Imagine a line of poetry. Now imagine two lines. Of course, these two lines could be seen as two different thoughts or ideas, but they could also be seen as connected, with the same thought or syntactic idea being carried from one line on to the next. Did you know that the technical name for this feature is enjambment? What else does an enjambment signify? Let's find out!
Enjambment is a poetic technique that describes a thought that spans over more than one poetic line without a punctuated break.
Lines without enjambment are end-stopped because the idea or thought finishes at the end of the line. When a line is not end-stopped, it is likely to be an example of enjambment.
'Spring of The Body' (2020) by Savannah Brown from her collection Sweet Dark
In the individual series of our lives;
the wind! we keep acknowledging amongst ourselves
for no apparent reason. maybe to prove we all
have something in common. This morning
Here, we can see the enjambment from the second to the third line, and the third to the fourth line.
'The wind! we keep acknowledging amongst ourselves / for no apparent reason' is a complete sentence that spans over two lines of poetry, this is known as enjambement.
'Maybe to prove we all / have something in common' is also a complete sentence stretched over two lines, therefore it is also an example of enjambment.
Task: What else can you notice about Brown's sentence structure that is unconventional?
If we look closely, we can see Brown also employs caesura by using full stops in the middle of lines to create pauses. She offsets traditional sentence structure by including full stops in the middle of lines ('for no apparent reason. Maybe to prove we all') and continuing sentences across multiple lines of poetry.
It feels more natural for a sentence to end at the end of the poetic line rather than in the middle. This is because we typically associate full stops with the end of sentences, so their natural placement would be at the of a line of poetry rather than in the middle. Her use of caesura and enjambment subtly hints at the theme of distortion and disjointedness that runs throughout the poem.
Enjambment can also occur when a thought or idea runs from one stanza to another. Let's look at another example:
'Punishment' (1975) by Seamus Heany
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
the memories of love.
A complete thought overruns onto the next stanza 'her noose a ring / to store', followed by another enjambment to the next line 'to store / the memories of love.' Heany's use of enjambment quickens the pace of the poem as readers race through the stanzas to piece the sentence together and work out the meaning of the poem.
Lastly, enjambment can occur when a syntactic thought or idea runs over a couplet.
'Me, Covered in Ash' (2020) by Savannah Brown from her collection Sweet Dark.
what's it like to have to be everything i want forever?
fine, i'll start: sorry for the mugs i leave on my desk
for so long they develop their own ecosystems,
and for the weeks i eat badly, and the nights
This poem is made up of couplets, many of which contain enjambment. We can see the thought continues from one couplet to the next: 'sorry for the mugs i leave on my desk / for so long they develop their own ecosystems'.
Interestingly, the final line of the second couplet quoted above is set up to continue the sentence on the first line of the following couplet, following the enjambment structure.
Fun fact: The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber' which means 'to stride over' or 'encroach', explaining how it links to the English definition of enjambment, i.e., words overrunning onto other lines of poetry.
Caesura is a pause within a line using a full stop, comma, colon, or another type of punctuation. Enjambment is when a sentence or idea spans over more than one line of poetry, stanza, or couplet. While caesura fragments lines of poetry, slowing the pace creating a disjointed reading experience, enjambment smooths the flow and quickens the pace of poetry.
However, when used in a certain way, enjambment can also disrupt the flow of poetry. In 'Me, Covered in Ash', Brown uses enjambement so frequently it has the reverse effect, disjointing the narrative:
what's it like to have to be everything i want forever?
fine, i'll start: sorry for the mugs i leave on my desk
for so long they develop their own ecosystems,
and for the weeks i eat badly, and the nightsi drink too well, for all these small and lumbering ways i suggest none of this is enough. the only
Here, the flow is disrupted as the sentences are repeatedly split over multiple couplets. Whilst enjambment usually smooths the transition between sentences, it has been overused to the point where it has the opposite effect, disjointing each and every sentence. This effect is enhanced by Brown's use of caesura in conjunction with the enjambment, breaking up the sentences prematurely, midway through the lines.
When talking about enjambment, it is important to understand its characteristics as a technique most frequently used to smooth the transition between sentences and quicken the pace of poetry. However, there are cases in which it is used to create different effects. It requires careful consideration before you can be sure of enjambment's effect on the text.
Effects of enjambment in literature
Let's look at examples of these effects of enjambment in literature:
A Stack of Books, Pixabay
A Stranger came to the door at eve,
And he spoke the bridegroom fair.
He bore a green-white stick in his hand,
And, for all burden, care.
