Tension is a word my thesis advisor, Angie Estes, introduced me to the first semester I studied with her at Ashland University a few years ago. She would write things on my submissions like, “doing [this or that] might enable the poem to build tension.” In fact, we spent a lot of time that semester talking about tension in poetry. What it is, how it works, and why it is so important.
So, what is tension, why is it important, and how does one achieve tension in a poem? I found an interesting article, “Tension in Poetry”, by poet, John Orley Allan Tate [1899-1979] in which he suggests the word tension could be used to describe a way of looking at the poem as a whole to derive both its meaning and its effect.
“Many poems that we ordinarily think of as good poetry — and some, besides, that we neglect — have certain common features that will allow us to invent, for their sharper apprehension, the name of a single quality. I shall call that quality tension. In abstract language, a poetic work has distinct quality as the ultimate effect of the whole, and that whole is the “result” of a configuration of meaning which it is the duty of the critic to examine and evaluate.”
Tate, a leading member of the New Criticism school, specifically used the word tension as something he called a special metaphor that could be used by critics to evaluate poetry. He came up with it as a word “derived from lopping the prefixes off the logical terms extension and intension.” I think he is suggesting a poem can possess a single critical aesthetic attribute—tension—that creates a more pleasing and more important experience for the reader.
Tate specifically derided some metaphysical verse of the 19th Century—although you could choose plenty of 20th and 21st Century poetry as well—as failing because it “yields a cluster of images that may be unified only if we forget the firm denotation of the terms.” Later he writes
“that good poetry is a unity of all the meaning from the furthest extremes of intension and extension. Yet, our recognition of the action of this unified meaning is the gift of experience, of culture, or, if you will, our humanism. Our powers of discrimination are not deductive powers, though they may be aided by them; they wait rather upon the cultivation of our total human powers, and they represent a special application of those powers to a single medium of experience—poetry.”
Earlier in the article, Tate suggests that poetry that fails in the “cultivation of our total human powers,” embodies the fallacy of communication in that it “communicates the affective state, which (in terms of language) results from the irresponsible denotation of words.” Today when we think of tension, we are more apt to think of the tightness through the shoulders that results from being hunched over a computer keyboard all day or from bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway. It’s a word that has lots of meaning in our current culture.
According to Wikipedia, tension in physics is (the magnitude of) the pulling force (measured in newtons) exerted by a string, cable, chain, or similar solid object on another object. It doesn’t seem to me that this definition as a metaphor, is that much different than what Tate is getting at. Could tension in poetry be described as the overall force of the poem upon the reader that pushes against it? If you think of the poem as a string, cable, chain, or similar object upon which exertion is placed, the poem can be as tight as a violin string or as loose as a backyard trampoline, or, in some cases, even as a string just lying on the floor—which has no tension whatsoever.
You can almost feel the specific tension or lack of tension if you metaphorically press up against poems. The poem’s tension is the sum of all the poetic elements at play in the work: line breaks that create disjunction, or that reel it in, imagery, rhythm, subject matter, surprise, language—both the connotative and denotative meaning of the words along with their sound and visual effect—, restraint (or the intentional lack of it), rhyme, assonance, and others.
I think what Tate and his friends disliked was poetry that failed to achieve the kind of power–a stand-alone power–that a poem with the right amount of tension can create. He called this a fallacy in communication. I believe he specifically disliked things like gross generalizations, sloppy or inaccurate metaphors, lack of concrete—and accurate—imagery, weak, trite, or flowery language, and so on. As a critic he valued poetry that could stand on its own as art, without the need for any explanation or contextual frame of reference.
It is difficult to tell someone how to achieve an appropriate amount of tension in their work, although my mentor tried. Like Tate says, “Our powers of discrimination are not deductive powers, though they may be aided by them; they wait rather upon the cultivation of our total human powers…” I believe some poets—even very young poets (is this talent, perhaps?)—just seem to understand intuitively how tension can work in a poem, and, use it to extraordinary effect. Others, like me are lucky to have had someone to remind them of the value of looking at it specifically in their work, and of experimenting (adding an additional stanza, perhaps?) with how to create more tension and therefore, to create a more engaging experience for the reader.
To look at tension more specifically, I thought it might be fun to analyze the amount of tension and the tools used to create it in a segment of a poem by Angie Estes, the mentor who worked so hard to drive this point home to me. I like Angie’s work for it astounding language and startling reflections on love, life, music, art, and language. Her most recent book, Tryst, was runner up in 2010 for the Pulitzer Prize. This is a segment from a poem called “Cadenza” from her second book, Chez Nous.
