Thursday, February 23, 2006

On Tension

I use the word 'tension' a great deal when discussing poems. When I use the word in the context of poetry criticism, I mean it in a very specific technical way that is different than some of its other common connotations. Although I have been using this term in this way for about 10 years now, I had never really set forth a concrete denotation. I chose the word 'Tension' to replace the more commonly used 'conflict', not so much because I didn't think it was apt (although I didn't), but because to me the use of the word 'conflict' betrays the antagonistic imperialistic conquering impulses of Western culture. The word 'conflict is of course generally used when analyzing fiction or drama, poetry critics rarely use it, feeling that poetry works in different ways than those other genres. I felt that that analysis was in error and that the concept, no matter which word was used to describe it, was extremely useful in understanding how poems work. One of the things that I noticed was that all popular and great (two different things) fiction, drama and poems works by establishing and resolving 'tension' or 'conflict' if you will. This has NOTHING to do with the quality of the writing, a work can be poorly, mediocrely, or greatly written and have excellent tension/resolution, this is because T/R is structural and independent of the quality of the language and descriptions. In fact ALL bestsellers have excellent T/R, while only some are well written, the same is true of films/plays/popular poems. i also noticed that all of the great poems which have passed the test of time and are passed down through generations have excellent T/R, even though poetry critics almost never talk about or analyze this (and any meta-analysis is out of the question). Great works often fool us by appearing to ask one question and then at the end revealing that it was some other question all along that was central, this is often the case in poetry. So what do I mean when I say 'tension'? The easiest way of answering this is to note that a poem's central tension can be thought of as the central question that the poem asks and then addresses, notice I didn't say answers, because although all works attempt to answer the question (addressing it) they are not all successful and said success is NOT relevant to the resolution of the tension, a point which is all too often lost on even savvy readers and critics. Sometimes the questions are simply unanswerable, sometimes easily so. Much 'popular' writing poses such obvious questions that any good reader can see the answer coming as soon as the tension is established. The works with the best T/R usually surprise us in some way or offer an unexpected twist. Many great poems actually use a question as the rhetorical device that establishes the tension (I call these Interrogative poems), for example E.B. Browning's famous sonnet How Do I Love Thee? The poem then uses a list structure to provide answers to the question, e.g. "I love thee to the level of everday's most quiet need" the twist comes when at the end the speaker claims that no matter how much she loves him now, she will "love thee better after death". This provides and unusual and unexpected resolution to the initial question. Looking at a more contemporary poem Komunyakaa's My Father's Love Letters appears to have as its central tension the idea that the father beat his wife and now is sorry and wants her to return. So the central question appears to be "Will the father be redeemed by the letters in her eyes?" But of course the final lines ;

This man,
Who stole roses & hyacinth
For his yard, would stand there
With eyes closed & fists balled,
Laboring over a simple word, almost
Redeemed by what he tried to say.

reveal that it is redemption in the speaker's eyes that drives the poem. One of the reasons the poem is so great is that it doesn't take the easy way out, the happy ending. Instead he is "almost redeemed" a much more honest and more likely result in the real world.
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