Cinquain is a much-beloved and fun form of poetry. It’s taught in grade school to children just learning the joys of poetry, but it is much more than just a children’s poetic form. Cinquain has roots in Japanese poetry and can, when done properly, be some of the most beautiful poems in the world. This article is an attempt at a reasonable cinquain poem definition that can easily be consumed by anyone.
What is a Cinquain?
Simply, cinquain is a 5-line, poem with a set number of syllables on each line, for a total of 22 syllables. The traditional American definition is what we call a “Crapsey Cinquain” (after the originator of the form) and has 2-4-6-8-2 syllables per line, and an accentual stress pattern of 1-2-3-4-1 per line. A popular derivative taught in schools is called the “Didactic Cinquain” and has 1-2-3-4-1 syllables per line. There is also a popular variation of the cinquain that preserves the 22-syllables but does not enforce the accentual stress pattern. These variations will be discussed below.
Who was Adelaide Crapsey?
Adelaide Crapsey was the American Poet who created the American cinquain. She was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1878 and died in 1914 at the age of 36. She studied poetry in school, and taught it after graduation. She popularized what we call the Crapsey / American cinquain after studying Japanese haiku and tanka. She believed her cinquain were the shortest and simplest form in English that could approximate the beauty and structure of a Japanese tanka.
The Crapsey Cinquain
This is the “purest” form of English cinquain. It must have 22-syllables across five lines, 2-4-6-8-2, with an accentual stress pattern of 1-2-3-4-1. It also must have a title, which can add depth and meaning to the poem.
Here is one of my attempt at a Crapsey Cinquain:
to me for free;
a smile from a small child.
For a moment, I forget to
— Ron Sparks
This poem won an online cinquain contest in 2004, in part because it adheres to the definition of a Crapsey Cinquain. Let’s break down the accentual stress pattern to see:
to ME for FREE
a SMILE from A small CHILD
FOR a moMENT I forGET to
Adhering to the stress pattern helps create a truly beautiful poem, but it can be restrictive and difficult. The stress pattern of 1-2-3-4-1 means that each line has that number of syllables stressed, as you can see from the poem above. For example, line 1 is “Given,” and that word has 1 stressed syllable. Line 2 is “to me for free,” and that lie has two stressed syllables. And so on. This can be difficult to achieve. And it’s not always necessary. Thus, there is another variation . . .
The American Cinquain
The American cinquain is identical to the Crapsey cinquain but with one notable exception – there is no requirement for accentual stress patterns. Here are a couple of examples of American cinquain I have written:
forces them to squawk plaintively,
As you can see, not only does the cinquain not exactly match Crapsey’s accentual stress pattern, it’s fictional. It’s important to note that, although cinquain has roots back to haiku, which are nature poems expressing a moment in time, a cinquain has no such restriction. It can be fanciful, fun, somber, serious, or satirical. In the example above, I imagined how out of place an ostrich would be in Iceland and liked the image so much I wrote a cinquain about it.
an empty mug
with only wet tea leaves
hinting at the tangle of my
This cinquain is a little poignant, wistful, and slightly ominous. The depth of breadth of emotion that can be conveyed by a cinquain is phenomenal and it is a worthy poetic form as a result.
The Didactic Cinquain
This is the popular form taught to children in school. It not only teaches poetry, it teach the semantics of the English language and, as such, can be a fun way to learn English and poetry at the same time. The Didactic Cinquain follows a strict, but easy to learn, set of rules. It must be 1-2-3-4-1 syllables per line with:
- Line 1: A Title/Subject
- Line 2: A phrase describing your title/subject
- Line 3: a 3-word phrase giving information about the title (usually “-ing” words, or gerunds)
- Line 4: words or a phrase describing a feeling towards the title/subject
- Line 5: A word referring back to your subject/title
With these rules, a didactic cinquain can be very fun for children to write. It gives them a formula that can be applied and, later, as they gain proficiency, they can use that structure to create depth and beauty.
I have never written didactic cinquain, but here is an example from a new Twitter friend of mine who taught me the variation:
Trickles slowly down
Inking my clear soul
There are playful and complex variations to the form – but all the rules are basically explained above. The most popular variations are defined on Wikipedia. Here is an except from the page:
|Reverse cinquain||a form with one 5-line stanza in a syllabic pattern of two, eight, six, four, two.|
|Mirror cinquain||a form with two 5-line stanzas consisting of a cinquain followed by a reverse cinquain.|
|Butterfly cinquain||a nine-line syllabic form with the pattern two, four, six, eight, two, eight, six, four, two.|
|Crown cinquain||a sequence of five cinquain stanzas functioning to construct one larger poem.|
|Garland cinquain||a series of six cinquains in which the last is formed of lines from the preceding five, typically line one from stanza one, line two from stanza two, and so on.|
Finally – Is a Tanka a Cinquain?
Technically, yes. Any 5-line poem is a cinquain. The word cinquain comes from the combination of the Latin word cinque the French suffix -ain – which defines itself a “a collective of five.”
In general, however, “cinquain” is usually understood to be a Crapsey/American or Didactic cinquain. Tanka is understood to be the 5-line English version of a Japanese tanka.
How do I start?
Cinquain are fun poems to write, can often be written very quickly, and are easy to learn – if not master immediately. The best advice is to try and capture a single thought, concept, or image. As a form of micropoetry, cinquain lens itself well to single, coherent, thoughts and images. They are more powerful when done so; multiple thoughts or images tend to confuse the cinquain and render it less enjoyable for the reader.
Cinquain inspiration can come from anywhere. I was reading the Tao Te Ching and this was a very natural cinquain that popped into my head as a result:
made from red sand;
it is not your hard clay,
but your emptiness that makes you
Good luck. If you’re new to cinquain, you’ve found your way into countless hours of fun and enjoyable poetry reading and writing. For more in-depth descriptions of the nature and background of cinquain, be sure and visit cinquain.org.