"What is Enjambment?" A Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Enjambment? Transcript

By Jennifer Richter

Unless you happen to be a poet—better yet, a French poet—you may not be familiar with the word enjambment.  Enjambment, from the French meaning “a striding over,” is a poetic term for the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line of poetry to the next.  An enjambed line typically lacks punctuation at its line break, so the reader is carried smoothly and swiftly—without interruption—to the next line of the poem.

You may also not be familiar with the poet Mary Oliver.  Put her on your summer reading list.  Why?  You do not have to be good.  That’s the first line of one of her poems.  Come on, what else could you want from a first line?  In her Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, Mary Oliver explains that “When… the poet enjambs the line—turns the line so that a logical phrase is interrupted—it speeds the line for two reasons: curiosity about the missing part of the phrase impels the reader to hurry on, and the reader will hurry twice as fast over the obstacle of a pause because it is there.  We leap with more energy over a ditch than over no ditch.”

That’s one reason poets use enjambment: to speed up the pace of the poem or to create a sense of urgency, tension, or rising emotion as the reader is pulled from one line to the next.  Enjambed lines pique the reader’s interest—if the sentence or thought isn’t completed by the line break, one’s curiosity (where are we headed with this?) leads them down to the next line, which might complicate the previous line, expand upon it, or clarify it.  Poets can also create a sense of surprise or introduce some humor with their enjambed lines, moving the reader toward unexpected ideas or subjects.

The other type of poetic line—the opposite of enjambed—is called end-stopped, which means exactly what it sounds like: the end of the line completes a sentence or phrase, and is often but not always “stopped” by a punctuation mark.  Many poets use both types of lineation in a single poem—like “daughters,” by Lucille Clifton—to achieve different effects.

Clifton’s poem “daughters” invokes the lineage of strong women the poet feels grateful to have been born into.  Here is the opening of the poem:

daughters

woman who shines at the head

of my grandmother’s bed,

brilliant woman, i like to think

you whispered into her ear

instructions.

Clifton’s opening line offers us a gorgeous characterization of a woman—her head shining with wisdom, perhaps, or ringed by a heavenly halo. Yet because that line is enjambed—neither the sentence nor the image is complete by the end of the line—Clifton doesn’t let her readers linger; she loops us right down to the next line, asking us to re-see that opening image as something more literal—a portrait hanging above a headboard.  You’ll notice that the second line is end-stopped—notice, too, how different that line feels, timing-wise.  There, Clifton invites us to pause a bit and fully envision this lineage before moving on.  “brilliant woman, i like to think” briefly links in the third line the speaker’s ruminations and the great-grandmother’s brilliance (remember her shining head?), but doesn’t finish the thought—its enjambment leads us directly into the intimate (also enjambed) fourth line that clarifies what is being thought about, and the fifth line that imagines what might have been whispered.  Because the lineation of “daughters” as a whole is mostly enjambed, we move smoothly through Clifton’s poem and its uninterrupted accumulation of female strength and wisdom through the generations.

Further Resources for Teachers:

William Carlos Williams' short poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" offers students many opportunities to discuss how enjambment creates and recreates meaning, and that poem might usefully be paired with this video to help them to understand the concept.