Poetry and prose are two primary forms of literature. This post explores poetry vs. prose and provides tips for helping students understand (and appreciate) the difference between the two.
Are you gearing up to teach poetry? Before diving into poetry, it might be time to step back and explore how this literary form is similar to—and different from—the prose our students are more familiar with.
Students are often surprised to learn that when it comes to poetry vs prose, the two literary forms have a lot in common. They can both be filled with vivid imagery and figurative language. Both can tell a story or evoke emotion. In other ways, yes, they are quite different. It’s important to explain the similarities and differences between the two styles to help students understand the power, purpose, and effect of each.
At a glance, students might have an idea of the difference between the two genres. Prose refers to paragraphs of text using “normal” language (their words, not mine). Poetry has line breaks and stanzas and uses fancy words. In their minds, prose is far more straightforward than the abstract images and convoluted meanings of poetry—again, their words, not mine.
But we both know there’s much more to comparing literary forms than that. So, let’s dive in, shall we?
Poetry vs Prose: What is Poetry?
Poetry can be challenging to read or write. Perhaps it’s because it takes a form that is quite different from the texts we read and the language we use on a daily basis. For example, poetry is composed of lines and stanzas. Each line can be as long as a sentence or paragraph. Other times they are as short as a single word.
Most—but not all—poetry is written in verse with meter or rhyme schemes and carefully orchestrated line breaks to create a musical sense of rhythm. You know, like a song. Like your students’ favorite songs, poetry uses rhyme, cadence, and meter to establish a rhythm that emphasizes mood, tone, or meaning.
Poetry relies on carefully selected words and figurative language to deliver meaning.
Since poems are often rather short compared to prose, poets must carefully select the few words they use to convey their meaning. Poems are often rich with figurative devices such as metaphors, similes, hyperbole, personification, and symbolism. Poets often rely on this figurative language to convey abstract ideas and emotions.
To review, here are some of the defining characteristics of poetry:
- Ideas are expressed through artistic wording and form
- Includes rich with imagery and figurative language
- Often follow a rhyme and rhythm to add to the overall feeling
- Words appear in lines and are grouped into stanzas
- Conventional rules of grammar are often broken for (intentional) artistic effect
Poetry vs Prose: What is Prose?
While prose can be challenging to read and analyze at times, it tends to be more straightforward than poetry. Even if the text requires a reader to make inferences, several context clues, character traits, and plot points help “reveal” the messages between the lines.
It also helps that prose reflects everyday language. Rather than following a metrical and rhythmic structure, prose often flows as spoken language does. Similarly, most—but not all—prose features grammatically correct sentences and organized paragraph structure, making it easy to follow the development of an idea or plot.
While prose carries similar characteristics to spoken language, that doesn’t mean that authors don’t have fun with their word choice. Much like poetry, authors weave in meaningful symbolism and figurative language to help bring settings, characters, and plot lines to life. This poetic language helps authors deliver the text’s deeper meaning in a more profound way, no matter how concrete the message is. Though, this language does not make up the entirety of the piece.
To review, here are some of the defining characteristics of prose:
- Ideas are expressed through more “straightforward” messaging
- The written word reflects “every day” speak
- Ideas flow in the form of sentences and paragraphs
- There are no intentional line breaks, and sentences run to the right margin
- Standard rules of grammar and syntax (generally) apply
Thanks to the similarities between prose and everyday spoken language, students tend to find prose much easier to write, read, and analyze than poetry.
Teaching Poetry vs. Prose
When we talk about poetry in isolation, it can send our students running for the hills. (Figuratively, of course.) But when we teach poetry and prose in conjunction, students can recognize each genre for its unique properties and uses.
Again, since prose more closely resembles everyday language, most students find it far less intimidating than poetry. Of course, there are plenty of complex works of prose out there. Regardless, we can stir up more engagement than dread when teaching poetry or prose with the right approach and activities.
Activities for Teaching Poetry vs Prose
Here are four engaging activities that will help your students understand poetry vs prose and the unique powers and properties of each.
