Alice's Academy

Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor

Textual aporias: Exploring the perplexities of form and absence in Australian verse novels

Kerry Mallan and Roderick McGillis

Kerry Mallan is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Cultural and Language Studies in Education at Queensland University of Technology (Australia) where she teaches courses in children's literature, storytelling and teacher-librarianship. Roderick McGillis is a Professor of English at the University of Calgary.

Kerry Mallan and Roderick McGillis have collaborated on a groundbreaking article exploring verse novels generally and Australian verse novels in particular. This article, valuable because it invites discussion rather than resolves issues, is a welcome companion to the growing number of verse novels appearing in several countries.
(Elizabeth L. Pandolfo Briggs, editor)


In the past several years, we have seen the publication of many verse novels for younger readers, and the list of publications is growing. This growth of a genre, which has for some time run second place to prose fiction, begs several questions, not the least of which are: What is the appeal of verse novels? What kind of literary experience do verse novels offer young adult readers? One quick Richie: Telling stories goes back to Homer. Verse is the genesis of literature.
response might be that, like other forms of narrative, verse novels offer a way of knowing: a knowing which comes through a particular negotiation between text and reader. The potential of any literary text to offer pleasure/engagement, emotional response, and the experience of coming to know things does not rely on content alone. Rather, the form of a text and its reading are both social acts . However, form is no guarantee of a satisfactory literary experience and as, Sophie Hannah warns, the two common pitfalls of verse novels are 'bad verse' and a 'boring (or entirely absent) plot' ( While such a harsh assessment may apply to some verse novels for young adults, the verse novel nevertheless situates itself in an honourable lineage of verse narratives, from which it gathers force and significance. Before dismissing the verse novel, we might well consider how this form blends narrative and poetry and produces a hybrid genre while conforming to the generic expectations of young adult fiction.

As mentioned above, telling stories in verse is not new, but we now have a number of writers who tell their narratives of love, loss, and lucklessness in the form of verse novels, some of which are impressive in their ability to communicate to an audience that might not readily read 'poetry'. The more successful verse novels impress with their sometimes demanding and atmospheric style. But on the whole, these novels allow readers to overlook matters of style. They offer readers an ostensibly easy reading experience, seducing them with many short chapters and lots of white space on every page. Readers may take the opportunity to pause, reflect, and anticipate or, they may read quickly since the narrative segments are usually brief. These books call upon the reader to feel because what she or he reads is short, or relatively short, lyric verses that are as much reflective as they are plot driven. Sequence is less important than the secrets the text may hold.

...any words
can be a poem
You've just got to
(Creech 2001, p.3)

What Creech says about 'short lines' seems to be what some verse novelists actually do. They do not write poetry so much as they write a story in short lines. They create 'verse' out of simple prose statements:

I should tell you about myself.
I'm Sam Slater
I'm eleven-years-old.
I go to Browntown Primary School
and my teacher is Mr Brainstorm,
sorry, Mr Braindrain,
I mean Mr Lamebrain.

(Herrick 1999, p.11)

Perhaps, this attention to conciseness distinguishes the verse novel from traditional verse narratives. While Richie (above) is correct in pointing out the long tradition of verse narrative dating back to Homer, many of these verse narratives are poems; that is, they tell narratives in a deeply symbolic and rhetorical manner. They draw attention to the language of story. To cast a narrative in verse or poetry is to alter our sense of what we are reading, or at least the import and power of what we are reading. Sacred texts often come in the form of poetry. For instance, the King James Bible is deeply poetic even when it delivers its narratives in long lines rather than short ones. Current verse novels, at least those in our sample, partake of such import and power by virtue of their intertextual connection within this long line of poetic narratives, a point which we'll return to later.

Kerry: Is there anything distinctive about the 'Australian' verse novel?

In focussing on 'Australian' verse novels, we should attempt to avoid the danger of asserting a collective identity as being representative of what is a diverse, multicultural society. We also need to be aware that Australia does not have a monopoly on the verse novel; the form is popular in the United States, and practitioners of the verse novel in the U.S. take on more obviously multicultural and historical themes than do the writers in Australia. We think of Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (1997), Ron Koertge's The Brimstone Journals (2001), and the series verse novels by Virginia Euwer Wolff, Make Lemonade (1993), and True Believer (2001). In addition, we should be aware of the tendency to see geography as a convenient means for shaping a common sense of place, memory, and history. Finally, let's notice the authors who are currently writing verse novels in Australia. They too invite another image of sameness, since the characters in these novels are almost entirely members of the dominant Eurocentric Australian community. Such are the problems associated with clustering by country or nationality. Yet, despite our resistance to the idea of a common or generic Australian verse novel, the obvious superficial features evoke Australia through recognisable Australian characters, place names, colloquialisms, native fauna and flora.

