by Brad Leithauser
Knopf, 313 pp., $25.00
Since the age of the great Victorians ended, it has come to be taken for granted, in English, that narratives, particularly if they are of any length and complexity, will be in prose. By now the assumption seems to us to be part of a deepening condition, something that has become obvious, ineradicable, the manifestation of an unnamed emergent desire, like the development of language itself. Even so, it has not been quite the whole story. From the end of the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century, each generation, from Hardy and Masefield and Edgar Arlington Robinson to Stephen Benet and Archibald MacLeish and Robinson Jeffers, produced stories told in verse.
Some of Frost’s narrative poems are among his most typical and memorable. In recent years Louis Simpson has turned—quite “naturally,” as he makes it seem—to narrative in his poems. Robert McDowell, besides writing narrative poems himself, has run Story Line Press, a publishing company dedicated to narrative poetry by talented poets, among them David Mason and Frederick Morgan, whose Hudson Review has made a point of encouraging poems that tell stories. And in recent years we have been given the comic brilliance of Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and James Merrill’s uncanny, iridescent saga The Changing Light at Sandover, which calls into question assumptions of one kind after another.
Yet narrative in verse (some would be happy to go so far as to say verse itself) by now seems like something marginal rather than mainstream, and it is somewhat startling to be reminded that this situation has not prevailed for long, and that through much of literary history verse was accepted as the proper medium for stories that were meant to seize attention and be repeated and remembered. Obviously our expectations of how a story is supposed to unfold and be relayed have altered radically in a relatively short time. It is not hard to trace some of the main social and technological shifts, in the last two centuries, that have effected the changes, and brought us to a literary age in which a prospective reader is likely to think of a narrative in verse as something of an anomaly—still more so if the work is called “a novel in verse.” Why in verse? one is almost bound to ask now. And why a novel in verse? Is not the novel (if indeed we can be said to agree about what a novel is) a form conceived as prose, made by prose, for prose?
If a story, above all a book-length narrative, is written in verse now, the inevitable question that hangs over it from the start is what can be gained by telling it in a medium less commonly accessible than good old prose? Each narrative poet, I hope, would want to answer the question differently, and the answer would depend upon the story in question. I cannot be sure what prompted Mr. Leithauser, who has written novels in …