Writing a Cinquain
This workshop first appeared in Is This a Poem? by Roger Stevens (Bloomsbury). (Click on the link to find out more.)
Cinquains are very similar to haiku and tanka poems. They are short, with just five lines (from the French cinq which means five) and each line has to have an exact number of syllables. They were invented by the American poet Adelaide Crapsey about a hundred years ago. The great thing about them is they are easy to write. Here’s what we have to do.
Line one has two syllables, so let’s start by thinking about the subject of our poem. What shall we write about? How about choosing an animal? You could choose a tiger or giraffe (they both have two syllables) or you could maybe think of a more unusual animal. How about an aardvark or an ostrich? Or you could write about a pet or a domestic animal. A chicken would make a good subject I think. I asked my grandson Sam to help me write this, and he decided to write a poem about a spider.
Line two has four syllables, and describes the spider. Sam chose Teenie weenie. That describes a spider well I think. A very small spider anyway. He could have made the spider really big. But Real-ly big has only three syllables, so you would have to add another syllable, for example She’s really big”. Or you could use It’s venomous. Or very hairy. Try lots of possibilities until you find the one you like the best.
Line three has six syllables. It’s an action line. The spider in your poem needs to be doing something. Sam chose Spinning amazing webs.
Line four has eight syllables. In this line we think about the poem and what we’re writing about, how it makes us feel. It’s a chance to add a little emotion to the poem. How do you feel about the spider, or about spiders generally? Or maybe you can tell us how the spider feels about you. Sam described how he himself felt – and used a simile. He wrote I feel like a happy spider. I love this line – because we suddenly realise that the poem isn’t about a spider at all. It’s about Sam.
Line five has two syllables, like the first line, and sums up the poem. You can repeat the first line. Or you can echo the first line. Sam chose to repeat the word Spider. I suggested that he chose a different word, especially as he had used the word spider in line four, as well as line one and I made some suggestions. Sam said, No – he wanted the word spider repeated. Well, this was Sam’s poem, so I let him make the final decision. Here’s the finished piece.
Spinning amazing webs
I feel like a happy spider
Sam Decie (aged 7)
Most poets feel that it is better to stick with concrete objects than with abstract ideas when writing a cinquain (so write about an insect or a flower pot rather than sadness or fear for example). Cinquains don’t usually rhyme but you could use assonance (rhyming vowels) or alliteration to help make your cinquain poem more memorable.
To sum up:
Line 1 = two syllables. The subject of the poem.
Line 2 = four syllables. Describe the subject.
Line 3 = six syllables. Action.
Line 4 = eight syllables. Emotion. (Similes or metaphors work well here.)
Line 5 = two syllables. (Summing up or echoing line one.)
You can use the idea of counting in all sorts of ways when you write a poem. You could try writing a word cinquain – instead of counting syllables count words.
In her yellow camouflage
She is sunbathing on the tent
It’s relaxing doing nothing in the holiday sun
You could do as Adelaide Crapsey did and make up your own form of poem. Choose a syllable pattern and give your form of poem a name, then try writing it. I’ll have a go… This is called a Stevens. A Stevens poem always has six lines and its syllables go 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 1
Go for it!
Let’s write a Stevens!
In a hundred years
I will have
I know, I know… not very good. Just make sure your syllables have a regular pattern – and try it. I’m sure your poem will be better than mine.