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English University Interviews - Poetry vs Prose

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You should expect a question on this theme no matter what you’ve studied or your passions are, as it’s core knowledge and something that you should be able to discuss with ease. There are various Oxbridge questions on the theme, and we’ll take a look at a small group of them here to illustrate what you might expect and how you might answer.

Why write a poem?

For many people, poetry will seem like a strange medium, and one that is perhaps unnecessary. As such, we can ask – why write a poem, rather than write prose? However, you can defend poetry by focusing on the manner in which poetry makes the writer focus – they might have to stay within a particular rhythm or use particular types of words (like a kigo in a haiku) and as such have to be strict and rationed with their use of language. Meaning could therefore be purer than in prose, and the reader in turn may be expected to spend more time on looking for a meaning and delving deep into a text. Certain types of poem are designed to express certain emotion, like sonnets express love, and as such the poet may use a particular structure to convey meaning. Lastly, poetry can allow for experimentalism – through taking traditional structure and altering it or purposefully breaking it, the writer can display a desire for change and the destruction of norms.

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Are poems meant to be difficult to understand?

As implied above, poems are seen by many as more complex than prose, and harder to engage with. As such, could it be that poems are purposefully written to be difficult to understand? Are they designed so that only avid readers can interact with them? We might combat this point of view by bringing attention to the myriad forms of poetry – whilst some poems are complex and difficult to understand, others are stories designed for the common man. The best example of this would be ancient epics, like Homer’s works, that were the main form of literature and thus one of the main forms of entertainment – for all of society – of their time. Whilst they contain great complexity, they also contain narrative that can be followed by all, and which is designed to carry the reader easily, rather than purposefully keep them at arm’s length. We might consider that the difficulty in understanding poetry can come from the level of meaning that poets often seek to imbue their work with, and thus see a positive – that poems can be accessible on the surface, yet contain a wealth of additional meaning for those readers that seek it.

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What differentiates poetry and prose?

Prose is the most straightforward way of writing something. The term prose stems from the latin prosa oratorio, which means direct speech. It is speech without particular thought given to its structure. In other words, it is how you would naturally say something, or how you would naturally think to write it down. We can contrast this to the fact that poetry will use a particular rhythm or meter, with lines structured in particular ways. Of course, there will be a point where the lines between poetry and prose begin to blur. However, to see the difference at its clearest, consider a haiku – where we write a set number of syllables per line, and must include two particular types of words (a kireji and a kigo) – and compare it to an essay, where the writer simply needs to argue a point and will do so in as efficient and natural a way as possible.

Would you prefer to be a poem or a novel?

This is a great question as it allows you to reference some of your favourite works, and to try to bring the discussion towards works that perhaps blur the lines between the two. You might set out by defining both of the terms, and then discussing why you would choose to be one of the two. Consider the structured nature, particular uses, attention to detail in word choice and imagery of poetry, and compare it to the narrative ease and less constraining nature of a novel. Try to think of some novels that are written in verse; this is an interesting exercise in general and could help you shift your perceptions of poetry and traditional novels.

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