He asked with the eyes more than the lips
For a shelter for the night,
And he turned and looked at the road afar
Without a window light.
This poem is about a bride and groom who receive a knock on their door from a stranger on their wedding night. They are unsure how to help him as they want to enjoy their first night together as a married couple, but they don't want to leave him alone out in the cold.
The enjambment quickens the pace of the poem by reducing breaks between sentences, embodying the groom's uncertainty and confusion about what the stranger wants from him. The fact that some of the lines are end-stopped magnifies the effect of the enjambment, highlighting particular parts of the poem as specifically tense.
For example, the line 'He asked with the eyes more than the lips / for a shelter for the night' develops tension surrounding what the stranger is asking for, as readers read on quickly to the next line to find out why he is knocking on their door. The fact that the pace of the poem is quicker in this line than those slowed down with punctuation replicates the speaker's desperation to find out why the stranger has knocked on the door.
We read sentences quicker when there is no punctuation to break them up, explaining how enjambment can increase the speed at which poems are read.
'Birthday' (1857) by Christina Rossetti
My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water'd shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;My heart is gladder than all these Because my love is come to me.
Rossetti exclaims her happiness through the free-flowing verse made up of enjambment. This quickens the pace of the poem and emulates the liberated nature of a singing bird. Readers read quickly through the poem and learn of her happiness before they are ground to a halt with the full stop at the end of the stanza.
The full stop contrasts the free flow of the enjambment in the previous lines, illustrating how enjambment liberates Rossetti's language, emulating how free she feels now that she is happy and in love.
Task: Try reading the poem out loud. After you have done this, read the poem out loud as though it doesn't contain enjambment. Eg 'My heart is like a singing bird whose nest is in a water's shoot'. If you read all the sentences as though they are one line of poetry rather than split using enjambment, you may find the pace of the poem is slower and less free-flowing.
'Filling Spice Jars as Your Wife' (2021) by Kai Coggin
We have all our doors and windows open
and I am pouring spices into glass jars,
coriander cinnamon cumin ground sage
and it's hard to describe thismoment in the confines of a page, tiny hills of vibrant color and intoxicating fragrance and you hear the cadence of my heart
Here, the enjambment creates a rhyme between four lines of poetry that would not occur if each line was a complete syntactic thought or sentence of its own. For example, enjambment splits the sentence 'i am pouring spices into glass jars, coriander cinnamon cumin ground sage and it's hard to describe this moment of confines of a page' into three lines. This places 'page' and 'sage' as the last words of lines three and five, creating an alternating rhyme scheme that would not be present without enjambment.
Similarly, the idea of the 'intoxicating fragrance and you hear the cadence' has been split using enjambment which helps establish a rhythm by rhyming the two lines of poetry. As 'cadence' and 'fragrance' are the last words of each line, there is a musical / rhythmic quality to the piece.
Poem "à la recherche d'Gertrude Stein" (1971) by Frank O'Hara
when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are curedby the perfect symmetry of your arms and legsspread out making an eternal circle togethercreating a golden pillar beside the Atlanticthe faint line of hair dividing your torsogives my mind rest and emotions their releaseinto the infinite air where since once we aretogether we always will be in this life come what may
The lack of punctuation in combination with enjambment helps create a consistently fast pace, as though the speaker is eager to spend time with his lover. 'And' is used frequently throughout the poem enhancing the quickened pace established by the enjambment. Breaking up this long sentence into new lines of poetry makes it more manageable to read rather than following one very long sentence.
Macbeth (1606) by Shakespeare
Bring them before us.To be thus, is nothing, but to be safely thus.Our fears in Banquo stick deep,And in his royalty of nature reigns that Which would be feared. 'Tis much he dares,And, to that dauntless temper of his mind,He hath a wisdom that doth guide his valorTo act in safety. There is none but heWhose being I do fear. And under himMy genius is rebuked, as it is saidMark Antony's was by Caesar. He chid the sisters,When first they put the name of king upon me,And bade them speak to him
Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 48-60
Here, Shakespeare uses enjambment to ensure the lines have the correct number of syllables to fit the iambic pentameter. For example, if the lines 'Our fears in Banquo stick deep, / And in his royalty of nature reigns that' was one long line, it would be longer than ten syllables and no longer be classified as the iambic pentameter, thus distorting the rhythm of the dialogue. Seeing as blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter, to write in blank verse, Shakespeare uses enjambment to control the number of syllables in each line and abide by the metrical rules of iambic pentameter.
