What is a Cinquain?

Mary McMahon

At its simplest, a cinquain is a poem or stanza within a poem which contains five lines. A number of variants on the cinquain have been developed, including rigid and highly stylized forms. There are many different variations on rhyming scheme and meter which can be utilized with a cinquain, and this poetic form is sometimes used in English classes to introduce students to the tremendous variation which can be found within poetic forms.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

One of the most highly stylized forms of the cinquain in the form developed by Adelaide Crapsey, a late 19th century poet who was inspired by the Japanese haiku. Crapsey's cinquain consists of a five line poem in which the first line has two syllables, the second line four, the third line six, the fourth line eight, and the fifth line two. An optional sixth line may be used as a title to start the poem. These poems often have a minimalist, slightly ethereal feel, much like the Japanese form which inspired them.

Crapsey usually used iambs for the meter in her cinquains. An iamb is a two syllable unit in which the stress falls on the second unit. Playing with syllabic stresses within a cinquain can reveal very different patterns, for those who find iambs too restrictive. A common variation on Crapsey's form is a reverse cinquain, in which the 2-4-6-8-2 form is reversed to create a 2-8-6-4-2 pattern. In a mirror cinquain, both forms are used back to back. The feel of the poem can be very different, depending on the type of meter used by the poet.

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Cinquains can also be used within a poem, either as a single stanza in a poem or in the form of a poem which is made up of many cinquains. For example, a poet might develop a six stanza poem in which the first five stanzas are cinquains and the sixth stanza takes a line from each cinquain. Using five lines also creates the possibility for a number of rhyming schemes, including ABABA, AABAA, AABAC, and so forth. Within a larger poem composed of cinquains, a poet can use a rhyming scheme which references earlier stanzas to tie the poem together, as in a three stanza poem with the scheme ABABA BCBCB CDCDC.

The best way to explore poetic forms is to start writing poems and playing with their meter, rhyming scheme, and rhythm. Cinquains lend themselves well to experimentation because they are flexible but also short.

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Discussion Comments


@Mor - Yeah, personally I don't like form poetry all that much. I think to some extent the time has passed for that kind of thing.

A lot of magazines won't accept it now. They specifically say in the guidelines that they want free form poetry.

Although it's usually not the form so much as the rhyme and I suspect the main reason they don't want it is because it's so difficult to get truly right, and original.

I mean, while there are an infinite number of subjects, most people choose to write about only a handful, like love, and they choose to write it in the same way. Add bad rhyme into that and I can see why they don't want any kind of form poetry.

Which is not to say that it can't be done well. Just that so few people are capable of it.


@irontoenail - I think that could work for some people. I've also heard that you can make up a cinquain lesson plan that works the other way.

Try to write something beautiful and then slowly try to work it into the right form.

In some ways I think poetry, particularly form poetry, is similar to sculpture. You start with an unformed idea, maybe with a rough sense of meaning and a few sentences in mind and then play with the words until they fall into place.

You don't want to focus too much on the form at first, because you could end up ruining the purity of the meaning and the spontaneity of the words.

Everyone has to find their own way of doing things though. I don't think that there's any one method, really.


I was reading a book on how to write poetry recently and it had some very good advice for the beginner poet, particularly one who wanted to learn a particular form, like cinquain poems.

The advice was to focus entirely on the form at first, rather than on the words, or even the meaning of the poem. Don't worry about how it looks or sounds (aside from the syllabic stresses, of course) and don't worry about the subject matter either.

Don't show anyone the poems you write in this way. Even if by accident they turn out to be not so bad. The point is to get all the stress of performance out of your system so that you won't put pressure on yourself while you are still learning. Too many people expect to get a masterpiece on the first try and don't give themselves the space they need to learn the form.

Once you really have a grasp on it, so that you understand how a cinquain works, you can start toying with subjects that you actually want to write about and word combinations that you think are beautiful.

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