I. What is Enjambment?
Enjambment is continuing a line after the line breaks. Whereas many poems end lines with the natural pause at the end of a phrase or with punctuation as end-stopped lines, enjambment ends a line in the middle of a phrase, allowing it to continue onto the next line as an enjambed line. Enjambment is derived from the French phrase enjambment meaning to “straddle something,” as the sentence extends to a next line.
II. Examples of Enjambment
Here are a few basic examples of enjambment in poetry:
We were running
to find what had happened
beyond the hills.
If written as a sentence (We were running to find what had happened beyond the hills) it is clear that this phrase has no punctuation until the end. In the poem, each line is enjambed until the period at the end of the third line.
The sun hovered above
the horizon, suspended between
night and day.
This example is similar: the first and second lines are enjambed, whereas the third is end-stopped.
III. The Importance of Enjambment
Without enjambment, poetry would sound like this:
I finished my day.
I went home on the highway.
I ate dinner and went to sleep.
Constantly end-stopped (lines that end with punctuation) poetry is rhythmic but ultimately dull. Enjambment allows lines to move more complicatedly than they would if simply end-stopped. Enjambment also allows lines to move more quickly as the eye hops to the next line to follow the thought or meaning of the poem. Whereas end-stopped lines can feel relaxed, expected, and direct, enjambed lines can feel more chaotic, nervous, flowing, or fast. Choosing to end-stop or enjamb can help better communicate a poem’s overall mood and theme through lineation (the way lines are broken in poems).
IV. Examples of Enjambment in Poetry
We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
This excerpt from Rita Dove’s “American Smooth” uses enjambment between “have” and “been” and “but” and “requiring” whereas “waltz” ends with a comma as an end-stopped line.
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
In this excerpt from Tracy K. Smith’s “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” each line is enjambed until the last line, at last, is end-stopped.
For a last example of enjambed and end-stop lines working together to shape a poem, read “Love Song” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
The pattern is as follows: lines 1 and 2 are enjambed with the third end-stopped. The same pattern occurs with lines 3-5. In the following lines, though, end-stopping becomes normal and takes over the poem from line 5 to 11, the poem ending with a short statement: “Oh sweetest song.” Enjambment at the beginning of the poem provides it with a dreamy, thoughtful sound. As the poet becomes more confident in speaking of his love and their connection, end-stopping provides the poem with a stronger rhythm.
V. Examples of Enjambment in Songs
As songwriting can be poetic, many songs utilize enjambment just as poems do. Consider “Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” by Jason Mraz:
Well, I saw fireworks from the freeway
and behind closed eyes I cannot make them go away
‘Cause you were born on the fourth of July, freedom ring
Well, something on the surface it stings
As can be heard by Mraz’s singing, each line runs into the next with an exciting and energetic use of enjambment. Only a few lines are end-stopped as the singer takes a quick breath.
Oh yeah your skin and bones,
You know I love you so,
You know I love you so.
In this section of the song, enjambment is used to provide the song with rhythm and to allow phrases to build upon themselves as “your skin” is repeated and “you know” is repeated.
VI. In Closing
Enjambment is a poetic type of lineation used in both poetry and song. Whereas end-stopped lines can be clunky and abrupt, enjambment allows for flow and energy to enter a poem, mirror the poem’s mood or subject.