Member Rara Avis
Hold onto your hats, guys - I'm going to disagree with Brad again. Ahhh, but then I'm going to surprise you.
The line break is just as important to prose as it is to poetry. Except, of course, we call them paragraphs. And they are just as arbitrary, too. Yea, I know. In school we were all taught about topic sentences, related thoughts, and all that other stuff. But that's "formal writing," again. In reality, writers use paragraphs for all kinds of reasons, in much the same manner poets use line breaks. Paragraphs add visual variety to a page of text. Long paragraphs can be used to slow the pace, while short, choppy paragraphs can make action come alive and increase the pace of a story. Paragraphs can draw attention to themselves and the ideas they represent.
I'll certainly agree that the line break in poetry is far more important than the paragraph in prose. And I've even seen some dictionaries define poetry in terms of the line break, much as Brad contends. But, in reality, I think it's used in much the same manner as are paragraphs. Ergo, no real difference.
Or is there? Okay, here comes the surprise. Because while I "technically" disagree with Brad on this, I'm going to wholeheartedly agree that his line break contention gives us an important clue as to what I see as the real difference between poetry and prose.
Let's see. Prose (with the exception of the not-very-popular experimental formats) is often defined by a beginning, middle, and end. Some poetry follows suit. Much doesn't. Prose is typically longer in length than poetry, though there are some obvious exceptions (Milton immediately comes to mind). Prose can be lyrical, even metrical (Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address"), and all good prose must "flow" well, but we usually think of it as being more, uh, prosaic than poetry. Good prose uses imagery at least occasionally, sometimes powerfully (read any of Dean Koontz's more recent books?), and some stories are almost entirely metaphorical (Orwell's "Animal Farm"). Still, when we normally think of imagery, our thoughts tend towards poetry instead of prose.
Gee, isn't there at least one technique or tool that is limited to only prose or only poetry?
Nope. Anything you have ever utilized in a poem will be found in a story somewhere. And every single characteristic of fiction has been successfully employed in a poem. And you know what? That's exactly the way it should be!
And, yet, there is a difference. We all know it, and we all know it when we see it. And I think Brad's observation gives us a significant clue as to what that difference might be. The line break is far more important to poetry than paragraphs are to prose. Plot is more important to fiction than to poetry. Imagery is vital to poetry, less so to prose. Characterization is the life-blood of stories, but rarely used extensively in poetry. Hey, is there a pattern developing here?
I submit to you that the only difference between poetry and prose is emphasis. In poetry, we typically emphasize line breaks, imagery, and the "sound" of words as they flow across the page. Take away any one of those instruments (as some poetry certainly does), and the result is something much closer to prose. If you then add plot and characterization, the things we most often emphasize in our stories, you come even closer, at some point crossing the threshold into prose. Does it work in the other direction, too? Jim shows us that adding line breaks to most prose doesn't turn it into poetry. But that's only because we haven't quite shifted the emphasis enough with just line breaks. Try adding line breaks to the first paragraph of "A Tale of Two Cities," where Dickens has already emphasized lyrical flow.
And, Jim, I think the same argument applies to the differences between free verse and metrical poetry. Free verse isn't defined by what is isn't, but rather by what it emphasizes. Free verse emphasizes line breaks and imagery, with the "sound" of words holding less importance. The more structured and metrical poetry emphasizes line breaks and sound, with imagery often (too often!) falling by the wayside. And you'll no doubt notice that their commonality is the line break, adding some strength to Brad's contention.
I personally believe that every author should try to master every writing technique available. Meter, imagery, plot, characterization, pace, settings, scenes, and - yes - the lowly line break. Every single one of these are nothing more than tools, parts of a writer's craft, and can be learned by simple study and practice. Craft is easy. The true art is both in the seeing and in being able to match the expression to the medium - in short, deciding where you need to place the emphasis in order to best communicate your message.