Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.11: What is Poetry?

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

This is how we begin our master class
on poetry, with Amal El-Mohtar:
With not one question, but two.

  • What is poetry?
  • What is prose?

Yes, both questions are a trap.
Or maybe two traps.
But definitely a beginning.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Join a poem-a-day subscription service like, or follow poetryisnotaluxury on Instagram.

Thing of the week A Map to the Sun, by Sloane Leong.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What is poetry? Start by considering the question, what is prose? An established meter with a rhyme scheme lies in the land of poetry. Prose tends to be linear. It tends to group thoughts by paragraph. There is usually a specific point that you are driving towards. Usually you are trying to convey an argument, and you need to make sure the stakes are clear. Usually it is either informative or persuasive. In fiction, the service of the narrative comes before the service of the form. Poetry? Rhyme and meter, linebreaks, metaphor… These are also features of prose! Poetry and prose use all the same tools. The difference between poetry and prose is the difference between singing and speaking. Come back next week to find out more.

[Season 16, Episode 11]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses. What is Poetry?

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And I wanna know the answer too.


[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Amal] I’m Amal.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] For the next eight episodes, we are going to be digging into this question, what is poetry? Amal is going to be guiding us through a master class. I am extremely excited about this, because as I was telling Amal before we started, I have written exactly 2 poems as an adult that have not been in service to a novel. One of them was at a puppetry workshop, and the other was on the back of a placemat. So, Amal, what is poetry?

[Amal] What an excellent question. So, rather than answer the question, which would be way too straightforward and obvious…


[Amal] I’m going to reply with a question, which is one that we tend not to ask ever at all, but is really crucial, I think, to answering what is poetry. That question is, what is prose, bo? What actually is prose? The reason I want to ask it this way is because it has been my experience that whenever I mention poetry to classrooms full of students who want to learn to write, who are interested in creative writing, who are interested in writing novels and short stories and screenplays and what have you, that there is this kind of instinctive bristling at the idea of poetry. That it can be frightening, that it can be alienating and offputting. I always find myself wondering why that is. I’ve come to realize that there is some inherent assumption that poetry is the opposite of prose, that prose is everything that you are not good at, somehow. Like your learning to write prose and poetry is like this weird other country where up is down and blue is purple and it’s just hard and weird and makes you feel bad. I really want to challenge that, and kind of dig into that a little bit. So I want to start by asking all of you if you will assist me in this, what, to you, is a defining feature of poetry that makes it different from prose?

[Dan] Oh, this feels like a trap.

[Yeah, laughter]

[Howard] The challenge for me is that I’ve been putting things in buckets my whole life, and there are so many things that are going to fit into both buckets. But I will say that when there is an established meter with a rhyme scheme, then I know I’m in the land of poetry.

[Mary Robinette] Right.

[Howard] But my neighbors in the land of poetry don’t necessarily have rhymes and established meters.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s… So, I’m sitting here thinking, okay, what? Prose. All right. How do I… Like, when I look at something, I’m like, well, this is prose. I think one part of it is thoughts… It tends to be fairly linear. Not always, but it tends to be fairly linear. It tends to group thoughts by paragraph. It’s structure is paragraph and scene when you’re talking about fiction, and when you’re talking about nonfiction, again, is paragraph. That there tends to be a sort of specific point that you are driving towards that you don’t want to leave the pieces out, so that people aren’t lost. When I’m thinking about it, like, in terms of… And it is thinking about it as an opposite of poetry. You’re right, wow, that is such a trap. But I am… That it is… Yeah, I think the linearity… Linearality of it… So that’s a word now.


[Amal] It sounds like you’re also talking about argument, maybe. That in nonfiction, for instance, that you are trying to convey an argument and that you need to make sure that the stakes of that argument are clear and stuff like that. Does that make sense?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Like, there’s… With public speaking or essays, there’s generally two forms. There’s informative or persuasive. You’re either trying to inform people or you’re trying to persuade them. Then in fiction, you are… There is a narrative. It’s not that poetry can’t have a narrative, but that prose is… The service of the narrative comes before the consideration of form.

[Amal] Um. Okay.

[Dan] Well, that leads into what I was going to say, is that for me, and I was going to start by saying that poetry is where form matters as much as content does. As I’ve been listening to you talk and trying to second-guess what I think you’re going to say, I suspect what’s actually going on is that prose is a form that has just become so common. It has a lot of the features that Mary Robinette just talked about, and poetry is where we have culturally grouped every other form, whether that is rhyme or specific meter or leaving certain words or concepts out and turning it into more of a readerly thing.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Oh, and then there’s free verse. Like, as we’re talking about it, the thing that I keep thinking about is John Scalzi’s Satan Diary. He wrote it as free verse poetry, and then pulled out all of the linebreaks, and grouped it into paragraphs.

[Amal] So, this is wonderful to me. [Garbled I’m so…] In many respects. So, because obviously you are all accomplished writing professional and not first-year university students and stuff, you are doing the thing, which is that you are kind of as soon as you put forward an example, you are scrutinizing that example and going, “Wait. There are so many exceptions to this thing.” This is where I want to take what you’ve said and kind of put it in conversation with some of the things my students tend to call out, which is they’ll say, “Okay. So, definitely rhyme and meter for sure. Hallmarks of poetry.” They’ll say, “Linebreaks for sure. Hallmarks of poetry.” If something is hugging the left side and margin, then it’s definitely a poem. Though sometimes actually say things that are much more easily, I think, interrogated then some of the things you brought up. They’ll say like, “Well, metaphor is a feature of poetry. Figurative language.” They’ll also sometimes talk about something that is really distilled, something that is really compact, where the language is full of images and stuff like that. So it’s… I always end up writing all of these on a board and then saying, “These are really great. Fantastic. However, have you considered that with the exception of rhyme, all of them are also features of prose?” So if you want to talk about linebreaks in prose, we have paragraph breaks, and what happens… Why do we break a paragraph where we do has a lot of different answers, but all of them come down to the question of intention. That you intend to convey something to the reader with where you break a paragraph. What happens when you break a scene, for that matter? You are eliding quite a lot of linear information when you break a scene in order to transport someone immediately somewhere else. Right? You… Or something like a famous phrase, like, is this Raymond Chandler, I always forget to look this up? “He had a gun. I took it from him.” Is an amazing ellipsis, right? Like, there is so much condensation happening in that which people would unquestionably call prose, because it’s occurring within a novel. But what I want to point out is that poetry is using all of these tools that prose also has. They’re not actually opposites. When you’re talking about narrative, there are absolutely narrative poems. When you have something like Alfred Noyes The Highwayman, where the purpose of that poem is the story of the poem, and everything else about the poem is in service of that story. Is in service of, like, “The Highwayman came riding, riding, the Highwayman came riding. Under the moon…” I can’t remember the exact lines, but it’s just… There’s all of this… All of the rest of the poem’s elements are in service of that story. Likewise, tons of poetry doesn’t rhyme, so you can’t use it as a defining characteristic necessarily. Mary Robinette, do you want to chime in?

[Mary Robinette] No, I was just letting you know that I was going to need to pause for the book of the week in a moment, when you’re done with your thought.

[Amal] Oh!


[Mary Robinette] But do you want to finish your thought?

[Amal] Yes. So, all of these tools, essentially, are shared by poetry and by prose. So what I want to kind of drive towards… This is not to say that poetry and prose are the same. They are not. They are very different. But they’re also not opposites. They are, I’m going to get kind of technical here, but just to say, they’re related modes with different emphases. We can talk a little bit about how these emphases differ after the book of the week.

[Mary Robinette] What a wonderful segue. So we are pausing for our book of the week… And… That is… A Map to the Sun, which you were going to tell us about, Amal.

[Amal] Yes. I wanted this to be the first book to recommend in specifically talking about poetry, because the last two pages of this stunningly beautiful original graphic novel by Sloane Leong made me feel the way only poetry has made me feel up until this point. It’s a stunningly beautiful book about the friendships between girls on a girls basketball team, essentially in high school, and it’s about the difficulties in these girls’ lives, about the ways in which they relate to each other. The core of it is specifically that one girl… Sorry, two of the girls had found a really intense friendship two years earlier, and then one of them left and broke all contact off for two years, and then returned and tried to just have the same relationship again. So it’s a book about the intricacies of friendship and the difficulties of it. It’s deeply, deeply beautiful. When I got to the end of this book, which is full of color, there’s an incredible treatment of color all throughout, the last two pages felt like a dawn breaking in my mind. Like, it was the most intensely beautiful experience of just being overwhelmed by feeling and tears and loveliness. But I’m still puzzling over how the book did this to me. Which is the feeling I get from poetry. So I wanted to [say that].

