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This article is taken from PN Review 189, Volume 36 Number 1, September - October 2009.

Why is Verse Poetry? Nigel Fabb

‘Verse’ is not the same as ‘poetry’. We say that a text is ‘verse’ when it is divided into lines. But in contrast, calling a text ‘poetry’ is a way of valuing it, saying that it offers something experientially special. Prose poems have these poetic qualities but are not divided into lines: they are poetry but not verse. On the other hand, a shopping list is divided into lines like verse, but it lacks the ‘poetic’ qualities of formal richness, complex and difficult meaning, and creativity and inspiration. In this article I ask why there is nevertheless a strong association between being verse and being poetry: why should division into lines correlate with the various valued characteristics which we associate with poetry?1

Verse is a kind of text which is divided into lines; sometimes verse is metrical and sometimes it is not. The units of language include sounds, syllables, morphemes, words, phrases, sentences, and so on, but not lines.2 Lines can coincide with units of language: a word is rarely split across a line boundary, phrases are usually split across line boundaries in specific ways, or a line may correspond to a sentence. But lines are not themselves units of language and instead are a mode of organisation added to language. Linguistic theory explains how units of language are formed, but cannot explain how lines are formed. Thus the question of where lines come from - how texts are divided into lines - is a problem. It ...

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