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.
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.