Liming and the Difference Between Prose and Poetry

Most twelve-year-old boys aren't really into poetry. Liming is no different. And, I don't understand how poetry even works in the Chinese language. Their spoken language is tonal, meaning when you change the sound you change the word. And their written language is logographic, meaning their symbols evolved from pictures representing whole words. But Liming is fluent in English, so we tackled the prose versus poetry issue anyway.


I like to generate examples for things in the moment, off the cuff. It's a fun challenge. And it's often a good way to compare things. For instance, I was telling Liming about how I've been reading poetry from John Keats and Ovid recently. I inquired into his understanding of poetry, and there is an almost complete absence of exposure. He reads a lot of prose though. I decided to take a basic sentence in prose and show him what the same idea might look like in a poetical form. Here's the sentence in prose.

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The sunset looks very nice.

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It's a simple sentence that completely lacks the feel of poetry. I took that, and then made this poetical form.

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Lovely is, the fading light that I see, in the sky above me.

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Comparing these two we can see some of the differences between prose and poetry. The poem brings up images, pulls on your senses, activates your imagination, and stirs emotions. Those things can be done in different ways. Poems usually have rhythm and rhyme, but not always. "Paradise Lost" by John Milton is often considered one of the greatest epic poems in the English language, and it doesn't rhyme. Viking poetry used alliteration instead of rhyming, meaning they preferred that the beginning of the words sounded alike, rather than the endings of the lines.

One of the best definitions of poetry I've ever heard is that poems sound better and mean more. Which brings up a question, can't prose sound better and mean more? Yes, it can. Poetry and prose fade into one another. Sometimes while I'm reading a story I'll come across lines that have a special rhythm to them, or they rhyme, or they use alliteration, or they evoke images with multiple symbolic meanings. And you never know where you're going to find such lines. I've come across them in "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville, in "The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss, and in "The Innocense of Father Brown" by G. K. Chesterton. That is, a popular classic, a modern fantasy, and an old murder mystery.

It is quite a joy to come across such lines in prose. One reason is that you're not expecting it. And I think there's an even stronger reason. In "Beauty: A Very Short Introduction" by Roger Scruton, he gives an example of two amazing buildings in Europe. They are both fantastic, but one is surrounded by a group of buildings all trying to be extraordinary, and it's too much. The area looks crowded, the great architecture doesn't stand out, and what could have been a beautiful setting is lost. The other building though, is surrounded by some modest homes. The great architecture stands out, and it's wonderful. This same idea of a modest background allowing the truly beautiful to stand out and be recognized applies to writing as well.

Liming wasn't immediately super enthused about poetry after we talked about it, but he was open to the idea. And he wasn't before we talked. He's interested in ancient Greek mythology. He's read the "Percy Jackson" book series which is based on it. And he's reading a version of them now, in prose. When he gets done with that I'll introduce the idea of reading "The Metamorphoses" by Ovid. And perhaps the combination of his interest in Greek mythology, and one of the greatest poets of all time, will bring him into a whole new world, the world of poetry.

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