On Poetry and Prose: Defining the Undefinable

As a professor of first-year writing, I spend a good deal of time helping students unpack what they have learned about the essay as a form and about writing in order to set much of that aside and embrace more nuanced and authentic awareness about both.

Teaching writing is also necessarily entangled with teaching reading. In my young adult literature course, then, I often ask students, undergraduate and graduate (many practicing teachers), to do similar unpacking about their assumptions concerning writing and reading.

I have noted before that my first-year students often mangle what I would consider to be very basic labels for writing forms and genres—calling a short prose piece a poem and identifying a play as a novel because they read both in book form.

Because of the ways students have been taught writing to comply with accountability and high-stakes testing of writing, they also confuse modes (narration, description, exposition, and persuasion) for genres or types of essays.

These overly simplistic or misguided ideas extend to distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction as well as prose and poetry.

I am always adding to my toolkit, then, lessons that ask students to investigate and interrogate genre, form, and mode, instilling a sense that literacy remains something undefinable that we none the less try to define so that we feel we have greater control over it.

This post details a lesson about recognizing all literacy as a journey, and embracing defining the undefinable.

The seeds of the lesson, in fact, start with my own stumbling through my journey with literacy. The first time I read Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye, I assumed the piece was a personal essay.

I think I may have shared with students and even referred to the passage as such. At some point after that, I ran across the piece being referred to as fiction, a very brief short story.

This week, as I was planning a lesson on how we distinguish poetry from short fiction, I considered using “Gate A-4” along with four poems by women poets—Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” Emily Dickinson’s “Wild night – Wild nights!,”  and Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song.”

As I searched online for “Gate A-4,” I noticed that the piece was routinely identified as a poem. However, when I did a “Look Inside” search of Naomi Shihab Nye’s Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose, I discovered that the piece is clearly prose, one of what the book description identifies as “eighty-two poems and paragraphs.”

I also discovered a wonderful video of Nye reading the passage:

This became the opening for the lesson, which began with asking students to watch the read aloud without a text in front of them. After viewing, I asked them to identify the text form—what is this thing she is reading?

The students were cautious, even hesitant to answer, exposing, I think, the many elements of a text that advanced readers use to make a significant number of decisions in a very brief moment. We know poetry from prose simply from seeing the text, even before reading.

As we struggled, I handed out a copy of “Gate A-4” and explained it is prose (although some guessed poem). I also pulled up the amazon link and showed them the piece in the original book.

Next I placed them in small groups with the four poems noted above, asking them to use one or as many of them as they wanted to create a quick lesson on what makes a poem, a poem.

The first group decided to use all four poems, and began by noting students would identify what most people associated with poetry in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”—rhyme and stanzas.

They also recognized that turning to “Good Bones,” those assumptions were challenged, as they explained, since this poem didn’t rhyme and has no stanzas (which we later clarified to note it is simply one stanza, constructed of lines).

Since “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and “Wild night – Wild nights!” tend to conform to narrow and traditional characteristics associated with poetry and “Good Bones” and “Siren Song” look poetic but sit outside those characteristics, we began to brainstorm how to have broader concepts; for example, we explored that all the poems have repetition (noting that rhyme is sound repetition) and concluded that poetry is often driven by purposeful line form and stanzas.

Possibly the key moment of this discussion was when the second group added that the best we can say is that a poem is a poem because the writer identifies it as such. We have come to a similar conclusion about the genre of young adult literature.

Another important part of this exploration came from a student who explained that he had always been bothered by trying to write poetry in high school, specifically the concept of line breaks. The how of breaking lines eluded him.

Here is something I always emphasize when teaching someone to write poetry—the art and craft of line breaks.

Broadly, we can help students better understand form and genre by keeping them focused on prose as a work driven by purposeful sentence and paragraph formation and poetry as a work driven by purposeful line and stanza formation (recognizing that even poetry sometimes is prose poetry).

To help answer this student’s concern about line breaks, I pulled up my newest poem about my father’s death, “quotidian,” and walked the class through my first draft (typed in Notes on my iPhone and emailed to myself) as well as how I came to choose and then work within the stanza pattern.

The big-picture lessons from this activity include the following:

  • Helping students understand that writing forms, genres, and modes are driven (not constrained) by some conventions, but also fluid.
  • Exploring that writers of all types of genres and forms work from a very similar toolbox—writers of poetry and prose care about sound, for example.
  • Emphasizing form and meaning are related in writing, but as soon as anyone finds a firm definition, a piece challenges that.
  • Identifying how writers and readers navigate form, genre, and mode with purposefulness as well as awareness. As I explained about line breaks and stanzas when writing poetry, there is no magical formula, but most poets do seek some guiding pattern or patterns and then shape poetry within or against those patterns.

Many years ago as a high school English teacher, I gradually shifted away from defining poetry during our poetry unit, and choosing instead to ask throughout, “What makes poetry, poetry?” We simply came to understand poetry better by asking a question instead of finding a clear definition.

I remain convinced that seeking greater awareness about text is a long journey, best guided by always seeking a definition rather than imposing one.

Regardless of the definition we discover, or fail to uncover, I hope that students remain in awe as I am each time I read “Gate A-4” even as I also remain conflicted about just what the thing is she is reading aloud on the video.