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To people who don’t regularly study poetry, the line breaks in a poem might seem as if they are done by whim. In fact, every phrase and sentence is carefully broken down within the lines with precision and intent. One such method of breaking up thoughts throughout the lines of a poem is called enjambment. Enjambment is the breaking of a thought from one line into the next, or from the end of one verse into the beginning of the next.
The word "enjambment," also known as a run-on line, derives from French and means “straddling” or “to stride over.” This is an appropriate term because the phrases and sentences in enjambment straddle the ends of lines. It is often confused with end-stopping, in which a line contains one complete phrase or sentence. The term is also confused with caesura, which is when the complete thought is ended mid-line.
Poets use enjambment for several purposes. When a poem repeatedly completes a phrase or sentence within a single line, the poem can become monotonous for both reader and listener. The poem can becomes stagnant, because the lines typically become long and are the same length.
Enjambment, on the other hand, makes the poem varied and pleasing to the eye and the ear. This poetic device disrupts the senses by breaking thoughts where the brain expects to continue. It creates a different sense of expectation and forces pauses and emphasis on certain words, enhancing their meanings within poems by creating tension. It forces the reader to pause and creates changes in tone when spoken, making the poem sound more natural or rhythmic to the ear.
Some poets use this device for structural purposes rather than aesthetic reasons. Using the device aids in fluidly fitting the poem within meters and rhyme schemes. Many contemporary artists use it to create a visual atmosphere that matches with the words and tone of the poem itself.
A misconception is that true enjambment should not allow any of the enjambed lines to be able to stand on their own. This is entirely false. As long as there is no punctuation within the lines and it remains one thought, it is still considered enjambed. For instance, in the lines, “I danced with the skies / many times over the years,” the first line can stand on its own, but because it is not the end of the thought, it still is an example of enjambment.
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