“Dylan’s Indeterminate Enjambments.” World of Bob Dylan 2023, June 2023, Tulsa, OK.

BY Owen Boynton

Enjambment occurs in a poem when the syntax of a phrase is interrupted by the ending of a line. In some cases, we feel certain, as we round the corner of the line, that something else is needed; the syntax leaves us hanging. In other cases, we are surprised to find that the syntax of a line was not complete, so that, for instance, a verb finds an unexpected object. Bob Dylan makes much of the possibilities for surprise inherent in enjambment in the lines of his songs. It’s of course no simple matter to say what counts as a line in a song, since in performance, a line can be suggested by the vocal delivery as much as by the language, but Dylan’s insistence on rhyme as a feature of his song structures permits him to both suspend vowels and insert pauses with great variety from performance to performance against the awareness that the lines are marked, for the most part, by rhymes.

Dylan’s enjambments are most interesting to me when they generate something that is not quite fulfillment of an expectation that more is needed and also not quite the shock of surprise that more is being said. Instead, Dylan’s enjambments often hover between the two: we know, in some way, that something more should, syntactically, be offered, but the context and occasion of the phrasing also make it quite easy to feel that enough has been said, and that a phrase contained within a line makes self-sufficient sense even if syntactically insufficient. The colloquial register of the songs afford him opportunities to do this. One of the limits Dylan must overcome as a songwriter, and that some of his peers fail to recognize, is that rock songs, folk songs, and blues songs cannot accommodate a formal rhetoric and register without straining English; Latinate language, associated with both, does not fit nicely into the lyrical structure of songs. That is also probably why Dylan has recourse to Biblical English, which offers a source of phrasing that can take on great weight without the high style. But colloquial English, and the commitment to its conventions, allows Dylan other strengths. Christopher Ricks has written on present tense verbs and ephemerality in American English, demonstrating how much Dylan can make of these. Enjambments that are indeterminate – that depend on lines that both feel self-sufficient as units of sense and also prompt us to recognize their insufficiency syntactically – is another consequence of his commitment.

When Dylan wants conspicuous enjambments, the sort of lines that leave us hanging and feel ourselves to be hanging on the end, he gets them. From “Tombstone Blues”:

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers, they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse

From “Fourth Time Around”:

I waited in the hallway, she went to get it, and I tried to make sense,
Out of that picture of you in your wheelchair that leaned up against
Her Jamaican rum
And when she did come

From “Red River Shore”:

Well, I sat by her side and for a while I tried
To make that girl my wife

We can easily see – and we are asked to hear, in the performances – how these enjambments are expressing something essential to the songs. In “Tombstone Blues,” the enjambment of “endorse” is an overflow of lyrics in the midst of a triplet, part of the abundance of verses that are set against the scarcity of a refrain that shows us mama without shoes. “Fourth Time Around” is about dependency and self-sufficiency, perhaps a response to, or flaunting theft from, the Beatles, and also about not the dependency that grows with intimacy, which Dylan wants none of; and so the lines are jarringly dependent, one upon the next, neither conceivably standing alone, even one verse leaning for support against the next. In “Red River Shore,” the interruption of the line-break after “tried” is the futility of the effort, which will soon be met in her words, when she tells the singer to go home and lead a quiet life.

In “I Want You,” we find these fairly clear enjambments, the enjambments that announce themselves at the end of a line by making us certain that more needs to be said, but we also find what I’ve called “indeterminate enjambments”:

The silver saxophones say I
Should refuse you

The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way, I wasn’t born
To lose you

And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinking from my broken cup
And ask me to open up
The gate for you

She knows that I’m not afraid
To look at her

No I wasn’t very cute
To him, was I?

Ah, because time was on his side
    And because I
Want you, I want you

Only three are clear enjambments: “And because I / Want you”; “The silver saxophones say I / should refuse you”; and “I wasn’t born / To lose you.” Christopher Ricks has drawn attention to the nonchalance of the refrain: how naturally, breezily Dylan sings “I want you,” afloat over the swirling musical lines. But against the lightness of performance, the enjambments tug ever so slightly, and they tug each time on the “I,” so that we come to feel that the entire song turns not just upon the first-person but the uneasiness, awkwardness, of the first-person; it’s both very simple for Dylan to sing, “I want you,” but there is a self-conscious unease whenever the “I” triggers an enjambment; it’s not just dependency being expressed, as if “I” need to be continued and completed in my relationship with you (though there is that). It’s something else also: an uncertainty of how he stands in relation to her and in relation to his own wanting her.