He also employs caesura and enjambment to make the text seem more realistic and conversational, as we naturally pause when we speak.
Poets use enjambment to control the pace of their poems. Whilst it can allow the poetry to flow freely and retain a fast-pace, it can also be used to create a metrical rhyme scheme by controlling where words are placed to enable particular rhymes, as seen in 'Filling Spice Jars as Your Wife' by Kai Coggin.
Poetic techniques such as this are important to give poets another way to control the form of their poetry separate from the meter and structure of the poem. For example, you could write a free verse poem or a sonnet but still use enjambment in both, since it is a technique unspecific to poetic structures.
Enjambment is an important feature as it allows the author to have control over the flow of their poem, enabling them to replicate the meaning of the poem in the rhythm of the text. For example, 'Birthday' by Rossetti discusses the happiness of falling in the love, and the enjambment allows readers to glide from one sentence to the next mirroring the speaker's state of ecstasy as they happily glide through life with their lover. As the poem does not contain many rhymes, it is the enjambment that gives it a free-flowing, lyrical feeling, rather than rhyme.
Techniques such as caesura and enjambment allow poets to control how people will read their texts. They control the speed, the pauses, and the breaks their readers will take. The sudden full stop at the end of Rossetti's 'Birthday' brings the reader to a controlled stop after reading the main body of the poem, which was fast-paced.
Enjambment may be used for the following reasons:
1. To alter the pace of the poem
2. To replicate the flow of emotions and expressions
3. To smoothen the flow of the poem
4. To disrupt or distort the reading of the poem as an effect
5. To abide by a particular meter or rhyme
A caesura occurs when the syntactic thought ends or is paused after the use of punctuation. The enjambment involves the continuation of a thought or idea from one line on to the next without use of punctuation.
Yes, enjambment is a poetic device or technique that alters form and influences the content of the poem.
In poetry, enjambment refers to a thought or idea that spills from one line of poetry on to the next without a punctuated break.
An example of enjambment is:
We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
What are end-stop lines?
Lines without enjambment are end-stopped because the sentence finishes at the end of the line. When a line is not end-stopped, it is likely to be an example of enjambment.
True or false: The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber'
True. The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber' which means 'to stride over' or 'encroach', explaining how it links to the English definition of enjambment of words overrunning onto other lines of poetry.
How does enjambment quicken the pace of poetry?
The enjambment quickens the pace of the poem by reducing breaks between sentences. We read sentences quicker when there is no punctuation to break them up, explaining how enjambment can increase the speed at which poems are read.
True or false: Enjambment only occurs when a sentence runs onto another line of poetry with no punctuated break.
False. Enjambment can also occur when a sentence runs from one stanza or one couplet to another.
Why do authors use enjambment?
Authors use enjambment to control the pace of their poems. Whilst it can allow the poetry to flow freely and fast-paced, it can also be used to create a metrical rhyme scheme by controlling where words are placed to enable particular rhymes.
How can enjambment alter the rhyme scheme of a poem?
Enjambment can alter the rhyme scheme of a poem when it is used to prematurely break a sentence off, changing the placement on particular words. It could stretch two rhyming words in one sentence over two lines, creating an AA rhyme scheme.
Why is enjambment an important poetic device?
Enjambment is an important poetic device as it allows the author to have control over the flow of their poem, enabling them to replicate the meaning of the poem in the rhythm of the text.
What is the difference between enjambment and caesura?
Caesura is a pause within a line using a full stop, comma, colon, or another type of punctuation. Enjambment is when a sentence spans over more than one line of poetry, stanza, or couplet.
How can enjambment and caesura be used together to disrupt the flow of sentences?
Both enjambment and caesura are able to disrupt the flow of sentences when used together. For example, in 'Me, Covered in Ash' Brown offsets traditional sentence structure by including full stops in the middle of lines ('for no apparent reason. Maybe to prove we all') and continuing sentences across multiple lines of poetry. It feels more natural for a sentence to end at the end of the poetic line rather than in the middle.
What is an example of how enjambment has been used to emphasize free-flowing verse?
Rosetti exclaims her happiness through the free-flowing verse made up of enjambment, quickening the pace, emulating the liberated nature of a singing bird. Readers read quickly through the poem learning of her happiness before they are ground to a halt with the full stop at the end of the stanza.
What is an example of how enjambment has been used to regulate the rhythm of a poem?
The lack of punctuation in Poem "À la recherche d 'Gertrude Stein" by Frank O' Hara in combination with enjambment helps create a consistently fast pace, as though the speaker is racing through time in order to spend time with his lover.
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