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What are eight differences between prose and poetry?

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Jonathan Beutlich, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I wish that I could say the differences between prose and poetry were really clear cut; however, that isn't always the case. Prose typically uses straightforward language, while poetry tends to be "decorated" with literary techniques, some of which are rhythm, rhyme, metaphors, alliteration, and personification. Although, there are times when poetry lacks many of those things. "When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny" is a good example of that. It contains some of those things, but if it were written in paragraph format, a reader might think it was stream of consciousness prose. Additionally, prose can contain extended paragraphs full of descriptions that sound quite "poetic."

Probably a more concrete difference between prose and poetry is how they organize thought. Prose will use sentences to convey a complete thought. Thoughts that are related to each other are grouped into paragraphs. Poetry will often express a thought as a single line, and lines are organized into stanzas of various lengths.

When writing prose, writers do not break a line early. The words go to the far right margin before dropping down to the next line. Poetry will use lines of all kinds of different lengths depending on what the poet is trying to do. Sometimes the line is topically driven. Other times the line is short or long because it has to fit a particular syllable pattern and count.

Prose will use capital letters to start new sentences, but poetry will generally use a capital to start a new line regardless of where it is in the "sentence."

I have heard it be said that prose is dull and poetry is expressive, attractive, and exciting, but that is purely up to reader opinion. That seems at odds with what I see in bookstores. Most of the books are prose, and the poetry section is quite small. If prose was so dull, that stuff wouldn't sell, and stores wouldn't stock as much of it.

Finally, I think the following does a nice job of conveying a difference between poetry and prose:

  • Poetry is best words in the best order.
  • Prose is words in their best order.

Prose is words in their "best" order in terms of grammar, usage, and the like. This is because a main goal of prose is to convey information. Poetry will often ignore the best grammatical arrangement of words in order to best convey to readers an image or feeling.