by Gillian Clarke
This is the word for one of poetry’s dance steps. It’s the nanosecond pause at the end of one line and the start of another, or the two nanoseconds between verses, where the meaning overruns the line, leaps the gap and lands at the start of the next line, or the next verse. The sentence pauses, and continues, like the toe-to-heel step of a dancer who reaches the edge of the space, and turns without stopping the dance. It’s the nose of the goldfish nudging the glass on its journey round the tank.
Prose is made of sentences, poetry is made of lines. Poetry uses sentences too, but in a poem the lines are in charge, and they decide the way we read it. The pattern a poem makes on the page is musical notation, or choreography. Enjambment stops the sentence in its stride, forcing it to dance to poetry’s tune. Most examples below are of sentence-breaks at verse-endings.
In Seamus Heaney’s At a Potato Digging, between verses 2, 3 and 4, the meaning overruns the verse-endings. Meaning leaps the gap. The gap divides ‘stand’ from ‘tall’, and ‘turf’ from ‘recurs’. Why? The poet has more to say, but wants to keep to his rhyme scheme: ‘stand’ rhymes with ‘headland’, ‘turf’ rhymes with ‘surf’. The enjambment holds the poem together, lets it flow, stops it from jerking to a stop at the line-endings, and varies the rhythm.
In my (Gillian Clarke) poem, A Difficult Birth, the link between lines 21 and 22 is important. Line 21 ends with ‘and you find us’, which lays stress on ‘us’, and line 22 begins with the word ‘peaceful’, which stresses that word. Without enjambment the meaning would be quite different. It would just say ‘you find us peaceful’. The lines need that pause so that ‘us’ and ‘peaceful’ can be heard separately.
Carol Ann Duffy is doing something similar in Haversham. Verse two ends with ‘who did this’ and verse three begins with ‘to me?’ Verse three ends with ‘Love’s’, then verse four begins with ‘hate behind a white veil.’ Waiting that nanosecond for the second part of the sentence helps us weigh the word for a moment before being shocked by the next five words.
Simon Armitage’s Hitcher gives us good examples of enjambment at verse endings. The last three verses are linked in this way. Verse three ends with ‘I dropped it into third’, verse four begins, ‘and leant across’; verse four ends ‘he’d said he liked the breeze’, and verse five begins, ‘to run its fingers/ through his hair.’ The breaking of those words from each other is like someone trying to gasp out a desperate story, and mimics, I think, the stop-go of the journey, the violence of the story.