What is poetry? What makes a poem a poem and not prose?
A few collected (and beginning) thoughts
Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared poetry to be “the best words in the best order.”
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of image and allusion, and concentrated, condensed emotion and experience.
A friend of mine who is a powerful and profound poet asserts that a poem is the right words for the right occurrence.
Rackham and Bertagnolli respond to Wordsworth’s claim that “poetry is a ‘spontaneous overflow of emotion,’” by saying that “no writing, not even poetry, is ever totally spontaneous.” Yet Robert Frost is known for saying a poem “begins with a lump in the throat.”
Someone else has written that
… Poetry is a break for freedom. In a sense all poems are
good; all poems are an emblem of courage and the attempt
to say the unsayable; but only a few are able to speak to
something universal yet personal and distinct at the same
time; to create a door through which others can walk into
what previously seemed unobtainable realms, in the passage
of a few short lines.
Mary Oliver writes that “Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something.
Another Robert Frost thought: “Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance.” Perhaps that’s the difference between poetry and prose too? As much as prose can be written poetically, it’s still a different ‘creature’ with a different intent.
I suggest, too, that the difference between the two is the ‘white space.’ Poetry is more about what’s left out, to be intuited, already known – like haiku writers leave room for the reader to finish the creation – whereas prose tends to spell it out for us. If “Fiction is the truth inside the lie,” as Stephen King asserts, is there a poetic correlation?
Robert Penn Warren believes “The poem is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see – it is, rather, a light by which we may see – and what we see is life.” As Sylvia Plath says, “I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.”
I wrote my first poem at age six (I still have that little poem somewhere), so I’ve called myself a poet for over 50 years. I believe there is what I call a ‘poetic sensibility,’ a way of looking at life, of understanding life, of getting through the hard times, of celebrating the joys in ways no other form of writing can do, in my humble opinion.
In fact, I agree with Sharon Olds, who writes of poetry, “I would hate to imagine living without it. It’s where I discover what I think and feel and make something of it.”
© ERR 2008/2015
 I am not sure where this comes from. It will be found in either Letters to a Young Poet or the collection of Rilke’s works translated by Stephen Mitchell.
 From Sight to Insight, 5.