Poetry vs Prose: Battle of the Genres
By Daniel Boyko, Jennifer Wang, and Zoha Arif
Some people eat paper. Some prefer poetry, others eat prose, and some are on a more diverse diet of both poetry and prose (one for breakfast, the other for dinner). The history of the great, terrible battle of prose and poetry is one that continues to stain the era of modern literature, and though it is unlikely that differences will be settled, that a victor will emerge, or that a peace treaty will be penned, at least advances will be made. So here are writings from representatives of both genres, carefully hand-picked, pitching for their respective lords.
Representative One for the Great Republic of Prose: Zoha
I was not sorry when I faced the great supreme lords of poetry in middle school (my English teacher, a published poet and poetry eater) and said that poets don’t treat words like money—it takes a poet a thousand words to say something as simple as “I’m sorry.” There were no knights of poetry in that room because no one really wanted to submit to Lord Poetry, but one day, my classmates turned traitors (for they did not stand with me, such cowards). They’d stared at me blank-faced, asking themselves why I dared to snatch and tear dear poetry.
I give poetry its merit. On the occasional Tuesday evening when I want to rant about life’s unfairness or on the ordinary Friday morning, when I have my bizarre epiphany during physics class on things like the unearthed meaning behind emojis, poetry has been there to basket my thoughts. But it hasn’t been there for me the way prose has, the way prose dips me like a spoon on its tongue and swallows me whole.
Dear poetry, where is your plot, your hard jawline, the lilac of giving birth to a person through words and allowing them to grow and change? You are not like prose, for you so often exclude a plot, rising action, or a climax that ties you together. You often manifest yourself as a collection of thoughts, incomprehensible sometimes and ambiguous often. Dear poetry, why do you not know who is under your regime or who is not? You are not like prose, for you have no definition. You do not know if it is rhymes or syntax or content or structure that makes a poem. And if freedom is something that poets covet and feel good about, I say freedom is good until you do not even know what you speak of.
Dear poetry, why do most freshmen feel the need to constrain themselves to rhyme? You force yourself into nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss books, leading every innocent young child who is just beginning to write poetry to feel that one must rhyme to be a poet. At least prose does not mislead its freshmen, does not make itself seem as one thing and then turn out to be another. Dear poetry, why do you leave everyone who does not understand unsatisfied and empty-handed? You make me feel so helplessly human. You are often a physical entity of one person’s thoughts, which means you bring the pie but you forget the forks and spoons. You swim in problems of reality and fight to paint the joys of life. At least I can escape in prose, in plots and characters with a personality and traits. At least, if I do not understand the underlying meaning of prose, I have a story and a character to love and follow. With poetry, there is nothing quick and literal. With poetry, if I do not understand, there is the heaviness of words and confusion.
I rest my case.
Representative Two for the Great Republic of Prose: Daniel
While Zoha has given a truly elaborate representation of our great Republic, I have a far simpler approach.
Poetry lacks the structure necessary to constantly form consistently great writing. I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. Poetry might be there to explore hidden feelings—like most genres of writing—and can act as a tool to embrace creativity, but that can only go so far. Without any true guidelines as to what needs to be put on the page, you risk the threat of having absolute nonsense highlighted. And I mean some truly weird things; there are some creative breakthroughs, but there are also some symbolism and imagery abstract enough that it could confuse even Steinbeck. This includes the world of unexplained poetry, which overly relies on high-level vocabulary that lacks substance. Often it’s easy to find poems that lack the content necessary to create a substantial piece, and without content, poetry just becomes a jumble of words found in a thesaurus.
Now I understand that many enjoy the artistic freedom—as do I myself—but then why do so many people feel the need to rhyme? As Zoha touched on, it’s quite common to find a potentially clever and insightful piece hampered down by the monstrosity that is forced rhyming. Whenever rhyming is forced, the liberties of poetry are swept away and become useless. If poetry is used to express earnestly honest thoughts and ideas, then why must rhyming come before all else?
Now, while it’s true that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, or have unconventional formatting, but if this is the case, then why turn to poetry when prose is just as effective? This concept of standard formatting is where prose shines. And if poetry lacks rhyme, rhythm or unorthodox formatting, then is it really poetry? Or does it become prose? I’m of the belief that it’s the latter.
And if the ability to express yourself is what you crave, prose is there for you. Many use prose as a diary that speaks back to the writer when they reread what was racing through their mind during a specific period of time. Prose is there for you to confess how you’re feeling, to use literary symbols for pain and happiness. With prose, these elaborate emotions are never hidden away by rhymes or wacky formatting; they’re placed in the spotlight to shine. In prose, the heart of the piece cannot hide; it must come to the surface with the ability to speak—nay, shout—the writer’s views in a booming voice that commands attention.
And that is the real power of prose—the purpose of writing, if you will. The ability to speak with a voice embodies everything that writing is intended to be, whether a political message or even something as simple as sharing a bad day. That is why prose is superior: it’s voice can be stronger and more meaningful. Poetry may provide artistic freedom, but prose can showcase the true talents and voice of a writer above all else.
Sole Representative of the Free Democracy of Poetry: Jennifer
Both of you present fair cases; however, both of you underestimate the power of poetry. I will outline them.
One of the attractions of poetry is its flexibility for artistic expression. You can throw any sort of literary or poetic device on a piece of paper and call it a poem. Or, if you prefer something more structured, you can follow every grammar and convention you like. On the same hand, grammar cannot contain poetry. Unlike prose, poetry is often easy-to-read whether or not it obeys the laws of language. Similarly, poetry is easier to memorize because it consists of concise stanzas and clean lines rather than convoluted paragraphs and meandering sentences. Yes, I’m talking about Shakespeare and iambic pentameters and every other sort of meter and rhyme scheme.
Even more compelling is the ability of poetry to approach anything. Any topic can be discussed briefly or in-length with a poem. No full sentences are necessary; poetry can serve as an eloquent dissertation or a shopping list of words and ideas. Ever heard of ballads? Like prose, poetry can have characters and plots and dialogue. Poetry delves into the mind of the writer, who can elaborate on a subject as if finelining with a .003 mm pen. Or, if the writer feels it necessary, he/she can paint a whole swath of setting with vibrant watercolors.
The past use of poetry should already speak for its merits: Poetry has long had a history in love letters, lullabies, and song lyrics, making poetry a top medium for concise, deep conversation. Poetry can express the state of mind, the opinions of one on another, one’s true thoughts, or a fabrication of them. It is personal yet expressive, thus making it the perfect way to lie, allude, suggest, or openly state.
Poetry can do all that prose can and more. I do not feel the need to speak further, for the information I’ve already presented is more than sufficient to prove poetry’s superiority.
Daniel Boyko is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Jennifer Wang is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.