Rod: But beyond these obvious features, how are these books reflective of Australia? Is there any point in asking this question?

The writers whose work we discuss in this paper are all Australian. Some, such as Steven Herrick, Catherine Bateson, and Michelle Taylor, are new to the publishing scene and are developing reputations as popular verse novelists; others, such as Libby Hathorn and Margaret Wild, have established reputations in children's book publishing, particularly as writers of novels and picture book texts, yet they are new to the verse novel genre. However, all these writers draw on a rich tradition of narrative verse, particularly in the sui generis Australian form of the bush ballad. Given the hybridity of the Homeric narratives, in that they too drew upon more than the Greek culture, but were in turn influenced by Mycenaean and Near Eastern cultures (Cobley 2001), it is clear that no literary form can ever be totally monocultural, particularly given the influence of Western literary traditions on the production, distribution and reception of texts. The Australian verse novel, like other similar texts, revels in the hybrid nature of its literary form and literary precedents.

Turton (1999) draws a comparison between the ballad and the verse novel suggesting that both need a strong narrative thread to bind together the created images into a cohesive and memorable story. The comparison with the ballad serves to remind us that the verse novel has or ought to have discernible form. The use of short lines is both a minor and a distinguishing feature. As Gray points out: 'Old fashioned prosodists call a single line of metrical writing a verse' (1992, p.301). As poetry, the verse novel needs something more than short lines and must be distinguished in some way from prose. While verse commonly refers to poetry in general, especially in its metrical and linguistic possibilities, the language of poetry often employs repetition to create a sense of pattern. The verse novel, along with its other features, sits differently on the page from the way prose does. Thus, like the visual arts and prose fiction, verse occupies a spatial dimension; this understanding of spatiality draws attention to the way the eye scans the page and is drawn by the movement of words to take in varying patterns across the page:

I cannot stay here
this lonely tree
I will fill my lungs

and try
to fly
to fly
to fly

(Taylor 2001, p.179)

The obvious spatial device of placing the triple repetition of "to fly" across and up (or down) the page nicely communicates the ambiguity of Jez's resolve. Do we read "to fly" up or down the page? Will Jez, in fact, fly? In order to fly, she must give life a second chance, and move beyond her grief and guilt.

To distinguish poetry from verse implies a hierarchical division: the former is often perceived to be of a higher order. Thus, when one speaks of poetry there is a particular expectation about form. For instance, one might expect a poem to be deeply rhetorical, that is, to take the formal features of language itself as its subject. Such conscious attention to form will result in a poet using figures of speech such as chiasmus, anaphora, alliteration and assonance, metaphor and simile to name just a few. These rhetorical devices give rhythm and extended meaning to language; they also create a poetic language that differs from prosaic language, although clearly prose can itself be poetry-- another aporia that resists any easy solution. Indeed, what distinguishes non-poetic language from the language of poetry is precisely communicative depth. After the work of writers such as Saussure and Derrida, we take for granted that language is not transparent; what differentiates poetic language from prose, as Anthony Easthope argues (drawing on Saussure and Mukarovsky among others) is its foregrounding of the signifier (see Easthope, 1983, p. 16). In poetry, the word itself attracts attention.

Catherine Bateson is clearly cognizant of form in the verse sense. In her verse novels, Dangerous Girl (2000) and The Year it All Happened (2001), she plays with the shape, length (both line length and number of lines) and stanzaic patterning. She also incorporates other poetic traditions and forms such as haiku, renga, and the sonnet. She is adept at using tradition to her advantage in the rhetorical shaping of language:

What do I want?
True confession -
all I want is Nick.
All I want is his hand in mine,
walking through the city,
stopping at the traffic lights to kiss.
I want those stand-on-your-tiptoes kisses.
I want to taste him on my mouth.
All I want is Nick.

