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Defining and Distinguishing Poetry, Prose, and Drama

In the early days of UIL competition, it was fairly easy to categorize literature into one of the three main genres. Basically, all you had to do was look at the text on the page. Prose was primarily written in paragraph form, poetry was structured in stanzas, and drama included character names before each line of dialogue. However, in today's post-modern literary world, writers often borrow qualities from many different forms to create their own unique style of literature. Furthermore, recent trends place a new emphasis on the spoken word and the performance of literature. Solo performers combine vaudeville, theatre, music, standup comedy, poetry, the visual arts and dance to showcase their talents and inspire their audiences.

These literary and theatrical developments have made it increasingly difficult to determine the appropriateness of some material for use in the UIL prose and poetry contests. The Constitution and Contest Rules states that "selections from plays or screenplays are not to be used in either category." Unfortunately, many recently published plays look like prose or poetry on the page. Research indicates the use of the Dewey Decimal system is the most effective and credible way to establish the genre of a particular piece of literature.

The Dewey Decimal Classification is the oldest and most widely used classification system in the world. It is used by a majority of libraries, including nearly all public and school libraries in the United States. Information regarding Dewey Decimal categories and subdivisions is available on the University of Illinois website at

The first three digits of a Dewey Classification number determine a book's class, division, and section for library cataloguing purposes. For example, numbers beginning with 811 identify American poetry, 812 American drama, and 813 American fiction.

Bibliographic information on specific works, including classification according to the Dewey Decimal System, is available at the Library of Congress Online Catalogue at To access this site follow these steps:

  1. Go to the Library of Congress site and click on "Library Catalogs".
  2. Click on "Basic Search".
  3. Search by title, author, etc.
  4. Enter the information in the search box , then click "begin search".
  5. The search results will be displayed. You may be shown several different works with the same title. Make sure you click on the title that corresponds to the material and author you are investigating. There are often sound recordings, videos, and other misleading items in the search results.
  6. If the correct title and author appear at the top of the page, click on Full Record.
  7. Scroll down to the Dewey Classification Number. The subject record may also denote the genre.

As contemporary writers begin to blur the distinctions between genres, verifying a selection's viability as a UIL contest piece has proven very difficult. Arguments arise when it comes to drawing lines between performance art and poetry or monologues and prose. Fortunately, the Dewey Decimal numbers provide a clear and unbiased decision about this matter. The following selections, which have been questioned in the past, are categorized as drama by the Dewey Classification System, and are inapproriate for use as UIL prose or poetry contests:

  • Blown Sideways Through Life by Claudia Shear
  • Freak by John Leguizamo
  • Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop and Some People by Danny Hoch
  • No Cure for Cancer by Denis Leary
  • Pretty Fire by Charlayne Woodard
  • The Redthroats and Smooch Music by David Cale
  • Savage/Love by Sam Shepard
  • Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian
  • Shimmer and Other Texts by John O'Keefe
  • Swimming to Cambodia by Spalding Gray
  • Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

You may occasionally find a book or anthology that the Dewey System labels as "miscellaneous writings." These books are often collected works of individual authors that are not limited to or chiefly identified with one specific form. You may also encounter a book, published by a small press, which has not been assigned a Dewey Decimal number. In cases such as these, it is necessary to ask the following questions to identify the material's classification.

  1. Does any part of the book mention its performance by the author?

    Many writers and poets travel the country reading their works at bookstores and university campuses. This certainly does not transform their literature into theatre. Poets such as Patricia Smith, Bob Holman, and Hal Sirowitz also perform their writings in Poetry Slam contests. These events require the contestants to interpret their poetry without the aid of costumes, props or sets. Poetry Slams are not Theatre, but contests that celebrate the oral tradition of poetry.

    However, some texts are prefaced with a notation about their original performance as a work of Theatre. For example, the performance piece "Shimmer" follows a paragraph that states

    "...Shimmer was first performed by the author on January 5, 1988... Among other awards he has won for Shimmer are the 1988 Drama Critics Circle Award for Solo Performance in San Francisco and a 1989 New York Dance and Performance Choreographer/Creator Award."

    Even though the text is written in a prosaic, paragraph form, the introduction clearly establishes the work as a piece of Performance Literature.
  2. Does the piece contain stage directions?

    Stage directions are instructions to the actor which are usually written in italics. They also help the reader of drama understand the text and story, serving a similar function as narration in a work of prose. The presence of stage directions can help you establish a piece as a work of drama. Sections of Whoopi Goldberg's The Spook Show are written in paragraph form, but contain stage directions such as (Enters with a white shirt draped over her head) and (Sniffs and wipes nose with hand; looks at her hand.)
  3. Are there any published articles, reviews, or interviews which clarify the genre of this particular work?

    Newspapers and Magazines often review or analyze works of literature. Articles found in these periodicals can give you insight into a particular book's content and form.
  4. Do I have the correct original source?

    Many works of literature are published in more than one form. For example, John Irving's The Cider House Rules is available as a novel, a play, and a screenplay. A cutting from the novel would be an acceptable prose selection. The other two literary versions of the story could not be used in UIL oral interpretation competition.

It is important for you as a performer to thoroughly analyze the piece you will be using for competition. Most of the time it is easy to determine whether a book contains prose, poetry or drama. However, when the lines of literary genre are blurry, use the steps above to verify your material's credibility as a UIL prose or poetry selection. Make copies of your findings to bring to competition. If your material is called into question, you will need printed evidence to use in its defense.