Unlikely Sources of Tension

by Eric Steineger

I often start poetry classes with the same question: What is poetry, and what makes a poem a poem? I wait for a response. This is about the time students roll their eyes, wondering if they signed up for a course on philosophy. With discussion, we get to the word compression. Poetry is a compressed medium, and through this compression, similar to the way precious stones are formed by immense heat, words become sharper, resonant, or more beautiful.

I believe poems must have an element of tension to qualify them as poems, and this tension manifests itself in different ways. Some might think of the “car crash moment,” wherein a poem presents drama to achieve tension. Others might think of high stakes or an unseen force attempting to thwart the speaker.

While these strategies work in the hands of a capable poet, there are other ways of generating tension in a poem.

In contemporary poetry, tension comes from unlikely angles; as a result, many tones can reside within a single poem, similar to the way a musical composition can haunt, uplift, and provoke a listener. So, a poem may be serious while including a modicum of humor. Vievee Francis shows such a range in her 2016 collection Forest Primeval. Her poem “Cake Baby” begins with the following lines:

Since finding the baby in the slice
of King Cake nothing has been the same.
It’s not just about me anymore. There are—
new considerations. I can’t just run
around the country flying toward any dream
that takes momentary hold.

A memorable opening. We might relax for a moment, thinking this poem will be lighthearted, but then we get to “The child I would have wanted.” And later: “And I who have never been a mother / may now proclaim myself queen with a mouthful of cake / and a baby by the side of my plate, red mouthed / and glowing as if in a fairy tale.”

Not only has Francis used the found baby as a metaphor for a real baby, but she has done this out of order. Instead of using a classic context/crisis/resolution model, much in the way a sonnet sets the scene in the octave, turns, then concludes with the sestet, Francis starts with the discovery and works backwards, ruminating on how life is different now and what the future will hold with a dependent in tow. Her method of storytelling and her creativity produce tension here.

Mark Strand’s Blizzard of One also comes at tension differently. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Strand uses “I” without implicating himself in the narrative. In poems like “I Will Love the Twenty-first Century,” we’re not sure if Strand is basing these narratives on personal experience or if the “I” is indeterminate. The poem begins with a scene from a dinner party:

“Dinner was getting cold. The guests, hoping for quick, / Impersonal, random encounters of the usual sort, /were sprawled / In the bedrooms… Deer were moving down the road like refugees; and in the / driveway, cats / Were warming themselves on the hood of a car.”

Already, the inactivity in this poem foreshadows something grander. With the arrival of a man in the poem, who converses with, again, an indeterminate “I,” the expectation of a turn increases.

“Then a man / turned / And said to me: ‘Although I love the past, the dark of it, / The weight of it teaching us nothing, the loss of it, the all / Of it asking for nothing, I will love the twenty-first century more…”

The last line concludes with the resolution we’ve been waiting for:

“Oh,” I said, putting my hat on, “Oh.”

Wait a minute. All of this buildup for “Oh”? What could be more unexpected than resisting the payoff? If we consider the speaker’s indifference to the projected scarcity of the twenty-first century, the “weight” and the “dark” of the century ending, this poem takes on a resonance.

Now, going against type is nothing new for poets or actors. It’s exciting. By committing to a “softer” choice at a crucial moment in the poem, Strand increases tension. Going against type can mean unconventional choices like the aforementioned “Oh”; it might also mean reinterpreting a traditional form.

Richard Garcia’s most recent book, Porridge, is a collection of prose poems that uses the fable form and turns it on its head. A fable imparts a moral, often using animals or other creatures to tell stories. Here, Garcia introduces a cast of characters — sometimes him, sometimes not — to investigate time and its talent for eroding memories while pushing one into a new space. From “Regret”:

God was depressed. Satan was depressed. They each
had their regrets. These people they had made were
disappointing. They all wanted to be animals—they ate,
grew, nested, copulated, reproduced—animals! So God
and Satan summoned Lilith, Eve’s older sister.

In Porridge, God and Satan are buddies, sharing the responsibility of curating the world while staving off boredom. This is far from Aesop’s Fables. “Regret” is memorable to its last line: “Now we’re getting / somewhere, said God. Satan nodded, Yeah, baby.”

Even though these characters share pages with Goldilocks, The Seven Dwarfs, Perry Como, the young Garcia, and more, the inclusion of God and Satan is not simply performative, but relates to the author’s investigation of time; Garcia is looking to ancient figures and traditions to set right the notion of eternity. How does one salvage the past?

If there is one thing each of these poems has in common, it’s the breaking of rules and the embrace of the nontraditional to achieve tension. Instead of conjuring tension from a jarring exchange between two fighters in a boxing match, we might look to the trainer, the crowd, even the angle of the lights overhead.

Eric Steineger teaches English at Mars Hill University. He is Senior Poetry Editor of The Citron Review, while his work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, Palaver, Tinderbox, and Asheville Poetry Review. Occasionally, he teaches in UNC-Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program and organizes poetry events for Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.