the well

scrubbed and mud-bathed and rubbed and exfoliated,

punctured and pampered, heard and affirmed,

the chakra-balanced, the colonically

irrigated . . . Only the patients of

Juanita Diaz, Analista Lacaniana

(late of Buenos Aires, by way of Melbourne,

Australia), enjoy visitations through

the Gate of Horn. Dr Diaz insists

on this, and her patients know better than to

disappoint her. Likewise Sigrid Tupelo,

her quondam lover and co-director;

and so, for that matter, Sigrid’s husband,

cactus fancier, de-frocked scholar

and tacit third partner in the BPWF,

ex-professor Jonah (Joe) Bravo. Not

that Juanita is fierce, exactly, but both

would agree she’s ‘particular’. She is also,

Joe has just been reflecting, apropos

of something she was almost about to

say, quite possibly the most opaque

woman he has ever nursed a crush on.

This, mind you, with no disrespect to

Sigrid – Griddle, as he calls her in fun;

also Gridiron, Grid-search, Grid-lock, Two

Pillow, Tuppence, and pet names more banal

still – a severely perplexing woman in

her own right. It is midnight in what is

informally known as the Farmhouse (a.k.a.

Sigrid and Joe’s), at the kitchen table

of which the three partners have been

knocking off a notable Malbec by Enrique

Foster. Juanita, now set to call it a night,

bestows her buenas noches kisses

and heads up the slope through the olives

to her separate quarters. ‘Something’s

bothering her,’ says Joe, as he rounds up

the glasses and rinses them off. ‘It’s always a bad

sign when Nita stays late.’ Sigrid looks up

from her spreadsheet. ‘Yes, I thought so too.’


The clinker-built dinghy rows like a bathtub

but Marigold Ingle doesn’t care.

When she digs on the oars she can feel her

core body converting the water’s inertia

to thrust. It makes her feel powerful like

nothing she knows: as strong as the make-believe

father whose hippie hands crafted it.

In the glare of the headlamp, garfish,

suspended, ride above the seagrass like slender

blue rods. The spotlight undoes them: held

by its gaze, they wait for the dip net

she slides underneath them. She does her work

crisply – a dozen is plenty – turns off

the spotlight, lays back and lets the boat drift.

Her mother – her lovely Aquarian name,

Persia, that’s what she always called her –

nights like this they’d play Constellations,

inventing their own: the Sunfish, the Cowboy Hat.

The stars haven’t changed. Or the smell of

the seagrass, drying in wave-sculpted ridges

along the high-tide mark. Commuters have come,

of course, overseas money, estates on

the headlands (helipads, groundstaff with tasers).

But the gully: it’s much as it was when

they bought it – Persia and Sonny, in that

cheap scruffy decade – except, today,

greener and better loved . . . Or so Marigold

imagines. After all, it’s only a story.

The fact is, she can’t picture Sonny

at all, and even when Persia got sick

she was still just a teen. She remembers

them only in this life that she lives:

the dinghy, the garden, the alcohol.

The remedies. The kindnesses. And in

the tireless delight that keeps everything

contained, that no one has ever dug

deep enough to find the other side of.

A leaping mullet falls with a slap, then

another: there must be a predator somewhere.

Now a small breeze comes snuffling;

she’s no longer warm, as she slips the oars

back in the rowlocks, takes a grip on the water.

Diane Brown is the author of two poetry books, Before The Divorce We Go To Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together, the novel If The Tongue Fits, the travel memoir, Liars and Lovers, a prose/poetic work, Here Comes Another Vital Moment and a poetic memoir, Taking My Mother to the Opera. Eight Stages of Grace (Vintage , 2002) is generally regarded as the first full-length verse novel  published in New Zealand and was longlisted for the Montana Book Awards 2003. It is out of print. Her most recent book, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child (Otago University Press, 2020) is a poetic novella.

Joan Fleming’s latest book is Song of Less (Cordite Books, 2022), a verse novel exploring ritual, taboo and the limits of individualism in the ruins of ecological collapse. She is the author of the poetry collections The Same as Yes and Failed Love Poems (Te Herenga Waka Press), and the pamphlets Two Dreams In Which Things Are Taken (Duets) and Some People’s Favourites (Desperate Literature). She holds a PhD in ethnopoetics from Monash University, and the resulting manuscript Dirt was shortlisted for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest. Joan teaches creative writing for Massey University, and lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. 

John Newton is a poet and literary historian. Formerly a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Canterbury (and before that at the University of Melbourne, where he did his PhD), since 2010 he has been a fulltime writer. His non-fiction books are The Double Rainbow (2009), a study of James K. Baxter’s Jerusalem commune,  Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945 (2017) and Llew Summers: Body and Soul (2020). He has also published three volumes of poetry, and most recently a verse novel, Escape Path Lighting (2020). He moonlights as a song-writer and musician, and can occasionally be heard performing with his alt-country band, The Overdogs. Photo credit Robert Cross.

Harry Ricketts is a poet, biographer, essayist and professor emeritus in the English Programme at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. He has published around 30 books. He is a great admirer of verse novels (from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh to Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask), though the closest he has come to writing one himself is a sequence of poems about an imaginary German-New Zealand poet called Stella. Photo credit Robert Cross.

Linda Weste is a poet, reviewer and editor. Her historical verse novel Nothing Sacred (2015) won the Wesley Michel Wright Prize. As editor she has published two non-fiction collections of interviews with writers about verse novel poetics, most recently The Verse Novel: Australia & New Zealand (2021), which contains thirty-five interviews with verse novelists writing for the Children’s, Young Adult, or Adult categories. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne where she teaches poetry & poetics.

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