The Crapsey Cinquain & The American Cinquain

I’m here with another thorough analysis of a syllabic form: the cinquain.

Adelaide Crapsey via

Adelaide Crapsey didn’t give us any specific rules for her version of the cinquain. Instead, poetic scholars examined her cinquain poems and her writings to discover the magic behind the form.

⭐️ The Crapsey cinquain follows accentual and syllabic patterns by relying heavily on the iambic foot. ⭐️

In general, Adelaide Crapsey was heavily influenced by the Japanese tanka, another five-line cinquain form. Her own poetry shows the juxtaposition and brevity of words reflected in the tanka. The cinquain is written with a syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2.

Crapsey’s poetry falls into the imagist poetry category which uses precise imagery and word brevity to convey a message. – The Theory of Cinquain shares:

“The clearest understanding of cinquain aesthetics, however, remains encapsulated in the works themselves, especially in how cinquain dynamics (the accumulation of energy in lines one through four followed by the inevitable collapse in the fifth line) relates directly to Crapsey’s meanings. Sanehide Kodama says of the cinquain that, “the form itself suggests a meaning, and a tragic sense. It suggests laborious effort for attainment tersely terminated by the wholly unanticipated,”3 and Edward Butscher states that “the cinquain focuses the haiku’s taut compression of emotion into a single striking symbol or metaphor, with the latter building toward a climax of severe but precise understatement that will trail off in the last line.”4 

Just as Crapsey’s burgeoning talent was cut short by her disease so the best cinquains take advantage of a similar tragic sense in their execution within a form that has been fashioned with disturbing accuracy in the image of its creator.”

So, let’s pull this paragraph apart, so we understand how to write a Crapsey cinquain.

  1. There is an accumulation of energy in lines one through four.
  2. The fifth line is the twist, or turn. This is where something unanticipated occurs. (Maybe like the haiku “aha” moment).
  3. Like the haiku, the Crapsey cinquain uses a taunt compression of emotion into a striking symbol or metaphor.
  4. The ending builds into a climax of severe but precise understatement that trails off into the fifth line. shares these diagrams. I’ve shared them here, but please visit the site for more information on the Crapsey Cinquain.

What follows is a list of some fundamentals of the Crapsey cinquain:

  1. An accentual stress pattern of 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 1 was primary to Crapsey’s cinquains although this has been routinely underemphasized by critics.5
L1These BE1
L2Three SIlent THINGS:2
L3The FALLing SNOW …the HOUR3
L4BeFORE the DAWN …the MOUTH of ONE4
L5Just DEAD.1
  1. syllabic pattern of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2.
L1These / be2
L2Three / si / lent / things:4
L3The / fall / ing / snow… / the / hour6
L4Be / fore / the / dawn… / the / mouth / of / one8
L5Just / dead.2
  1. Though not exclusive, the dominant metrical foot is the iamb (which lends itself naturally to the accentual stress requirement).
L1These BEu-
L2Three SIlent THINGS:u-u-
L3The FALLing SNOW …the HOURu-u-u-
L4BeFORE the DAWN …the MOUTH of ONEu-u-u-u-
L5Just DEAD.u-u-
  1. Although modeled after Eastern forms such as the haiku and tanka, which are almost never titled, Crapsey titled all of her cinquains. Furthermore, her titles were not casual but usually functioned as active “sixth lines” which conveyed important meaning to the poem:
L1If it
L2Were lighter touch
L3Than petal of flower resting
L4On grass, oh still too heavy it were,
L5Too heavy!
  1. Although it was likely a matter of fashion rather than a meaningful poetic decision, Crapsey used initial capitalization exclusively for each of the cinquain’s five lines.

The American Cinquain

Adelaide Crapsey wrote her version of the cinquain almost 100 years ago. After her death at thirty-six, the form faltered… there were no explicit instructions on how to write the form, other than the poems left behind after her demise.

It makes sense to me that the American cinquain has consistently changed to reflect the world our poets live in.

Just because cinquain poetry was traditionally written with iambic stresses, doesn’t mean we have to write the American cinquain that way. The syllable count doesn’t change. It’s still 2-4-6-8-2.

We don’t write haiku like Issa, or Buson anymore… why wouldn’t the cinquain change with the times?

Meet Aaron Toleos: was launched in 2005 as a master’s thesis project for Aaron Toleos, then a graduate student at Salem State College.

His goal was to create the most comprehensive website available on Adelaide Crapsey and the American cinquain.

He shares the most in-depth discussions of the cinquain form I’ve found.

Toleos says:

Is there an American cinquain? This question was in part the impetus for this project and my initial sense was that the form had faltered soon after leaving the hands of Adelaide Crapsey ninety years ago.

How could the Crapsey cinquain be the American cinquain when no one is writing cinquains in a way that is consistent with the formula she established?

If anything, it seems like the form has devolved into something much simpler: verse of a 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 syllabic structure, an exercise in metrics regardless of meaning.

