Cinquain Poetry Form: Paint With Words

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Here’s what the Cinquain poetry form is:

A cinquain is a short five-line, Japanese tanka-inspired poem, created by the American poet Adelaide Crapsey.

American cinquains gained popularity in the twentieth century.

These five-line verses are also called quintains in the US.

So if you want to learn all about the Cinquain poetry type, then you’ve come to the right place.

Keep reading!

Cinquain Poem Type: Simply Explained (+ Examples)

Forms of Poetry: The Cinquain

Poetry book lying on wooden table outdoor

The term cinquain could refer to one of several types of poems.

The prevailing definition of the term was originally a five-line poem, with no particular form associated with the term other than the length.

It can now refer to five-line poems, but also to a variety of forms that employ multiple five-line stanzas instead.

Speaking broadly, the term can be divided up into different usages:

  • Forms that are influenced by the structures popularized by Adelaide Crapsey in the early 20th century.
  • Five-line poems, as originally intended by the term.

These two definitions do overlap significantly since Crapsey’s forms were five lines.

But it is worth noting that there are a handful of forms much longer than five lines that are still claimed as ‘cinquains’ by virtue of using cinquains in the body of the longer poem in some way.

The biggest obstacle in defining the term is first understanding that both of these definitions persist into the modern day.

As such a cinquain could refer either to a five-line poem of any style or to a poem that utilizes the conventions popularized by Crapsey’s body of work.

Basic Properties of American Cinquains

Outdoors, a beautiful girl with a bouquet peony
Rhyme StructureNone
MeterOften Iambic
OriginInspired by Japanese tanka, popularized by Adelaide Crapsey
PopularityFlourished in the 20th century
ThemeHeavily influenced by imagism; usually features strong images and simple structures

How Are Cinquains Structured?

Young woman writing by the ocean

As mentioned previously, cinquains originally did not share a unanimous structure.

It was simply a way to refer to five-line poems, much the same way that we would call a four-line poem a quatrain, a term that simply means ‘four-line stanza.’

They have evolved into a few different branches though and are now expected to follow certain conventions depending on the type of cinquain that the writer intends.

Depending on the form, cinquains may or may not also be titled to maintain simplicity.

Cinquains were also heavily influenced by imagists, a movement that promoted imagery and simplicity as their artistic ideals.

The Tanka

Beautiful Japanese woman in yukata or kimono dress enjoying the cherry blossoms

Tanka is a Japanese form of poetry utilizing five units, which are usually written as lines when Romanized, featuring a specific pattern of on, much like haiku.

Due to consisting of five units that behave like separate lines, tanka is sometimes included in the term ‘cinquain.’

On are a specific phonetic unit of the Japanese language to which English has no direct equivalent, but we tend to think of it as similar to the English syllable.

The pattern in which tanka are written is 5-7-5-7-7, with the most influential writer of the form being Masaoka Shiki, the same man who popularized the term ‘haiku’ to replace what he felt was an inaccurate usage of hokku.

American Cinquains

female artist draws a composition of wild flowers in a pot in a rustic style.

American cinquains are roughly based on the Japanese tanka and were mainly popularized by Adelaide Crapsey, who came up with two different forms.

Both were accentual but did share the distinction of being five lines long.

Cinquains have a tradition of being predominantly Iambic in English, but this is not necessarily always the case.

Crapsey’s latest cinquains were 22 syllables in length, with a pattern of 2-4-6-8-2.

Iambs were a natural fit for this variant of the form, as Crapsey preferred for there to also be an accentual structure of 1-2-3-4-2 stresses.

Didactic Cinquains

Vintage book of poetry outdoors

Didactic cinquains are an informal take on the Crapsey cinquain, with a unique structure that moves away from counting stresses and feet.

A didactic cinquain will start with a line that has one word, the subject of the poem.

It will then feature a three-line poem that expands on it, usually with three verbs that end in -ing.

The fourth line will expand further with four words and the final line will feature a single word again, with some direct and noticeable relation to the first word.

