Enjambment (In-JAM-mint) is when one line of poetry flows into the next without being end-stopped, meaning it doesn’t end with punctuation. Enjambment can be used to put emphasis on a word, vary meter or rhythm, or divert the reader’s expectations. It can help create a sense of tension and release to make writing more engaging and exciting.
The literary term was first used around 1839.
Examples of Enjambment
Many associate enjambment with the work of 20th-century poets like William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings, but Homer used the device, as did the Hebrew bible. Shakespeare used enjambment as well; consider this famous soliloquy from Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ….
The first line is end-stopped because it uses a colon to separate the first thought from the next. The second line is enjambed; the thought spills over into the third line, emphasizing the word suffer.
Enjambment in Jazz Poetry
The rhythms in jazz poetry are inspired by the upbeats in jazz music. An upbeat is an unaccented beat at the end of a measure that precedes an accented beat at the beginning of the next measure. It’s like counting out the steps in a waltz: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. The three count is the upbeat.
The accented upbeat in swing jazz is echoed in the work of jazz poetry pioneers like Gwendolyn Brooks, and unlikely syllables become emphasized through enjambment. Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” is a famous example:
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Enjambment in English Haiku
English syllables don’t quite line up with the Japanese unit kana, but readers traditionally think of haiku as being a line of five syllables followed by a line of seven syllables, and a concluding line of five syllables. To make a haiku sound like everyday English, enjambment is all but necessary—especially because traditional haiku always begins with a sentence fragment. Look at these two examples from Richard Wright:
As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
and juice trickles out
A balmy spring wind
reminding me of something
I cannot recall
Examples of Enjambment in Poetry
1. Lucille Clifton, “poem in praise of menstruation”
In this subversive piece, Clifton turns a taboo subject—a woman’s menstrual cycle—on its head by portraying it as powerful and beautiful. Through the tension and release created by enjambment, the reader can feel the pull of the tide as it gains momentum. The poem begins:
if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if
there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there
Through her lack of capitalization and punctuation, Clifton creates thoughts that neither begin nor end; they are infinite and connected, as though a river runs through them. The poem itself is a never-ending cycle.
2. William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
Williams is a poet famous for his experimental style. This oft-anthologized poem slowly draws a thoughtful image in the reader’s mind, with the line breaks creating an experience like watching a Polaroid develop:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
3. E.E. Cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”
In these lines from his unconventional love poem, Cummings uses enjambment (and a well-placed parenthetical) to set up a sort of time-lapse video of a rose opening:
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose
Additionally, notice how Cummings eschews other common elements of sentences with his unique approach to capitalization and spacing.
4. Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, “The Idler”
Writing in iambic pentameter, with an ABAB rhyme scheme, Dunbar-Nelson shows that enjambment is not a device limited to free verse poetry. In this opening stanza, the reader can feel the weight on the word load, where the meter draws it out:
An idle lingerer on the wayside’s road,
He gathers up his work and yawns away;
A little longer, ere the tiresome load
Shall be reduced to ashes or to clay.
Further Resources on Enjambment
In a review of Gillian Conoley’s “A Little More Red Sun on the Human” for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kristina Marie Darling explores the greater meaning of using enjambment in feminist poetry.
Writer and educator Lyman Grant discusses the value of enjambment while demonstrating the importance of using a variety of end stops and enjambment.
- Line break