So, to put my money where my mouth is, I undertook a semester’s worth of writing to see where the cinquain would take me. I am not sure I got any further in redefining the form, but I definitely feel like I made some successful attempts at writing cinquains. You can review and even comment on my work if you care on my cinquain blog.

I have taken the time to assemble some of my notes in the chance they might be useful to others interested in advancing the form:

  1. Sentential structure: A fair number of my cinquains turned out to be complete sentences. In other words, if you unstacked the lines so they formed one long line, the result would be a grammatically correct twenty-two syllable sentence.
  2. Syllabic versification – yes: All of my cinquains are based on the syllabic pattern of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2 established by Crapsey.
  3. Accentual versification – no: My attempts to adhere to Crapsey’s accentual pattern of 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 1 were unsuccessful. I felt the need for more flexibility.
  4. The iambic foot – no: Writing in iambic feet felt way too pedantic for my free verse mind.
  5. Initial capitalization – no: This may have been the fashion in Crapsey’s time, but not now.
  6. An image per line: I tried to offer a complete image on each line (except the first).
  7. Line breaks: In this compressed form line breaks have a high value.
  8. Titling: I’ve always taken titles seriously, but with the cinquain a good title seems essential. You can’t put a casual title on a poem as dense as a cinquain.
  9. 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.
  10. Use adjectives sparingly: Classic “show don’t tell” stuff here. Reducing the number of adjectives in the cinquain increases the relevance of the ones you do use. Save them for the last or penultimate line if you can.
  11. Nature, the cleanest theme: Focus on a natural occurence and keep any signs of human civilization in the background if you need to include this at all. As a Thoreauvian, I think the most effective metaphors are found in Nature. As soon as you focus on something that is part of the civilized world you risk tapping into your reader’s prejudices. Some people think corvettes are sexy, others think they are cheezy, but everyone likes birds and trees. The only hard part is making birds and trees interesting.
  12. Juxtaposition: Critical for creating the drama that builds through line four.
  13. The turn: The form begs the writer to fall back on the last line. Turn away from the drama of line four in some interesting way in the final line.
Read Crapsey’s 28 original cinquain poems HERE

Cinquain Rules For #TankaTuesday

Like Toleos, I’ve found writing the American cinquain more enjoyable than crafting the Crapsey Cinquain with its iambic foot and accentual pattern of 1-2-3-4-1.

⭐️ If you want to write a Crapsey cinquain with the iambic feet and accentual patter of 1-2-3-4-1, feel free to take that on. ⭐️

For Tanka Tuesday:

The cinquain is a five-line, non-rhyming poem featuring a syllable structure of 2-4-6-8-2. Your cinquain needs a title, which acts as a sixth line to enhance your poem. Nature related cinquain really shine!

Choose words that create drama that builds into the fourth line. The turn occurs on line five, the most important line. This is where you change your focus away from the drama in some interesting way.

MORE resources:

Interesting Literature: 10 of the Best Cinquain Poems (thanks for the link Merril D. Smith)

Let’s Write Cinquain Poetry

31 thoughts on “The Crapsey Cinquain & The American Cinquain”

  1. Oh wow…. My brain is on fire like your graphic Colleen… LOL 💖… I am as you know, just a simple English Lass, who perhaps isn’t up to such a Syllabic Class, of learning to write with such Sentential structure, But I am delighted that you are the instructor.. To give me education upon New ways to to write , I always leave here with feelings so bright..

    Loved reading HOW… as I send you lots of love dearest Colleen… Much love my friend ❤ ❤ ❤


  2. That was fascinating, Colleen. I really like the rhythm of Adelaide’s verse. I’ve favorited this post so I can play around with these. I really like the multiple elements and the challenge that presents. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve just finsihed two of her books, Diana. She seemed to have a plan for these forms, but her tragic death didn’t give her time to ellaborate more. The stresses and iamb are too much for me. LOL! Some poets were taught that if poetry doesn’t contain stresses and meter, it’s just not poetry. That’s not how I see it. I think the key, is the syllable count, the word choice, and how we can use to metaphor to get out point across. But, that’s just me. I think we should all try her version of the cinquain at least once. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m going to play with it, Colleen. I never think about the rhythm, but I know I gravitate toward it. It adds another layer of complexity to all the other elements you mentioned. And I love a challenge!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Jan and Merril work with iambs all the time. I know when it’s done well, it’s beautiful. Check out Merril’s post on the rose challenge this week. She took the cinquain where it’s supposed to go. 🌹

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Colleen, when I checked, I got a page can not be displayed message and the same message appeared when I clicked on yours. You may want to check on it. I’ve removed it from my site.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Meter is not my strong suit. I will gladly count syllables. 😉
    As for all the other ‘suggestions’ or ‘rules’…
    perhaps I will just stick to the forms I enjoy the most 🙂

    I’ve kept this link for future reference. Thanks! 💌

    Liked by 1 person

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