Saturday, January 06, 2007

Enjambement - again

Thought I'd indulge myself with a post about enjambement. Not much chance of a wide readership for this one, but I must be missing the classroom or something.

The poem referred to in the previous post, R.S.Thomas' "Evans", uses enjambement in what I would recognise as two different modes. The start of the poem tells how the poet recalled his leaving of the sick man's house, and here the enjambement suggests an almost breathless haste, as if the visiting vicar, "appalled" at his failure to help the man in any way, cannot wait to be outside again.
Evans? Yes, many a time
I came down his bare flight
Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen
With its wood fire, where crickets sang
Accompaniment to the black kettle's
Whine, and so into the cold

However, there is also the prominence of the words which start the lines: accompaniment, whine, dark - and "dark" is used here as a noun, as Thomas goes on to talk about "the dark/ silting the veins of that sick man", a dark that the light of faith cannot alleviate. A complex poem reflecting on the failure of a complex man to fulfil his secondary calling - that of priest - in the language that Thomas saw as his one refuge from a world "glib with prose."

As he grew older, Thomas used this device even more starkly, as here, from "Launching a Prayer":
The stripling posturing
before the hero;
the mature man
posturing before


Here, the stanza break (this is a three stanza poem) emphasises, builds up to the word "God" - and Thomas always thought of God with awe.

I'd like to look briefly at favourite examples of enjambement from two other poets - my response to sorlil's comment yesterday. The first is from Norman McaCaig's "Visiting Hour". The poet, on his way to visit an apparently dying woman in hospital, writes:
I will not feel, I will not
feel, until
I have to.
Read that aloud and the jaw-clenching self-control is brought out by the marking of the line breaks as much as by the repetition of the words "will not feel".

Similarly, in T.S.Eliot's great poem "Journey of the Magi", one of the "wise men" who sought the infant Christ looks back over his life at that momentous journey so long ago.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
As the old man dictates to a scribe, his hesitation as he searches for words to express his bafflement are there in the enjambement, along with the repetition that underlines his determination to convey his overwhelming question.

Great. It took me such a long time to realise this, but it was worth the wait. A final thought for the educators out there: it's when you're really fired up by something you teach, as I am by poetry of this calibre, that the magic happens. There is this awesome responsibilty not to let the poet down by your teaching - death by a thousand cuts to the teacher who cares not! I'll give R.S Thomas the last say on such moments:
But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire
and burned steadily before them.....
(The Chapel)


  1. Hi Chris

    Will be reading your poetry blogs with interest.

    (Catherine's daughter)

  2. Chris,
    Love this.I've pondered enjambement for a while -and taught pupils to see it- as you describe in one instance - as the poet conveying his controlled/repressed emotion. I think it works like this in, for example Heaney's Midterm Break, where the neat three line stanzas are 'contradicted' by the enjambememt. Here, it seems to signal the poet's failure to 'rationalise' his response to the death of a child.

    Love to know your theories on alliteration. What exactly is it that appeals to us here? Is it simply rhythm? Or does it hearken back to oral traditions and memorising?

  3. mrs. O (what can I call you? that's sucha mouthful - or mouseful!): I think alliteration has to be regarded as one of the "sound effects" - so when you have Eliot's "silken girls bringing sherbet", although it's not pure alliteration, you can nevertheless hear the smooth whisper of their clothes; or when you have "multitudes of hidden birds who/splash and scurry" and the "s" is a definite feature of the sound the birds make around a bird bath.
    I personally have a bit of a problem with isolating alliteration in the teaching of literary devices; there is a tendency to have youngish pupils writing whole lines of alliterative words to show they can do it, and though it may be fun at the time and make them remember what it is I think it "cheapens" it as something used seriously in poetry.
    Gosh - I *am* on my high horse tonight!

  4. Sheila - good to know you're there! Please comment whenever .....:-)

  5. Chris, is it possible for people in Canada like me to buy your poetry collections, or are they only available on your side of the pond?

    If you want to converse about this 'off blog', email me at tim dot chesterton at gmail dot com.

  6. Nice enjambement by MacCaig. I completely agree about passion for one's subject - it was Judith MacCrae's passion in teaching about Sylvia Plath that made me, years later, look up her poetry which then inspired me to start writing my own!