(Bateson 2000, p.6)

Women and romance: in the tradition of fiction, as well as in popular culture, these two terms seem inextricably intertwined.
(Langbauer 1990, p.1)
'True confession' works in two directions, conjuring up both thoughts of a popular women's romance magazine and the spiritual confession. (Meredith has already used the Bunyanesque trope, Slough of Despair, in the first poem of the book.) The name, Nick, also works in two directions, evoking Old Nick, the devil, and St Nicholas, the patron saint of Christmas. Such doubleness works in tandem with the novel's overall themes of the dual nature of most things and most people. Meredith wants Nick in a sinister sense and also in an innocent sense; the image she conjures of herself and Nick walking the city hand in hand echoes the vision of Adam and Eve taking their solitary way, hand in hand, at the end of Paradise Lost, although here the two embark on their journey through a cityscape redolent of alienation as well as completion.

This poem, 'Meredith', draws attention to itself with its use of anaphoric repetitions: 'All I want,' 'All I want', 'I want', 'I want', and so on. The insistent repetition of 'I want' throughout the poem communicates the duplicity of desire; wanting involves mental and spiritual longing as well as physical longing. It also implies lack -- the desire, in the Lacanian sense, that can never be filled. Duplicity, two-sidedness, and lack combine as the force here, underlined by the rounding of this poem to its closing two questions. The poem begins and ends with a question, although the question is doubled at the end. Doubleness is the condition of this novel, and doubleness has been with us since the beginning. And desire for Nick remains; this desire is the lack that can never be filled.

I wasn't always a hobo.
I worked in town.
I dressed neatly in suit and tie.
I understood the Law.
I earned a lot of money.

(The Simple Gift, p. 161)

Unlike Bateson, Steven Herrick's verse novels tend to conform to their own particular form. He is fond of anaphoric and paratactic effect. The parataxis stretches out the connections, suggests the continuity between past, present and future, lends an apparent equal importance to all experience, and of course, refuses to privilege one character or one object or one place over another. Every morning this week
that bloody kid
has woken me at 6:30am
with Weet-Bix and milk
and the thought of another day
cutting up pieces of overripe fruit

(The Simple Gift, p. 76)
In other words, in a paratactic space one may successfully avoid rules; boundaries are fluid rather than rigidly demarcated. Herrick is also fond of intertextuality. The Simple Gift gathers weight from the intertextual gift that words of power confer. Take for instance something as simple as Old Bill's complaint that young Billy rouses him every morning at 6.30 a.m. so that the two of them can go to the Cannery to earn a bit of money.

In the context both of this narrative, which concerns new beginnings and freshness of sensation, and of its connection with words of power, what we read carries a resonance beyond the simple assertions of Old Bill. In Old Bill's words, we hear of new days, and if not milk and honey, then certainly milk and wheat, the staples of life. Overripe fruit, milk, wheat cereal are reminders of plenitude, the richness of the earth, nourishment, and strength for the body and soul. The boy is 'bloody', a word that reverberates through this particular verse: 'bloody kid', and 'Bloody hell' repeated twice. 'Bloody' serves as a term of grumbling affection; it refers to young Billy who has come to save Old Bill. But the word also carries a reminder of the incarnation. We have here the Old Adam and the New Adam, the new one come 'to turn me/into a health freak!' (p.77). The intertextual reverberations are clear, and perhaps there also lurks an allusion to Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945) with its similar assortment of lonely and abject people needing each other for survival, living in dream worlds. Like Cannery Row, A Simple Gift highlights the need for interdependence and intersubjectivity.

The weight of tradition, then, lends the words of A Simple Gift a significance that the surface of the narrative may not readily carry. We can say the same about Herrick's A Place Like This (1998). A Place Like This also serves up Biblical intertexts, which lend the novel import. Jack and Annabel find themselves working in an apple orchard, and apples, as Alison Halliday (1999) points out in relation to this novel, carry a symbolic weight. This orchard, this latter-day Eden, contains its snake, a 'King Brown', that is, 'two metres long,/brown and mean,/and coming after the chickens' (Herrick 1998, p.82). Jack kills the snake; in this Eden no fall takes place. In fact, this is something of a New Eden, containing a Virgin and Immaculate Conception. Emma (the farmer's pregnant teenage daughter) makes reference to the Immaculate Conception ('I reckon my baby's conception/was pretty damn immaculate'), and she remarks that she cannot call her baby Jesus, although she can call it either Joseph or Josephine (p.86). And so we have here, too, both Old and New Adam, the New one suggesting hope and renewal. Herrick's vision is nothing if not hopeful. In these books, form echoes content in that the free form of the verse represents the freedom stretching before the characters on a hopeful horizon that promises to deliver freshness, clarity, and freedom from restrictive rules.

