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Can poems and poetry be used interchangeably, or is that incorrect usage? In normal conversation, they are used as synonyms often.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

To me poetry is a literary art. A poem is a piece of poetry.

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Poetry can also be a piece of a poem. –  jwpat7 Oct 23 '11 at 16:23
@ jwpat7: Would you have an example of poetry used as a countable noun then? I have always seen poetry used as uncountable and thought a sentence like I'm reading a poetry by Keats? would not be acceptable. –  Laure Oct 25 '11 at 6:28
Re your question, I don't have an example. Re your example, I agree that "a poetry" is a mistake. What I meant by my remark is that "poetry" can be correctly used to refer to part of a poem; for example, a critic could properly say "There are five lines of poetry in this lengthy poem," or "There is no poetry to be found in this poem". –  jwpat7 Oct 25 '11 at 7:21

It depends somewhat on the context; poetry can mean one or more poems, but in more figurative usages such as poetry in motion, meaning something outstanding or beautiful about a bird in flight, or a motorcycle race (as your tastes dictate), one wouldn't replace that with poems in motion, which would sound ridiculous.

These links to poetry and poem might help.

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Poetry refers to the art form itself. Poems means multiple instances of that art form.

Their use can overlap, but there are some instances when only one is appropriate.

Poetry is notoriously difficult.

This means that the art form is difficult to master, i.e., that it is hard to write poetry.

These poems are notoriously difficult.

This means that the poems under discussion are hard to understand.

Here, though, they are essentially interchangeable:

Whitman's poetry focuses on nature.


Whitman's poems focus on nature.

My advice would be to use the word poetry when speaking about the art itself, and poems when you have a specific set of poems in mind. This will avoid any confusion.

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Good distinction/advice, but I can imagine a writer (of both prose and poetry) saying I find poems/poetry more demanding, where both words would mean exactly the same, as in your Whitman examples. In the other examples, the question of whether it's the author or the reader who has difficulty isn't really relevant to the poetry/poems word-choice. Plus the first one could just as well have been This poetry is notoriously difficult. –  FumbleFingers Oct 23 '11 at 16:30
Yes, good point(s). Though if someone said to me "This poetry is notoriously difficult", I might give them a weird look. It would sound to me like "this whole poetry thing is...", rather than "these poems are...". –  onomatomaniak Oct 23 '11 at 16:36
Thank you! This makes more sense, now. I see them used interchangeably in informal writing and speech, but whether they ought to be interchangeable is where the problem lies. They should be distinct, but they aren't always used properly. –  Melanchthon Oct 23 '11 at 17:39

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