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The function of enjambment in poetry is typically to allow an idea to continue beyond the limitations of a single line, often to reinforce certain ideas within the lines themselves. Enjambment can also be used to surprise a reader, by setting up one idea in the first line and then changing that idea in some way in the second line. It can also be used to maintain a rhythm that is stronger than perpetual end-stopping. By using enjambment, a poet is able to effectively pull the reader along from one line to the next and establish a fast rhythm or pace for a poem.
Enjambment is the extension of an idea beyond the break of a line in a stanza of a poem. When each sentence or similar grammatical structure ends with each line, it is referred to as end-stopping. Enjambment is the opposite of this, and allows a sentence or other structure to continue past the end of the line and continue for one or more lines.
One of the most common uses of enjambment in poetry is in pulling the eye and mind of a reader along from one line to another. Ideas are easily expressed in a single line of a poem; even complicated ideas can be expressed in multiple lines with commas, semi-colons, and periods to end each line. When enjambment is used in poetry, it is typically done to reinforce an idea more strongly between multiple lines. By not allowing the reader to comfortably stop, the poet requires that a reader continue thinking about an idea from one line to the next.
Enjambment in poetry can also be used to trick a reader, usually by setting up one idea in a line and allowing the second line to go against what a reader might expect. This can be seen in a number of different poems and songs, including the popular children’s song often referred to as “Miss Susie” or “Hello Operator.” One popular slogan for women’s rights in the US in the 20th century read “A woman’s place is in the House” with the next line continuing “and the Senate.” This creates the expectation that the line is expressing a potentially sexist viewpoint, only to surprise the reader with the second line; when used in poetry, such surprises may be intended to be humorous or shocking.
Poets can also use enjambment in poetry to create a rhythm or pace for a poem that is quite different from end-stopping. In a poem in which each line concludes with punctuation that ends the idea in the line, the reader often reads a line, stops a moment, and then continues to the next. This creates a very set and somewhat choppy rhythm. By using enjambment, however, a poet can force the reader to move onto the next line without stopping. This can create a sense of quickness or even a frantic pace for a poem.