To return to Turton's reference to the ballad, and by extension narrative verse in general, we see that the verse novel is something quite different from plot-driven narrative verse. Obviously, the verse novel offers plot. After all, without plot it would hardly deserve the designation 'novel'. However, it is in its deliverance of plot, and with respect to Turton's notion of a 'cohesive story', that further debates and questions arise. Verse novels often display a collage-like composition foregrounding the performative nature of language.

Mirror 2

     I asked you a question
     don't play dumb...

only you
can look me in the eye
I dare you - break me!
Bring me seven years bad luck!

(The Angel of Barbican High, p. 145)
Such performativity is contradictory and shifting in that it is oral and theatrical, visual and prosaic. In a deconstructive sense, such aporias or textual gaps and undecidability are precisely the problems to which reading orients itself. The syntactic breaks and paratactic structure of the verse novel produce spaces for reflection, multiple meanings, and polysemy. As readers, we also perform as we actively work to bridge these gaps and assemble the fragments into a meaningful shape. The question of intention inevitably arises too in that one must consider if the writer's intention is to resist such a coherent composition and to rely on alterity for sensory effect rather than meaning. In Catherine Bateson's The Year it all Happened (2001), email, journal, and verse comprise the textual collage of the novel. Such juxtaposition of different forms of textual address encourages the reader to assemble the pieces of information into a coherent shape, which is not so much a 'cohesive' linear plot driven by sequence of time and events, as it is a palimpsest of memories and changing emotions.

The palimpsest metaphor appears in Margaret Wild's Jinx (2001). In a poem in this verse novel, "Found objects," the narrator tells of 'an exhibition of sculptures made from found objects' (p.189). The sculptures are themselves a form of bricolage, and of course, we sense that the novel we are reading is also a bricolage. But one of the sculptures is not so much an assemblage of disparate things as it is 'layered like sedimentary rock' (p.189). The allusion to rock reminds us of the book's continuing play with rocks of various kinds, and this may in turn remind us of petros, the 'Rock', the stability of a life lived with religious intensity. In the case of this sculpture of layered rock, we have another trope at work, the (now) familiar notion of one's life as a palimpsest, a series of experiences placed one on top of the other, the ones beneath the surface remaining visible, even if only faintly. What give the layered sedimentary rock strength are the various layers; what make a life meaningful and rich are the layers of the palimpsest. Like Bateson and Wild, Hathorn too performs as a bricoleuse, the collage maker who makes her verse out of materials she selects from a great array of possibilities. In the case of her verse novel, Volcano Boy (2001), Hathorn incorporates quotations from Shakespeare, the Nicene Creed, Charles Wesley and others to give a serious weightiness, signalling the text's self-reflexivity and intertextual constructedness. The force or significance of these quotations reminds us just how much of an assemblage, an act of bricolage, that the verse novel can be.

These references to bricolage, palimpsest, pastiche and intertextuality serve as reminders of the extent to which postmodernism has acquainted readers, even young readers, with the playfulness of text construction, citation, appropriation, and disruption of the familiar linear narrative. One of the most significant developments over the past one hundred years has been the diversity of narrative and the renewal or revitalisation of the term 'genre'. Young people are now in daily contact with a plethora of print, film, radio, music, television and cyberspace genres, many of which draw on a literary heritage of tragedy, comedy, and epic. Cobley (2001, p.213) makes the point that the importance of popular genres in current narrative 'is an index of the demise of authorship and the return of certain of the premises of oral narrative in which formula and repetition are more important than the identification of an individual producer'. It is perhaps in this point between oral narrative and the storyteller or poet's licence to innovate on the mode of storytelling, while adhering to the fundamentals of formula and repetition, that provides another access point into understanding the form of the verse novel. Could it be in its connection to oral narratives that the verse novel takes on its special significance?

