The Difference Between Prose and Poetry


Classically, prose is defined as a form of language based on grammatical structure and the natural flow of speech. It is normally contrasted with poetry or verse which is said to depend on a rhythmic structure, using meter or rhyme. Spoken dialogue, factual discourse, and a whole range of forms of writing normally use prose: literature, journalism, history, philosophy, encyclopedias, film and law rely upon it for the bulk of what they have to say.

The word ‘prose’ first appears in English in the 14th century and comes from the Old French prose. This originates in the Latin expression prosa oratio, which means literally, 'straightforward or direct speech'. Prose tends to comprise of full grammatical sentences, building to paragraphs; poetry typically contains a metrical scheme and often some element of rhyme.

In fact, though, observation reveals that, rather than separate entities, they are part of a spectrum of communication using words.

At one end of the spectrum, we have a highly precise, usually much shorter and concentrated focus not only on the choice of particular words, their meanings and their sounds, but also upon the gaps between them. The gaps, holes, absences or vacuums both in sound and in meaning create the pulse of attention which we call rhythm. At the other end, we have an often imprecise, usually much longer and less concentrated pattern of words in which meanings and sounds are looser, and the gaps between them less significant. Rhythm plays a less important role.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined the two, prose is ‘words in their best order; poetry - the best words in their best order.’ If one requires less attention from a reader to achieve what one has to say, one can safely use prose; if, however, one is keen to transmit an exact and intense experience, one tends to move towards the poetic end of the spectrum.

A good example of this is the poem ‘Where I Come From’ by Canadian poet Elizabeth Brewster. Written in free verse, the poem does not have any rhyme scheme. In fact, it reads almost like prose: