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Poetry: The Forms and the History
The Cinquain, Clerihew and Haiku

by Catherine Wilson (Age: 40)
copyright 01-19-2003

Age Rating: 13 +


The word Cinquain is derived from the French word for five. An American poet named Adelaide Crapsey invented the Cinquain. She wrote a lot of poems with this format in the last years of her life. She died early, at the age of thirty-six.The Cinquain is a short, 5-line poetry form, with a distinct pattern.

It looks easy to write because the format is short; however, don't be fooled. This is a good poetry format for beginners because it is short, and you don't worry about rhyming. You concentrate on selecting words that create the effect you want to create. Yet, this format is also good for more experienced poets because it is challenging to write in such a short format.

The Cinquain consists of 5 lines with each line building syllables until a drop at the end for emphasis. The lines have the following syllables, in order of 1st line to last line: 2, 4, 6, 8, 2

The Cinquain usually doesn't rhyme.

The poem should build to a climax and have strong words on the end line.

Helpful tips:

Use more nouns in your Cinquain poem, instead of just filling the poem with adjectives.

Decide on your last line first, it could be a 2-syllable word or 2 1-syllable words. It could be the topic of your poem.

Don't aim to write finished lines for each line. This poetry format is more effective if you carry phrases or thoughts over more than one line. It shouldn't be jerky like Haikus can be. It should flow. But, don't be afraid to bend the rules if they fit your purpose.

The best way to learn poetry formats is to read and study examples. We'll start with two of Adelaide Crapsey's most popular poems:

by Adelaide Crapsey

These be
Three silent things:
The falling snow...the hour
Before the dawn... the mouth of one
Just dead.

Laurel in the Berkshires
by Adelaide Crapsey

And coral! Oh, I'll
Climb the great pasture rocks
And dream me mermaid in the sun's
Gold flood.


Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) is remembered mainly for his classic detective story Trent's Last Case and for the verse form that was named after him the clerihew. It was at the age of sixteen, while he was at St. Paul's School in London, that Bentley first started writing clerihews, as a diversion from schoolwork. G. K. Chesterton, Bentley's life-long friend, was at St. Paul's at the same time, and he too wrote clerihews. Here is one of Bentley's original clerihews from this period:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Bentley's first collection of verse in this vein was published in 1905 as Biography For Beginners. Further collections appeared in 1929 and in 1939. It was soon after publication of the first volume that the name CLERIHEW became applied to this particular form of light verse.

What exactly is a clerihew? Frances Stillman in The Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary defines it as 'a humorous pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with line of uneven length more or less in the rhythm of prose'. Add to this, that the name of the subject usually ends the first or, less often, the second line, and that the humor of the clerihew is whimsical rather than satiric, and there you have a complete definition. Here is a brief selection of Bentley clerihews:

The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes;
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.

The meaning of the poet Gay
Was always as clear as day,
While that of the poet Blake
Was often practically opaque.

I doubt if King John
Was a sine qua non.
I could rather imagine it
Of any other Plantagenet.

Dante Alighieri
Seldom troubled a dairy.
He wrote the Inferno
On a bottle of Pernod.

Nicholas Bentley followed in his father's footsteps with this clerihew:

Cecil B. De Mille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of 'The Wars of the Roses'.

And, finally, here are three by Michael Curl:

Alexander Selkirk
Was too grand for hotel work.
He informed a maid
That he was monarch of all he surveyed.

James Joyce
Had an unusually loud voice;
Knightly knock eternally wood he make
Finnegans Wake.

E. C. Bentley
Mused while he ought to have studied intently;
It was this muse
That inspired clerihews.


Haiku is a form of poetry that developed in Japan from about 400 years ago. The style reached a peak in the first half of the Edo period (1603-1868), when a poet named Matsuo Basho wrote distinctive verses on his journeys around the country describing the seasons and the scenery of the places he visited.
In the ensuing Meiji period (1868-1912) haiku developed as a uniquely Japanese form of poetry thanks to the efforts of another poet, Masaoka Shiki. It was Shiki who promoted a new form of haiku that emphasized realistic portrayals of nature and human life.

A haiku is a short verse of 17 syllables, divided into units of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku use simple expressions in ways that allow deeply felt emotions and a sense of discovery to be readily conveyed to the reader. As a rule, a haiku must have a word that is identified with a particular season.
The popularity of haiku has spread beyond Japan to Europe, North America, Africa, and China. Haiku composition is especially popular in the United States. The following is an English translation of a haiku by Matsuo Basho:

The autumn wind is blowing.
But the chestnut burs
Are green.

Ready to write one of each? Here is a review of each form:

The Cinquain:

The Cinquain consists of 5 lines with each line building syllables until a drop at the end for emphasis.

The lines have the following syllables, in order of 1st line to last line: 2, 4, 6, 8, 2

The Cinquain usually doesn't rhyme.

The poem should build to a climax and have strong words on the end line.

Clerihews have just a few simple rules:

They are four lines long.

The first and second lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other.

The first line names a person, and the second line ends with something that rhymes with the name of the person.

A clerihew should be funny.

That's it! You don't have to worry about counting syllables or words, and you don't even have to worry about the rhythm of the poem.

The haiku:

I will tell you that there are many rules about haiku writing but generally for us here at PnP these rules will be sufficient. There are writers that put much more thought and effort in to this form.

Haiku is a poem composed of three verses of 5,7 and 5 syllables and having a seasonal word.


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        08-25-2008     Raja Sharma        

This is quite informative and descriptive chapter and I do hope that it will be quite helpful to the writers who do want to add to the forms of poetry they already know.
This is actually a kind of help that is being extended by you to many, without asking anything in return.
God bless you

        01-22-2003     Wilma Barnett        

This form seems kind of strange to me.
Maybe it is too far over my head.
It isn't your writing...just my brain not absorbing what you are saying.
Keep going though...I'll catch up
I really like the lessons.

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