Today is American Cinquain Day. The American Cinquain, also known as the Crapsey Cinquain, is the first syllabic verse form for the English language. It was created by Adelaide Crapsey who was born on September 9, 1878. So I decided to designate this day, Adelaide’s birthday, as Cinquain Day.
The Cinquain is a five-line syllabic form with the following syllabic structure: 2-4-6-8-2. It has a total of 22 syllables. Ever since it first appeared, early in the 20th century, it has attracted poets and today there is a thriving, dedicated, community of Cinquain poets who continue to write in this efficacious form.
The Cinquain is, as far as I know, the first syllabic form to use what I refer to as a “very short line”. (I have posted here about this previously, you can find it under the topic “Syllabics”.) The great challenge of the Cinquain is in the opening and closing lines of two syllables each. I have found particularly the closing line carries a lot of weight in this particular form.
The idea of having a very short line of just two syllables was a startlingly original offering. Though some have suggested that Crapsey’s Cinquain has some roots in her awareness of Japanese Haiku and Tanka, I tend to doubt this influence was central because the syllable count for these forms does not consist of very short lines. The Japanese forms may have shown her examples of syllabic forms with long and brilliant histories, but in terms of the specific contours of the Cinquain there does not seem to be much of a match.
My own feeling is that the Cinquain is more rooted in her systematic study of English prosody. She was working on a long essay, “A Study in English Metrics” when she died at a very young age. She didn’t finish the essay, but it has, nevertheless, been published. In this essay Crapsey classifies word usage in terms of percentage of words used that are one or two syllables, and those that have more than two syllables. For example, she analyzes Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. In Part 1 there are 5,960 words; 91.67 percent are one or two syllable words and 8.33 percent are more than two syllables, polysyllabic. She engaged in this kind of analysis for the entire Paradise Lost, for the poetry of Pope, Tennyson, Swinburne, and others. What I think Crapsey was uncovering is how English, compared to more inflected languages, contains a high percentage of short count words; words of just one or two syllables. In addition, she was uncovering how poets writing in English tend to write in such a way that they prefer these short count words over other words of longer syllable count. When I read “A Study in English Metrics” I pictured Crapsey hovering over these poetic texts. First she had to count the number of total words, then she had to go back over and count the one syllable, two syllable, and polysyllabic words. This took a lot of effort, a great deal of concentration, and time. It must have been important to her.
I think the idea of an opening and closing two syllable line for the Cinquain came out of this concentrated focus on English Metrics. Crapsey, through this analysis, had absorbed an understanding of this basic, two-syllable unit of English poetry. Because of this, and against all precedent, she was able to see the poetic potential of the very short line.
After Crapsey’s initial innovation, a number of other syllabic forms that use very short lines have followed: the Fibonacci, the Rictameter, the Lanterne, the Etheree, all of these, and others, stepped into the space that Crapsey created with her Cinquain; by that I mean that the Cinquain demonstrated how the very short line works and that it has a place in English poetry. Think of the Cinquain as the grandmother of English syllabic verse.
In closing, here are a few of Crapsey’s Cinquain:
Listen . . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Niagara Seen on a Night in November
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
So take some time today to read some Cinquain, or write some Cinquain, or just offer some thanks to Adelaide for creating this gift of a new form of verse.