Thursday Thoughts: We Take on Poetic Enjambment

30 Jun

7:38 a.m. — Walnut Creek

Hello, dear readers. Today we take on another reader generated topic [thank you, Brenda!]surprisingly difficult to explain and over which I would have stressed a little, as I am not terribly articulate. Not only did I not stress, I moved the topic up a week, thanks to Mike Patrick, of The Poet’s Quill, who wrote a poem that not only explains enjambment but is an example.

Most of you enjamb without realising you are doing so and, as you read this you will recognise that. Simply put, enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or thought from one line to the next, or from one stanza to the next. The term derives from the French to straddle which is what you are doing with your sentences, straddling two or more lines.

The effect is to force the reader’s eye on to the next line to find out what happens. You might think of the end of a line as a cliffhanger; the next line completes what is started. If the enjambment runs for several lines, a tension is set up until the reader reaches the end.

Here is Mike’s poem, which will clear any lingering confusion:


From deep within the poet’s bag
of tricks are found, extended lines
of words, which seem to have no end.
The seeking poet always finds

a perfect way to place the stop.
No tricks involved. The easy way
to keep the meter’s flow, is wrap
those cussed lines to lines below.

Now, go back and reread and notice where Mike breaks the lines and the effect of breaking where he does. Go back and look at some of your poems and find places where you enjamb and ask yourself the effect.

I have included a poem by Israeli poet Aharon Amir that is one of the best examples of how enjambment and the right punctuation can work. Read the poem below exactly as it is punctuated and note the effect of enjambment.


I woke up at night and my language was gone
no sign of language no writing no alphabet
nor symbol nor word in any tongue
and raw was my fear — like the terror perhaps
of a man flung from a treetop far above the ground
a shipwrecked person on a tide-engulfed sandbank
a pilot whose parachute would not open
or the fear of a stone in a bottomless pit
and the fright was unvoiced unlettered unuttered
and inarticulate O how inarticulate
and I was alone in the dark
a non-I in the all-pervading gloom
with no grasp no leaning point
everything stripped of everything
and the sound was speechless and voiceless
and I was naught and nothing
without even a gibbet to hang onto
without a single peg to hang onto
and I no longer knew who or what I was —
and I was no more.

If you have questions about enjambment that arise from this, please ask. If you have a topic you wish me to take on, I would love to have it [even when I forget to ask — send anytime!]. If you know someone who would be interested in this click the buttons below.

I shall see you tomorrow for Friday’s round up; Tuesday for an open prompt [you know form has to follow soon]; and next Thursday for some sites worth visiting and even bookmarking.

Happy writing, everyone.



Posted by on 30/06/2011 in poetry, writing


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24 responses to “Thursday Thoughts: We Take on Poetic Enjambment

  1. vivienne Blake

    30/06/2011 at 12:10 pm

    Clear and apposite.Thank you, Margo. One of the sessions at last week’s workshop with Katherine Gallagher was about lineation, linked with enjambment, and a lively discussion ensued. We were asked to re-lineate (decide line endings) a famous poem, read aloud and note the effect. Emphasis can be completely changed merely by moving one word from the end of one line in order to begin the next. The reader is kept on the hop, specially when reading aloud, but the effect can enhance the musicality of the poem as well as the meaning.

    A corollary of that isthe effect of lines that are end-stopped – ie full stops, commas, colons etc. Too many and the poem becomes predictable and kin to dogerel.

    Another issue you have mentioned is weak and strong words: a weak word at the end of a line weakens the whole poem, in my view eg a, the, of, etc.

    Your second ‘enjambment’ example is over the top, in my opinion. I itched to punctuate it, just a little, to ease a meaningful reading.

    • margo roby

      30/06/2011 at 12:46 pm

      Thank you for the comments, Viv. I was hoping you would add something.

      One thing I like about the strong words at the ends of lines is it’s an easy rule of thumb for all writers to observe. What I found interesting is that the second strongest position is the first words of each line where many of us have a, the, and so on. At this point I usually go back to the strong writers of the past and am always fascinated at how strong their vocabulary was and skilled they were at word placement.

      With ‘Nothingness’ I’m not sure Amir wanted the reading eased. I know what you mean. One has to go back and reread with deliberate stops, but then one doesn’t experience the speaker’s headlong rush into panic and the realisation that without communication of some kind people are not.

