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Poetry is not prose

In my first blog on this website, I stated that:  "[A]nyone who knows anything about modern poetry as art knows that poetry is more allied with NONFICTION than FICTION, as poems are not prose, no longer tell a story, and only subconsciously communicate a meaning, if at all."

In my manuscript "Poetry is," Villa devotes the better part of at least 40 pages to the differences between poetry (as art) and prose.  In reading an essay in today's Sunday Book Review in The New York Times, I became aware of yet another difference not included in Villa's almost-exhaustive categorization of the differences, namely, the manner in which "literature" is taught in creative writing programs at today's universities.

In today’s New York Times Book Review, there is an essay by Dean Bakopoulos, a professor of English at Grinnell College, concerning “How to teach literature?” The short answer provided is: “With more attention to visceral reactions, and a lot less to theory and historical background.” Fortunately, although the essay does not make this clear, he was talking about teaching his fiction workshop. Hopefully he was not talking about teaching poetry as literature because the process he describes is precisely the opposite of the manner poetry (as art) must be taught.

Bakopoulos describes the process as follows: “I’m really instructing them in . . . reading as a process of seduction. Consider how one falls in love: by fixating on certain attributes of the beloved. The way she flips her hair from her face. The flecks in her eyes, the twitch in his smile. We do not yet know the whole person, but we are lured by primal responses to a few details.” It is clear that he is speaking about utilizing the details of prose, which are inappropriate for teaching a student of poetry.

Villa very clearly distinguished the details of prose, such as the details Bakopoulos mentions above, from the details of poetry. He describes the details of prose as “concrete objects, things, items – a catalog and enumeration of real, everyday objects” and adds that “without these facts of actuality, the novel or story would be unreal – these objects and descriptions are necessary for creative prose.” Turning to the details of poetry, Villa states that they “are not actual objects or actual things, but metaphors. They do not exist in actual life because they are not physical objects but linguistic objects of imaginative fusion and abstraction. They are not factual reality but symbolic reality - metaphors acting through the powers of abstraction and synthesis. Poetry fundamentally is abstract – works on the principle of . . . the particular made universal.”

Bakopoulos should have been more careful in his use of the term “literature” because, despite poetry’s decline over the past half-century or so, it is still literature and, unlike prose, must be taught with a lot more (not less) attention to theory and historical background. Unfortunately, that is not the way it is taught these days and the universities are doing a great disservice to poetry by failing to recognize and to teach the importance of distinctions between the details of genuine poetry and of prose.


Vocation: Wall Street Trial Lawyer (Retired)
Avocation: Poetry and Poetics
Studied poetry with Jose Garcia Villa 1970-1997
Writer and Publisher of Poetry


  • Guest
    abc Thursday, 07 November 2013

    I couldn't agree with you more here about the way poetry is made. It seems what the professor taught is right, but by your criticism it's made clear that poetry is more of a linguistic and metaphorical game than a factual one. Hope to see the book come out as soon as possible. (By the way the stars here can't be clicked)

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