kay-ryan

In this weekend’s poetry feature Nige considers the use of enjambment…

What is wrong with this poem?

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

It’s Via Negativa  by R.S. Thomas, and according to Donald Davie, enjambment is what’s wrong with it – there’s far too much of it. Enjambment is what happens when a phrase or sentence runs over the end of a line, instead of ending at the line-break. It’s an essential tool in the poet’s armoury, breaking the jog-trot tendency of regular metrical verse, throwing the emphasis onto unexpected words, and setting up a creative tension between syntax and structure. It is entirely apt that Via Negativa, a poem that is all about tension, should embody it in frequent enjambment. And when it’s read aloud – or voiced in the head – it works perfectly.

Edward Thomas, whose work often seethes with tension, was another  master of enjambment, especially (as with R.S.) in his later poems. Here he is, cranking up the tension, in Beauty

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph–
“Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.” Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.

And then there is Kay Ryan, enjamber extraordinaire…

Shark’s Teeth

Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark’s-tooth
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks.

What would Donald Davie have made of that?


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  1. Nige on Sunday 15, 2013

    That’s not me in the picture by the way – it’s Kay Ryan…

  2. Brit on Sunday 15, 2013

    Sorry, yes, potential confusion with that standfirst looking like a caption. That’s actually Kay Ryan considering the use of enjambment for her next poem. (She eventually decides that she will indeed use it.)