I said there are only three clear cases of enjambment. The others are especially interesting because of how they contribute to the song: “I wasn’t very cute / To him, was I?” and “I wait for her to interrupt / Me drinking from my broken cup” and “And ask me to open up / The gate for you” and “She knows that I’m not afraid / To look at her.” In each of these cases, we might hear the first line as not being enjambed at all. And these are the sorts of cases that I’m going to pay attention to for the rest of my talk: the times when Dylan offers lines that might be or might not be enjambed: lines of indeterminate enjambment.

How does this work? When we hear “I wasn’t very cute,” we wonder “in whose eyes.” But at the same time, if someone says, “I wasn’t very cute,” it implies “to anyone” and so seems a moment of stark vulnerability – it’s a moment of potential embarrassment, which Dylan then resolves in “To him,” because that means he might still be cute “to her.” He asks her “was I,” since that is the sort of endearing question that demonstrates he does think he’s still cute to her.

When we hear “I wait for them to interrupt,” nothing more needs to be said, and the “me” does not feel like a necessary resolution: but “me drinking from my broken cup” is unexpected, since even if we knew they’d be interrupting him, we didn’t know the action they’d be interrupting. Dylan is playing a game here: he anticipates an interruption, but we don’t see it except in hindsight when we recognize where the rhyme and line-break fell in relation to the phrasing. And there’s a further game: the rhyme of “interrupt” finds completion in “cup,” so even as the phrasing is broken, the rhyme mends. On a very small scale, this emblematizes something much larger happening in this song, which is a tug-of-war between independence and incompletion, between being broken and whole, vulnerable and impervious to harm: it is a song that expresses both at once, and this indeterminacy of the situation is captured by the indeterminacy of enjambment.

This becomes especially clear in the next instance: “Ask me to open up” might easily stand on its own: open up, talk about yourself. But instead, it’s something physical – a gate – that he will open up. Again, the prospect of vulnerability, exposure, and embarrassment is admitted and let to stand and then foreclosed. It’s not surprising that Ricks likes the song so much – he wrote the best book on embarrassment and literature around. And this is a song that is about opening oneself up to the embarrassment of the direct statement, “I want you,” but that also tangles itself – burdens oneself, to go to the French root “embarrassed” – in the self-exposure that such a statement entails, no matter how nonchalant it tries to be.

Very briefly, it’s worth pointing out that we can hear it also in the last of my examples: “She knows that I’m not afraid | To look at her.” “Not afraid” might stand alone: not afraid at all, of anything. But then it dwindles into a posture of crouching anxiety: not afraid to look, but maybe afraid to do much else.

Dylan’s indeterminate enjambments repeatedly bring together two perspectives – making the point that there is more that needs to be said from one perspective, but from another perspective not more that needs to be said. It’s a deep ambiguity, suspending two contradictory judgments: more is needed; no more is needed. William Empson: “Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis.”

The same thing happens in “Sooner or Later (One of us Must Know)” – the title gets at a related tension: what can be said aloud and what, being set in parentheses, cannot be. The full force of the effect is felt in the refrain of the song:

But sooner or later one of us must know
That you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do.
Sooner or later, one of us must know
That I really did try to get close to you.

“Know” does not find a rhyme, but it finds its exact double – though I think the sense of the two words is interestingly distant, since it might be said that the first “know” refers to what she knows (she knows she’s doing what she’s supposed to do) and the second “know” to what he knows (that he tried). What’s fascinating here is the mix of perspectives: One of us must know, but which? And saying “One of us must know” is to suggest that both cannot or need not know, and also to occupy a detached perspective, making him a third party to the breakup; since he is the one saying what each one must know, he must be the one to know. But there’s knowing and there’s knowing (small k, big K as Dylan sneered at the poor reporter from Time Magazine), and so it might be that Dylan is saying, he knows that one of them really, at a profound level, know that she’s doing what she’s supposed to do, and this someone is her; he knows it, but doesn’t really accept it. It’s an astonishing representation of the fissures in self-knowledge that accompany break-ups.


And the uncertainty of the enjambment has a crucial part to play. Dylan not only echoes “know” in “know,” but he affirms the line break in the vocal, pausing after the word. Syntactically, we want to find out what it is that one of them must know… know what? And the “that” after the line-break is crucial syntactically: it completes “know.” But the joke or dig of the line is that he shouldn’t have to say, that “Sooner or later one of must know” is sufficient as a unit of sense for the person who does know: for that person, the verb doesn’t need completion. She knows she’s supposed to leave; he needs to spell it out for himself. He knows he did try to get close to her; he needs to spell it out for her. It’s all a matter of perspective whether the line stands on its own or whether it needs to be continued, whether more needs to be said, and this in a song that is about not understanding, not knowing, not wanting or needing to go on explaining, and that, somehow, in performance of the song, explains just that.

