Here, we’ll explore what is a cinquain poem, its history, different formats, and check out some famous examples of cinquain poetry.
Dating back to medieval times, cinquain poems were first created in France. Today, Japanese and American cinquain poems are both famous.
A cinquain poem is composed of five lines. This type of poem’s name is derived from cinq, the French word for the number five. Cinquain poems are also referred to as quintet and quintain poems.
Some cinquain poems are simple and humorous, while others use imagery, metaphors, and similes to make profound points to readers despite only having a few lines to work with. Writing cinquain poems can be a challenge for poets, as no matter what types of cinquains they choose, they’re severely limited by the amount of space they have and the type of rhyme scheme they have to follow in their five-line poem.
As long as a poet stays within the constraints of the requirements of a cinquain, they’re free to use other literary devices to help them convey their ideas to their readers. Many beginning poets enjoy writing cinquain poems, as they’re a great first form of poetry since budding poets can practice working within line requirements and rhyme schemes to express themselves. To learn more about poems and poetry, read our guide to what is acrostic poetry. You can also search for more poems using our search bar.
Literary Devices Used In Cinquain Poetry
Many poets who write cinquain poems make the most of the five lines they have to work with by using imagery in their poems. When using imagery, poets work to paint a picture in their readers’ minds, helping them to see the scene they’re imagining.
Metaphors are also a standard literary device in cinquain poetry. A metaphor relates two ideas and allows poets to make multiple points within one poem. Similes are also used regularly in cinquain poems. In a simile, a poet compares two similar objects or ideas using the words “like” or “as.” Using metaphors and similes can help writers leave cinquain poems up to the reader’s interpretation, which can invite poetry enthusiasts to engage in discussions around a poem’s true meaning.
Adelaide Crapsey: An American Cinquain Pioneer
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
American poet Aledaide Crapsey created the American cinquain based on the format of the Japanese haiku. Much like a haiku, a cinquain requires a certain number of syllables in each line. The rules for a cinquain also require that poets consider which syllables in each line are stressed (this rule does not apply to haikus). Crapsey’s work was also inspired by tankas, a five-line form of Japanese poetry.
While Crapsey is best remembered for her invention of the cinquain, she is also known for her impressive ability to express complex ideas within a limited number of words. The poet was terminally ill, and much of her writing dealt with death and dying. She often talked about how interesting it was that much of the world seemed oblivious to the idea that death was inevitable.
Crapsey passed away at the young age of 36, but the poetry she was able to write during her short lifespan received wide critical acclaim in the 19th-century literary world. Many of her completed works were published after her death. You might find our guide on how to paraphrase a poem helpful.
The American Cinquain
The cinquain format developed by Adelaide Crapsey was different from other types of cinquains. American cinquains do not necessarily rhyme and are written in iambic pentameter. Poems written in iambs stress every other syllable, creating a sing-song rhythm that can help the author express certain syllables or ideas while downplaying others. This type of rhythm also lends itself to cinquains being read aloud, as the lyrical quality of each line can quickly engage an audience.
Crapsey’s cinquain format still holds up today. The format of the poem requires the author to use a specific number of syllables in each line:
- First line: two syllables
- Second line: four syllables
- Third line: six syllables
- Fourth line: eight syllables
- Fifth line: two syllables
Different literary analysts use different rules to decide whether a poem should be considered an American cinquain. For example, some scholars rely on the number of stressed syllables in each line to determine whether a poem fits into the cinquain category. Unfortunately, Adelaide Crapsey never specifically put forth her rules on creating a cinquain, so it’s up to each poet to decide how to ensure they follow the correct format.
Different Cinquain Formats
Over the years, many poets have created different versions of the American cinquain, including:
- Crown cinquain: This type of poem is composed of five separate cinquains surrounding a similar theme, put together to create one larger, stand-alone poem. This type of poem is ideal for poets who enjoy the challenge of writing in the cinquain format but need more than five lines to tell their story.
- Reverse cinquain: The standard order of syllables per line is reversed in this cinquain. Instead of the 2-4-6-8-2 syllable per line order, a reverse cinquain’s syllables per line are 2-8-6-4-2.
- Mirror cinquain: This type of cinquain starts with a standard American cinquain and is followed by the second stanza of a reverse cinquain. This type of cinquain offers an exciting effect, with an initial build to a longer line, followed by a return to just a few words. In this type of cinquain, authors often work to ensure that the final few words of the poem have a significant impact.
- Didactic cinquain: Often used to introduce young children to poetry in American schools, the didactic cinquain format is dictated by the number of words, not the number of syllables. A didactic cinquain’s words per line are 1-2-3-4-1. The type of word for each line is also specified: noun-adjectives-action-longer description-noun. Many elementary school teachers have children write cinquains to combine an activity that fosters creative expression while also teaching the essential speaking and reading skill of understanding how to break words into syllables.
Examples of Cinquain Poetry
Here, we’ll look at two of Crapsey’s most well-known cinquains.
1. Winter by Adelaide Crapsey
With steely clutch
Grips all the land…alack
The little people in the hills
As mentioned, much of Crapsey’s work revolves around the end of life. In this cinquain, she works to alert her reader to the struggles of her area throughout the winter. Here, readers can see that Crapsey was not only focused on her eventual death due to terminal illness but also on the demise of people in her community. This cinquain is written in standard American cinquain format, following iambic pentameter, syllable requirements, and no rhyme scheme.
2. Youth by Adelaide Crapsey
They cannot touch,
Old Age and death… the strange
And ignominious end of old
Crapsey’s fascination with life and death continues in her poem Youth. Here, Crapsey touches on the feelings she may have experienced in her youth–a sense of disbelief that one day, death would take her as it took others. Many can relate to the sense of invincibility that comes with youth.
In this cinquain, again, Crapsey follows the standard American cinquain requirements–the poem follows iambic pentameter, adheres to the syllabic requirements of a cinquain, and does not have a rhyme scheme. If you are interested in learning more about writing poetry, learn the answer to the question stream of consciousness poetry.