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In "The Red Wheelbarrow" the poet William Carlos Williams uses enjambment to great effect (or so I have read):

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

What is the effect of enjambment in this poem? Why did Williams use this technique?

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  • 1
    "Enjambment is a literary device in which a line of poetry carries its idea or thought over to the next line without a grammatical pause. With enjambment, the end of a poetic phrase extends past the end of the poetic line. This means that the thought or idea “steps over” the end of a line in a poem and into the beginning of the next line. The absence of punctuation allows for enjambment, and requires the reader to read through a poem’s line break without pausing in order to understand the conclusion of the thought or idea." For more detail and examples: literarydevices.net/enjambment May 2 at 2:50
  • 1
    @User4780993, are you looking for discussion of enjambment in general and the poem given is just an example, or are you looking for specific analysis of how enjambment is used in this poem? The first one is either still too broad or people might just ignore analyzing in general, because there isn't a way to analyze in general.
    – bobble
    May 2 at 4:09
  • @bobble I attached a poem highlighting an effective use of enjambment to ask why it was used in the poem— which then would essentially answer the question as to why it makes sense using this technique at all. May 2 at 4:38
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    But the reason to use enjambment varies from poem to poem. You will not get a general answer which applies to all cases because no such answer exists. Enjambment can be analyzed within a specific poem, and it can contribute to that poem, but in a way specific to that poem
    – bobble
    May 2 at 4:41
  • All right then, why was it used in the poem I've cited above? @bobble May 2 at 4:52
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Asking about the effect of enjambment in this poem, is asking how it is different than this:

so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

The same poem, with all the extra line-breaks and spaces taken out. It ends up being just a sentence. Much less poetic.

How do we read this sentence differently than the poem? Mainly, we read it faster. Line-breaks create a stopping-point. If reading silently, it takes time for the eye to adjust down to the next line. If reading out loud, the end of a line is usually given a short pause. But when all the words are in a single free-flowing line (there aren't e.g. commas to induce a pause) then we read it faster.

Okay, so the effect of enjambment is to slow down the reader. What does that add to the poem?

The poem is in line with Imagist ideas; it is concerned with carefully and precisely painting an image. Indeed, six of eight lines, and three of four verses, are entirely devoted to this image. Slowing down the reader forces them to give more time to considering the scene.

As your eye slides slowly from line to line, your brain has time to carefully consider the image and build a precise picture of it in your head. It is precisely the languid movement of the poem, caused by enjambment, that allows you to take - forces you to take - ample time to think about the image.

Thus we can say that the effect of enjambment in this poem is to slow down the reader, in order to better draw an image.


I will now consider authorial intent, since that was explicitly asked for in the question.

Williams wrote, as quoted from Wikipedia (which is itself quoting from other sources):

["The Red Wheelbarrow"] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall... In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.

Williams saw a red wheelbarrow which was surrounded by white chickens. This image moved him so much that he wrote it into a poem, to share it with the world. He wanted his reader to experience the red wheelbarrow next to the white chickens along with him, and take in the scene with the same affection that he felt. Thus he slows the reader down by using enjambment, to force slower and deeper consideration of the picture he paints.

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  • "the effect of enjambment (breaking up this sentence into different lines) is to slow down the reader." This is technically incorrect, or at best misleading. Enjambment is not the "breaking up [a] sentence into different lines".
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 11 at 8:20
  • Would it be better to say "which breaks up..." or just remove that...? I made some simplifications asking the way, I know
    – bobble
    Jun 11 at 13:45
  • Enjambment itself means that the end of the sentence (or clause) does not correspond with the line end but runs on. The reader expects some sort of (logical or syntactic) pause at the end of the line but it is not there. WCW's poem takes this to the extreme by even splitting up the word "wheelbarrow" and introducing line breaks between adjectives and nouns.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 11 at 13:54

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