Most people who buy novels like to be swept away by a gripping story, and might find that the poetic features of the text slowed them down to the point where the story was obstructed by the language.
(Sophie Hannah)

Culler (1997, p. 25-26) emphasises the importance of 'tellability' in literary narratives. The litmus test of a verse novel's 'tellability' is the young reader's willingness to stay with the story, foregoing 'immediate intelligibility', and to respond to the ways the words draw attention to themselves; such attention seeking strategies may reside in linguistic and semantic organisation and inventiveness or in the spatial arrangement on the page. While the narrative pull (or Hannah's 'gripping story') is an important consideration, the verse novel, like the ballad, needs to 'attune the ear' to its rhythms (Turton 1999, p.5). Undoubtedly, some verse novels achieve a satisfying aural effect, while others fall on deaf ears. Tellability, then, offers a sensory experience for the reader whereby the ear and eye are engaged in the linguistic play and the spatial patterning of form.

Rod: What effect the 'voicing' might have is worth considering. Do the various voices fragment the narratives? Do the various voices work like those in drama, distinguishing the voice of the author? Are these voices internal or are they meant to be heard, spoken out loud? Are these various voices distinct or not?

The appeal to the ear suggests another avenue for consideration, namely, 'voice'. Not only do the verse novels in our selection employ polysemy, but they are often polyphonic or polyvocal. Most use more than one voice to tell the story. Whether the verse gives distinctive language, rhythms, and identity to each speaker or not is questionable.

Lunchtime -- an assortment of voices


Let's play cricket.

I'm batting.

I'm bowling.

I'm wicket-keeper.

I'm not playing.

I'll give you my chips if you give me your ice cream.

(Love Poems and Leg Spinners, p.50)

Herrick's connected series of poems, Love Poems and Leg Spinners (2001), captures precisely the concert of voices in a school classroom. We hear many complementary and contradictory voices in this quasi-novel. The book does not offer a linear plot, but it does offer an experience of the inner life of a school classroom with its variety of kids and teachers. As the excerpt from "Lunchtime" illustrates, the voices are individual and yet the voicings are similar. What we have here and in other verse novels is the paradox of similarity within difference. Postmodernism has shown us that conformity on the outside does not necessitate conformity on the inside. Any voice has the potential to contain many voices; any text contains, perforce, many voices.

Volcano Boy contains at least five surface voices: the voice of the editor and the voice of the person to whom the editor introduces the verse novel itself; the novel begins with a Preface in the form of a letter to the 'editor': 'Dear H-----' (p. 5). We also have the voice of Alexander whose narrative comprises the journal we read; the poetic voice that speaks from the margins (Shakespeare,; and of course the authorial voice which we might, for convenience, call 'Hathorn'. The intricacy (and performativity) of voice in Volcano Boy bluntly confronts (and challenges) us with the postmodern impossibility of a one-word truth, of a voice that articulates a one-dimensional meaning, a voice that descends from a transcendental origin, that great signifier in the sky that overwrites all doubt and uncertainty here below; at the same time 'Uncle Frank', Alexander's puritanical, but well-intentioned custodian, represents the continuing belief in the possibility of certainty and faith. Such faith and certainty of meaning are also signalled in the range of marginal quotations that gather a variety of voices, from canonical ones in a theological as well as a literary sense (for example, the Bible and Shakespeare), to popular and sentimental ones (a children's rhyme and the early Australian poet, Dorothea MacKellar). The repeated presence of Shakespeare -- in his tragic, comic, romantic, and historical voices -- serves as a reminder of how a plurality of voices can speak as one voice. In Shakespeare, pluralism becomes logocentrism. Even so, the play of voices in this novel often demonstrates how reason gives way to emotion and irrational thought.

This apparent contradiction in the textual play with voice gives rise to another stubborn aporia. In Bakhtinian terms, Hathorn's attempts at polyphony, dialogism and heteroglossia demonstrate, at a superficial level, the power of narrative to elude a single meaning or a single point of view, the 'one-word truth'. At an ideological level, however, the polyphony and dialogism veer away from any carnivalesque mode, and revert to a single authorial point of view; the voices from the margins are, for the most part, drawn from Western traditions (both canonical and popular). Hence, there is a slipping of the guise of free play among the voices, with its pretense at an open system of representation; instead of an open marketplace of voices, a heteroglossia, there remains a hierarchy of voice. Hence, the marginal voices are simply a spatial trompe l'oeil for they are as much a part of the narrative centre as Alexander's monological account. The voice here is distinctly white and Eurocentric. In effect, Hathorn's text attempts a discourse of cultural pluralism through its representations of 'indigenous' Papua New Guinea and 'western' cultures, but its feint in the direction of multiculturalism fails to disguise its colonialist sensibility.