Example of a Didactic Cinquain

A young female farmer in Indian Summer

Brown, oblong
Growing, sprouting, thriving
Becoming a simple dinner

As with many American cinquains, the didactic cinquain still ends up retaining the unique asymmetry of the line lengths.

This is an interesting feature of American cinquains in general since most poetic forms attempt to reach some semblance of uniformity or similarity in their lengths.

Cinquains as Five-Line Poems

Amazing soft clouds moving in golden glowing sun

Despite Crapsey’s influence over the form, the original definition of the term also persists simultaneously.

When the term ‘cinquain’ is used in this way, it does not necessarily imply any specific combination of syllables or stresses and is simply any five-line poem.

Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness by John Donne

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

Note that, unlike the many variants of cinquains based on Crapsey’s work, Donne’s poem has a wholly original structure and rhyme scheme, utilizing ten syllables on each line and a simple rhyme scheme of ABABB.

This is far removed from the various forms inspired by Crapsey, in which the asymmetrical line lengths are a largely universal feature that defines each of those disparate forms.

Other Forms

White wood work desk with flowers, a pen and paper

Most forms of the cinquain either trace their roots to the Crapsey cinquain and/or to the original definition of a ‘five-line poem.’

These include:

  • Reverse cinquain; a form with 22 syllables in a 2-8-6-4-2 pattern.
  • Mirrored cinquain; a ten-line form utilizing the second variant of the Crapsey cinquain, followed by a reverse cinquain.
  • Tectractys; a form with 20 syllables in a 1-2-3-4-10 pattern.
  • Lanterne; a form with a syllabic pattern of 1-2-3-4-1.
  • Crown cinquain; a complex cinquain consisting of five separate cinquains in sequence.
  • Garland cinquain; an even more advanced variant that utilizes a full crown cinquain and then adds an extra cinquain that repeats lines from earlier in the poem.

History of Cinquains

The history of cinquains can be largely traced back through its various forms.

The garland cinquain is a mutation of the crown cinquain which is an expansion of the Crapsey cinquain which was, in turn, inspired by short forms of Japanese poetry.

The biggest turning point for the cinquain as a form was, of course, when it split into two different groups. (The simple and informal five-line poem versus the more structurally complex Crapsey family of cinquains.)

This schism was born out of posthumous publications of Crapsey’s work in the early 20th century and has given the term an identity crisis that persists to the modern day.

As such, it is always necessary to determine which definition you’re referring to when discussing cinquains.

Five-line poems and stanzas have been around as long as poetry has existed while the more specific Crapsey family of cinquains has only been around for about a century and is largely constrained to American literature.

Tips for Writing a Cinquain

Female hand writing on wooden table with autumn leaves scattered

As hinted before, you’re going to have to decide which definition of cinquain you’re adhering to before even beginning your poem.

If you simply intend to write a five-line poem, then you need only concern yourself with the conventions of short poetry.

Short poems tend to thrive on technique and imagery since their appeal mostly comes from how much you can fit into a small space.

Writing any variant of the Crapsey cinquain will require a bit more forethought, though.

It is advisable to read as many cinquains as you can get your hands on, perhaps starting with Crapsey’s own posthumous Verse collection.

This will give you a good sense of the traditions of the form.

happy woman in wreath of flowers on cereal field

Do not be afraid to experiment with the form and try to make it your own once you start to get a feel for how the conventions are working.

American cinquains have a rich history of writers trying to one-up each other with more and more variations of Crapsey’s base forms, after all.

Whichever definition you go with, remember that a five-line poem does not have enough real estate for a complex narrative.

Choose something simple as your primary through-line and stick with it.

Poet’s Note

Pen lays on paper.

Odd-lined stanzas often require a little more mastery of dependent clauses and fragments than even-lined stanzas.

So if your cinquains and tercets feel off, try brushing up on the basics of syntax.

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Vintage poetry book on wooden platform

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