“… What is the difference
between ripeness and letting time
have its way? I would as lief
come now as later, as cadence
comes from cadenza, from Italian
cadre, to fall. Please
help me I’m falling
in love with you, the song
goes, a progression of chords moving
to a close like the fall
of Rome or love–. . .” (14-24)
To begin, Estes uses a good blend of both annotated and parsed lines, to use James Longenbach’s terms from his book, The Art of the Poetic Line, i.e. they are not annotated (or cutting across the syntax) so much that they could be thought of as “fussy” or “a way of jazzing up uninteresting syntax.” Nor are the lines parsed, i.e. broken in more natural language places, so as to feel like the line is “merely repeating what the syntax is already doing on its own.” (57)
Line breaks create tension, or control tension, by causing the reader to take pause, and if only for a second and if only on a subconscious level, to reflect on the meaning of the line and the words in the line. For instance, If you took the first sentence as an unbroken line, “… What is the difference between ripeness and letting time have its way?”, it is less strenuous to apprehend, than breaking it after the words difference and time as Estes has done. The breaks are pushing against the reader in a subtle, but significant way. Breaking the lines causes the reader to ask, what “difference”?, or “letting time” do what?”
Line breaks are not the only element creating tension in Estes’ poem. She frequently incorporates foreign words, most often French, in her poems. In this case she uses Italian, “from Italian/cadre, to fall.” Not knowing the exact translation of the word or short phrase in her poems never feels like a problem to me because it is almost always clear what the word means in the context of the poem; or, she often reveals it with playful exploration of the word across languages. Using foreign words effectively in this way, causes the reader to take pause. I find the effect intriguing. It demands a heightened awareness that is both exciting and intellectually stimulating.
Further, there is a progression in the exploration of the word cadenza even in this short passage that pulls the reader along. Cadenza is a musical term and Estes plays off of it, both denotatively, i.e. as an actual artistic interlude as she plays with the word and its origin as a kind of credenza in poetry, in and of itself, and on a connotative level, as she plays with a progression of the words around cadenza, like a “chord” progression which she references in the third line from the bottom.
However, the most surprising element in the poem—another way Estes creates tension—is the juxtaposition of a reference to the popular 1960s love long written by Don Robertson and Hank Lockin, I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You. She butts a term from classical music, cadenza, up against the reference to a popular love song; and further, she plays off the word “fall” in combining the broadly disparate, and therefore, tension producing, images of “the fall of Rome” with falling in “love.”
There are more subtle tension-creating elements in this poem: the play on the “C” words, the “morphing” of the words to their origins or to derivatives. The shorter line lengths set the speed and resist a slow, drawn out reading. There is a tie back to the musical foundation of the piece in that even its rhythm connects musically. There is also a subtle looping back to the fact that a chord progression almost always resolves at the end of a pop song, just as cadenza often occurs near the end of the movement as described by The Harvard Dictionary of Music.
“Although a cadenza may occur elsewhere, it most typically ornaments a prominent tonic cadence, such as one before a final *ritornello or *coda.” . . . “over the penultimate or antepenultimate note or harmony of a prominent cadence.” (132)
I know I have risked ‘over-analysis’ here, but I think this passage beautifully illustrates how the right amount of tension works in a poem using a variety of elements. Line breaks, restrained and extremely intentional language, surprising and juxtaposing imagery, sound, and rhythm create for me, as a reader, ‘good’ tension, the kind of tension I want in the poetry I read, and the kind of tension I strive for in my own work.
Estes, Angie. Chez nous. Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 2005. Print.
Longenbach, James. The art of the poetic line. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf, 2008. Print.
Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard dictionary of music. 4th ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.
Tate, James Orley Allen, Tension in Poetry, http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCoQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fecmd.nju.edu.cn%2FUploadFile%2F17%2F8083%2Ftension.doc&ei=qOdwT_XsGMTa0QGA1tXvBg&usg=AFQjCNF3mSJLNEHsgrXPRlotSugis29Iag . Online.
© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis
I really enjoyed your analysis–the general exploration of tension in poetry, and the specific explication of the poem excerpt. Thank you!
Kathleen, You are welcome! Thank you for your comment. There is so much more in that short segment that I didn’t even cover. Estes’ work is astounding.
thank you. i really enjoyed it.
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Very interesting. I think all good writers appreciate the need for tension without necessarily knowing what thay are doing, because it becomes subconscious after a time. That is the right time to look again at what “tension” means.
As a physicist I should mention tension is usually a pulling force – compression being more closely aligned to pushing. Perhaps poetry should be tugging on us to move into unexplored territory instead of pushing us into it. Or is that stretching the analogy beyond its elastic limit?
Hi martininwhangarei! Thanks for commenting. I am not a physicist and unfortunately had to rely on Wikipedia for the definition of tension, though this still seems a good word—at least in the way we have come use tension in everyday parlance—to use in reference to what I admire in well-written poetry. I like to think of poetry that contains a good amount of tension, as poetry that pushes back on the reader a bit vs. poetry that pushes us into it or does a pulling kind of thing. I think of it as causing me to take pause and to engage with it on an intellectual level and not just on an emotional level, as I read it. At least that is what I want to experience in poetry.
Interesting article. I linked it over at clevelandpoetics; we’ll see if anybody takes up my challenge to discuss it!
Lovely, thank you
I’m glad you enjoyed it, Allison!
I should’ve researched the term years ago! Thanks for the explanation. The example of metaphysical poems lacking tension and Estes’ poem as having it are great, but I’d really love a couple of specific examples of poems that lack tension.
Can you compare tension in poetry to conflict in literature? Literatire has a conflict that is resolved within the text, while poetry forces the reader to do the resolving through his or her life experience, aided by deduction.