In the very informative book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig, the author helps us identify the differences between poetry and prose.
He begins with the observation that in general, prose is the way we speak to each other in everyday language, while poetry features heightened language that has at least two levels of meaning:
“There is the meaning on the surface…and there is the meaning underlying the verse, the meaning that is implied by what is on the surface. This is created through the intellectual content of the words themselves, as well as the sounds of the words and the rhythms of the lines.”
(He reminds us however that poetry can also be unrhymed, and then is called “blank verse.”)
How does one distinguish between the two? Ludwig explains that with most poetry, each line begins with a capital letter, whereas with prose, the lines on the page just go along continuously.
Still, some writers are so good, even their prose sounds like poetry. Compare these two passages from Shakespeare. This first, from Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, is “prose”:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
Now here is some “poetry” from Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5:
“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear –
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”
How beautiful and rich both passages are! Not long ago, Michael Chabon, another extraordinary wordsmith, pondered the nature of poetry in the July 11, 2013 New York Review of Books. He was remembering his poetry teacher from college, and how this professor characterized as poetry:
“He emphasized accuracy and precision in language, the sadness of cliché, the need to find newness in the way one wrote about the world, and, unconsciously I think, the supreme importance of exuberance…”
Shakespeare manages to do this whether dabbling in poetry or prose! If you love the joy of discovering rich musicality and meaning in words, I highly recommend revisiting Shakespeare. And the book highlighted above will help you gain new understandings and insights into his words.