Literature's Three main divisions

When most people speak of literature they may be talking about short stories, novels, poems, verse, odes, plays, tragedies, even limericks.  This wide variety of terms describing types of literature, at first, appears overwhelming.  However figuring all of this out is simplified when you take into account that the menagerie of types begins with three major paradigms:  prose, poetry, and drama.


Prose is derived from a Latin root word, prosa, that means "straightforward" (other scholars argue that the root for "prose" is proversa oratio, which means " straightforward discourse."  Prose is generally defined as direct, common language presented in a straightforward manner.  A victim of identity by negation, prose is frequently defined as "that which is not poetry."  Prose demonstrates  purposeful grammatic design in that it is constructed strategically by the author to create specific meaning.  Prose also contains plot and the attendant narrative structures of plot.

In most cultures, prose narrative tends to appear after a culture has developed verse.   Prose genres are many and varied, ranging from science fiction to romance.  The major generic divisions of prose are:


Poetry, from the Greek poetes which means "doer" or "creator," is a catch-all term that is applied to any form of rhythmical or   metrical composition.    While poetry is considered to be a subset of verse (and also considered to be superior to verse) both are rhythmical/metrical.  What distinguishes poetry from verse is its "imaginative quality, intricate structure, serious or lofty subject matter, or noble purpose."   Most culture's first serious literary works are poetry (In Western tradition, we need look only as far as Homer and Hesiod).   The purposes of poetry are said to include:

  1. A didactic purpose, meaning that it aims to instruct the reader.
  2. Unique insight that is not available in other genres.
  3. To provide pleasure to the reader.
  4. To uplift the reader to some higher insight or meaning.


Drama, is simply a work that is written to be performed on stage by actors.  From the Greek dran, meaning "to do," drama is thought to have developed from ancient religious ceremonies.  For instance, Greek comedy is traced to ancient fertility rites.  Tragedy (which comes from the Greek word for "goat song") can be traced back to sacrificial rituals. 

The term play has come to mean drama written exclusively for performance, while the "loftier" term drama, is commonly reserved for works that are considered to be more serious works.