Poetry, Prose? Where’s the Line?

We’re a few weeks into the semester now, and as I’ve probably mentioned in class I’m currently taking Lyric Essay with Steve West, in addition to our own wonderful Poetry Workshop. I entered both classes with a somewhat strong idea of what categorized each genre: poetry has stanzas and line breaks, beautiful images that are stringed along with some sort of unifying idea or moment; lyric essay, a subgenre of CNF, I thought was usually more narrative—it could have beautiful images like poetry, but those images were usually unified through the personal experience of some sort of first-person narrator or embodied self presented within the essay.

Now, about a month into the semester, I’m more confused than ever as to what separates the two genres. I’ve had workshops in Lyric Essay where I was sure the piece we were talking about was poetry—not essay—and I’ve had moments in Poetry where, looking at a poem (especially, but not exclusively, prose poems), I was sure it was essay.

So where is the (*pun intended*) line drawn?

Take, for example, the Hairston poem we talked about (briefly) in class last Thursday. The first line of the poem reads:


And another line:

“but poppa   we are   in love   but poppa i love him   poppa   but please poppa”

The back and forth comments between the speaker and his daughter gives the poem a kind of dialogue (a definite characteristic of prose), as well as a clear sense of a narrator or ‘embodied self.’ There’s also a sense of progression throughout the stanza/scene as tension mounts and threatens to explode.

Now, take an example of a lyric essay we discussed in my other class (actually written by Prof. West, when we were doing a practice workshop), entitled “Love Letters to Appalachia”:

“Dear spur trail to the summit of the mountain:

Dear leafless branches in early spring and 360 degrees of headroom:

Dear walking through clouds that whisper in your ear:

Dear driving with the windows down to a small cottage on a mountain lake, listening to the perfect song with one of your best friends curled up in the backseat and another slouching in the passenger seat with an arm outside surfing on the wind, all of you knowing all the lyrics and deciding to just listen anyway:”

There’s a lot of beautiful imagery throughout this essay. Prof. West even uses white space here (Can you call them line breaks if they’re used in prose? Or is each sentence  just it’s own paragraph here?) to force the reader into thinking about each image he conjures before moving onto the next—a definite characteristic of poetry.

A prose poem, according to dictionary.com, is a “composition written as prose but having the concentrated rhythmic, figurative language characteristic of poetry.” In fact, according to an article I’m reading for tomorrow’s Lyric Essay class, (“Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Lyrical Essay”), prose poems can even be classified as a subgenre of CNF instead of a subgenre of poetry.

Obviously, poetry can be fictional. CNF cannot—it must rely, at least to some extent, on the experiences of the author. But, if a prose poem is based in truth, does that mean it’s also a lyric essay? Or could be a lyric essay? After all essay, at its literal definition (from its French roots), means to try. Try to understand, or make sense of something. Doesn’t poetry, at its core, also do this?

So, is there a definite line drawn between prose and poetry? Or is that line just a way of defining the context with which we discuss and analyze a text?

One Reply to “Poetry, Prose? Where’s the Line?”

  1. Love it, Katie – thanks for bringing these pieces together. And to synthesize further: my ENGL 203 Reader & Text students just read Wai-Chee Dimock’s ‘Genres as Fields of Knowledge’ , in which she argues for the fluidity of genre rather than its distinctiveness. In that sense, prose poems COULD belong to CNF and to poetry, and even to fiction; it’s the ways they claim space in each that might be of more importance than where they belong…

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