The adolescent Alexander transforms his mother's designation of him as 'Volcano Boy', in his desire to become another kind of Volcano Boy, one which has already been given special significance to the indigenous younger child, Smallboy, the Volcano Boy of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea: 'Smallboy's the one, /the only one' (p. 112). Alexander's desire to be the Volcano Boy rides roughshod over the beliefs and rituals of the native peoples of Papua New Guinea. He refers to the ritual chants of the local Witchman as 'mumbo-jumbo' (p.134), and he imagines himself 'Alexander the Great/Alexander of the Island of Rabaul/Alexander of Papua New Guinea', calling up 'the very fires of hell' (p. 137). He sees himself as Alexander, leading man of western and non-western cultures; his interest in Papua New Guinea is entirely selfish and self-centred. Despite the apparent split between Alexander and his Volcano Boy persona there is no splintering of the 'I' in this polyphonic narrative. Furthermore, rather than the marginal voices offering ironic or dissenting counterpoints to the dominant narrative, they become a form of Greek chorus commenting, alluding and self-referencing Alexander's words. While his namesake, Alexander the Great, may have wept that 'there were no more worlds to conquer', it appears that for this modern day Alexander, there are no more words for him to conquer as they have all been said before.

Kerry: This raises a further question --
one which queries absence.
Who becomes the speaking subject?

Perhaps through Volcano Boy's attempts at self-reflexive polyvocality, we are able to find a meeting point across the verse novels. Hathorn 's choice of citations displays and recalls Frye's (1957) four 'narrative modes' -- the comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic. In considering how these narrative modes emerge throughout the different verse novels, we note the part that absence plays in naming/unnaming, visibility/invisibility, identity/non- identity, remembering/forgetting. Such couplets surface in the ways the young characters or young actants meet abjection head on, fall into melancholia, but arise cleansed and ready for the joy that lies ahead (deaths of parents and boyfriends are emotional weights the protagonists carry for most of the novels). The novels' desire to give the reader contrasting perspectives leads to the juxtaposition of voices, each offering differing accounts of experience or providing additional knowledge of emotions and actions. The selectivity of the speaking subject, that is, the one who is given voice, also serves to highlight absence. For example, the voices of the people of Papua New Guinea, where the action of Volcano Boy takes place, remain silent or, if audible at all, then only through appropriation. Another instance is in love ghosts & nose hair (Herrick 1996); Jack, his father, and sister, Desiree, all speak about their dead mother/wife in an attempt to make her absence present. They also speak of the dead as a way of remembering. In The Angel of Barbican High, Jez hides her dark secret under layers of memory and emotion. The ghost of her dead boyfriend provides a measure of comfort and company as she struggles with her new school and new environment. A similar approach to the absent subject is evident in the other verse novels:

I miss our games real bad.
I miss Mum too.
I look at this photo
every night.

(The Spangled Drongo, p. 21)

and he tells me
about his Jessie
and his wife
and the house he visits
when too much drink
has made him forget
and how he's afraid to forget
because without his ghosts
he's afraid he'll have
nothing to live for.

(The Simple Gift, p. 104-5)

I don't give up
on people
even when they're dead.

(The Angel of Barbican High, p. 1)

Herrick's novels are interesting because of their anger. Like Alan Garner's work, Herrick's verse novels seem to communicate a fine anger, without rage. The anger is of a person who has had loss (a parent, or parents, friend or lover), who may not have a great liking for women, who chafes under authority, who feels restless, who cannot abide rules. The anger we might detect in Herrick's work is muted but also evident in the other verse novels we survey here.

"I'd go off alone,
because you can't trust
those who want to break the rules
and you certainly can't trust
those who make the rules,
so you do the only thing possible,
you avoid the rules."

