DEATH ENJAMBED: Deborah Burand
Enjambment is a tool available to poets and musicians but rarely to prose writers. Unless they are
intentionally, even gleefully, rule-breaking writers who don’t cling to margins.
Or should I say –
line making and then
Good girl prose writer that I am, it took me some time to shake hands with the concept of enjambment,
much less dare to consider putting it to use on the page. That is until I misread Brad Leithauser’s book
Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry (Knopf: 2022). Enjambment, he tells the reader, comes
from the French verb enjamber, meaning to stride over or go beyond.
Enjambment presents itself in poetry, Leithauser says, by “breaking a line.” He then goes on to explain
that startling enjambments make a kind of contract with the reader. They offer a promise that what’s
next to come will warrant the small shock that sparks when we drag our eyes and ears over the lines of a
poem and then touch the metal of an irregular or unexpected line break.
When I read his explanation, I mistook “breaking a line” for “breaking a life.” Still under the spell of my
misreading, I began nodding my head in agreement. I could see the magic in such poetic enjambments.
Enjambments could stretch and curl over poems with Rapunzel-like fingers, ready to spin meaning from
life threads that surprisingly break or fray. I began underlining Leithauser’s words and dog-earing pages
of his book so that later I could find my way back to these insights.
Pen hovering in hand, ready to make more tracks on the page, I suddenly experienced a mental whoops.
Leithauser was not talking about life breaks; he was talking only of line breaks.
I imagined Leithauser chuckling over my mistake. “That’s the kind of wordplay that poets indulge in
intentionally,” he might say. Then add, “See how much richer writing gets when you invite both ear and
eye to the page.”
Chastened, I tried rereading his description of enjambment. Slowly this time. Taking care to not lose
sight of Leithauser’s line of thought. Yet it happened again. In my mind’s eye, life covered line as surely
as paper covers rock in games of Rock, Scissors, Paper. My ear was no help either. I could not read the
word line without first hearing life.
Can people as well as poems enjamb? Halt in surprise. Straddle words and worlds with one leg planted
in life and the other in line.
Three days after I finished reading Leithauser’s book, I attended a workshop with the poet Jack Ridl, a
master enjamber. He asked us to consider the line breaks in his poems, to look at the white space as
attentively as we did the ink on the page.
Why break there? he asked. I looked again at his poems. Margins untamed, eddied and plunged.
Why break with that particular word? His end-of-line words strobed before my eyes. Were they piers
or bridges to what might follow?
Then he asked, what do you as a reader experience when you trip over these unexpected line breaks? I
tried to taste word flavors as they lingered on my tongue. I listened for word echoes. I imagined these
words reaching out to touch me, nudging me to march in step with their rhythms. I felt a faint pat of
kitten paw, a firm hand on my elbow, a commuter’s rough jostle. And finally, I tried to inhale these
words. Here was a whisp of perfume knitted into the yarn of an old sweater. There the lingering scent
of a dinner persisting long after dishes had been washed and mealtime conversations had been
To enjamb a line, Ridl told us, is like inserting a half comma.
I searched the poem in my hand for Ridl’s imaginary half commas. It was as if they were written in
lemon juice, only willing to show themselves if warmed by a reader’s attention. I imagined these
invisible marks snagging readers like the nailheads that slightly protrude from door jambs ready to catch
shirt sleeves or pant legs as we rush by. Pause, they said. Slow down. Look before you leap across this
threshold to the next line.
When I recall the poems of my childhood, they all rhyme. And they often share a familiar rhythm. But I
don’t know if their bouncy lines enjamb for these poems are part of my aural history, heard more often
than seen. Maybe lean Jack Sprat and his not-so-lean wife enjambed as they licked their platters clean.
Or perhaps Jack and Jill skipped past many a line ending as they fetched their pails of water.
Here is where I too should pause and make an admission. I am a wholly unreliable translator of all
things poetic. I have a beginner’s ear to match a beginner’s appetite. That is to say, I’m eager, clumsy,
often confused. What I am not is to be trusted.
Even as I wrote the above words, I began to hear the murmuration of flocking poets, their pens and ink-
stained fingers fluttering en masse. I see them scratching away on this page’s margins. Wrong, their
scribblings shout. She’s totally missed the point, others exclaim. I will not repeat the rougher language,
other than to say remember those tattooed walls of high school toilet stalls.
