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Enjambment in Poetry: Definition, Purpose & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Poetry?
  • 0:39 Meter and Enjambment
  • 1:45 Examples
  • 4:17 Purposes
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

In this lesson, we will review how poetry consists of various patterns of rhythm. In particular, we will look at the technique of enjambment and how it affects a poem's beat.

What is Poetry

What is poetry? What makes it different from other forms of writing? A simple answer to these questions is that poetry has a specific rhythm, which is defined as a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. This means that poetry has a beat. Ever hear a jingle on the radio and find it coming into your head hours later? Or what about that popular song you sing to yourself all day long? The reason a jingle or a song lends itself to your memory so easily is because of the rhythm. The beat is catchy. Jingles and songs are just types of poetry.

Meter and Enjambment

Enjambment is one way poets can manipulate the rhythm of their poems.

The rhythm in poetry is often created by meter, which is the specific pattern of stressed syllables in a poem. Remember a stressed syllable is simply the one you emphasize when you say the word. For instance, the word poetry has three syllables; the first syllable, 'po' contains the emphasis and so is the stressed syllable. The other two syllables are unstressed. Poets use the stresses on words to create the meter or beat of a poem. So what does this have to do with enjambment?

Well enjambment occurs when a syntactic unit does not end within the metrical pattern. Let's break that definition down to simpler terms. In prose you write in sentences, there is no specific beat and you end your thought with a period or another end mark. In poetry, you write in lines, each with a specific pattern of beats. Each line in a poem does not have to be a full sentence. Thus, the thought or syntactic unit does not have to be all in one line. Enjambment occurs when a poet breaks the normal beat and continues the meaning to another line.

Examples

The true use of enjambment is best seen through examples, so lets analyze some poetry!

Look at this poem by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

Let's first look at the punctuation, which can hint at enjambment. Which lines do not end with some sort of punctuation? You can see that lines one and eight have no end punctuation. Reread line one:

My heart leaps up when I behold

What did he behold? Is the whole thought there? In this poem, we do not see what the narrator is beholding until we continue on to the next line. Line two shows that he is beholding a rainbow. This is enjambment.

If you stopped at the end of line one, you would not get the whole picture. The same goes for line eight:

And I could wish my days to be

What does he want his days to be? You don't learn that until you move on to the next line. Thus, lines one and eight portray enjambment. The other lines are all end-stopped lines, each one has a pause at the end marked by punctuation. The punctuation easily helps a reader realize a pause is needed.

However, it is important to note that not all poets use punctuation to indicate enjambment. Always check the meaning of the lines to ensure it is a true enjambment.

This poem by Langston Hughes also uses enjambment.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over-

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load?

Or does it explode?

Look closely at line two:

Does it dry up

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