(The Simple Gift, p. 19)

In all the verse novels we have surveyed, the main characters eventually gain a certain measure of agency. They take up active rather than passive subject positions. Often the repeated use of the narrator's 'I' signals agency: this point surfaced earlier in our discussion of Volcano Boy. The narrator's voice is an active and determining force, rather than a passive one presenting the reader with an already mapped out 'reality'. This suggestion of narrator agency is apparent in the last verse in Herrick's love, ghost & nose hairs when Jack (the narrator) articulates his desire to be free of the ghost of his dead mother: 'I shout the ghost's name/and turn/without waiting for the echo' (p. 115). The fictional space is now free from any representational demands of others. In a similar sense, Alexander, the narrator of Volcano Boy, inscribes a certain pleasure in the text through creating and speaking of a space of desire in which the 'I' articulates a longing which is highly physical ('I'm burning up/...I'm inundated, and burning up/with love' (p.179). The 'I' becomes subject to and subject of desire. Even at the close of Volcano Boy, which suggests the deaths of Alexander and his first-time lover Alice, the 'I' remains self-confident and almost joyful at the prospect of impending death:

Good be in my mouth
and in my speaking,
Good be at my end
and at my departing,
with Alice,
darling Alice,
only with sweet Alice,
sweet Alice
by my side

(Hathorn, 2001, p.190)

While the 'I' speaks, Alice remains silent. Her sweetness, nevertheless, makes her a worthy death-bed companion. Sweet, 'serving girl Alice' (p. 68) is the 'other', lacking agency and voice, but having 'native' knowledge and allure ('Alice of the dark eyes/and a slice of sea beyond' p. 68). The novel resonates with references to Shakespeare's tragic couples: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, but perhaps more telling is the silence of Othello and Desdemona, lovers star-crossed because of colour and culture. In short, Alexander shows no real thought of Alice as anything but as the young woman who will pleasure him, his sexual property:

beset by mad volcanoes,
lying beside Alice
whom I'd made mine,
as rocks hotted up a liquid terror,
as the mountains groaned, heaved,
in birth, in death,
in the soothing lamplight


This strategy of othering is used for the other women in Volcano Boy -- Alexander's crazy, dead mother and his 'drama queen', dead sister, Alice's housemaid mother, and Frank's subservient wife-- and raises the question of the gendering effects of this 'I', inviting consideration of the ideological implications of this passage from agential, desirous (male) subject to silent, deranged, dead, or subservient (female) object. In terms of contemporary theory, the gender of these characters is not functionally intrinsic to the narrative, but is a construction that is itself a product of specific cultural and historical conditions, and literary traditions. Consequently, there is no attempt in Volcano Boy to understand, mediate, or empathise with otherness or alterity (gender, racial, cultural, and religious).

We might conclude that the majority of the characters in our selection of verse novels become the liberal humanist subject, triumphing over the postmodern fragmented self. In other words, it seems to us that these books offer comforting visions of young people coming into age as reassuringly conventional people -- there is little excess in terms of drugs, sex, and violence. These novels deliver a reassuringly homogeneous vision of the world. Even when voices of the 'other' might be heard, as in Volcano Boy, such voices remain silent. Perhaps, this comes from the ages of the adult writers of these novels; unlike the protest music of a younger generation, the novels are unable to move too far from their authorial temporal locatedness or from publishers' marketing goals.

Each of these verse novels, despite their absences and easy certainties, is a simple gift. Each most insistently delivers human connectedness where the gift is of self to other. Billy in A Simple Gift gives renewed energy to the derelict, Old Bill, and a sense of priority and value to Caitlin, the girl who comes from a wealthy family. Old Bill gives Billy and Caitlin the gift of the key to his home, a fitting domestic haven for the couple as they await the birth of Caitlin's child. The Spangled Drongo is similar in that young Sam learns 'there's more to life . . . than just soccer' (p. 119) with the gift of first innocent love that Jessica gives him. In the Bateson novels, young people learn to appreciate life itself, perhaps most obviously figured in the foetus that grows in one young woman's womb. The fellow responsible for this child is a computer junkie, but he comes out of his virtual world to give and take the simple gift the pregnancy offers. In Jinx, death plagues Jess who comes to think of herself as 'Jinx'. Her first boyfriend commits suicide and another boyfriend dies after a fight with another boy. But eventually Jinx finds Hal, not a computer as in 2001, and not even a computer geek, but rather the boy responsible for the death of her former boyfriend. In the Angel from Barbican High, Jez finds that smart, but not sexy, Tommy Tang is her saving 'Angel' in disguise; the one whom she unwittingly implores to save her from the grief and guilt that torture her after the death of her boyfriend, Nick. However, Jez becomes an angel in disguise for Tommy who has his own secrets and lies. Their need for each other provides the impetus for hope and fresh beginnings. And in the figure of Tommy Tang, we move beyond the silences; Tommy reflects the postmodern sensibility in which we welcome plurality and difference; he is the reply to the silences of the other novels. The gifts go on.