The trick in “Sooner or Later” depends on the “mental state” type of verb that requires a “that”-clause to follow it: I believe that, know that, fear that, etc. In two other songs from the 1960s, Dylan seizes on these verbs for his most interesting indeterminate enjambments. In “Like a Rolling Stone,” we have a few:

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin’ out

“Laugh about” what? But also, “laugh about” as a verb phrase like “hang about” or “gad about”: something that one does, here and there, implying that she was moving about as she laughed. The possibility of this meaning isn’t erased by the following line, either: “hangin’ out” is static. They are just sitting around, hanging out to dry, and she is running around them, encircling them with her laughter. And from the same song:

You say you never compromise
With the mystery tramp but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
     And say do you want to make a deal?

Dylan drops the “that” from after “realize” – but if there had been a “that,” not only would the rhyme have been scuttled, but he would have been giving us more than we needed. “Now you realize” leaves the “that you do in fact compromise” or “that you do in fact need to compromise” implicit. From our perspective, the listener – and from Dylan’s perspective, the sneerer – the verb says all that is needed: it contains what is realized. What’s wonderful in this case is that the song never does say that she realizes that she does need to compromise; that is not how the verb “realize” is resolved. Instead, she realizes something else entirely: “he’s not selling any alibis.” And that in and of itself can’t be taken to mean “you realize that you will need to compromise.” Instead, the lines mean something like, “you realize he’s not selling any ways for you not to have to compromise, and you are pulled into the nothingness of his eyes and made to ask if he wants to make a deal.” Why do it this way? Because the instant of realization that she will have to compromise doesn’t happen consciously; she is just pulled into the need to compromise without realizing what is happening. That makes her more pathetic somehow; she gives up her word without even fully realizing it.

One more example from the same song:

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at
      After he took from you everything he could steal

“Ain’t it hard when you discovered that” asks to be completed…discovered what? But then “discovered that” is already enough: somehow, the strangeness of the imagery that has come before seems like it might be a hard enough discovery: “you didn’t discover did you” that he was carrying a Siamese cat on his shoulder? Or else the “that” can be felt to take in something more elusive and free-floating: it was hard to discover “all of that” situation you were in. Dylan needs to leave this line suspended as potentially self-sufficient because he doesn’t want it to simply find completion in the line that comes immediately next. Instead, “discovered that” finds completion, separately, in both of the lines that follow. She discovers a) that he wasn’t really where it’s at and, relatedly, but not identically, b) that after he took everything he could steal. The word “that” refers to more than one thing: it is a discovery of a whole pit of snakes that she finds herself in, and when I re-listen to the song, I hear the breadth and indeterminateness of its reach.

There’s a question in this sort of paper of how many instances I should provide. More are to be had. From “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” we again find enjambments expressing what it is to know and not know, or else to know more or less than one knows.

To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
    That not much is really sacred.

“It’s easy to see WHAT without looking too far?” But of course, we already see and know: he has already told us, and it’s so easy to see that you don’t need to be told. And in the same song:

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

“Forget” what? Well, this one is more complicated because of the tangle of syntax that precedes, “There is no answer fit to keep it in your mind,” “There is no answer fit to insure you do not quit keeping it in your mind and not forgetting”: there’s no answer that might not escape, and there’s no answer that might not, in escaping, cause you to forget…to forget what? The answer, for one; but the question also, since it is the question itself that is lit and most important; but also the premise of the question, which is neither an answer nor a question, but a ground for asking and answering: “that it is not he or she or them or it / that you belong to.” By suspending “not forget” as an indeterminate enjambment in the midst of so much other indeterminately coordinate syntax, the question of what is asked, what is answered, what is known and not known, is intensified; the phrasing lives what it describes.

In the opening verse of “Masters of War” Dylan offers an enjambment at the “know” verb quite differently by dropping the “that” for suggestive effect. This is a song with line-endings that do not follow the rhyme scheme, alone, but that follow the folk-ballad meter with a silent beat after a set number of beats in each line. The rhymes are present, but they do not operate alone in determining line-endings, and it would be foolish to look only to them:

You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

“I just want you to know” needs a “that,” but Dylan refuses: “I just want you to know” exactly what? Speaking with the “just” of justice in mind: Everything, more than he can say in the line that follows, but also what he does say in the line that follows. And at the same time not “I just want you to know that I can see through your masks,” but “I just want you to know AND I can see through your masks”: both things are true, but paralleled, as the first two lines are parallel descriptions of the masters of war. “I want you to know” and “I can see through” both challenge them in their hiding places, but differently: I want you to know suggests that they are hiding from knowledge; I can see through your masks suggests that they are hiding from the sight of others, and from themselves. In either case, the walls and desks are flimsy barriers, and with “I just want you to know” set in parallel to “I can see through your masks” – rather than continuous with it – we are invited to hear Dylan flinging the barriers out of the way in two movements, rather than one. He doesn’t want too clear an enjambment because the line needs to strike on its own, against those hiding.

