Help me with poetic devices....
March 7, 2009 8:13 PM   Subscribe

In "Thunder Road", the lyric "Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey that's me and I want you only, don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again" can be interpreted differently depending on where you break the line, before or after the word "only". Is there a name for this particular poetic device? Do you know of other examples?

There are other examples of this in songs, of course...the first that I remember is from Counting Crows, Round Here:

"Maria says she's dying, through the door I hear her crying, why I don't know"

You can parse the lyric such that Maria is crying, OR that Maria is crying "Why", with the rejoinder "I don't know" answering her...which is very different from the alternative.

There's a ton more examples that I don't know, I'm sure. I suppose it's easier to hear this in song than to see it in printed word, since you can choose to hear the grammar either way. Printed forces its grammar on you. But I find examples like these fascinating! Is this a named poetic device?
posted by griffey to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think the term you're looking for is Amphibology?
posted by Nomiconic at 8:43 PM on March 7, 2009

This is what is known as "enjambment," the ending of a poetic line in the middle of a phrase. The ambiguity you're sensing in these lyrics has to do with the fact that most of the time, phrases and the thoughts they communicate end in sync with poetic lines. Sometimes this just involves running a sentence across multiple lines, which can install a sense of momentum, rather than halting it at the end of each line. But by ending a line "prematurely," a skilled poet can not only add drive to their verse but draw out double meanings and even invert the meaning of the previous line.

You're right about one thing though: the ambiguity is heightened in the pop music you're referencing here because absent a look at the liner notes, you don't actually know where the lyricist intended the words to be parsed. The liner notes should clear up some of that, but it's possible that it's deliberately vague.
posted by valkyryn at 8:45 PM on March 7, 2009

Seconding enjambment.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:52 PM on March 7, 2009

I also think this falls under enjambment, but you may want to browse this Wikipedia page to see if there's a more specific term.
posted by danb at 9:12 PM on March 7, 2009

Well, enjambment is the prosodic technique but the effect, at least when read, is more than that because the content of the line works with the song. But I'd argue that the phrasing breaks after only.

Great work is comfortable with differing interpretations.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:24 AM on March 8, 2009

It can be enjambment, but that doesn't really deal with the ambiguity of the line. I think Nomiconic has it with amphibology.
posted by pised at 7:45 AM on March 8, 2009

This phenomenon is not peculiar to song or poetry; its a feature of ordinary language use as well. The general class of what you are talking about is called syntactic ambiguity - that is, sentences with multiple possible interpretations, like "I saw her duck."
posted by googly at 7:46 AM on March 8, 2009

Those examples seem more like amphibology to me. The writer presents the concrete explanation of the scene, but uses amphibology to connote the context of it.

This song is a great example of that, I think, using fish puns to do it.
posted by gjc at 10:46 AM on March 8, 2009

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