- Side-by-Side Analysis
What better way to explore the similarities and differences between poetry and prose than by a side-by-side analysis? For this activity, find a short story and poem that explore a similar message or theme. Start by reading and discussing the short story. Then, read the poem as a class, having students annotate for figurative language and poetic devices. Lastly, ask your students to identify how the pieces are similar and different. Ask, what do they have in common? How do they each establish the author’s (or speaker’s) message and theme?
For example, you can read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” alongside Julio Noboa’s poem “Identity” to explore the dangers of conformity. Noboa’s poem can also be paired with Sherwood Aderson’s “Mother” or “Departure” to explore the theme of freedom. Pair “Jabari Unmasked” by Nikki Grimes with Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks” or Gary Soto’s “The Jacket” to explore the themes of identity and trying to fit in.
- Poetry vs Prose Pairing Challenge
This poetry vs prose pairing activity is similar to the analysis activity above. However, instead of you finding a prose vs poetry pairing, it’s up to the students to find a match. Start by reading a short story with a clear thee. After discussing and analyzing the theme, have students work individually or in small groups to find a poem that expresses a similar idea or theme. Have each group share their chosen poem, analyzing it for figurative language and poetic devices that help express the theme. As an alternative, you can have students write their own poems to match the theme of the prose.
- Prose vs. Poetry Writing Challenge
Break students into two groups; one responsible for writing poetry and one responsible for writing prose. Have all students write down various topics or themes to put in a hat. Pull a topic from the hat and have students craft a short piece of literature in their assigned genre that speaks to the chosen theme or topic. For example, if the topic was “winter,” a student might write a descriptive paragraph of a winter scene while another might write a poem about snowfall. Call on a few students from each group to share before assigning each group the opposite genre and choosing a new topic.
- Blackout Poetry
This is one of my favorite prose vs poetry activities because it requires students to transform a page of prose into a poetic piece. There are several different ways to approach blackout poetry. Regardless of how you use blackout poetry, the activity requires students to work closely to find the poem hidden within a page of prose. They must make careful decisions regarding diction to illustrate their desired symbol, tone, emotion, theme, or message. If you want to give blackout poetry a try, check out my done-for-you blackout poetry lesson plan.
Teaching Prose Poems
Now, I know I just spent most of this post explaining poetry and prose as different genres of literature. However, there is a time when the two genres collide, working together to create the prose poem.
Prose poems might read (aka sound) like a poem, but they look like a paragraph of prose.
What’s the deal?
What is a Prose Poem?
A prose poem is a poem that reflects the features of both prose and poetry. In other words, it’s a creative piece of writing that looks like a piece of prose. However, as you read it, you can feel a poetic sense of language and rhythm. If you were to hear a prose poem, you might think it’s a poem. However, upon looking at it on paper, you’d think it’s your standard paragraph.
Unlike traditional poetry, prose poems don’t use intentional line breaks to create a sense of rhythm or rhyme. Instead, they follow a more sentence-like flow, starting a new line only when the previous line reaches the page’s right-side margin on the page. While the text isn’t broken into verse lines, it is rich with symbolism, vivid language, figures of speech, and other devices associated with poetry.
Take the prose poem “Bath” by Amy Lowell for example. While it certainly looks like a paragraph and lacks any sense of rhyme or obvious poetic rhythm, she relies on imagery and poetry language to express the pleasure of the simple things in life. describe the ultimate pleasure in enjoying the little. Thanks to her use of metaphor, imagery, and personification, she transforms a paragraph into a piece of prose poetry.
Poetry vs Prose: so, what is the difference between prose and poetry?
This is typically when students ask, so isn’t prose poetry just a descriptive paragraph then?
Not quite. But it does beg an important question: where do you draw the line between prose and poetry?
As it turns out, the lines are quite blurry.
Perhaps this is a perfect question to ask your students. After reviewing poetry vs prose, let them decide where that line is drawn. Your students can use my free t-chart to demonstrate the difference between the two. This is sure to spark an interesting conversation and, perhaps, even a debate. Talk about exercising their critical thinking skills! Additionally, I’ve created a free anchor chart that can be displayed year round in your classroom for students to reference as need be. Take a look below.