Cinquains – for pleasure and profit

Ok, maybe not the profit part. But Wednesday was the first session of the POET105: Jump-Starting the Muse poetry workshop at CPIT, and one of the challenges I gave them was the cinquain. Like haiku, it’s a form that most people get taught a fairly dodgey version of while at school. (Personally I blame maths: what is it with counting syllables all the time‽) For those who don’t know the form, it was invented by American poet Adelaide Crapsey, and is heavily influenced by Japanese and Chinese poetry. At it’s simplest, it’s a five line, imagistic poem, built on an increasing syllable count:

  • a 2 syllable first line,
  • 4 syllables for the second line,
  • then 6 syllables for the third,
  • then 8 syllables for the fourth,
  • and 2 syllables to finish.

There are variations that talk about counting stresses, or words rather than syllables. And the classic “didactic” cinquain that we tortured at school sets out the pattern of exposition. It’s one of those forms that is very easy to write badly … so the first challenge I gave them was to do exactly that: write a really, really bad cinquain. And we had a winner:

I eat
a little sweet
which I first had to beat
and then I stirred softly to heat
with feet

– Christine Taw

The runnner-up was another triumph:

an apple piece
falls within the teeth ring
the pain of press and squeeze and juice

– Shirley Eng

One of the most interesting things was how hard people found it to deliberately write badly. So then I turned it around, and gave them the task of writing a really good cinquain. Proving that their previous efforts were no flukes, the winner again was Christine Taw:

you stroke my hand
as we gaze on the stars
but I’ve no need to make a wish
with you

with a tie for second place between Shirley Eng:

my face
has become my
mothers – and now I like
the hideous cup and saucer
she prized

and Peter Creevey:

as Humpty Dumpty said
a word means what I want it to
no more

which was part of a gorgeously cynical little cinquain sequence. As you can see, it’s a much more versatile form than people realise. It’s all about what you do with it.

What will next week hold in store for us all?

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