  7. Anonymous5:54 PM

    Hi, Chris

    Please call me Liz! I need to find out how to post on blogger without my horrid picture and 'school' name coming up.
    Yes, I see what you mean about isolating alliteration. I find teaching textual analysis really difficult in this area, because devices quite often change in impact depending on several other factors. Sometimes alliteration does seem to create a 'song-like' chant which might lighten the mood -or conversely darken it.
    I won't ask about assonance...

  8. Liz (that's better!) - I loved teaching textual analysis because it was something the kids really got into after I'd showed them how. I always let them loose on the text first, in groups, and then went round joining in to help them see how much they could uncover in whatever they were looking at. Often they'd come up with way-out suggestions which showed where they themselves were coming from, and then I'd share my thoughts and we'd chew round it for a bit. I liked the recognition of devices to grow organically from the text rather than impose them from outside (fi that makes sense) - it made a big difference to the way they ultimately wrote about literature. (eg they wouldn't say "it has alliteration" as if it was measles)
    Don't know how sensible this soounds to you - it's a bit late in the evening for this sort of stuff!

  9. Tim - I'll mail you. But for general consumption: the books (28 poems in each) are £5; "Ridgewalk" is nearly sold out; you could pay using Pay Pal.

  10. Anonymous8:02 PM

    Chris, that's encouraging because that's the way I started teaching it, and then got cold feet when I saw how others taught it.
    One of the issues I see with my pupils is a lack of confidence in their instincts about a text. I feel I need to help them find the vocabulary without stifling their own responses -which as you say, reflect where they are and what they know.
    Had a very interesting discussion recently with an S5 Int 2 class who told me they didn't like poetry because 'it makes you feel stupid.' That's a teaching weakness I want to avoid. They liked reading Gillian Clarke's web page because she talked about WHY she wrote -before the techniques.
    Do you feel your 'organic' approach
    feeds better into this? It feels like it should. Sorry if I'm taking you off topic here - just respond when you can.

  11. Liz - it's ok: I love it when ideas bounce off other ones!
    I know what you mean about the Int 2s feeling "stupid". They may well have been subjected to previous bad experiences - or none at all - when they were still young enough not to be so inhibited.
    I always stressed that any response was valid as long as they could back it up with textual reference which was not based on misunderstanding (of syntax or whatever). And we never said "no, no - wrong, wrong!" Instead I'd suggest that they approach a word or an idea from another angle - and I might give them some clues that I knew they could pick up. Leading questions helped - esp. if they didn't suss that they were being led! I tended to mix with them very closely while they were engaged in this kind of work - I'd be sitting in among them and we'd all fire thoughts about. If a group was too small to have very many ideas coming out, we'd enlarge the group and take our time. I was just one of them.
    Later, when they knew I wrote poems, they'd ask questions about ideas, words, images - and I found interesting imagery appearing in their essays. I'm thinking particularly of a mixed ability S grade boys' class - I had two of these in my last 7 years and we had the liveliest time because there were no girls to inhibit them.

    "I feel I need to help them find the vocabulary without stifling their own responses " - why not let them find the concept and then tell them later what to call it? I use the analogy of computers - you don't call the cursor the wee arrow thingy ....Then hold spot tests to test their recall of the terms independently of any particular textual analysis and treat it like a TV game show! Next time, you find that they're beginning to use the terminology correctly.

    "that's the way I started teaching it, and then got cold feet when I saw how others taught it. "
    -Ah, but it's terribly badly taught! No wonder kids are put off!

  12. Anonymous7:49 PM

    This is a really useful discussion. Feel like printing it off and passing it round the staffroom (a la Jerry Maguire- daft movie, but you'll know what I mean if you've seen it).

    I like the way of 'trying to look from another angle'. It's the process of concentrating on something with the optimism that it will become clearer, that I'm trying to engender in them. Lovely when that happens.

    Thanks Chris.

  13. Haven't seen the movie - sorry! (Too busy blogging:-))
    I've enjoyed this - if you want to run any other thoughts by me feel free - it seems a waste not to make use of what I know before senility sets in //:-{

  14. Anonymous7:51 PM

    Hope you won't regret that remark...

    That would be great. The thing is there never seems enough time in school to talk about this stuff...