Comparing poems and essays might seem like comparing apples and oranges. After all, poetry is thought to be sublime and often difficult to understand, whereas essays are intentionally structured to be clear. However, both poems and essays fundamentally aim for the same end -- to effectively convey an idea, argument or message. Certain common elements of structure can help the reader compare the two forms of writing.
Forms of Poetry
Different forms of poetry can vary so widely that they are hardly recognizable as members of the same category of literature. Poetry can be as old as the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, or as recent as the work of the Beat Poets in the 1950s, who pinpointed problems with contemporary American culture in a way that still feels current today. Poetry can be categorized as either formally structured, which means it follows a pre-arranged rhyme and meter, or free verse, which means there is no pre-set structure and the author arranges the words according to his or her own aesthetics. Free verse poetry is often more experimental and sometimes even deliberately obscure, as many authors seek to reproduce the feelings of confusion evoked by living in modern society.
Forms of Essay
Essays can also be categorized as either expository, descriptive, narrative or argumentative. Most academic essays are argumentative essays, meaning they require the writer to assemble and present evidence in order to prove a point. Above all, in an argumentative essay, the writer's thesis statement or central point must be clearly stated. Essays might seem like straightforward means of delivering information; however, some modern writers, like Jacques Derrida, produced essays that are deliberately complex and difficult to interpret. Derrida, a French post-structuralist philosopher, argues that even though language and writing might seem straightforward, they actually carry a dense baggage of cultural assumptions and prejudices that color our thinking.
Comparing Structures and Patterns
Poems and essays could be compared, firstly, simply by comparing their structure or organization. Many high school and college students are taught a standard form of essay with one opening paragraph, three body paragraphs and a concluding paragraph. There are other forms of essay, but most feature the opening and concluding paragraphs. In a similar way, some forms of poetry are highly structured, such as the haiku, which has three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively. The sonnet is an extremely common form of poetry consisting of 14 lines of iambic pentameter, used by William Shakespeare and Francis Petrarch, among other famous poets.
Comparing Styles and Emotions
Descriptive essays are more strongly based in an appeal to the emotions and senses than other forms of essay. In a descriptive essay, the writer often seeks to convey a vivid, individualized experience using creativity and artistic language. In the same way, poetry often seeks to reproduce a vivid experience, including its sensory and emotional impact. The 19th-century Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, wrote colorful poems like "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In these poems, Coleridge tried to give the reader the exhilarating and terrifying feeling of being in a far-off, exotic land, even if they were reading the poems from the safety of a parlor in England.