[Mary Robinette] That’s wonderful. So that’s A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong.

[Howard] Before we jump into this further exploration of how poetry and prose share tools, I want to weigh in with a fun metaphor. If you’ve ever watched someone, a comic book artist, illustrate with just a brush and ink, and watching the way they create a picture really just using two colors and a brush and and ink, that’s a skill set that I wish I had that I don’t. There’s also a video on… Well, it’s going to be on YouTube, and I don’t know where exactly, of a guy painting gold trim on a table. Freehand with a brush. Loaded with the gold trim paint that he’s using. Okay? [Inaudible I think that’s the confidence…” The confidence of line is absolutely amazing. To me, this is the same difference as the difference between poetry and prose. Both skills or both domains require mastery of this tool. But the one guy is framing a table in a way to create… To allow the table to then frame other things. The other guy is creating a page as part of a sequential story. So in the realm of illustration, I think we have plenty of examples of the same sort of dichotomy. I’m drawing a picture. I am illustrating a repeating pattern of Celtic knots with things going on in the knots that change as they go.

[Amal] I love that metaphor so much, and I want to build on it a little bit. I remember [Chuck Orion] who I’m going to mention a couple of times throughout this master class because they are a deeply brilliant poet and thinker and fiction writer and also artist, which they learned… when they were in art school, they were learning… looking at like art in the west. There is a kind of event horizon that happens where it seems like, “And then they learned how to draw.” Where suddenly…


[Amal] [inaudible] like photorealist things. So the main thing there, if I’m recalling this correctly, is perspective. It’s like perspective as a kind of technology begins to emerge. The funny thing is though in… A thing that often happens is that there is this assumption that perspective is always going to be used the same way. So in art classes that focus on the art of Western Europe, you might not understand that in the farther east that you have that same knowledge of perspective simply because the same kind of art is not emerging there. So what [Teresa] was telling me was that if you look at certain parts of the Taj Mahal, there’s this weird thing that happens where you look up and there’s writing on a column, and no matter where you are in reference to the column, the writing looks the same size. Because they have used the same knowledge of perspective to create a totally different effect. Instead of trying to create a kind of realist reproduction of the world around you, they have bent and twisted the world around you into this one thing so that no matter where you are distance wise, you are still able to read the thing. I am being a little bit vague in my description of it, because I’m trying to remember a conversation from a while ago. But it’s that same tool, used to super different purposes. I feel that way about poetry. That where prose is often trying to represent and denotate and communicate with a certain kind of clarity and convention and understanding, poetry is often transforming, shifting, weirding the thing. I want to kind of bring this to one succinct statement about, for me, but the difference is between poetry and prose, is the difference ultimately between singing and speaking. And that… We’ll get into that more next episode. Which is a tool in and of itself, they’re doing so in wildly different ways that provoke wildly different effects. But we’ll get into that more next episode.

[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. Thank you so much, Amal.

[Amal] So, in the meantime, I want to leave you with some homework. The homework is very simple. It is that I want you to subscribe to a poem-a-day service. There are a whole bunch of them. We’re going to link a couple in the show notes. But I just want you to subscribe to something that is going to put a little bit more poetry in your life, one poem, one day at a time. Just so that it’s not as alien and different and weird and frightening as it might have been otherwise. As you get these poems landing in your inbox, I want you to read them. I want… They’re always going to be pretty short, and I just want you to pay attention to your reaction to them. You’re probably not going to understand a bunch of them, some of them are going to be frustrating and opaque, but some of them are also going to be really remarkable. You might find yourself enjoying elements of them. I just want you to pay attention to your reactions. Note where are you enjoying things, where are you not enjoying things. See if over the course of a week, you notice some patterns emerging, and start to figure something out about your own tastes in poetry.

[Mary Robinette] For those people who are exploring poetry for the first time, I’m going to offer a piece of advice that Amal gave me years ago when I was trying to learn more about puppetry. Puppetry! Poetry. Same thing. Which is to take your time when you read these poems, and that you may need to read it more than once, because if you’re used to reading prose, you’re used to skimming. A poem is not a thing to be skimmed. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go read some poetry.