The Difference Between Poetry and Fiction

Lately I have found myself thinking about poetry and fiction, and why they are different, and how that difference affects the writing process. Some people think the difference is rhyme, or figurative language, or line length. In this view, poetry has these devices, and fiction does not. As for me, I think the difference is conflict.

Dog vs. cat

Photo of Ongoing Conflict by Fiona MacGinty-O’Neill via flickr and licensed under CC 2.0

Remember when you learned about conflict in your middle school English class? I remember being taught these possible conflicts:

  • Man vs. Man*
  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Society

We then had to read short stories and decide which of the conflicts applied. Sometimes, to make it tricky, there were multiple conflicts. I can’t say whether this is true outside of Western literature, but in the West, if there’s a story, then there’s a conflict.

Wait, then, couldn’t a poem have a conflict as well? Depending on the poem—yes. An epic poem or a verse novel tells a story, including conflict. But lyric poetry probably will not. A lyric poem is not about characters who have conflicts. It is a way to draw the reader into an experience. The experience happens in the reading of the poem. It might be a moment of beauty; a sense of joy or sadness; or any one of a million feelings and sensations we human beings may have. If the poem works, all the language and  metaphor and simile and line breaks and so on create that experience in me as I read the poem. The more subtle and exact the poem is, the more fully realized the readers’ experience will be.

I’ve written poetry and fiction, and for me, there are two separate writing processes.

For poetry, I find I need to hear a word or phrase that sticks in my brain and starts calling forth images, sounds, impressions, memories. The sounds and the connections are what I am trying to capture when I sit down to write the poem. It’s like looking through a fogged-up window and seeing just a small bit of the picture. As the poem progresses, the window clears and the picture starts to make sense. I find it’s a fragile thing, especially at the beginning. It must be done in secret, because interacting with anyone throws the process off course, and the magic dissipates. The words and phrases seem ordinary and boring. If I’m not interrupted and the writing is going well, I will discover what the real subject of the poem is, and the experience will be conveyed in the poem.

Fiction is a different process altogether. For me it starts with a character and a conflict. Where does she live and when? Whom does she love? What does she want? Why can’t she have it? What will she learn? I have to have at least a semblance of an answer to these questions, and more, before I can start writing. I have to have a sense of the story arc, or I will flounder around in pages and pages of description and environment and nothing will actually happen. (Ask me how I know this.) Yes, it’s great floating about in a Stevie-Nicks-style dress with wings and vaguely considering the precise grey of the sky in Cleveland in February, but that does not a novel make. It might make a poem, though.

*I went to school so long ago that everybody said man and meant human being. I hope the language taught now is more inclusive. But if Google image search is any indication, we still have a ways to go.