The Art of Line Break & Enjambment
When we speak, we take advantage of our ability to pause, or lower our voice, or speak louder, or repeat ourselves in order to ensure our message, the full meaning of it, is expressed and understood. In poetry, we have a limited number of words we can use, and our ability to speak louder or whisper, is limited to the power of the words/images we use and, to line break.
Where we “break” a line, end it, and then move on to the next line, offers us the opportunity to deliver dramatic effect and to create just that bit of uncertainty that adds excitement and power to the poem.
“She plunged into the icy river of dreams…” is far less dramatic then – “She plunged into the icy river/ of dreams…”
This particular poetic “tool” is called enjambment, and simply means that we end a line meaning one thing (She plunged into the icy river) and then when it connects to the following line (of dreams) it takes on a whole new meaning.
The dictionary definition of enjambment is – noun: (in verse) the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza.
What makes line break, not just enjambment, such a valuable and important component of the poem is, simply, the fact that it allows the poet to control the rhythm and pace of the poem. If I want to create a “lazy” poem, I might allow my lines to flow on and give you a lot of information before moving you on to the next line.
“The clouds wandered like sheep across the blue meadow of the sky
sauntering aimlessly towards the distant hills.”
Had I wanted to make those lines a bit more dramatic, I might have used enjambment and line break in the following way:
“The clouds wandered
across the blue meadow
of the sky sauntering aimlessly
towards the distant hills.”
One of the best ways I know to help you decide where and how to end a line, is to read your poem aloud. Read it dramatically and then read it conversationally and then read it stopping in different places for affect.
Sometimes, I surprise myself with how the poem sounds aloud, and discover, I have the ability to create drama and tension in a poem, I hadn’t really thought had either of those elements.
Some more Examples of dramatic line break and enjambment:
His eyes crawled like frightened cats
around the empty space created
by her leaving…
The sun hovered above
the horizon, suspended between
night and day.
William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjambed lines:
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
Beyond whatever brittle dreams I held
of you was the empty spaces I traveled
foot weary over layers
of broken glass