Poetry vs. Prose: Christopher Ricks’ Perspective


A. n.

1. a. Language in the form in which it is typically written (or spoken), usually characterized as having no deliberate metrical structure.


a. Composition in verse or some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; the art of such a composition.

Do these definitions do justice for you? If not, hear what Christopher Ricks has to say.

Photo Credit: Andrea Abi-Karam
Photo Credit: Andrea Abi-Karam

Undergrads, grad students, professors and colleagues gathered in the Richards-Roosevelt room of Mugar library last Thursday night to hear literary critic and established BU Professor Christopher Ricks share his perspective on the difference between prose and poetry.

He began the seminar by tossing out lofty misconceptions of poetry: “Does it make sense to set poetry above prose? I don’t think it makes sense at all,” Ricks said. He further explained that poetry has more elevated connotations that prose, most likely as a result of poetry’s use of archaic and/or large words. “Poetry puts you in an elevated state of mind but a lot of poetry bring you down to the mode of complacency. Poems will raise your spirits in some way but not all the way to elevation,” said Ricks. Poems possess scandal and squalor, which are antitheses of an elevated state.

To reinforce his point Ricks quotes poet and prose writer T.S. Eliot: “Poetry has as much to learn from prose than it does from prose.”

Ricks set aside these false impressions to allow the audience to view both prose and poetry on the same page, and ultimately how to read them as separate modes of literature. Viewers of poetry and prose alike must read between the lines. Both poetry and prose use figurative language, elevated language, and imaginative language. Not all prose rhymes, but neither does all poetry.

While growing up and learning to read, kids learn (sometimes painstakingly) to ignore line endings and to continue the sentence to the next line. We need this skill to read prose. But we must revoke it when reading poetry.

“I’m seeking a root differentiation, it’s that the line ending carries significance and to learn to read prose is to learn that the line ending doesn’t contain significance,” said Ricks.

Take your favorite prose paragraph, and ask yourself if it would be better as a poem.

“The declaration of independence is written in elevated words, is it a poem?” Ricks asked.

About Andrea Abi-Karam

Andrea Abi-Karam (CAS '11) is the editor-in-chief of the Quad. She is a neurobiology major and an English minor. She does rat surgery and edits the magazine.

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