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The Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Gloria Ukaoma

Posted on February 20, 2021 21:18

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The two main categories of literature seem rather simple at first glance. However, they share more qualities than one would think.

It seems like an obvious distinction: poems are divided into lines and stanzas, while prose is divided into sentences and paragraphs. And yet, it is infinitely more complex than that. Poetry is a form of expression that takes common grammatical rules and turns them on their heads. Even with the various categories of poetry, the one true rule is that there are no rules. It’s a literary free-for-all.


Prose is rather straightforward in comparison to poetry. Words are aligned into clauses, sentences, and paragraphs to create scenes. From there, an idea or occurrence is described. Metaphors, allusions, and other devices come into play, but most of the time they do not affect the overall grammatical structure of the work. That’s what we expect from prose: consistency. An occasional sentence fragment is used for emphasis, but it doesn’t break the flow. Such predictable grammatical structure forces the reader to focus on the content of the story. Characters, scenery, and plot elements are pushed to the forefront of the reader’s mind.


However, prose’s foundation on grammar is not always stable. Some authors choose to experiment with how they present information to the reader. Unreliable narrators, personification, extended metaphors; the list is endless. Stylistic choices can make the writing more interesting by emphasizing a particular facet of the story. The Yellow Wallpaper is an excellent example of this. As the narrator slowly sinks into delirium, the writing becomes more frantic. Her loss of control is conveyed through the structure of her musings. Some of the monologues at the end of the story are quite poetic.


Poetry, by contrast, is built on the idea of unpredictability. Even the most structured sonnet can have a set of slant rhymes or inverted clauses. In order to uphold one convention, other rules must be broken. Maintaining meter and rhyme is a priority in many types of poetry, so traditional grammar is sometimes tossed to the wayside. However, some forms of poetry don't rhyme at all. Free verse poems are how poets uniquely convey their emotions. No two people will have the same tendencies or make the same stylistic choices.


But who can draw the line between prose and poetry? When is a story too experimental to be labeled as prose? When is a piece too minimalist and too structured to be considered a poem? There is no right or wrong answer. Both forms of literature are just conduits of one’s beliefs and emotions. Choosing a label for one’s work is as much a creative choice as any. Reading Dante Alighieri’s Inferno would not feel the same if it was known as prose instead of poetry. And vice-versa for famous stories like The Tell-Tale Heart. There are just certain connotations and expectations that come with those labels, and authors should use them as they see fit.

Gloria Ukaoma

Posted on February 20, 2021 21:18

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