The Psychology of Enjambment in Ocean Vuong’s “Telemachus”

Enjambment is a device used to investigate and explore the interplay of content and movement both on the written page and in the minds of poet and reader. This essay will use findings from a psychological study on the effects of enjambment on mental processing through eye-movement-tracking, and Peter Halter’s essay “The Poem on the Page, Or the Visual Poetics of William Carlos Williams” (2015) as a lens through which to discuss the effects of enjambment on diegesis and mythology in Ocean Vuong’s poem “Telemachus.”

In a psychological experiment, scientists observed two forms of enjambment: prospective (syntactically incomplete), and retrospective (syntactically complete) (Koops van ‘t Jagt, et all, 4).  Since in a prospective enjambment the syntax of the line is incomplete, the reader’s interpretation of the thought it contains and projects depends on the words that follow the enjambed line. When the syntactical unit is complete, as in a retrospective enjambment, a reader’s interpretation of the line changes when they read the following line, which will inform and perhaps change the meaning of the previously understood thought. In the same study psychologists found that, “whenever it is possible to interpret a fragment [of a poem], readers will do so, leading to longer reading times due to integration” (Koops van ‘t Jagt, et al, 20). Enjambment prompts the reader to interpret a fragmented text, they will amend that interpretation based on the lines that complete that fragment. Because of the integration of the two ideas, the reader’s interpretation of the poem is suspended (for a few milliseconds) in the whitespace between lines in a way that forces them to reconcile the fragmented meaning with the meaning that arrives after integration.  The time it takes to integrate the two meanings can be used to great effect, as Halter exemplifies in his analysis of William Carlos Williams’ poetry.

In the poem “Good Night,” Williams uses enjambment as if to create a list of objects in a kitchen. On this method, Halter remarks, “it enumerates the objects in the order in which the speaker perceives them, and thus iconically embodies the process of perception. It exploits the way in which the eye explores the space surrounding it by incessantly moving from detail to detail” (Halter, 98). Hatler’s argument here is that this use of enjambment is mimetic; just as the speaker’s eyes move across his field of vision and take in the kitchen object-by-object, so must the reader in his encounter with the enjambed lines. The lines themselves enumerate a list of objects, but they only form a cohesive whole in their interactions with each other. This use of mimesis reveals objects in an order that creates relationships between them in time with the reader’s eye and processing.

Like Williams, Ocean Vuong uses enjambment, iconicity, and mimesis to create a psychological landscape in his poetry. Every line but the last in Vuong’s poem “Telemachus” is enjambed. The poem begins, “like any good son, I pull my father out / of the water” (Vuong, 1-2). This enjambment is prospective because it requires the beginning of the second line “of the water” to complete the syntax. Therefore, the reader’s eye speeds to the next line, “of the water,” as if pulled in order to make sense of the phrase. This example of enjambment is therefore mimetic, but it is also iconic because the word “out” stands surrounded on three sides by white space, visually pulling the line across the page, and the eye with it. “Out” is also a stressed syllable in the line:” like any good son, I pull my father out.” The stress on the final syllable of the line uses rhythm to propel the reader forward. It is worth noting here that I have stressed the comma after “son.” In the same psychological study of enjambment, scientists found that “perceiving visual boundaries in written texts involves the same processes as the perception of prosodic boundaries in spoken language,” (Koops van ’t Jagt, et al, 4). In other words, whenever a reader encounters a place in the written text where he would pause while reading aloud, he will pause during the silent reading of the poem. In this case I have marked the comma as a stressed syllable because the silence between “like any good son,” and “I pull my father out” is a significant aural moment in the reading of the poem which leads the reader to the final stressed syllable.  It acts as a caesura; it changes the direction of the sentence and of the line. The first part of the line establishes the speaker as “a good son.” The second part of the line turns to why, and what was happening that would make the speaker act as a “good son.” It is also a significant moment in the poem overall because it shows the reader what kind of person the father is—one that gets into trouble—and the dynamic between the troublesome father and his “good” son.