Blonde on Blonde is the album with the most sophisticated and incessant play of enjambment. While it’s a risk of criticism to find something good because it contains a lot of the sort of thing we are looking for, whether a word or technique, the lyrics on this album really do something fascinating with enjambments, indeterminate and otherwise. Along with “I Want You,” the song that does the most with what might be enjambed and what an enjambment might be is “Just Like a Woman,” the full lyrics of which are before you:

Nobody feels any pain
Tonight as I stand inside the rain
      Everybody knows
      That baby’s got new clothes
      But lately I see her ribbons and her bows
                    Have fallen from her curls
             She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
          She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
           And she aches just like a woman
                   But she breaks
                         Just like a little girl
Queen Mary, she’s my friend
Yes, I believe I’ll go see her again
     Nobody has to guess
     That baby can’t be blessed
      Till she finally sees that she’s like all the rest
               With her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls
           She takes just like a woman, yes
           She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
           And she aches just like a woman
          But she breaks
                    Just like a little girl
                   It was raining from the first
                   And I was dying there of thirst
                       So I came in here
                   And your long-time curse
                   But what’s worse
                         Is this pain in here
                         I can’t stay in here
                         Ain’t it clear
I just can’t fit
Yes, I believe it’s time for us to quit
     When we meet again
     Introduced as friends
    Please don’t let on that you knew me when
              I was hungry and it was your world
         Ah, you fake just like a woman,
         You make love just like a woman, yes, you do
        Then you ache just like a woman
       But you break
              Just like a little girl

You can see at one glance the shape of the verses and bridge as they appear in the Ricks-Nemrow edition, and you can see, glancing again at what I’ve set in bold, how many of the enjambments turn on verbs of knowing. It’s less a break-up song than a breaking song, cruelly some have thought, but also with the awareness of the other person’s vulnerability; it is a song that depends on having another person in one’s sights and understanding alike, and the whiff of cruelty is occasioned by Dylan’s detachment from the situation. But there is an enormous exception to the detachment and that’s the bridge, where Dylan breaks, and breaks his line-endings in enjambments. His own vulnerability is the point here, especially when he asks not only her, but whoever is listening to the song: “Ain’t it clear?” That line is enjambed: ain’t what clear? But it also is enough: isn’t it so clear that I don’t need to say anything more? The mise-en-page, the setting of lines, in the Ricks-Nemrow edition is excellent in what it does next, allotting “That” its own indentation and its own line. So much turns on “that” and this setting on the page helps us see that with it, with his delivery of it, with its place almost as a bridge of its own, a second bridge between bridge and verse, Dylan creates a second enjambment on the heels of the first, so that “ain’t it clear” is resolved in a moment of further irresolution: evidently, it’s not clear enough, and something else IS needed, but we are still denied that something. Dylan doesn’t want to say, and when he does say, “I just can’t fit,” it draws attention to how the phrasing itself, the awkwardly isolated “that” also doesn’t really fit. And here, in this third verse where he exposes himself to the greatest vulnerability, he also turns from the first-person third-person relationship (I and she had been the axis up to now), and instead, for the first time, as Christopher Ricks noticed, introduces the second person. He sets his sights on her most directly here, but he also sets himself up most clearly to be seen.

And he does so most boldly in the final verse’s enjambment: “Please don’t let on that you knew me when / I was hungry and it was your world” reverses the procedure of the indeterminate enjambments we have seen: the first line definitely calls out for something more, and the second line completes the syntax. But the second line doesn’t just complete the syntax; it exceeds it. “I was hungry and it was your world” stands out as a confession and acknowledgement greater than “you knew me when” can contain. The previous line is eclipsed. What matters is no longer that she knew him when he was hungry, but that she knew that he was hungry and it was her world; she knew him at his most helpless. The line doesn’t just eclipse what comes immediately before, but the entire request that it rounds out: he is asking her not to let on what he now not only admits but confesses and cries to the heavens. We can and should hear that he remains exposed and vulnerable; the self-reproach still stings; he is not over and done with the past. And he didn’t need to say it; the enjambment leads him to turn a corner but what he finds there is a version of his past self that surprises even him. When he comes back to “She breaks / Just like a little girl,” there remains a smug triumph, and a cruel dig, but he has already shown himself to be broken too.