      A mini-discussion. Yay!


      • brenda w

        30/06/2011 at 12:55 pm

        Ha! I was responding to Viv the same time you were, Margo. Interesting observation about the first words of each line. I’m itching to try enjambent now. Time becomes my enemy. Oh how I wish for the opportunity to do nothing but write. That is wishing for retirement, though…a good 10 years down the pike for this old lady. LOL

    • brenda w

      30/06/2011 at 12:52 pm

      Viv, I hate to say it, but the second piece kept me moving through like I was on a ride at the carnival. There was no stopping it, once I started. An almost breathless feel moved me through it. Oh to lose language…or as I took it, my writer’s voice. The angst that accompanies that drove this poem for me. I loved this punctuationless piece. 🙂

      Thanks for your comments adding to Margo’s discussion. I am envious of your poetry workshop. They are so productive. We bloggers here in the states should plan one for someplace next summer. We could meet somewhere and rent cabins for a week of writing together. Everyone bring prompts. We could include our online friends in our prompts, or maybe even Skype. ha! Such ideas (maybe now that it’s out there a go-getter will jump on the idea and make it happen).

      In general, I agree with you that a weak word can weaken a poem. However, in the second piece “onto” is not a strong word, but when paired as a phrasal verb in “hang onto,” I think it becomes strong. Also in the line “who or what I was.” “Was” is a weak word, but it works well in the context of the line. Power in words depends, in part, in how they are paired together.

      Fun discussion.

      • margo roby

        30/06/2011 at 1:18 pm

        Now that is interesting, Brenda. i love the example of the weak words becoming strong in the context of what they work with, and I do deliberately end many of my lines with a so-called weak word [which I may change later, but not always].

        And, look at ‘Nothingness’ again. Remove the whole bit between the dashes, which tell us this is an aside, a furtherance of thought, and see what Amir leaves us with. Brilliant. Oh, I have missed this kind of discussion.

        My hat is in the ring if a go-getter goes and gets. I shall show up. What a wonderful idea. Now let’s hope that go-getter reads this.


      • vivienne Blake

        01/07/2011 at 3:58 am

        Excellent response, Brenda. I’d forgotten about first words – très important! And context changing cases, too. What a lovely discussion we’re having.

        My discomfort at the lack of punctuation was precisely because it stopped me in my tracks each time while I wondered what was meant, spoiling the flow of the poem. I’m getting slow-witted in my old age.

        • margo roby

          01/07/2011 at 1:18 pm

          Re: Old age, Viv. My mother says, often: Just wait!


  2. wordsandthoughtspjs

    30/06/2011 at 12:24 pm

    Margo, yes, I do this in my writing, from line to line. I agree with Viv, punctuation changes the whole message of the poem. When I first started writing (a year and a half ago) I rarely punctuated any of my poems. As I learn more, I have become more conscientious of many factors… dead words, placement of useful words… though I am still not fond of enjambment running from one stanza to the next. I love how it reads in another person’s poem, but with mine it seems clumsy. I wonder why that is? I have so much to learn. Thanks for this write up. It is much appreciated.


    • margo roby

      30/06/2011 at 12:53 pm

      I started writing eighteen years ago and am still learning, Pamela. I don’t think writers ever stop, or if they do, so does the quality of their writing. The running from one stanza to another is a matter of your readiness for that in your poetry. Every now and then try it when it seems it might work. One day your brain will say: YES! My brain accepts only so much at a time. You should see me when I ask it to try a new form that is difficult. It has been known to take years for a breakthrough.


  3. brenda w

    30/06/2011 at 1:00 pm

    Well you sure got me thinking this morning. Thank you for addressing this so quickly. And a big thank you to Mike Patrick for his piece that sheds light on enjambment. He does it in a way that all poets can understand. Alleluiah! Your description of it as a “cliffhanger” deepens my understanding of enjambment’s purpose. Thanks for this post, Margo. This has been my favorite stop all morning. 🙂


    • margo roby

      30/06/2011 at 1:20 pm

      Thank you for the idea, Brenda 🙂 It would have been another week without Mike’s poem to use as an example, but I enjoyed writing this. Mike is now a permanent part of any discussion I ever have on enjambment.


