Friday, September 28, 2007

A Redundant Riff on Tension in Poetry

Originally posted at The Gazebo, an online poetry workshop.

1) The tension between sentence and line is, for me, what makes poetry poetic. The play between these two basic units of meaning not only tugs between one meaning and another, but also can stretch out sound, rhythm and meter. Enjambment, obviously, is a key way to make this tension work. In A Poet’�s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie talks about it this way: �”When the line ends before the sentence does, we can say that the threshold of the line is in tension with that of the sentence. In cases of such tension, the line can provide a partial or temporary meaning or suggestion that is at odds with the meaning of the completed sentence. I call these provisional meanings before moving off the line half-meanings. The half meanings of the lines that run on would be in tension with the whole meaning that emerges when the sentence has come to its end”� (49).

One of the best examples of this that I know is in Scott Cairns'� poem �The Spiteful Jesus.� Cairns writes about the particularly American version of a savior who was:

borne to us in the little boat
that first cracked rock at Plymouth
petty, plainly man-inflected
demi-god established as a club
with which our paling
generations might be beaten
to a bland consistency.

The play on the half-meaning of the word �club� is absolutely dependent on the sentence-line tension, as a reader’�s temporal experience of the poem changes, completely, how you read the word after finishing the whole sentence.

2) The second kind of tension I think about is also in the above section by Cairns, and that�s the pull between several connotations or allusions attached to a single term or image. "�Borne to us"� does this, as does "�club"� and "�paling."� It'�s more than just punning, I think. It�’s the simultaneous opening up and shutting down of possible meanings that creates a tension for the reader, a mostly good tension, though too much of it can wear me down when I read.

3) The last kind of tension, and one I�’m less good at using in my own writing, is to play with and against a reader�'s metrical expectations. Obviously a caesura does this. So can a slight change in the accentual quality of a particular metrical pattern. Robert Frost’�s �Home Burial� uses these kinds of tensions to heighten the narrative tension that already exists between the spouses. The poem has what one critic calls a �subverbal menace which gets it about right in my book. To accomplish that, Frost fiddles with the elements of blank verse, inserting daunting pauses that emphasize the gap between the man and woman and also using colloquial speech in ways that break up the natural iambic pentameter. This little bit comes from the beginning of the poem:

She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: 'What is it you see
From up there always -- for I want to know.'
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: 'What is it you see?'

In the second, third and last lines here, the caesuras really stop the movement of the line and sharpen the narrative tension. And the same can be said for his repeated phrase, which doesn�’t precisely scan.

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