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ENJAMBMENT: DON’T DISFIGURE YOUR VERSES!!!

I have seen too many poems with lines broken into rags by ‘poets’ who think that a poem is more beautiful if broken up into a thousand senseless bits. So a poem that should be 8 lines is turned into 100 lines by overzealous breakers.

What they do not know is that breaking a line should be deliberate and purposeful…

Now, what is enjambment?

Enjambment is the running on of the thought from one line, couplet, or stanza to the next without a syntactical break.

In poetry, enjambment or enjambment – from the French enjambment, is incomplete syntax at the end of a line such that the meaning runs-over from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation.

Enjambment occurs when a phrase carries over a line-break without a major pause.

In French, the word means “straddling,” which we think is a perfect way to envision an enjambed line. When you read an enjambed line, the sense of it encourages you to keep right on reading the next line, without stopping for a breather.

Thus, enjambment is the continuation of a syntactic unit from one line or couplet of a poem to the next with no pause.
Take, for example, these lines from Dominike E. Anyanebechi’s ‘HEAVEN AT LAST’:

My ancestors bear me witness before now
That I have tasted sin and sinned

Another examples is this stanza from Kukogho Iruesiri Samson’s ‘MIRROR, MIRROR, PLEASE TELL ME’:

Mirror, mirror, please tell me
Where folly kisses the lips of old men
Who watch the she-goat deliver in chains
While she is yet tethered outside her barren pen
And they look away smiling as she bleats in birth pains

In this case, the only way to make sense of those lines is to lump them together—to enjamb them, read them as one line. Read individually, the lines are incomplete units of thoughts that make no sense.

In reading, the delay of meaning creates a tension that is released when the word or phrase that completes the syntax is encountered (called the rejet).

The tension arises from the “mixed message” produced both by the pause of the line-end, and the suggestion to continue provided by the incomplete meaning.

Meaning flows as the lines progress, and the reader’s eye is forced to go on to the next sentence. It can also make the reader feel uncomfortable or the poem feel like “flow-of-thought” with a sensation of urgency or disorder.

In spite of the apparent contradiction between rhyme, which heightens closure, and enjambment, which delays it, the technique is compatible with rhymed verse.

See this example from Kukogho Iruesiri Samson’s ‘YOU FIGHT FOR GOD?’:

Because a man’s not of your creed,
You strike him down without remorse,
And there you stand to watch him bleed,
His eyes pleading in muted Morse!

Even in couplets, the closed or heroic couplet was a late development; older is the open couplet, where rhyme and enjambed lines co-exist.

Check this out:

“thou shalt not kill!”
but we kill on still

Or:

Enjambment is not something
You do without first thinking

Enjambment has a long history in poetry. Homer used the technique, and it is the norm for alliterative verse where rhyme is unknown. It was used extensively in England by Elizabethan poets for dramatic and narrative verse, before giving way to closed couplets.

The example of John Milton in Paradise Lost laid the foundation for its subsequent use by the English Romantic poets; in its preface he identified it as one of the chief features of his verse: “sense variously drawn out from one verse into another.”

The start of ‘THE WASTE LAND’ by T.S. Eliot, with only lines 4 and 7 end-stopped:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.”

NOTE: Lines without enjambment are end-stopped. An end-stop occurs when a line of poetry ends with a period or definite punctuation mark, such as a colon. When lines are end-stopped, each line is its own phrase or unit of syntax.

See these lines by Dollin Holt in the poem ‘HOME’:

When I left years ago,

I left the door unlocked
So I may return.

So when you read an end-stopped line, you’ll naturally pause. In that sense, it’s the opposite of enjambment, which will encourage you to move right along to the next line without pausing.

Also these lines by Adesiyan Adeyemi Favour in the poem ‘A FOR APPLE, B FOR BALL’:

Her years, she ruined with impatience,
Her days,she destroyed with filthiness.
She forgot if S is for Sex, M should have been for marriage.
Now, she is dead to her future, the present itself is a mystery.

See how the lines each have their own units of sense? And they each end in a punctuation mark that indicates a pause.

Written with material from; en.wikipedia.org, dictionary.com and http://www.shmoop.com/ & thefreedictionary.com

Author: Kukogho Iruesiri Samson

KIS, author of two poetry collections, ‘WHAT CAN WORDS DO?’ and ‘I SAID THESE WORDS’, is an award-winning Nigerian writer, photographer, and media professional with experience in journalism, PR, publishing and media management. In 2016, he was listed in Nigerian Writers Awards’ list of 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL NIGERIAN WRITERS UNDER 40. The same year 2016, he won the Nigerian Writer’s Award for ‘Best Poet In Nigeria 2015.’ he had also won the Orange Crush 1st Prize for Poetry in 2012.
He is the CEO of Words Rhymes & Rhythm LTD.

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