  4. Tilly Bud

    30/06/2011 at 3:51 pm

    Mike’s poem is a great example of how to use enjambement, as well as explaining it.

    That’s all I have to contribute, really, because the interesting discussion that followed your post said it all.

    Thanks for this.

    • margo roby

      30/06/2011 at 6:32 pm

      You are welcome, Tilly. The discussion that ensued was fun!


  5. Mike Patrick

    30/06/2011 at 4:28 pm

    I’m with Pamela. Using enjambment from line to line feels natural; much more so than from one stanza to another. I also miss punctuation when it’s not in a poem. Maybe that’s an indicator that I’m getting really old, but to me, poems have a voice. The poet wanted them read with a specific rhythm. Without punctuation, we are forced to guess at it and mentally insert it.

    I know I use inappropriate punctuation is some of my poetry. Sometime a line, or a phrase within a line, needs a longer hesitation to hold a rhythm than normal punctuation allows. Instead of a comma, it becomes a semicolon, double dash or an ellipsis; but to leave all punctuation our can cause confusion.

  6. margo roby

    30/06/2011 at 6:38 pm

    You aren’t getting old, Mike. Punctuation is a sign of a good writer. If it’s a draft, okay, maybe, but a final piece should be able to be read as the writer intends it.

    I don’t think I used enjambment across stanzas until I had read several poems that used that as a device. It was several years after I began writing. And, if you ask me why I do it, in a specific poem, I will not necessarily be able to tell you [which is not good].

    Thank you again for the poem. It makes everything so clear.


    • vivienne Blake

      01/07/2011 at 4:01 am

      I agree – Mike might claim to be a beginner, but he sure nails what he needs to say, bang on the head.

  7. pmwanken

    01/07/2011 at 10:16 am

    A busy day yesterday kept me from this discussion…oh, what I missed. Almost!

    Margo: thanks for this site. I am so new to it and am already learning so much from you. I look forward to future posts and lessons and discussions!

    Mike: well done, my friend! I had recently read up on enjambment (after Brenda’s initial question) and found a good explanation. I like yours better.

    Viv: I, too, wanted punctuation in “Nothingness”. But I missed the punctuation that WAS there.
    Margo: you’re right. The read the piece without the aside (the part between the dashes). Oh my!

    Brenda: YES! I want a get-together! After my one evening with Margo, I’m ready for more face-to-face time with EACH of you. (If this darn ol’ J-O-B didn’t keep getting in the way!)

    Pamela: I’ve only been writing six months…and I wonder if I’ll ever feel like what I’m writing doesn’t sound silly to me…I read others’ works and am in awe!

    Tilly: I think you’re the master of enjambment with your PIKU form!

    my love and gratitude to you all for being a part of my poetry life…which is fast becoming a bigger part of my everyday life…

  8. margo roby

    01/07/2011 at 1:20 pm

    Paula: I think you have gives us the format for discussion! I love reading your comments to everyone. If we all do this [when appropriate] we really will have a discussion going! I’ll have to try this when I am replying to comments.


  9. vivienne Blake

    02/07/2011 at 5:03 am

    I’d adore a face to face with all of you, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford the money or the energy to visit the US. Travel is, for me, a nightmare. How about you all come here: beautiful scenery, peace, and lovely people! I can lay my hands on a venue as well.

    • margo roby

      02/07/2011 at 10:47 am

      France! Oh, Viv. Travel has grown to be a nightmare but your suggestion is tempting. Start a fund everyone!


  10. vivienne Blake

    03/07/2011 at 4:23 am

    Margo, a possible topic for your teach-ins occurred to me when I was commenting on Mike Patrick’s “Easy” poem: Freewriting. I said: “While I love your metrical poetry – you are so good at it – this freeverse outpouring seems natural, unforced, EASY! Full of love. When you start to write a poem, do you freewrite? I do and sometimes it’s just a kickstart process and at others the freewrite needs no fixing to make a poem.”

    I meant what I said, but many poems I read seem to me like unfiltered freewrites that could do with a bit of re-structuring! What are your thoughts on this?

  11. margo roby

    03/07/2011 at 2:19 pm

    Teach-ins. I love it, Viv! Freewriting will make a great topic. I will start…freewriting on the topic, [which I will now watch as a process] and post in a couple of weeks. There is quite a history to it. You’re good at this topic thing. keep ’em coming.


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