how to write a cinquain poem

Cinquain Poetry: How to Write a Cinquain Poem

A cinquain is a stanza composed of five lines, which makes a cinquain poem a poem composed of five-line stanzas. These short poems are the perfect length to find insight through brevity, and if you’re considering tinkering with shorter poetry forms, you might want to play with cinquain poetry.

What is a cinquain poem, and how do you write one? These small bursts of poetry actually have a richer history than you might think, so in this article, we’ll examine some different variations on the five-lined form. We’ll also look at different cinquain poem examples, and finish with advice on how to write a cinquain poem yourself.

But first, let’s clarify the rules of the form and its different iterations. What is a cinquain poem?

Cinquain Definition: What is a Cinquain Poem?

A cinquain, from the French “cinq” for “five”, is a five-line stanza in poetry. When this one stanza sits alone as an entire poem, or when a poem is constructed (with specific rules) through five-line stanzas, it then becomes a cinquain poem. The cinquain is also called the quintain or the quintet, from the Latin “quinque” for “five”.

Cinquain Definition: A five-line poem, or a poem constructed of five-line stanzas, that follow specific rules related to the form.

While you can try to slap five lines of free verse poetry together and call it a cinquain, this form actually has several different iterations, each with their own rules and regulations.

Cinquain poetry used to follow a strict rhyme scheme. With modernity comes new innovations in form, so there are several types of cinquain poems to choose from when writing one yourself. We’ll look at those in a moment!

How to pronounce cinquain

Although the word cinquain comes from French, you can pronounce it like “sink cane” in English.

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Cinquain Poem Examples and Variations

The cinquain is not a standalone form: several different variations on the five-line poem exist. Let’s look at some different cinquain poem examples, with notes on each poem’s form and construction.

1. The Standard Cinquain Poem Examples

This is the original form of the cinquain poem, and it has been written by poets like Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Edgar Allan Poe. Its origins can be traced to medieval France. Some of these poems are single stanza, but many of them include multiple five-line stanzas.

The standard cinquain is composed of stanzas of five lines, usually written in iambic meter. There are a few variations on the rhyme scheme, but most examples use one of the following:

  • ababb
  • abaab
  • abccb

The majority of poems written with this format are “chain” or extended cinquains. In other words, multiple cinquain stanzas linked together into a cohesive poem. The rhyming words in one stanza do not need to rhyme with the words in the following stanzas.

The 17th century poem “The World” by George Herbert is a great example:

Love built a stately house, where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies, she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,
Whereas they were supported by the same;
But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.Then Pleasure came, who, liking not the fashion,
Began to make balconies, terraces,
Till she had weakened all by alteration;
But reverend laws, and many a proclamation
Reforméd all at length with menaces.Then entered Sin, and with that sycamore
Whose leaves first sheltered man from drought and dew,
Working and winding slily evermore,
The inward walls and summers cleft and tore;
But Grace shored these, and cut that as it grew.

Then Sin combined with Death in a firm band,
To raze the building to the very floor;
Which they effected, none could them withstand;
But Love and Grace took Glory by the hand,
And built a braver palace than before.

Retrieved here, from The Academy of American Poets.

Other standard cinquain poem examples include:

2. The American / Adelaide Crapsey Cinquain Poem Examples

The contemporary cinquain form looks remarkably different from its more intricate predecessor. Also known as an American cinquain or the Adelaide Crapsey cinquain, this form was developed by poet Adelaide Crapsey, who wrote many examples of the form in the early 20th century.

The Adelaide Crapsey cinquain poem rules are as follows:

  • Adherence to iambic meter. (Some of Crapsey’s poems did not use iambic meter, but it’s a predominant feature of much of her poetry.)
  • The use of a title which builds upon the meaning of the poem.
  • A strict syllabic count of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2.
  • A single stanza.

Crapsey’s development of the form was inspired by Japanese poetry forms, particularly the tanka and the haiku.

Let’s look at some examples. Pay close attention to the syllable count and how the syllables are stressed in each poem. Each of these examples come from the Poetry Foundation.

Triad

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

November Night

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

Amaze

I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

Pay close attention to the poet’s control of language and rhythm. Each poem is a microcosm on its own: In 22 syllables, these poems convey a precise mood, with concrete imagery and an evocative, complicated emotion. Such an achievement in short form poetry requires careful attention to language, and a patience and willingness to tinker with words.

