Poetry Facts

Enjambment in Poetry: Incomplete Lines That Complete Poems 

Last Updated: April 4, 2022
enjambment-poetry

Line is the most visible characteristic of poems, both in terms of its length and where it ends. A verse may seem prose if there are no line breaks and the text extends all the way to closing. 

The practice of line dividing, known as lineation, is actually a fine craft. Although it is a common pattern in poetry to have a break at the end of a phrase or entire idea, sometimes that is not the case. Let’s learn more about Enjambment – a poetic device that defies our preconceptions of where a line should stop, giving poems a unique vibe. 

What Is Enjambment in Poetry? 

The word enjambment comes from the French terms jambe (leg) and enjamber (step over or straddle). 

In poetry, enjambment refers to lines that stop in mid-thought and transition without any type of terminal punctuation such as periods, semi-colons, and colons. 

Enjambed lines break the syntax of the sentence, often surpassing the bounds laid by poetic meters. The lines flow into each other, and the audience is propelled forward through the verse so as to uncover the whole message.

Simply put, enjambment occurs when a phrase stretches beyond a line. Employment of this poetic device creates free-flowing poetry with a focus on unexpected rhythms. Gaining popularity since the end of the 18th century, enjambment can be found in free poetry, blank verse, and rhymed poems.

Enjambment in poetry

This is not a concept used in prose. And it’s also worth noticing that this poetic device can sometimes be mistaken for other elements like caesura (a pause in the midst of a line, using punctuation marks, or a stop in the rhythm). 

So how to tell exactly whether enjambment is employed in a poem? Here’s your checklist

  • An enjambed line is not marked by end-punctuation;
  • The line itself has no individual literal meaning; 
  • The poem’s flow continues over the line breaks.

The Importance of Enjambment in Poetry 

Enjambment may appear to be more associated with the free verse era rather than other common strict forms of poetry until the twentieth century. Yet in fact, for centuries, it has remained an essential poetic element.

Poets utilize enjambment for several purposes: 

Add mystery: By fleshing out a notion rather than reducing it to one line, enjambment creates a more complicated story inside a verse, jarring the reader’s perceptions and causing confusion. 

Create greater speed and tension: In poetry, enjambment adds to the drama. The conclusion of the first line is a cliffhanger. It pushes the audience to stay reading to discover what occurs next. 

Generate momentum: Enjambment goes fluidly across line breaks, which in poems normally result in an enforced halt. The mind desires to move rapidly on to the next line, and in this way, tempo and momentum get quicker. Enjambment adds movement and vigor to a verse. 

Create a dash of surprise: This poetic device sometimes works as a plot twist tactic. It drives the transition from one line to the next to a contradicting notion, generating a sense of shock.

Experiment with the poem’s syntax: The placement of phrases in an enjambed line is purposeful. A word used when there is a stop in line yet not in meaning, is supposed to be highlighted. 

Support performance: In Shakespeare’s plays, enjambment was frequently employed in the lyrical dialog. Rather than awkward, end-stopped lines which might break the performance’s energy, this device enables a character to go on with his idea. This can be illustrated in the case of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 

While it may appear that a poet could break a line whenever they want, competent authors employ enjambment on purpose. Might it not be a complete syntactical idea, the line generated by enjambment has its own interpretation.

Malcolm Carvalho, an Indian poet and blogger, once praised the significance of broken lines in verses: 

“Pauses,
done right,
cover up for content,
like garnishing for a recipe,
like a hiss without a bite,
like a cape for a superhero
without a superpower,
like something
for nothing.”

Importance of Enjambment in poetry

3 Best Examples for Enjambment in Poetry

“Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare (1609)

The best-known poet of all time, Shakespeare, used several broken lines to amplify his work. And “Winter’s Tale” can be a typical illustration. 

“I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities, but I have
That honorable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown….” 

“Winter’s Tale” is a blank verse with a consistent iambic pentameter and steady meter, so it might sound monotonous. However, the lines do not follow the intended syntax. Broken lines enliven the conversation. 

Among today’s audiences, this work also suggests a feminist interpretation as the enjambment gives light to the term “sex” from the very beginning.  

“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot (1922)

“April is the cruelest 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.”

Poet Elliot employs enjambment to portray the seasonal metamorphosis. Commas are used in the midst of lines to increase conflict as the ground keeps churning, and verbs are placed at the end to depict and underline the transformation.

“The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

“We real cool. We
Left school. We 
Lurk late. We 
Strike straight. We 
Sing sin. We 
Thin gin. We 
Jazz June. We 
Die soon.”

“The Pool Players” raises voice to lost and despondent youngsters using surprisingly simple phrases. This piece of poetry is just 8-line long, and each one apart from the last is enjambed. 

Those fragmented sentences imply eager revolt while simultaneously underlining the pronoun “We.” There’s a tense silence, along with apprehensive expectation: “We” what? People are encouraged to continue reading to finish the statement.

Since “The Pool Players” is about broken lives, employing broken lines is a significantly effective method.  “We / Die Soon,” this disjointed sentence leads to a frightening closing. 

Conclusion

Enjambment is a powerful poetic technique that can be used to create different effects in poetry. 

It generates fluidity and gives verses a prose-like aspect by letting an idea spill between lines. In many cases, its abruptness can increase the speed and pace of the poem, as the reader must hurriedly catch up to the next line to extract the meaning from the sentence.

Enjambment can also be used to put stress on specific words, thereby amplifying hidden meanings. Enjambment means incomplete lines, yet it completes poems

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