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How to Enjamb

In the May 2014 issue of Poetry, there are two poems that provide opposite examples of how to enjamb: one that elicits surprise and intrigue, the other, groans. The first is Tom Sleigh’s slant-rhyme sonnet “Another Day of Life,” from the After Vallejo series; the second is Jacob Saenz’s “Forged.”

Sleigh’s enjambments are “surprising and intriguing” because rather than relying on cheap tricks that confound your initial interpretation, they employ gentle shifts that startle it, impelling you to a more profound one. Consider the first five lines:

I’ll die in my apartment on a cold bright day,
with nobody around, the apartment next door gone
dead still while wind whistles through the balcony,
though the branches somehow aren’t moving, just as the sun

doesn’t move, everything’s so quiet, so frozen.

The first turn comes at the end of the second line: the apartment next door has “gone,” and we might imagine it having disappeared in apocalyptic catastrophe, at least for the split second it takes our eyes to move to the next line, but we soon see that it hasn’t gone away or vanished, only transitioned into a state of quiescence.

The move from the fourth to the fifth line does something similar, though it complicates superficial observation a bit more in its wryness. There is a wind “whistling” through the balcony, “though the branches aren’t moving, just as the sun” (we might protest: but, the sun does move) “doesn’t move.” In fact, the doesn’t move, its apparent motion notwithstanding. What we see as the its path across the sky indicates the rapid spinning of the ground beneath our feet, our assumptions about things only as good as our vision of them. The enjambment toys with this vision, first by confusing interpretation (the sun moves!), then driving it further (ah, but it doesn’t, really), and finally by inviting you to think: what about those in fact non-moving branches?

Jacob Saenz’s poem induces groans because it seems to toy with interpretation mostly to poke fun at the reader. Consider the first six lines:

My brother wore bags over his boots
to keep the grease & grime from his time
at the steel mill off the carpet & steps

he mounted, heaving each foot
like a monster born of the grave
-yard shift—stiff & awkward,

These proceed predictably enough, each line measuring essentially a breath, with the first half of the one succeeding it qualifying it in some way across the break: “his time / at the steel mill”; “the carpet & steps / he mounted”; “heaving each foot / like a monster.”

The move from the fifth to the sixth, though, completely ruptures interpretation. “Monsters born of the grave” are one thing; those born of the “grave / -yard” another. Appending “-yard” transmutes the resurrected corpse of our initial interpretation into a banal casualty of poor working conditions. It reads like a bathic cheap trick (that also, to my eye, does little justice to the stultifying work the brother here must undertake, but that’s another thing).

Why does it feel that way? Because it doesn’t proceed from a superficial understanding to a deeper, more nuanced one. It simply tells you your initial impression was wrong. Gotchya! And that’s the end of it.

Categories: Notes.


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