January 14, 2013

Prompt: Five

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
by Charles Demuth, 1928.
Image: metmuseum.org
Although I am going to write first here about five-line stanza forms, this prompt is really about the number five.

The cinquain (AKA quintain or quintet and pronounced sing-keyn) is both a poem or a stanza form that is composed of five lines. Cinq is French for five and examples of cinquain poems are found in many European languages, but the origin of the form is in medieval French poetry.

This form can be very formal or more loosely followed, and there are several variations that have developed over the centuries.

In very formal English poetry, cinquains follow a rhyme scheme of ababb, abaab or abccb.

Going back to the 16th and 17th century poets, such as Sir Philip Sidney, George Herbert, Edmund Waller, and John Donne, you find this form used.  Here is the first stanza of  "The World" by George Herbert:
Love built a stately house, where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies, she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,
Whereas they were supported by the same;
But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.

An American example is "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe, whose first stanza is:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

The Sicilian quintain rhyme scheme is used in "Home is so Sad” by Philip Larkin:
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

When Poets Online looked at cinquains earlier, we used as our model Adelaide Crapsey. She was an early twentieth-century poet who used a cinquain form of 22 syllables distributed among the five lines in a 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 pattern.

She was influenced by the Japanese tanka, another five-line form that we have tried on Poets Online. Her poems also focused on imagery and the natural world.

Adelaide Crapsey's poetry was published after her death in 1915 as Verseand the completed portion of her work on prosody is in (the very dry volume) A Study in English Metrics. What her form does that the Japanese form consciously avoids doing is to include the very Western closing, climax or message.

Here are two of her poems

I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

Seen on a Night in November

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

Not all of her poetry was in the cinquain form. Take a look at her "To The Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window", a poem written as her death from tuberculosis approached, and one she said was “Written in a Moment of Exasperation.”

Five, the number, appears in many forms. It is the third prime number. A Fermat prime. 5 sided polygons are pentagons. Pentagrams are 5-sided stars with many symbolic meanings. I like that it is the fifth Fibonacci number.

And five has many symbolic meanings in cultures from the Greeks through the Maya, Celtic and others, and allusions in the Bible and literature.

A quick search online turns up many poems using five, such as "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire" by David Wagoner, "It Was Going on Five in the Morning" by André Breton and "Five Easy Prayers for Pagans" by Philip Appleman.

Our new prompt has two parts (I guess it should have had 5 parts.) and an additional option.

1. Write a poem that uses some aspect of five as an element of its content and meaning.
2.  Use 5-line stanza(s). You can write a short single cinquain or you can write multiple stanzas (5X5?).
* Optional Challenge: Use one of the formal cinquain/quintain/quintet rhyme schemes as illustrated above by Crapsey and Larkin.

I chose as a model poem on the website this month a poem that uses the quintain and is well known to poetry fans: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I could not find a poem that uses the five-line form and also has a theme of five. I'm sure one exists. If you find it, post a comment here.

Frost ends his poem with:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


  1. It looks like a lot of thought goes into this blog. Thank you.
    I'm looking for responses to previous writing prompts, expecting to find "unknown" poets. So far I recognize most of those I see on your "poems & prompts" page.
    Where do I find the poems you select for each new prompt?

  2. Well, I don't think of them as "unknowns" but all the submitted poems that are published online can be accessed by clicking the page for that month's prompt on our main site site

  3. If you would like to check out some visual poetry, go to tosonnets.com - hope you enjoy

  4. I’m in a carousel.
    The kind that spins
    people to the wall.
    There is a woman
    and a man and a man
    inside of it too,
    and a man operating it.
    Everybody I love is
    looking down at me,
    laughing. When I die,
    I’ll die alone.
    I know that much,
    held down by my
    own shadow, wanting.

    Its a great one and also a beatifully crafted one. looking forward for more from this website.


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