The Lanterne is the shortest of all syllabic forms that I know of. It is a five-line form with the syllabic count distributed as follows: 1-2-3-4-1. There are no other restrictions on the form; rhyme is optional, any subject matter is acceptable, the Lanterne may be with or without a title.
It is called “Lanterne” because if the lines are centered it then has the appearance of a Japanese Lanterne. This is also true of the Cinquain and the Rictameter; it is true of any syllabic form that gradually increases and then decreases its line length. For some reason, though, the metaphor of the Japanese Lanterne has stuck with this particular form.
Because syllabic poetry is fairly new to the English speaking world, many of the syllabic forms have a history which is traceable to a single person’s creative insight. A good example is the creation of the Cinquain by Adelaide Crapsey in the early twentieth century. The Cinquain has a devoted following and there is a lot of excellent poetry in this form being written today. A more recent example is the Tetractys, which was created by the British poet, Ray Stebbings in the late 1980’s. The Tetractys is one of my personal favorites. The Etheree and Rictameter also were created by specific individuals at known times and places.
However, the Lanterne, as best I have been able to determine, has no specific creator, even though it is very recent (variant spellings include; Lantern, Lanturn, Lanturne). I have done several online searches, but none of these has yielded any specific information. Though I have communicated with a number of poets who write in this form, no one has been able to direct me to its origin, who first published it, or to any essay on its prosody formulated by its originator. Poets who I have discussed this with suspect that the Lanterne as an identifiable form first appeared in either the late 80’s or early 90’s. According to some the Lanterne appeared in several different venues nearly simultaneously.
I find this intriguing and suspect that a form which arises spontaneously in this way is answering a felt need in the poetic community. Tentatively, I would suggest two background sources for the emergence of the Lanterne; the Cinquain and the Free Verse Haiku communities.
The relationship of the Lanterne to the Cinquain is that the Lanterne is half a Cinquain. Compare the syllabic structure:
The Cinquain has a total of 22 syllables, the Lanterne a total of 11 syllables. I can see how some Cinquain poets could easily come up with this half-Cinquain as a variation on the Cinquain form. Cinquain poets often toy with variations to the standard form; usually this involves types of linking or inverting the original syllabic structure (e.g. changing it to 2-8-6-4-2). In playing with the Cinquain and its possible variations halving the line length might have been something that more than one person thought of. This would appeal particularly to Cinquain poets who have adopted a minimalist esthetic.
Which brings me to the second possible source for the Lanterne; the Free Verse Haiku poets. By Free Verse Haiku I mean Haiku in which syllabic count is not used as a factor to generate the Haiku. English language Haiku poets who have adopted a free verse approach to Haiku have simultaneously adopted a minimalist esthetic. Reading their journals, or interacting with such poets online, the idea is to use as few words as possible, even to the point of distorting normal English syntax; for example, articles are usually not used, conjunctions ignored, and prepositions bypassed if possible. It is also recommended by those writing in the free verse Haiku tradition that roughly twelve syllables be the normal count for an English language Haiku because, from their perspective, the full count Haiku is too wordy. In practice many who write using this approach use far less than the recommended twelve syllables; I have seen a great many Haiku in this style of eight, nine, and ten syllables. This closely maps onto the syllable count of the Lanterne and the highly restricted count of the Lanterne is something that free verse Haiku poets would feel right at home in.
My sense is that some free verse Haiku poets may have missed having a syllabic structure, some kind of specific, formal, structure into which they could shape their poems. A specific formal structure is attractive to many people. Critics of free verse Haiku have often noted that it seems unfocused and lacking in any standards. By adopting the Lanterne form free verse Haiku poets can maintain the short count they like while at the same time adding a formal focus to their poetic craft.
I think it is relevant to point out that online poetry groups that have a strong Haiku focus often also include a section devoted to Cinquain. So there would be opportunity for these two communities to interact.
One reason that I suspect the influence of free verse Haiku poets on the emergence of the Lanterne is the name of the form. It isn’t called a “Mini-Cinquain” or the “Half-Cinquain”; it is called the Lanterne and what one reads is that this is a reference to the shape of the Japanese Lanterne. It is not said that it resembles a Chinese Lanterne. This specific reference to Japan, I suspect, indicates some input from the free verse Haiku community early in the Lanterne’s history. I also suspect, though I haven’t been able to trace this, a British origin for the form because of the most common spelling, “Lanterne”. If it had started in the U.S. it would probably be spelled “Lantern”.
Here are a few personal observations, based on my own use of this form:
1. The first line of one syllable is a real challenge. I suggest avoiding articles, such as “the” and “a”. The first line needs to have more substance and the use of an article will tend to undermine the feeling that the opening word is also a line; in other words, the reader will tend to attach the article to the second line and read it as a three-syllable line which for some reason has been broken in two. Prepositions have almost the same effect; though there are some exceptions. Nouns tend to work best for the first line, and secondarily, modifiers.
2. The brevity of the Lanterne makes it almost impossible to maintain normal English usage; though there are some exceptions I’ve seen. This is a distinctive feature of the Lanterne; it almost requires a minimalist esthetic and the paring down of syntactic structures.
3. I recommend that each line have a sense of integrity. In other words, avoid run-ons or enjambment. The reason I make this suggestion is that I think the Lanterne is just too short to sustain enjambment. My feeling is that enjambment works when the underlying pulse of the poem is returned to. But the Lanterne is too short for that kind of return and the result of the use of enjambment in the Lanterne I have read that use it, is the loss of the sense of form. In other words Lanterne which use enjambment don’t communicate a sense of the syllabic shape.
4. I have found the use of rhyme efficacious, though most Lanterne poets seem to avoid it. I think there is a place for rhyme in the Lanterne as rhyme will assist in delineating the specific contours of the syllabic shape. Rhyme is not required in Lanterne, but it is something which, I think, can be usefully taken advantage of.
5. The Lanterne is definitely a challenge. But a good Lanterne is like a sparkling jewel.
Note: If any readers have additional information about the origin of the Lanterne, I would be pleased to hear about it.