Why write poetry? Is there anything you can say in poetry that you can’t say in prose?
Of course that’s not really the question. Obviously we believe that how you say something makes a difference. In fact, there’s no such thing as pure information. The medium is part of the message. The style is part of the content. The same story related in prose and in poetry has a different effect on the reader.
So the general answer: You write poetry when the effect you want to create is more easily reached through poetry than through prose.
Of course, a writer’s individual preferences play a strong part here. Not many people write, or think they write, both prose and poetry well: as such, they’ll tend to choose whichever medium they feel most comfortable or most skilled with. But for those of us who do write (or think we write) both, why would we choose one over the other?
Poetry has certain characteristics that distinguish it from prose. This is not to say that all poems have these traits, nor that prose never displays some or all of them. But on the average, poetry relative to prose tends to be:
1) Shorter. Of course there are book-length poems, and I don’t just mean the Iliad; there are contemporary books that are a single poem, or a collection of poems with a shared theme and sometimes continuing characters and/or storylines. (I should point out that even a “book-length” poem typically contains a lot fewer words than a novel with the same number of pages.) However, the majority of modern poems are one page or less and stand-alone, published in a journal or anthology or non-continuous single-author collection. This, at a time when the market for short prose fiction is imploding even faster than the market for novels.
2) More inferential. Overall, poetry is characterized by compactness. One of the effects of this is that poetry tends to save space by implying a great deal more than it says: I’ve written about this before, under the topics of character and plotting. This involves the reader in a very active relationship with the poem: the downside is that it can become obscure and simply confuse or frustrate the reader.
3) Have a different rhythm. At the beginning of my poetry-writing adventures, I created the following working definition for myself: “Poetry is writing or speaking that has a rhythm distinctly different from that of normal prose or speech.” Rhyme and meter (in other traditions, alliteration or assonance) are familiar ways of creating a distinctive non-prose rhythm, but they’re not the only ways. More on the topic here.
4) Use more intense language. “Intense” can mean several things here, but in general I mean that each word is honed for maximum impact. In poetry, it’s perfectly acceptable to discard grammatical particles and punctuation, if that doesn’t distort the meaning (and sometimes even if it does), on the grounds that these words aren’t “earning their keep.” Poetry also deploys symbolic language and metaphor more often than most prose.
Happy Solstice. Morning fog: the willows
drag their fingers through the murky shallows.
Water’s high with melt and angst. This summer
everyone’s on edge. The TV’s stammer
can’t console, relating royal kisses
to the hungers of the jobless masses.
Shots ring out at night and voices quarrel
while the dizzy streetlights Tilt-a-Whirl.
Spinning helpless, I can’t read the patterns:
global vision is denied me. Lecterns
crowned with talking heads, like executed
murderers, confine my views. Refuted
points point inward only. I aspire
to seek the edges of the widened gyre.