Prose vs. Poetry

by : Terry J. Coyier

Prose - a simple word that confuses so many people. What is it exactly? According to

1.the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.

2.matter-of-fact, commonplace, or dull expression, quality, discourse, etc.

Prose encompasses most of the writing and speaking we engage in today, including what I am writing here. It is everything from novels to blog entries to television/films and everything in between. Prose is simply a fancy literary term used to separate general writing from poetry or verse. (Though, just to confuse you, we do have prose poetry, the halibun and free verse which can muddy any clear distinction.) Prose is typically written in plain language, follows the standard rules of grammar and punctuation and is arranged in paragraphs. It often reflects ordinary speech patterns. In fiction, writers do develop different styles of writing and employ various techniques to add interest for readers, but the writing is still considered prose.

Now that you understand a little about prose, let’s discuss poetry. Most people recognize poetry if they see a traditional poem. For instance, writing that has lines similar in length (each starting with a capital letter, of course), is arranged in stanzas, and has rhyme at the end of the lines. Most of us were taught about this type of poetry around the third or fourth grade. But poetry is so much more complex and varied than that simple example. In fact, those few things don’t necessarily define poetry at all.

Poetry is much more than just a few basics such as the form in which it is written, some general meter and rhyme. Modern poetry often deviates from traditional poetic form and rules. Poetry presentation has, once again, become somewhat artistic for some poets who write in everything from couplets to verse paragraphs. These lines can also be arranged on a page to enhance the visual appeal of the poem (as in shape poems), to aid in the rhythm of the poem (adding space between words to create longer pauses while reading aloud, for instance) or to add to the meaning or irony of a poem by causing words to appear in specific places. Standard punctuation and capitalization practices are falling by the wayside, as well, for many contemporary poets.

This still has little to do with poetry itself. So, how do we define poetry? I think Iowan, Paul Engle, had the right idea with is explanation: “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words." That, to me, is what poetry is, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t break it down somewhat. I am not providing definitions, they are easy enough to come by.

Basic Poetic Devices


A quick internet search will provide you with reading material on each of these devices. Some are easier to hone than others, but all are useful if you wish to write interesting poetry verses writing simple poems.

Hopefully the lines between prose and poetry are now a bit clearer than before. Sometime in the future, I will have to address those other pesky fellows I mentioned that muddy the waters between the two. For now, whether you chose to write prose or poetry or both, I wish you the utmost success.