We spend our lives inundated with prose. Roughly 80% of the media you consume is written in prose: normal, everyday language that consists of sentences, paragraphs, grammar, maybe even bullet-points and lists.
The other 20% of the media we consume can be classified as poetry. The only reason we have poetry in our lives at all is thanks to music, as most lyrics are poetic.
While I’ve simplified the difference to a simple distinction of prose is all non-poetic writing, the fact that prose poetry exists should make you turn your head and think a wee bit more about the matter.
Knowing that most of the writing we encounter is prose allows us to recognize and value poetry, and also gives us context for how and why we write.
At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, here is a good rule-of-thumb list of the distinction between poetry and prose.
- written in sentences and paragraphs
- is ruled by grammar and aims to clarify
- ignores rhyme and rhythm
- written in lines and stanzas
- is ruled by figurative language and aims to beautify
- plays with rhyme and rhythm
Crash-course guide to figurative language
Figurative language is about art and emotion. The artistic quality and emotive movement in the words are achieved through poetic elements.
These devices show up over and over again in poetry and are used to evoke emotion artistically—making them figurative in nature. Here’s a brief list of the more common poetic elements:
- metaphor (a figure of speech that indicates a similarity)
- simile (comparing something to another thing)
- rhyme (similar sounds)
- rhythm and meter (the beat lines follow)
- hyperbole (exaggeration)
- symbol (an object that represents an idea)
- paradox (contradicting ideas)
Why does it matter?
Prose and poetry are formal distinctions in writing. Just as we distinguish writing as fictional or nonfictional, or may classify music into genres like EDM and Orchestral, so prose and poetry are different enough that we classify them differently.
Because of the way that figurative language complicates our understanding and forces us to think in different ways, it’s important to note when writing is poetic and when it’s not in order to help us understand what’s going on.
For example, much holy writing across religions is written in poetry. You can’t understand poetic scripture literally as you could understand prosaic scripture because then you might think that people in mourning would literally beat themselves until they were near-death, pull their hair out until they were near-bald, or that God literally was shooting arrows at them.
Figurative language is about art and emotion and should be understood that way—which is why you can have poetic writing in the middle of a nonfiction book. But just because nonfiction can be poetic doesn’t make it poetry, and just because you have a paragraph in a poem doesn’t make it prose.
And that is a good question to ask yourself when you consider whether or not a piece of writing is prose or poetry: is this meant to be taken literally, or figuratively? If literally, it’s probably prose. If figuratively, it’s probably poetry. You can use the form to help you decide as well—lines and stanzas look different from sentences and paragraphs.
Is the difference between poetry and prose obvious or foggy? Why? What piece of writing can you think of that proves you point? Do you prefer poetry or prose? Share in the comments!