How to Read a Verse-novel
Reading David Mason’s Ludlow with Musical Ears
by Professor Joyce Devlin Mosher
Far from being an edgy, postmodern literary genre, the verse-novel continues the world’s most ancient form of poetic narrative, the heroic epic. At least as far back as three thousand years ago, important cultural stories, carved in stone or scratched on parchments, have taken shape as verse narratives.
David Mason’s Ludlow shares several features with the world’s most prized epic poems. As Homer’s Illiad records a lengthy war in the lives of Greek kings and heroes, Mason’s Ludlow traces a troubled time in the lives of citizens in early 20th century America. Both works record historical moments played out in the lives of rich and diverse characters. Both extended poems are divided into sections, chapters, or let’s call them songs. Each song advances the story and deepens the portraits of the characters—their challenges, their strengths and weaknesses, and their ultimate fate.
Reading Mason’s verse-novel can be as easy as 1 – 2 – 3:
- Listen to it. Poetry is for the ear more than for the eye. Let the poet read you his story; you can listen to Ludlow at Radio Colorado College. If you want to read silently as Mason recites his work, you will notice that the main difference between reading Ludlow and reading prose is that you must read the lines continuously until you reach a period. Like word wrap, poetry continues thoughts beyond the end of the line, so your voice must keep going until that thought or image is complete. Find passages you like and read them aloud; that is what poetry is for.
- Follow the story. Because poetry is compact, much happens in a short time. Stop often and check your understanding by quickly summarizing the action to yourself before moving on. Keep track of who is speaking, including the times when the poet-narrator becomes a character as well as the singer of the tale.
- Develop musical ears. Listen for the sounds that a verse-novel makes. Catch the poet moving from blank verse to rhyming patterns that underscore action and heighten emotions. Hear multiple viewpoints from the cast of characters, and mark when history shares the space with mythology. Memorize lines that speak especially to you, and make Ludlow your own.