“Enjambment! Or would You Prefer the French Version, Sir?”

( PLEASE NOTE. Having mentioned the term “enjambement” once or twice in my last blog on The Marriage of Cana : A Poem I here present this from an earlier August 2020 post )

Is there a word the sound of which-whether uttered correctly or incorrectly -makes you wince?

In French -for me, “enjambement” is not like that. It is rather such a sweet sounding, elegant intonation. I love to hear it pronounced by a good French speaker. And I , in turn, attempted, in my rudimentary French to repeat that sound as best I could when I used it teaching in tutorial.

But, turn the beautiful French sound into English and the resulting sound is a crude horror. It certainly does make me wince. “Enjambement” becomes “Enjambment” and with the silent “b” the English jam, then with the “m” doubled becomes your central syllable : so “Enjamment”. In French (la) “jambe ” refers to leg and “enjambement” is the action of straddling, which in verse becomes a meaning crossing two lines. It makes sense. In English “jam” in relation to the meaning makes no sense. “En-jamming” sounds as if it is the word for a trapped child in a lift unable to move or get out because hemmed in by hulking adults. Or it reminds me of that disgustingly cruel ways wasps were lured into a jammy jar filled with water into which intoxicated with the sugar they would inevitably eventually drop trapped and drowned: “Enjam-ment”.

So it was excruciating in poetry discussion having demonstrated the subtlety with which a poet had created a particularly effective way of conveying a meaning by the use of the technique my carefully enunciated French was responded with “Ah you mean “en-jam-(b)ment”!

We noted the subtlety in “There Was a Boy”:

Then sometimes in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise 

Here the suspense, the hanging action, listening for a sound is perfectly conveyed by the pause caused in moving from one line to the next.

Another example follows later in the poem:

A long half-hour together I have stood
Mute -looking at the grave in which he lies. 

where the sense of standing long and quiet at the graveside is strengthened by the lengthening of the movement between “stood” and “Mute” (both rhythically accented)

Perhaps the most famous observation on an example of enjambement that first enabled me to understand the power of the technique (before that it was just a word without point) comes where the famous critic F. R. Leavis writing on Keats in Revaluation takes the example of the gleaner in “To Autumn”:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across the brook. 

The gleaner’s task is to carry a basket of gleaned grain on their head. Leavis writes of this description:

In the step from the rime-word “keep”, across (so to speak) the pause enforced by the line-division to “Steady” the balancing movement of the gleaner is enacted.

Exactly like the movement of easing your way over stepping stones with a basket on your head, showing perfect balance! Leavis’ comment puts into words perfectly what is being done by the poet to achieve the effect. Once demonstrated we see the kind of enactment that the enjambement brings that enhances our identification with what is happening in the poem.

Such subtle enhancement deserves the pleasingly subtle French intonation of enjambement

POPPIES

I love the time of year-mid May- when poppies first appear in our garden. I remember them so often as I passed them in fields scattered among the wheat on the road between North Berwick and Edinburgh. Here is a poem on poppies.

Poppies

You are not
simple indiscretions at a summer fete
shunned by suburban florists

You are
gregarious rebels
anarchists in Nature's hierarchy.

Inveterate guerillas against camouflage
You open reckless, bloody wounds
among fields of smug corn.

You will always be
a conflagration of heartache
reeking of drowsy Keats
emblem both of Remembrance and Oblivion.

My pets, my feral poppies.

Christopher Morgan “Poppies” from “Stalking the A4″Edgeways The Brynmill Press 2009

The poem so wittily presents the contrasts and contradictions the flower represents. Offset against the decorous tidiness of the show flowers of the fete and against the fields of “smug corn” are the suggestions of the wild untameability of the flower against all our instincts to regulate and order nicely. How wonderfully right is that word “conflagration” ( the long four syllables containing the word “flag” which occasions the outburst of various feelings and associations the flower can set off as it spreads here and there in the fields).

Pets, of course, are not by definition feral but by our love of the flowers we seek to contain, while recognising we cannot contain their wild unpredictable manifestation of life.

But ignore me just go back to the poem and draw from its profuse richness!

For readers unaware of the allusion to Keats it comes from the second stanza of “To Autumn” where Keats is seeking to personify Autumn by representing the range of harvest activities.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on ahalf-reap’d furrow sound asleep

Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

Steady thy laden head across a brook;

Or by a cider-press, with a patient look,

Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.