Once I discovered enjambment or at least what I thought was an enjambed line, I could not unsee or
unhear it, in all its line breaking variations. Like games of where’s Waldo, I started to spot glimpses of
It was in the breaking waves that hungrily rush over each other to tongue sand-salt from the beach. It
was in the breaking news banners that bloom red contrails of doom at the bottom of my television screen. It was in the dance troupe that refuses to draw theater curtains to a close at the end of performances so that ghostly traces of its dancers linger even after the stage goes black. And it was in my father’s stubborn refusal to break his God-conversations with amens. No convenient
prayer stop for him. “To say amen,” he explained to me once, “is to hang up on God. I don’t want to do
Which brings up another trait of enjambment – its capacity to confuse. It certainly has confused many
of those dinner guests who sat with heads bowed and eyes shut at my father’s table waiting patiently,
yet fruitlessly, for him to close his prayer of grace with an amen.
Over the years, my father learned to let his dinner guests know that he had foresworn amen’ing. But
these pre-prayer warnings didn’t help his dinner guests much. It only made them uneasy, causing them
to sneak peeks during his grace-giving to see if anyone else had started eating.
For a while it became almost a game for me to see how long it would take for our guests to lift their
heads and forks. When my father’s praying trailed off, I’d quietly begin eating, trying not to clank my
water glass or clatter my knife while still reverent dinner guests sat immobile next to me.
That game came to an end when my father noticed how his children were racing to grab second servings
while guests had barely buttered their dinner rolls. To forestall future food races and perhaps to ease
his guests’ discomfort, my father began adding a coda to his prayers, an endstop in poet-speak. When
approaching the last of his grace-giving words, he now says, “In the spirit of unending prayer, I’ll refrain
from saying amen.”
Leithauser warns that enjambment does not aways deliver on its promise of meaning-making. Far from
it. It can disorient, confuse even, just as my father’s enjambed prayers of amen-less grace baffled
unaware guests at his dinner table.
The problem with enjambed prayers extends to enjambed hymns. I am not the first to notice this.
Rarely do you see enjambed hymn lyrics, at least not in those red Methodist hymnals shelved under
pews in my church. And if you do stumble across such a lyric, be careful as it can give voice to odd
theology. Take, for example, the first enjambed line of this 1874 hymn penned by Frances R. Havergal:
“Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord to thee.”
This enjambed lyric could be sung, as I surely did in my high school youth choir, as a rebellious teenage
anthem to just let me be, before I slammed the door shut on any future consecration. Or try muttering
“let it be” three more times under your breath and see this staid hymn shape shift into a Paul
McCartney parody, troubling both Mother Mary and that prolific writer of much Methodist song,
Either way you choose to sing it – with teen angst or Beatlized, point made. Awkward enjambments can
give rise to awkward theology.
Yet, perhaps enjambments in life, as in poetry, offer chances for deeper blessings and meaning-making.
Perhaps even some of that consecration my teenage self was so willing to shut out.
Sometimes to understand a term, I first must see its opposite. Another poet leads me there. Mary
Oliver says that the writing of her poem Wild Geese was an exercise in writing end-stopped lines, lines
that end with punctuation. Lines that are complete into themselves, definitively resolved. Lines like
these three from Wild Geese:
“You do not have to be good. “
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
“Meanwhile the world goes on.”
But not every line of Wild Geese is end-stopped. The poem’s last and probably most memorable line
enjambs, echoing, resounding, cascading from line to line before pooling to the end.
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.“
Why am I drawn to this idea of enjambment? Why am I working so hard to recognize it, understand it,
then take it a spin for myself? I think it has to do with how I am shifting in my understanding of endings
more generally, and my mother’s life break more specifically. I am looking for a narrative of her death
that I can grasp and make sense of.
Do life lines ever break crisply, neatly framed by margins of space and time? If so, are they end-stopped,
punctuated with a period or, better yet, an exclamation point? Or do they always spill over their
I am coming to think of my mother’s passing as one of Ridl’s half commas, writ in lemon juice. Warm
the memory of her and she’ll stride over death. Move beyond it. Death enjambed.
Bio: Deborah Burand is a professor of clinical law at NYU School of Law where she directs the International Transactions Clinic and is the faculty co-director of the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship. When not teaching law students how to do good by doing deals, she’s writing a nature memoir about making legacies in surprising places, even if that means moving dumpsters.