A little while ago I was copyediting a rhetoric textbook that used both poetry and prose as examples. I was thrilled, it’s not often students are asked to look at the rhetorical strategies of poetry alongside essays and works of fiction. Until I came to one chapter that had printed under the heading “Poem” the lyrics for a song by The Beatles. I noted in the text that, while many song lyrics are incredibly poetic, the mere fact of having line breaks in their written form does not make them poetry. Moreover, if one can study narrative fictional films without calling it a novel, why can’t one read song lyrics without calling them poetry. I didn’t even broach the subject of the negating effect of over-using the label poetry. For one, it compromises poetry as an art-form in and of itself. Many things are analogized to poetry (“That sunset was [like] poetry.”) or called poetic, and that’s fine. That reinforces the sense of singular beauty of the genre. But to call something poetry that is distinctly something else… For two, it also minimizes the value of the other art-form.
Jenny Henrix writing for The New Yorker online yesterday put it well: