Enjambment, Part One

A student has asked me a very good question: What is enjambment for?  I want to first say, that here is an example of why I think distance learning/on-line classes are a bit troubling—in a traditional face to face class, we could just stop for a few minutes, talk about it, and move on. In an on-line class, we kind of have to wait until everyone has found the time—the entire week—to read a post, think about, write something, and consider the responses.

Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned way of just thinking and talking and moving on.  So here are some quick thoughts—typed out as if I were just talking in class, off the cuff.

I think there is a set of questions here.

What is enjambment?  Enjambment means allowing the sentence in a poem to extend beyond the end of the line of poems.  The following lines are not enjambed.

He bought an apple and took a bite.

Then he noticed it didn’t taste just right.

These lines are enjambed.

He bought an apple and took a bite

of it.  The bitter, rotten taste sat right

in the center of his tongue.

A easy way to think about enjambment is that with enjambment you are not ending each line with period (or even a comma or semicolon).   If you are punctuating correctly, this tells you that your sentences and major phrasal units are not ending the lines.  You are breathing in a variety of places in the movement of the poem.

Why not-enjambment? Why not just write as if everything were prose? If the main difference between poetry and prose is that the prose line runs to the end of the page margin and then returns to the opposite margin, then the question might be why have a line ending at all? My guess is that historically the poem was born from the song and music, and the line ended where the rhythmic line ended—2 beat, 4 beat, 8 beat, 3 beat, 6 beat, 10 beat, 12 beat.  So the line, in the original forms, has line endings because that is where the voice took a break with the repetition of the rhythm. Like a ballad (by anonymous):

Joseph was an old man,

And an old man was he,

When he wedded Mary

In the land of Galilee.

The lines break here, generally, upon grammatical units. Then also, of course, we have line endings that repeat a rhyme. So we have line endings, because of rhythmical repetition and because of rhyme. And some people say that because all of this poetry was oral and experienced mostly aurally, and almost always passed down orally, the rhythm, rhyme and thus line endings, made it easier for the poet/performer to remember and repeat.

An effect of all this was that grammatical units (phrases and sentence) coincided with rhythmical units (the line).

So that was 3000 years ago up to 500 years ago. Music changed and rhythms changed and all that, but the general principal stayed the same. Then a new technology was invented: the printing press. (As a side note, musical notation, as we know it, was invented generally at the same time.—this is why we really do not know much about Ancient Greek or Roman music. If memory serves, we do not have very clear understanding of the rhythm of Gregorian chant. We do know something of the notation, but remember that Gregorian chant was mono—no harmony. So you had to note only one melody line.)

The printing press helped separate poetry from music. And then, of course, we get greater literacy, with more people reading—books and newspapers, rather than the rare person reading a scroll. Poetry/song was no longer only the entertainments for the rich—think, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,”–or folk poems for the poor.

Why enjambment? In the movie version of this response, we have a montage of many poets writing many poems, and most of those poems will never have a real relationship to music, with instruments and performance. So poets, being creative and rebellious folk, start thinking, why do I have to obey the rhythmical units of the line? Why do I have to keep reading my poems aloud, and building them to be read aloud, with the same old rhythmical units of 2 beat, 3 beat, 4 beat, etc. Do you remember your English teachers telling you to not stop reading aloud at the line endings, but to read the poem based on the punctuation? Well, this advice is the advice of someone who lives in the book (not in song), who reads as books have taught us to read (as books have influenced how we write).

Here is the end of a ballad by W. S. Merwin, a recent American Poet Laureate. The poem is “Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen.”

Over shaking water

Toward the feet of his father,

Leaving the hills color

And his poorly mother


And his wife as grieving

And his sister’s fallow

And his body lying

In the rank hollow,


Now Cable is carried

On the dark river;

Not even a shadow

Followed him over.


On the wide river

Gray as the sea

Flags of white water

Are his company.

If we are to read this poem aloud, breaking only at the grammatical units, we would read it as below, with breaks only at the line breaks:

Over shaking water toward the feet of his father,

Leaving the hills color and his poorly mother and his wife as grieving and his sister’s fallow

And his body lying in the rank hollow,

Now Cable is carried on the dark river;

Not even a shadow followed him over.

On the wide river gray as the sea flags of white water are his company.

With due respect toward Mr. Merwin, these lines do not attract and excite me.  But when compressed into the ballad form, something more exciting happens.

What Merwin accomplishes is a tension between the history and expectations of the ballad form with the rhythms and force of a continuous deluge of words. Notice how subtle and unobtrusive the rhymes are. One of the tools he is using is enjambment—the imposition of the prose rhythm upon the poetic rhythm by overlaying the requirements of syntax upon the requirements of the visual structure of the poem. (I just made that up). I like it, because it makes me sound like an intellectual. But there are simpler ways to say it.)

Then, another time, maybe we can come to the question of using the line break/enjambment to accomplish various tricks

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.