July 1, 2020

Tension and Release in a Poem

Sara Robinson

We are living in a dynamic literary age where diversity is a significant driver in poetry writing and publishing. We have poets representing minorities (i.e. ethnic, LGBTQ, religious, immigrants, and others). These poets are winning prizes, gathering acclaim, and getting published by well-known presses. Their “voices” are getting wide attention, gathering crowds, and likely influencing the public discourse, not just on literature but society as a whole.

Why is that? And what does it mean for all of us? We need to think of poetry, more than ever, as “all-inclusive.” These practicing poets of today are clearly our future. What can we learn from their voices? For one thing, besides being fearless and experimental in their writing, they practice with great craft the use of “tension and release.” So, let us look at what this means and how best to employ it.

Using the first person POV is a revival of what once was considered obsolete. “I feel my pain, and I want you to feel it, too,” is a graphic introduction. The poet and novelist, Sherman Alexi, in his poem, “ How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” for the Poetry Foundation starts out by saying, “All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms./ Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food….”

Today the “I” is expanded further into the hot topics of race, sexuality, gender, and politics. These topics are the latest to bring us into inclusiveness of today’s social science. How then do we write powerful tension-invoking poetry that satisfies with a follow-up release? Does it need to be something we personally have experienced? We could start by listening and immersing ourselves into unfamiliar territories, maybe an aisle in Walmart, or outside a courthouse sitting on a bench listening as people leave, or go in.

How does release work? Using our language toolbox, we give the reader possible resolutions, connections, empathy, and tenderness. Here is an example:

How best to express the tragedy of a repressed group whose population has been reduced to single digit numbers than to describe weapons of destruction shooting flames and bullets outside a crumbling shaking building while inside same a middle-aged woman gently hums as she washes the hair of her blind and deaf ninety-year old mother.

Tension and release. Now you try it.

I began my creative writing career after retiring from industry. I would love to talk to readers about my writing and the memoir, as well as my short stories and poetry. My latest poetry book, Sometimes the Little Town, is based on the photography of Hobby Robinson. I have 3 other published poetry books and a memoir. I live in central Virginia and enjoy all the wonders that abound in the local area. Much of my writing focuses on these experiences as well as reflecting on how I am evolving as a poet and writer. In Fall 2014, one of my poems about my Jewish heritage appeared in Poetica Magazine. Looking for places to buy my books? Check out:, Barnes & Noble, Solace 


  1. Thank you Sara for you post about the tension in poetry. I love reading poetry, and have tried my hand at writing some, would not let anyone read it, however. lol. Thank you for all you do to have others understand how to write poetry.

  2. Sara, this is the first time I've found this topic discussed outside a university-level writing class. You've explained it so clearly and succinctly! Thank you for this.