Our discussion has raised more questions than it has answered. Such is the nature of the genre of the verse novel. It is a genre that refuses to play the game. It is perhaps this idea of the absence of restrictive rules that is a characterising feature of the Australian verse novel, perhaps all verse novels regardless of place of origin. The genre appears to be unrestrained by rules. It is a form that makes its own rules, and avoids rules by refusing to be either poetry or prose, narrative or lyric. These are impossible books.

While the poet or storyteller can make formulaic variations to either the content or performance, a genre is more connected to how an audience receives the narrative conventions. Hence, the verse novel has achieved a status in Australia and other countries as a particular 'genre'. The blurbs on the back covers of a sample of Australian verse novels are direct in foregrounding of the genre:

In this gently comic verse novel for younger readers Steven Herrick . . . (The Spangled Drongo, 1999)

In this sequel to A Dangerous Girl', Catherine Bateson delicately unveils a year in the life of these four emerging adults. It is a verse novel celebrating life, love, change and the year it all happened. (The Year It All Happened, 2001).

The 'Angel of Barbican High' is a passionate and exquisitely written verse novel . . .' (The Angel of Barbican High, 2001).

This shorthand textual classification offers the adolescent reader a particular expectation of what the books offer. Consequently, readers may come to see the verse novel as a quick read or as a particular kind of literary experience, or both. However, while formalists have tended to consider genre in terms of its textual organisation, the mode of storytelling influences the interpretation and appreciation of the elements internal to the narrative. Hence, the reading of verse novels will necessitate the reader drawing on prior narrative experiences and reading practices, a repertoire which includes pre-existing knowledge of the genre or an assimilation of the 'new' genre to pre-existing knowledge about narrative, attitudes, expectations, and reading competence.


And so we can conclude,
can we,
that the Australian verse
novel speaks
two languages
one national and poetic
the other global and
Two languages or double speak?
National or global?
Poetic or narrational?
These perplexing aporias,
like the Australian verse novel,
are contradictory
flexible and malleable
undecidable and inconclusive
We can only begin again
Working the language
Wresting meaning
Wringing understanding
Withdrawing certainty
Writing to fill the absences.

Works Cited

Bateson, Catherine. A Dangerous Girl. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2000.

---. The Year it all happened. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2001.

Cobley, Paul. Narrative. London & New York: Routledge, 2001.

Creech, Sharon. Love that Dog. London: Bloomsbury, 2001.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Easthope, Anthony. Poetry as Discourse. London & New York: Methuen, 1983.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1957.

Gray, Martin. A Dictionary of Literary Terms. 2nd ed. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1992.

Halliday, Alison. 'Place in poetry; Poetry in its place'. Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, 9, 3, pp. 30-37, 1999.

Hannah, Sophie. "A Bucket of Caviar," Poetry Review (online). Accessed September 30, 2002.

Hathorn, Libby. Volcano Boy. South Melbourne: Lothian, 2001.

Herrick, Stephen. Love ghosts & nose hair. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1996.

---. Love Poems and Leg Spinners. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2001.

---. A Place like this. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1998.

---. The Simple Gift. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2000.

---. The Spangled Drongo. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1999.

Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic, 1997.

Koertge, Ron. The Brimstone Journals. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick P., 2001.

Langbauer, Laurie. Women and Romance: The Consolations of Gender in the English Novel. Ithaca & London: Cornell UP, 1990.

Richie: Accessed September 30, 2002.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row. New York: Viking Press, 1945.

Taylor, Michelle. The Angel of Barbican High. St Lucia, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2001.

Turton, Rayma. 'From literary ballad to verse novel: Narrative poetry in the contemporary scene'. The Literature Base, 10, 4, pp.4-14, 1999.

Wild, Margaret. Jinx. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Wolff, Virginia Euwer. Make Lemonade. London: Faber & Faber, 2000 (1993).

---. True Believer. London: Faber & Faber, 2001.


Kerry Mallan and Roderick McGillis

Volume 7, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, April, 2003

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2003.
"Textual aporias: Exploring the perplexities of form and absence in Australian verse novels"
© Kerry Mallan and Roderick McGillis, 2003.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680