Poetry Lesson: The Cinquain

Plus: Seven tips for teaching cinquains this fall

Two weeks ago, in my new high school poetry class, I introduced my students to the cinquain. This short, concise, and beautiful little poetic form was a resounding success. In fact, when I listened to my students reciting their own cinquains, I knew I would have to fill you in on this poetry idea.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the cinquain…

At their simplest, cinquains are five-line poems that usually make an observation about nature or a natural phenomenon. The New York (Brooklyn-born and Rochester-raised) poet, Adelaide Crapsey, developed the style of cinquain American readers are likely most familiar with.

However, cinquains have a rich international history, writes Aaron Toleos, who created this comprehensive website about Adelaide Crapsey and the cinquain form. According to Toleos…

“Adelaide Crapsey did not invent the five-line poem. The Sicilian quintain, the English quintain, the Spanish quintella, the Japanese tanka, and the French cinquain all predate hers. What she did invent, however, is a distinct American version of the five-line poem. Inspired by Japanese haiku and tanka and based on her advanced knowledge of metrics, she believed her form “to be the shortest and simplest possible in English verse.”

Aaron Toleos | Cinquain.org
This book of Adelaide Crapsey poems is available on Amazon at this link.

And by the way, if you’ve never heard of Adelaide Crapsey, you’re not alone. I hadn’t either. She’s relatively unknown due to her short life. She died at the age of 36 from tuberculosis. A paragraph from The Poetry Foundation follows:

“Adelaide Crapsey is best remembered as the inventor of the cinquain form and as a poet whose compressed lyrics “are a remarkable testament of a spirit ‘flashing unquenched defiance to the stars,'” as quoted in Boston Transcript. Though her mature work was published posthumously due to her untimely death at the age of 36, Crapsey nevertheless spent her brief life ardently pursuing her art. Her few publications received enthusiastic acclaim. Perhaps critics were initially drawn to Crapsey because she cut a tragic figure, but in the years after her demise her popularity waned. Modern readers looking for Crapsey’s work are hard-pressed to find it in any anthology printed after 1950—even those with a women’s literature focus. Crapsey’s poetry deals largely with the subjects of death and dying, a predilection doubtlessly influenced by her knowledge of her own terminal illness.”

Poetry Foundation

My students were struck by the short and tragic life of Crapsey. It made some of the darker, death-themed verses they would read later in the lesson easier to understand and appreciate.

I introduced the cinquain form to my students before asking them to write their own. Here’s what I did:

  • I made the obligatory Google Slides presentation to show them the form along with some biographical information about the cinquain master, Adelaide Crapsey.
  • I also utilized Toleos’ website that offered about 28 various Crapsey cinquains. A handful of those were indicated to be Crapsey’s best cinquains. I printed out twenty of the cinquains, cut them out, and walked around the room asking each of my budding poets to “pick a card, any card.”
  • I highlighted the titles of those deemed Crapsey’s best cinquains. We went around the room, reading our chosen cinquains in turn. Then, after each student read their selected cinquain, the class tried to decide if it was considered one of Crapsey’s best. Without failing once, we were able to identify the stronger Crapsey cinquains.
This is a photo of several Adelaide Crapsey cinquains printed on slips of paper for students to choose from.
I shuffled these out like a deck of cards and asked students to pick one to read to the class. The highlighted ones are some of Crapsey’s best and most popular cinquains.

Crapsey’s best cinquains just had a certain feel.

These short poems exhibited an intriguing wave-like form with quiet starts, gradual builds, and satisfying finales. Here’s one of Crapsey’s classics:

NOVEMBER NIGHT

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

Autumn leaves illustrate Adelaide Crapsey's November-themed cinquain
Photo by Cori Rodriguez on Pexels.com

Isn’t that beautiful?!

See what I mean about that compelling and satisfying 2-4-6-8 syllable count? As I said, this is the cinquain at its simplest, and at Cinquain.org, you’ll learn more about Crapsey’s style.

For example, her cinquains demonstrate a more stringent observance of iambic rhythms and accentual stresses. Crapsey also also faithfully titled all her cinquains. But before we move on, let’s read one more of her best cinquains.

NIAGARA

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

More autumn leaves and a boy contemplates cinquains
Photo by Trinity Kubassek on Pexels.com

Seven tips I used to teach the cinquain:

  1. For our first foray into the world of cinquains, my poetry class did not delve beyond replicating the 2-4-6-8-2 syllable count rule.
  2. I also told students that their cinquain may read or sound like a twenty-two syllable sentence, and that’s okay. If that idea helps them put together their poem, then good.
  3. I also required that students put a title on their poem as Crapsey did. The title can serve as a sixth line, providing important information, writes Toleos.
  4. To help students choose topics, I requested that their first cinquain be nature-related. After presenting those in class, we all wrote others on any topic. (That explains the cinquain about a paper clip in the slide show below!)
  5. Encourage your students to avoid words such as “very” and “just” or other weak words, which may be tempting to use to achieve the 2-4-6-8-2 syllable count. As Toleos advises here: Don’t overuse “just.” Since the mission of the cinquain is to define a precise instant in time, it is tempting to use adverbs and “just” is the biggest offender.
  6. Attempt to make each line paint an image.
  7. Show don’t tell. Toleos adds, “Use adjectives sparingly… Reducing the number of adjectives in the cinquain increases the relevance of the ones you do use.”

I was amazed at the success the cinquain brought to my poetry class.

Here are some cinquains written by my students:

And here’s one I wrote alongside my students:

Summer Wilt

Top shelf,
Ferrari red
Geraniums burst forth
In June then wither, fading to
Dull mauve.

I hope you’ll introduce your students to the cinquain form in your poetry lessons. I think you’ll be nicely surprised at how well your students do with this form. For one, the cinquain is fairly unintimidating and it may remind them of other poems they’ve written. For example, your students will probably bring up how they remember writing haikus back in their middle school or elementary years. The cinquain is similar to the oft-remembered haiku in subject (nature) and in brevity. Just remember to teach that 2-4-6-8-2 syllable count and they’ll be on their way to crafting successful cinquains.

Marilyn Yung, owner of ELA Brave and True

Thanks for reading again this week!

I absolutely love my new poetry class that ends every school day.

It’s the perfect way to bring the day to a close… with coffee, creativity, and kids who aren’t afraid (usually) to try new things!

If you need more poetry ideas for high school students, check out this post.

Need another poetry idea?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

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Yet one more poetry idea!


ELA Brave and True | Love teaching. Make it memorable.

This post’s featured photo by Anastasia Mihalkova on Unsplash

Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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