One reads poetry -- I should say, text formatted as poetry --
differently than one would read prose (text-formatted-as-prose).
There is a certain weightiness applied to a specific word, a certain
flow to specific passages, a certain implied tension and unease
attached to specific ideas. These are all implied and effected by the conventions
of poetry by which the reader knows how they are expected to read: that
the verses should be read metrically if possible, that the rules of
syntax should be relaxed, that a word in its own line should be
understood to be emphasized. These are the syntactic
conventions, so to speak. In addition to these conventions about how to read out, there are also conventions about how to interpret:
the semantic conventions of poetry. These are much more important.
The central one is that the text should be interpreted as a verbal
picture. All words are to be taken figuratively unless otherwise
indicated. This is as opposed to prose, where one is expected to
interpret all words literally unless otherwise indicated. (These are
very broad genralizations, I can think of countless counter examples to
the broad rules I am laying out here as I speak).
therefore, it is not surprising that a person writing a piece of prose
-- something that would not "make you/Stop/Think/And hear it again" --
would want to format his text as poetry in order to effect a certain
manner of reading in the reader that would afford these weightinesses,
flows, and tensions. A manner of reading the reader reserves to
text-formatted-as-poetry. True, an adept writer will be able to find a
way to bring about these effects without resorting to "disguising" his
prose as poetry, but that doesn't mean it's not a fair artistic
So is it really that horrible to have a piece of prose formatted as poetry (I think verse, not poetry
is the better term to use for the formatting)? I know a lot of great
poetic writing written in the format of prose, as well as I know a lot
of great prosaic (I don't mean uninspiring) writing formatted
as verse (the above-mentioned counter examples). So to say "this thing
you try to pass as poetry is not poetic
enough to be poetry. You should have formatted it as prose" is not a
valid criticism if the text actually benefits from being read according
to the conventions reserved to text-formatted-as-poetry.
This piece of meta-criticism has been brought to you by the field of reader response theory and the letter kappa.
Edit: Of course, I do not mean here to give a fig leaf to the lazy or presumptuous writer who formats his writing as verse simply so he can say "Ooooh, look at me, I write pooooetry!" This write-up should not be constured to be condoning such behavior. But that's straying into authorial intent criticism, whereas I was trying here to give a reader response perspective. Thanks to Oolong for their rebuttal.
Another edit: You know what would really be great? If the syntactic conventions could be decoupled from the semantic conventions. I've read a couple of poems that gain nothing, sound-wise, from being read as verse, but would be taken the wrong way if presented in prose because the semantic convention of poetry will not be naturally used by the reader. A foreword note with reading instructions is completely unacceptable, of course. I can't think of a solution. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has an idea.