Is it prose or poetry?

A poem is a gift wrapped for an occasion, whereas prose keeps on giving. Let’s explore this a little. Many have tried to define the difference between prose and poetry. I cannot claim any authority; this is just my opinion. The distinction is blurred and trying to define it may be as useful as similar discussions around categorising music into genres. Some novelists write quite poetically and some poets write ‘prose poems’. See ‘The Colonel’ by Carolyn Forché for an example of a prose poem.

Let’s define a poem as a collection of measured lines; whereas prose is continuous and closer to normal speech. Metre, sound and line breaks are paramount in poetry. This sounds a bit dry and technical. And how would this definition fare when faced with a ‘prose poem’?

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I like to think of a poem as being self-contained unit: a gift wrapped for the occasion of reading. For it to be effective, it should offer you a fascinating viewpoint or an unexpected juxtaposition. I’m not a fan of footnotes or lengthy spoken introductions at poetry readings to give context or back-story.

Instead of triaging prose and poetry by what they look like, why not make the distinction by what effect each form brings. Certainly both induce emotions, think of Austen and Auden. Feel the power of the clockwork mechanism unwinding its message in: “If I Could Tell You” by W.H. Auden.

But whilst prose is an extended development or narrative, the reader of a poem is transported for just a few moments. All of its component parts are both necessary and sufficient to achieve its purpose. Good poems also interlock a counterpoint of meanings, so that a poem may be read and re-read with pleasure many times. Some poems are ‘atomic’ in the sense they cannot be broken down. And for me, one of the best expressions of that atomic nature is the sonnet. Of which I’ll speak more in a later blog.


© Copyright Clifford Liles, 2019


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