Enjambing With the Gods

Enjambment is a distinguishing characteristic of poetry, not because every poem has enjambing lines–it need not–but because the line is what distinguishes poems from prose and enjambment directly operates on the line.

The poet’s bible provides a clinically correct definition of enjambment (p. 359): Nonalignment of (end of) metrical frame and syntactic period at line-end: the overflow into the following poetic line of a syntactic phrase (with its intonational contour) begun in the preceding line without a major pause or juncture. The opposite of end-stopped.

In other words, enjambment is a line break that interrupts the “intonational contour” of the poem for some (presumably) important aesthetic end. Whether the effect is or is not important will, of course, be subjective. But, in most cases, it’s fairly easy to spot it when it fails or when it works. I’ll illustrate that point with two examples of enjambment.

First example (complete):
I bought some shoes and then I put them on
My feet and took a walk and they felt good.

Second example (excerpt):
… now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.

In each of the examples, the enjambed line satisfies the technical requirement. Each provokes a kind of surprise, a recognition of having been tricked by the poet. What of it?

In the first example, “I put them on” would be enough for surface meaning, and the suddenly subsequent “My feet” does create a surprise. Does it work? Not really. Leaning in to the enjambment is the monotonous (but correct) iambic pentameter, and, after the enjambment, merely more the same. No follow through, and the enjambment hardly seems worth it. The poem does not seem to be affected in any way by the enjambment, and the device affects nothing. In this case, the enjambment disrupts nothing.

The second example has each line enjambed, but culminates in the stunning break between lines 3 and 4. Also supporting the effect are the lines’ alliterations and repetitions: wakes-wakes, what-what-what, then worse-worse-worse. The enjambment produces not just a surprise, but the sense that the ground has fallen away from under our feet, and the final word “ensue” seems to increase the velocity. There is no turning back.

The trick in the second example here is surely the poet’s subtle dropping of the subject “he” in the enjambing line which we only seem to pick up after the break, and, by then, it’s too late.

If you’re thinking “straw poem” you’re right. The first example is from the Ciardi’s and Williams’ book on poetry where it is appears as an illustration of lame enjambment. The second example is selected from early in Book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost (ll. 23-26). If you’re jazzed by that second example, you might want to read the text from the start of Book IV. There, Milton uses a series of enjambments (no one of them as spectacular as the selection) to create a texture which allows the lines cited here to explode off the page. Indeed, Paradise Lost is a paradise of enjambed blank verse lines.

So, enjambment is not necessary to make a poem, nor is it sufficient. The well-placed enjambment works with other elements of a poem and can, as in PL, produce the lift we call art.

Enjambment seems like an “off the page” phenomenon. It’s not clear that is the case. For example, enjambment appears in Homeric and early Latin verse which was more likely to have been heard, than read. Ultimately, enjambment is a sound effect.

How should representations of poems in the new media convey the enjambing lines? The cinematic analogue to poetic enjambment might be classic (or horizontal) montage. We’ll look at some examples in coming posts. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your most memorable moments of divine enjambment.


~ by matt on 8 August 2007.

One Response to “Enjambing With the Gods”

  1. Will be interested in your thoughts on cinematic enjambment – have noticed, in a particular film, in shot-reverse-shot dialogue that the shot edit/reversal often occurs before the end of the line spoken by the last person in shot, which carries over to the shot of the othe rperson. It feels like poetic enjambment – partly annoying, partly provides continuity for the dialogue. Have not observed this in other films, and can’t find any reference to cinematic enjambment. What do you think?

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Natalie E. Illum...

is a poet, performer and disability activist. Bring her stumbling to your city.

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