Saturday, July 30, 2011

The cinquain - made in New York

How would you do if I asked you to define a cinquain without looking it up? Me neither.

I've heard of it of course but I just didn't know what it was. It's all explained in Philip Hobsbaum's book Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form.

The cinquain is a descendant of the quintain, a form from the Middle Ages, comprised of a five-line stanza.

The variation by Adelaide Crapsey (above), born in 1878 in Brooklyn Heights, New York, became known as a cinquain and is very much identified with her to this day. It's still a five line poem but  based on syllable count as follows:

2 syllables with one stress
4 syllables with two stresses
6 syllables with three stresses
8 syllables with four stresses
2 syllables with one stress

Here's her cinquain November Night:

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

And another, Triad:

These be
Three silent things:
The falling snow…the hour
Before the dawn…the mouth of one
Just dead.

Crikey - especially when you consider that she wrote much of her poetry in a race against death, following a diagnosis of tuberculin meningitis.

I was tempted to try out this form on people doing my Write One Poem web/workshop course in October. Then I tried to write a couple of cinquains myself and found it impossible to write anything satisfying in the form - a reflection on me and not on the cinquain, I guess. So I won't be imposing it on my workshop participants.

For more on cinquains and Adelaide Crapsey, go to and The Cinquain Page.

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