Two Books: Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or; Rebecca Foust, Paradise Drive
Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or
Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: Etruscan Press, 2017
ISBN 978-0997745528, 192 pp., USA $15.00, paperback
Rebecca Foust, Paradise Drive
Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53, 2015
ISBN 978-1-941209-16-5, 114 pp., USA $14.95, paperback
Why aren’t there more verse novels? It seems like an obvious form for contemporary poets to take on. The Western literary tradition, after all, begins with two great narrative poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and narrative poems (whether precisely “verse novels” or not) by Chaucer, Pope, Byron, Tennyson, and Browning, among others, are at the heart of the English poetic tradition. And that’s without even mentioning the apotheosis of the form, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which has been translated into English numerous times (most notably by James Falen). Given the predominance of the prose novel in our current literary culture, and the constant complaints that poetry doesn’t have a large enough audience, it seems odd that more poets aren’t feeding the public’s hunger for stories with novels in verse. And yet the verse novel remains a form rarely attempted, and even more rarely succeeded at. The most notable recent example is probably Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, published in 1986. Consciously modeled on Pushkin (or perhaps on Charles Johnston’s translation of Pushkin), Seth’s sparkling book painted a portrait of America in the Reagan years through the interlocking lives and loves of a series of characters in and around San Francisco and, in doing so, drew not only on Pushkin but also on the great social novels of nineteenth-century writers like Dickens and Zola.
The Golden Gate, however, did not usher in a golden age of verse novels. Instead, most contemporary poets have remained firmly in the lyric mode, tracing small ripples of thought and experience at a very personal level. This is not to say that lyric poetry cannot reflect the larger issues facing society—of course it can. But because of the personal perspective of lyric, it will do precisely that: it will reflect contemporary issues through the lens of individual consciousness, rather than through characters acting and interacting.
And so Aaron Poochigian’s new verse novel, Mr Either/Or, enters a landscape where it can’t help but be a rarity. (Poochigian himself, as a translator of both Sappho and Apollonius, has a foot in both the lyric and the narrative camps.) But this book breaks with the existing traditions of the verse novel just as strongly as it does with lyric. Where Eugene Onegin or The Golden Gate could comfortably be defined as “literary novels,” Poochigian’s book is something even rarer: a genre novel written in verse—or perhaps it would be more correct to call it a mashup of several pop culture genres. It has something of the spy novel about it, with a . . .
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