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A cinquain is a poetic form that makes use of a pattern of five lines.

Originally, the word “cinquain” was used to describe any poem, no matter the rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, that had five lines.  It is often still used in that way but is also connected to specific patterns of rhyme and meter. 

The word “cinquain” is also used to refer to a stanza of five lines. Therefore, a poem made of multiple five-line stanzas could be labelled as a cinquain poem.


Types of Cinquain Poems 

The American Cinquain 

The most common form of cinquain poem is the American version. It was inspired by the Japanese haiku and tanka, two forms that defined Japanese poetry. The American cinquain is similar to works done by the writers of the Imagist movement. Imagism was a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents and participants were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language. 

Imagists rejected the sentimental themes and traditional styles of Romantic and Georgian poets. Instead, they made use of free verse. This is a kind of poetic writing that does not utilize a pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, that doesn’t mean the poems are without the use of figurative language. 

This can be seen through the simplicity of cinquain poems. Their images are to the point and devoid of extraneous language and description. As with many of Ezra Pound’s pomes, the writer who is credited today with the founding of the imagist movement, they are a series of images bound together by the reader’s or writer’s emotional experience.


Example of an American Cinquain – Release by Adelaide Crapsey 

It was from Crapsey’s concept of the cinquain that the modern version of the poem was born. In 1915 she published a collection of twenty-eight cinquains, titled Verse. She based her poems on the haikus and tanka of Japanese poetry but, unlike these forms she titled her poems. This, in many instances, allows the title to function as a sixth line, providing the reader with necessary or complementary detail. Here is one of the twenty-eight poems from Verse, titled ‘Release’:  

With swift

Great sweep of her

Magnificent arm my pain

Clanged back the doors that shut my soul

From life.

Crapsey’s cinquains are well-structured and meticulously written. The lines usually followed one of two patterns. From the first line to the last they contained initially one syllable in the first line, two in the second, three in the third, four in the fourth, and one single syllable in the fifth line. Then, as her poetry developed she changed to a new pattern of two syllables in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and two syllables in the fifth line. ‘Release’ is an example of the second pattern. 


Other Cinquain Forms

Since Crapsey’s invention and popularization of the form, numerous other patterns aside from the two she primarily wrote in have become popular. Some of these are listed below. 

Reverse Cinquain: this form follows a syllable pattern of: two, eight, six, four, and two.

Crown Cinquain: this form is an example of a poem that is made up of several cinquains, in this case five, to create one longer poem.

Butterfly Cinquain: an extended form on a cinquain that is made up of nine lines following a pattern of two, four, six, eight, two, eight, six, four, and two.

Didactic Cinquain: this form is similar to Crapsey’s and is most widely used within education environments. It is taught to young students as a way to explore language and the different figurative ways that words connect.The first line is a single word that tis consider the title. It is also the subject of the poem. The following lines contain a pair of adjectives, followed by a three-word phrase describing the subject, then a four-word phrase. The last line is another single word that could also be used to describe the subject. 


Examples of Cinquain Poems

Example #1 Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness by John Donne

This poem is an example of a five-line poem that despite not following any of the patterns listed above, is generally considered to be a cinquain because of its length. 

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.

The poem is written in iambic pentameters and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABBA. These short lines capture a specific spiritual experience and make several religious allusions. 


Example #2 Snow by Adelaide Crapsey 

These light and evocative lines depict snow, as the title would suggest. They follow the second pattern listed above as one of Crapsey’s favourites. The pattern of syllables is two syllables in the first line, four in the second, six in the third, eight in the fourth, and two syllables in the fifth line. 

Look up…

From bleakening hills

Blows down the light, first breath

Of wintry wind…look up, and scent

The snow!

The lines do not rhyme but they are unified by their rich depiction of a single scene. This is a quality that the majority of her poems have and that have connected them so closely to the imagist movement. 

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