One-Minute Book Reviews

July 10, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Fiction and Poetry? Quote of the Day

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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Many people have tried to define how a novel or short story differs from a poem. Here’s an answer from May Sarton, who wrote fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She was commenting on Theodore Roethke’s line, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

“In the novel or short story you get the journey. In a poem you get the arrival.”

May Sarton in an interview with Karen Saum that appears in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
You can argue with Sarton’s comment (as she implicitly acknowledges when she goes on to say in the interview that, with free verse, you can “get the journey”). But I like her definition partly because it gets away from the issue of length. This is important because many contemporary short stories are so short that they have fewer words than some epic or narrative poems.

How would you define the difference between fiction and poetry?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. The smaller the difference, the better they both become.

    Comment by heehler — July 10, 2007 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  2. You have a gift for reducing things to their essence. Maybe you should write a book of epigrams or aphorisms? Or a blog devoted to them?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 10, 2007 @ 10:28 am | Reply

  3. Thanks for the compliment. As it happens, the book I’m shopping around has a few of them sprinkled throughout.

    But getting back to your original point, I don’t think it’s coincidental that what is widely considered as one of the greatest poems ever written, The Iliad, reads like a novel, and that the greatest novels are supremely poetic.

    Comment by heehler — July 10, 2007 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  4. And some novelists, like Vikram Seth (“The Golden Gate”), have returned to the form of the novel-in-verse …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 11, 2007 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  5. I think it’s a shame that not enough authors have followed suit. The world of poetry would be much expanded by a return to traditional storytelling.

    Comment by schildan — July 11, 2007 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  6. Schildan: I’d love to see more of that, too. And it could happen. We’ve seen something of a resurgence in formal poetry in recent years. So why not narrative poetry, too? Thanks for your comment. Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 11, 2007 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  7. With apologies for getting into the more mudane matters of form and structure, fiction is usually expected to have a plot. Poetry certainly can, but it usually doesn’t. As Sarton said, it is the arrival. Rather, I think, like a novel that starts with the last paragraph.


    Comment by knightofswords — July 13, 2007 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  8. Malcolm: No need ever to apologize for bringing up form and structure. They get way less attention than they deserve from many authors and some critics. But you’re right that most poems today don’t have a “plot” in the usual sense. They tend to meet the definition of “lyrical” poetry (typically about the emotions) rather than “narrative” poetry (which tells a story).

    Some of the better poets working today can tell can tell a great story, in, say, a sonnet. Claudia Emerson, who won the 2006 Pulizter for poetry for “Late Wife,” is an example. I hope we’ll see more of them.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — July 14, 2007 @ 10:32 am | Reply

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