Variations on the Form

Poets love to tinker with form. As such, some variations and innovations exist on the Adelaide Crapsey cinquain. They are as follows:

Form Description Syllables per line
Reverse Cinquain The same thing as the Adelaide Crapsey cinquain, but the syllables in the stanza are reversed. 2 / 8 / 6 / 4 / 2
Butterfly Cinquain Technically not a cinquain, but a nonet. The line lengths are mirrored from the middle, in the same way that a butterfly’s shape arcs outwards. 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 / 8 / 6 / 4 / 2
Mirror Cinquain A cinquain, followed by a reverse cinquain. Two stanzas. 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 // 2 / 8 / 6 / 4 / 2
Crown Cinquain 5 cinquain stanzas that construct a larger poem. It is best that each stanza can stand on its own and be a part of a larger piece. Often, the last line of one stanza is repeated as the first line of the next stanza. 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 [x5]
Garland Cinquain 6 cinquain stanzas. The last stanza uses lines from each of the preceding 5 stanzas. So, in stanza 6, the first line is line 1 from stanza 1, the second line is line 2 from stanza 2, etc. 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 [x6]
Lanterne This is the same as the Adelaide Crapsey cinquain, except the syllable count is halved. 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 1
Tetractys A form developed by the poet Ray Stebbing. Its name comes from Pythagorean mathematics. It can also be reversed or made a mirror, a butterfly, a crown, a garland, etc. 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 10

There is very little information on these variations, such as who developed them or where they came from, but they certainly exist as forms to challenge and inspire your writing practice.

3. The Didactic Cinquain Poem Examples

The didactic cinquain also stems from the contemporary form developed by Adelaide Crapsey. Instead of syllables, each line requires a specific number of words, arranged in 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 1.

Additionally, this poem is used primarily in elementary schools and children’s educational programming. So, if you’re a children’s educator looking to teach grammar in fun or interesting ways, this form might be useful for your classroom!

Here are the didactic cinquain poem rules:

Line 1: The subject of the poem. One word.
Line 2: Two adjectives that describe the subject. Two words.
Line 3: Action words that describe the subject. Emphasis on verbs and gerunds. Three words.
Line 4: Words that describe the subject, often invoking mood, tone, and emotion. Four words.
Line 5: A synonym or clear reference to the subject. One word.

There are plenty of examples of this form online, and because it isn’t hard to write, you can use this exercise in the classroom as a fun writing prompt. Here’s a quick example I wrote about my cat, whose name is Jameson:

Jameson—
floomfy; destructive.
Screams, scratches, bites
but still loving, magnificent.
Ouch!

Note that, in the broader literary world, this form might be considered gimmicky and simplistic, so it’s not something to write if you have an eye towards publishing poetry. That said, if you manage to publish a didactic cinquain in a literary journal, please tell me and prove me wrong!

How to Write a Cinquain Poem

If you’re interested in learning how to write a cinquain poem yourself, start with this step-by-step guide. For more advice on the process of writing poetry, check out this comprehensive guide.

1. Study the Forms

Since there are many variations on the form, pay close attention to each form’s rules and restrictions. You will want to have a clear idea of which form you’re writing with before you set pen to paper.

Whether you choose the standard form and rhyme scheme, or whether you try your hand at the Adelaide Crapsey cinquain, read each poetry form like a poet so you can emulate the attention to language and imagery in your work.

2. Find a Topic

The relationship between form and topic cannot be understated. The standard cinquain form allows for more words and multiple stanzas, so if you have a lot to say on a certain topic, you might want to try using this form. That said, fitting a complex topic in 22 syllables is a great challenge, so you can’t go wrong with trying the American Cinquain, too.

3. Focus on Images and Juxtapositions

Construct your poem with an eye towards imagery, and put those images in conversation with each other. You can also use the title as a means of organizing those images.

Whichever form you choose, great cinquain poetry relies on imagery and juxtaposition. Read any of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry, and you’ll notice two things:

  1. Finely crafted images, evoking the greatest picture in the fewest words.
  2. An intentional juxtaposition of these images, creating an interesting relationship between them and often employing them as symbols.

Construct your poem with an eye towards imagery, and put those images in conversation with each other. You can also use the title as a means of organizing those images.

4. Tinker With Syllables

The hardest part of writing cinquain poetry is adhering to meter and syllable counts. You might try to write a first draft, but struggle to finish because you can’t find the right words with the right rhymes or iambic patterns.

If this happens to you, try approaching the first draft in different ways. For example, you could:

  • Write free verse and edit your first draft into a specific form.
  • Play with style and syntax. What happens when you invert the order of words in your poem?
  • Omit needless words—particularly adverbs, prepositions, and articles. Or, include these words when you need to meet the meter for a certain line.
  • Try writing a paragraph or a prose poem, then whittle it down into a cinquain poem.
  • Invent a new form. When you can’t fit what you’re trying to say into any of the forms listed in this article, perhaps you can invent your own twist on the cinquain.

5. Edit, Rewrite, Edit Again

Above all, remain patient and attentive to language, and let yourself experiment with words as you try your hand at the cinquain.

Adelaide Crapsey probably didn’t write her cinquain poetry in one go: she wrote, edited, erased, rewrote, tried again, took a step back, and edited some more. Fitting powerful ideas in short stanzas can prove very tricky. Above all, remain patient and attentive to language, and let yourself experiment with words as you try your hand at the cinquain.

Learn How to Write a Cinquain Poem at Writers.com

The poets at Writers.com are masters of the craft, and they’re excited to help you navigate your poetry journey. Take a look at our upcoming poetry classes, where you’ll receive expert, focused feedback on every line you write.

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