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The cinquain - a how-to post

For history on the creation of this American form by poet Adelaide Crapsey, I hope you will read yesterday's post, if you haven't already done so. The word cinquain is pronounced "SIN-kane", by the by.

The requirements for writing a cinquain

And please note, this may differ from what your kid learned at school, where some teachers say that a cinquain "describes a person, place or thing", using a string of adjectives in lieu of actual poetry. Or they are told that the first line should be the subject, the second a description, the third an action of some sort, the fourth a feeling, and the fifth a conclusion. (This is occasionally referred to as the "didactic cinquain", and was undoubtedly an effort to create formula where kids could come up with somewhat successful poems quickly and relatively easily. I applaud the idea of teaching and writing poetry, but not the redefinition of a form in such a manner.)

While those are excellent hints or tips, they are NOT requirements of the form at all, and teaching them as if they are set in stone is horse manure and trivializes this form, in my opinion. And given that this form was developed by a female poet who has herself been trivialized by history, largely because of gender reasons, well . . . you may imagine that I do not appreciate further trivialization or marginalization. Perhaps I digress. Hops off soapbox.

A cinquain has five lines. No more, no less. Each line has its own syllabic requirement.

Each line requires a specific number of stressed syllables: 1-2-3-4-1. Ordinarily, each line contains double that amount of actual syllables (2-4-6-8-2), but see "Trapped", one of the poems posted yesterday, which concludes with a monosyllable in the fifth line. (And oh, is it a killer.)

by Adelaide Crapsey

Well and
If day on day
Follows, and weary year
On year . . .and ever days and years . . .

Crapsey's sense of being trapped in the numbing sameness of her illness really comes through here, and that last line fascinates me. It can be read to mean "so what?" or "then what?", but also as indicating a sense of despair. Or maybe she wonders if she will ever be well again. The more one reads and thinks, the more open her work becomes.

Cinquains often have titles. It makes sense, too - when a poem is by definition as "small" as a cinquain is, a title can do a lot of work. It can set the scene or tone, grounding the reader in the subject matter, which might not otherwise be actually mentioned in the body of the poem.

Check out the following cinquain, which has a whopping title, though the part after the comma is sometimes rendered as a subtitle or almost epigram.

Saying of Il Haboul, Guardian of the Treasure of Solomon and Keeper of the Prophet's Armour
by Adelaide Crapsey

My tent
A vapour that
The wind dispels and but
As dust before the wind am I

This poem is one sentence "My tent a vapour that the wind dispels and but as dust before the wind am I myself." So easy to read it as if it were "My tent, a vapour that the wind dispels," but that's not what she wrote. Also "but as dust before the wind am I myself" - figuring that out isn't as simple as it seems at first. On the one hand, the poem appears to mean that the wind is so strong it blows away the tent and the man as well (as if he were dust). On the other, it could also mean "I am myself when I am as dust before the wind" - does she mean he's his true self? Most himself at that point? Only himself when at that point?

Note that these poems evoke strong feeling, and undoubtedly intended to convey strong feeling, all while being rooted in words that are not about that at all - they are not a noun and a few adjectives and a feeling, etc., even though I acknowledge that such a formula could be used to create a cinquain.

To sum up: five lines, with syllable counts of no more than 2-4-6-8-2 and stressed syllables of 1-2-3-4-1; may have a title (though it's not a requirement).

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
TS Davis
Apr. 27th, 2016 05:54 pm (UTC)
So, NOT a person, place, or thing... that was a noun, anyway...
Huh. Interesting how much misinformation there is about this form, and it's still so new. It's either oversimplified or not fully understood. As always, these little lessons you put out are very thorough. I'm a little more intimidated now to try this again!
Apr. 28th, 2016 01:52 pm (UTC)
Re: So, NOT a person, place, or thing... that was a noun, anyway...
Well, it could be about that, or include that, but that whole formula is a gross oversimplification that caught on - rather like saying a haiku is only 5-7-5 (strict syllable count, no other requirements), when that's not the case, either.

If you read all 28 of the cinquains that Adelaide Crapsey wrote (or, rather, kept), you get a better idea of the form and how it works and how it can be so not limited. Check out this one, which is one sentence (that parses as being entirely about the moon, but is it?)

Niagara, Seen on a Night in November

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

"How frail hangs the moon", indeed.
TS Davis
Apr. 28th, 2016 05:43 pm (UTC)
Re: So, NOT a person, place, or thing... that was a noun, anyway...
That IS lovely.
Mary Lee Hahn
Apr. 28th, 2016 10:44 am (UTC)
I'm guilty of simplifying haiku to 5-7-5 syllables and ignoring all the other nuances of the form, but I will NOT stoop to the over-simplification of the cinquain, and I am a tyrant about acrostics that actually SAY something, rather than wind up as a list of random words.
Apr. 28th, 2016 01:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes
Tanita has been doing acrostics all month, and featuring the kind I like (that actual mean something and aren't simple lists). I'm sure you already know that, however.

And YES to trying to write actual, good cinquain. Wait until you see the variations I've posted today!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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