As an examiner for English Literature, it’s fair to say that one of the most prevalent phrases used by students in response to poetry is: ‘the enjambment helps the poem flow’. This is closely followed in over-use by ‘the poet / writer does this to create an effect.’ Full stop.
Of course, poets do, indeed, use enjambment to ‘help the poem flow’. And they do a lot of other things to ‘create an effect’. This is unarguable. However, bald statements such as these, which are a very, very common feature of exam responses at notional grade D and below, are such a shame if the student doesn’t then go a little bit further… stressed and harried examiners have been known to actually talk to the script itself, asking the student ‘What? What is the effect? Why is it there?’ In one now-famous exam response, the student had actually said ‘He does this to create an effect’ thirty one times in their essay. Without once explaining what the effect was, or what the writer’s themes or ideas were. This was ‘technique-spotting’ at its extreme, of course, but quite a good example of what can happen when students are industriously attempting to do what they think they have to do in order to achieve marks in English Literature exams.
The Literature Assessment Objective to which these type of statements refers is, of course:
AO2: Explain how language, structure and form contribute to writers’ presentation of ideas, themes and settings
In Stevie Smith’s The River God, for example, of course the enjambment ‘makes the poem flow’. That’s one of the key structural techniques, and most students can see that this is a very effective use of enjambment. They can see that she is using structure to deepen the creation of her persona. However, once students have identified the technique, what are they then going on to do with it? Might they, for example, talk about where the enjambment stops – where the end stops are and why Smith might be deviating from the use of enjambment in order to foreground some particularly strong ideas? Might they look at the use of enjambment to really intensify the effects of the two monosyllabic statements: ‘Go’ and ‘Now’, and the ways that the positioning of these two within the enjambment suggest a subconscious command? Because if they do this, then they are starting to analyse the use of structure and how it contributes to meaning, which will enable them to access much higher notional bands than D.
Teaching glossaries of literary techniques can have a place in the Literature classroom. It is arguably a fundamental part of opening students’ eyes to the language of poetry. However, unless students link the technique they want to talk about to some investigation of what the actual effect might be, and how it impacts on meaning, they will produce the kind of frustratingly limiting statements like the ones above.
English Teacher and author of A Bridge to GCSE English