One the of most interesting conversations I have had with my poetry students so far is our discussion of the differences between prose and poetry. It can become a subject of great debate! Some students–I should say some people–are so surprised to find out that there exists such a thing as “prose poetry,” which is, of course, poetry written as prose, poetry that does not use line breaks as a technique. (Prose poetry was developed in the 1850s) The lines are determined, like any other prose writing, by the margins at hand and not by the poet.
How then, can we call such a thing a poem? After all, all poems have line breaks. (But consider, to many people, all poems also rhyme.)
While the effectiveness of a poem can often be traced back to superb line breaks, poems also work on many other levels. The question is, if a poem isn’t a poem only because of the line breaks, what sets it apart?
Language. Poetry is condensed, tight, and careful. Michelle Boisseau uses a nice analogy in her book, Writing Poems:
“Imagine the poem you are working on as a raft. It must be held together tightly and carry only what is necessary, or it will sink.”
I think this is the key. Poetry, while it comes in different forms, even forms without line breaks, will always work its magic through its rhythm, metaphor, tightened syntax, and a heightened sense of language. I suppose the fact of the matter is, we know a poem when we see one.
Howard Nemrov has a wonderful poem called “Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry” that illuminates beautifully the difference between the two genres.
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
How lovely! And how true. Although we may not be able to come up with a hard and fast definition of poetry, like rain turning into snow, we can see the difference. With poetry, there comes the moment where language is not just falling like rain, but flying like snow.