Enjambment in Sonnets


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Lines, Sentences and Enjambment

Punctuation reigns supreme in shaping the meaning of language. Where we place that essential little comma or the end-stop can make all the difference.  One of my favorite moments in my classroom is when I present this age-old favorite for punctuation:

Woman without her man is nothing

Half of the class punctuates is this way:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

The other half goes with:

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

There is always laughter and then the conversation devolves into ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!”

Hello Poets!  I am Jilly, your host for this unique edition of Meeting The Bar in which I am offering support for our month-long Sonnet Challenge!

The use of punctuation in poetry, especially when it is read aloud, is just as essential as it is in prose, but many of us find it difficult to read a poem to the punctuation as opposed to the line breaks, but that is just what we are meant to do.

Part of what trips us up in the reading of poetry is the capitalization that occurs at the start of every line, even though the punctuation doesn’t fall into agreement.  That is the nature of poetry and for some writers, the nature of working in Google Docs or some other word processing format that automatically capitalizes the first word of a new line. Our job, then, as readers, is to ignore those pesky capital letters when there is no punctuation.  Our job is to read to the syntax road-markers, and so keep the meaning of the sentence or thought presented.

Image result for enjambment

An enjambed line is one in which the sentence does not stop at the end of the line; it runs through the line. Why do poets use this technique and how do we handle it as readers of poetry?

One of the reasons poets choose to use an enjambed line is that it gives us multiple ways to look at a single thought in the poem.  Our eyes, as readers, naturally take a slight pause at the end of a line – this makes that end-word so very, very crucial. The most important word in a line of poetry is the end word; the second most important word is the first word in the line. As writers of poetry  this gives us a whole extra set of tools over writers of prose. We have the end word in a line, the first word in a line, and we have the role of punctuation as well.

Many of you are participating in the month-long Sonnet challenge that Bjorn opened two weeks ago and more than a few poets have expressed a struggle with writing Sonnet form.  Part of the difficulty comes in working with the meter and rhyme scheme. Well, my poetic friends, enjambment is a great way to break yourself and your reader free from the pattern that binds you.  If every ten-syllable line of a sonnet completes a full thought before moving to the next line, it runs the risk of getting dull or sing-songy. Trust me; I’m an expert on this mistake in Sonnet writing!!  In addition, the form can become the poem rather than the content. Have you ever gotten lost in a sonnet because the meter was just too, too good? I need a break from the jump-rope style of lines lest I fail to catch the deeper meaning of the words.  Let’s take a look at Sonnet #129 by Shakespeare and see how the expert used enjambment to keep it fresh.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


Notice the first two lines: the first full thought runs into the middle of line two where we see the semicolon after the word action. If we wrote this out in prose style, it would read like this:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action;

Notice, too, that there is no punctuation at the end of line two; the phrase is lust is perjured, murderous, bloody…

Now look at the final couplet in the same way. The semi-colon in the first line is where the break in thought occurs and the rest of the couplet is the pithy proverb that sums up the point of the entire sonnet.  One more little point worth making about the punctuation in this sonnet is that there are only two true end stops; at the end of line twelve and at the end of the poem. Curious and wonderful!

What I most enjoy about this sonnet, and others like it, is that the sonnet form steps back into the shadows and the meaning of the poem takes center stage.  This is achieved, in part, by the use of the enjambed line and the Bard’s placement of punctuation.

Whether in Sonnets or in Free-Verse poems, enjambment is a significant player in our poetry, so let’s dedicate this edition of Meeting the Bar to working with the enjambed line in the revision of our sonnets.

This link to Bjorn’s Sonnet Challenge is open for two more weeks.

This is a feedback and revision process!

Please take the time to read what others have posted. We are encouraging each other in revision, so offer feedback when it is asked for. If you haven’t stopped by in awhile, you will be surprised at how many new and delightful sonnets have been posted.  Be sure to read the later postings, too!

Happy Writing, Y’all!