Poetry vs. Prose

What makes a poem . . . a 'poem'?


Despite the seeming simplicity of the question, poets themselves struggle with an answer.  After much contemplation and head-scratching, they conceal their replies within metaphors.  For many literary enthusiasts, the way poets define ‘poetry’ is more baffling, if not torturesome, than their poetry itself.

So what makes poetry ‘poetry’?  Is the fact that poetry is full of line breaks


sometimes it rhymes? Or is it because poetry flows with a rhythmic meter, like the steady tick-tock of a grandfather clock?  Perhaps, the mystery of poetry stems from those mysterious eighteenth-century geniuses writing those mysterious verses that, without footnotes and annotations, barely anybody understands today — and we call them poets and their writing poetry?  Perhaps not!

American poet Billy Collins asserts that poetry displaces silence.  Consider the white spaces we see surrounding a poem.  For Collins, the spaces mean silence. And when we write a poem, the lines displace the stillness, creating an interesting interplay of sound and silence.  But that just explains the ‘shapeliness’ or the ‘graphology’ of the poem.  What about the content?

The use of striking details with sparse language that often exaggerates the literal meaning makes the ordinary extraordinary.  Consider the image that Matsuo Basho paints in just seventeen syllables (or as few as sixteen in English) in his “Frog Haiku”:

         古池や     蛙飛び込む     水の音
          furuike ya   kaeru tobikomu   mizunone
          an ancient pond  a frog plunges into it   the sound of water

So it all comes down to an interesting pattern on the page and the heightened use of (everyday) language, right?  But what if we find the same qualities in a good novel, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita or Toni Morison’s Beloved. Can we call them extended epics in prose?  Or how about the contemporary poetry that is so prosaic . . . and reads like randomly chopped up prose?

The prose vs. poetry debate dates back to over a century, and it will go on and on.  In an age when the rigid boundaries seem to be blurring, poetry (or prose, for that matter) resides in the liminal space — the fluid and fluctuating region that defies categories and distinctions.

Nonetheless, if you desire to find more about the nuts and bolts of poetry, here’s a short but highly interesting TED-Ed video, What makes a poem . . . a 'poem'? - Melissa Kovacs.  But I must warn you not to get lost in the world of engrossing TED-Ed videos. :)




Words by Editorial Team The PoetBay support member heart!
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Written on 2020-09-13 at 00:01

Tags Poetry  Prose 

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I wonder if I could collect my thoughts and marshal my arguments well enough to give the question a feasibly cogent answer! But for me, there has to be some kind of freshness of language or imagery, something unexpected and pleasurable. Sound also matters to me, even when I write in a lower, more "prosy" key. I have a fondness, too, for poems that fail through excessive ambition, that are overwritten, that try too hard but still don't quite come off. And then there is the intangible "personality" of the writer: intangible but inwardly palpable. Just some random thoughts on this excellent question!

Lawrence Beck The PoetBay support member heart!
I spent considerable amounts of time pondering both epistemology and esthetics when I was younger. Eventually, I concluded that nothing can be proven, so truth cannot be distinguished from falsehood, and, as a result, no art form can be defined. If somebody says that he or she is writing poetry, there is no way to successfully argue that he or she is not. I know what I want from a poem, and I know that I think that most poetry, over 90 percent of what I read, is garbage, but I cannot demonstrate that this garbage is not poetry.

ken d williams The PoetBay support member heart!
Poetry is with in the mind of the poet
The readers mind reading poet work
Ken D

jim The PoetBay support member heart!
Very nice, Bibek. Thanks.