The next enjambment operates for a more visual effect. The speaker continues, “drag him by his hair // through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail” (Vuong, 2-3). The white sand and the trail are metaphorically represented by the white space on the page and physical text. If the white sand is the untouched environment in the poem, its physical corollary, the white space, acts as a place for the poem to exist. Likewise, if the trail is a remnant of the father’s movement across the sand, the text is a physical and textual recording of that movement. Because of the enjambment here the poem is not only taking place in the reader’s mind, but also before them on the page. The fact that every line of the poem is enjambed also aids in the creation of a palpable landscape throughout the poem, both on the page and in the minds of reader and poet. The use of prospective and retrospective enjambments push and pull the reader across the page just as the tide rushes in and out on the beach in the visual landscape of the poem.  In mimicking the movement of the ocean in the form of the poem, the entire landscape is made a degree more real for poet and reader; it prompts the reader to hear and see the ocean that exists behind the action of the poem. The use of enjambment as a mimetic as well as iconic device allows the poem to exist on multiple planes. This is psychologically significant, especially if the speaker of the poem is the implied poet.

This implied poet reveals himself in the following lines, and, if he is the speaker, adds a new significance to enjambment in the poem—it allows him to mythologize interactions with his father, who left the family when Vuong was a child (Armitstead).  The speaker continues, “I kneel beside him to see how far// I might sink. Do you know who I am, / Ba? But the answer never comes” (Vuong, 8-10). The question “Do you know who I am” is a retrospective enjambment that relies on the noun of address, “Ba,” to complete it. However, since there seem to be no other figures in the poem but the father and the son, the use of the word, “Ba,” only emphasizes the fact that this is the voice of a speaker who uses the Vietnamese word for “father.” The speaker’s gender is revealed in the next few lines when he compares the father to a green bottle that “might appear // at a boy’s feet containing a year / he has never touched. I touch” (Vuong, 11-13).  If the father is the green bottle it follows that the speaker relates to the boy. Following this analogy, the year inside the green bottle may represent the time the father and son spent apart. However, the enjambment on the phrase “I touch” makes it possible for the speaker to engage those years.

The enjambments on “containing a year / he has never touched. I touch / his ears,” are both retrospective since they end in complete syntactical units (11-14). Vuong’s use of retrospective enjambments is significant because they require a reader to rewrite an understanding they previously held—for example, that not only does the bottle contain a year, but a year that the speaker has never touched. Recalling that the speaker is the implied poet, the rest of the line, “I touch,” since it is at the end of the line, shows that the poet does engage with the year he never touched. The retrospective enjambments allow the implied poet to rewrite the year such that he has touched it. Vuong uses retrospective enjambments to rewrite a history in which he spends more time with his father.

The speaker’s desire to reunite with his father through poetry is emphasized further in the final sequence. The speaker muses,

I turn him
over to face it. The cathedral

in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine–but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning. (Vuong, 17-24)

The retrospective enjambment on “in his sea-black eyes. The face” places the face and the eyes in the same line and leads the reader to understand that the speaker’s face—not the cathedral–is reflected in the father’s eyes. The clarification in the next line, “not mine—but one I will wear” alerts the viewer to the fact that the face in question is actually the father’s.  In likening his face to his father’s the implied poet brings his father into the poem and acknowledges their genetic relationship.

The final kiss in the poem is both a good-bye and an acknowledgment of the distance between the father and son outside the poem. The speaker’s description of the kiss that seals the father’s lips—a tactile action—emphasizes the fact that the action only takes place within the poem. These last few lines become a meta-textual moment in which the implied poet acknowledges his preoccupation with writing his father back into his life as a form of drowning. This poem begins the first section of the book which deals with many iterations of the father-son dynamic. In this way the poem acts as a retrospective enjambment within the collection-as-text, its meaning evolving as the reader wades through the poems that follow.


Works Cited

Armitsted, Claire. “War Baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet,” The Guardian. 13 October 2017. Web. Date Accessed: 16 February 2018.

Halter, Peter. “The Poem on the Page, or the Visual Poetics of William Carlos Williams,” William

Carlos Williams Review, Vol. 32, no. 1-2. Penn State University Press: University Park, PA (2015). Print. 95-115.

Koops van ‘t Jagt, Ruth, Dorleijn, Gillis, Hendriks, Petra, Hoeks, John C.J. “Look Before You Leap:

How Enjambment Affects the Reading of Poetry,” Scientific Study of Literature. Vol. 4, no. 1. John Benjamins Publishing Company (2014). PDF. 1-24

Vuong, Ocean. “Telemachus,” Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA (2016). Print. 7-8.