Atomic Post: Analysing Enjambment and Alliteration

Students often like to write about enjambment and alliteration, likely because they’re very easy to identify, but they rarely do so well.

Often points about these two poetic strategies might align to something related to flow, making the reader want to read on, or the alliteration of ‘a’ somehow and inexplicably mimicking something that the poem happens to be about.

When teaching these two poetic strategies I tend to encourage students to focus on the below:

1) Alliteration functions as a kind of highlighter for sound. By conjoining two words via sound the poet draws attention to these words. Alliteration is like taking a phonetic piece of string and attaching it between two or more words. So, when we talk about alliteration we’re perhaps more interested in why these words were phonetically connected. Why draw attention to them in this way? How does one influence or juxtapose the other? The emphasis then starts with the sound but quickly draws itself into the imagery itself. This isn’t always true and sometimes the soundscape is important, but I’ve found this to be a productive way of looking at alliteration that moves us beyond ‘the poem flows’.

2) Enjambment: Here, I ask students to think about a line as a single unit of sense. Poetry is almost unique in that it allows writers to choose when to end a line. This is always for a reason. So, enjambment has little to do with the poem flowing a lot to do with how the unit of sense called a line is extended, disrupted, juxtaposed, curtailed, continued. How does one unit of sense continue or disrupt the next? Again, as with alliteration, the meaning quickly becomes connected to the imagery of the poem itself and not so much the device as a totality of meaningful significance. A great example of this is the Heaney poem appended to this post. Here, the enjambment offers a surprising revelation of the landscape: from a tame cat to one turned savage. The unit of sense marshalled by the figure of the line is disrupted by the enjambment and its meaning, in some way, made anew.

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