Inventing Poetry Forms

May 9, 2022 — 22 Comments

Would you like to leave your mark on literary history? Why not invent a new poetic form? It just might catch on.

If it did, you could become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). She lived a privileged but brief life. Adelaide is remembered today as the creator of the American Cinquain. She also wrote a book entitled A Study in English Metrics which you can download for free.

C.S. Lewis describes the imaginative aspect of writing poetry as a creative act. “For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (Reflections on the Psalms).

LitCharts offers a description of the form itself, and notes an alternative name for the poetic invention.

The American cinquain is an unrhymed, five-line poetic form defined by the number of syllables in each line—the first line has two syllables, the second has four, the third six, the fourth eight, and the fifth two (2-4-6-8-2). They are typically written using iambs.

In the early twentieth century the American poet Adelaide Crapsey, inspired by the five-line Japanese poetic form of tanka, began to write five-line poems that followed a distinct form. This poetic form soon came to be known as an American cinquain (though it’s also sometimes referred to as a Crapseian cinquain, after its creator).

I think I’ll stick with “American.”

Oddly, one of the reasons Crapsey’s story drew me in is the fact she was the daughter of a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Algernon Sidney Crapsey (1847-1927) had aspirations of becoming a bishop, only to end up defrocked for heresy.

Writer’s Digest offers a list of 168 poetic forms, including “a few fun super new nonce forms.” I advise reviewing this listing so you don’t go to the effort of birthing your own form, only to find out that someone beat you to it.

I’ve written in the past about the benefit of writing outside of our normal styles. As a nonfiction writer, I’ve never desired to be considered a poet.

But I have enjoyed dabbling in a variety of poetic forms as a literary exercise. On occasion, I’ve actually been pleased with the results. And, due to its Inkling inspiration, my personal favorite is probably “A Foreshadowing of Epics.”

In a moment I’ll share my modest attempts at American Cinquains. But first, allow me to offer a Sijo that I wrote to introduce my Cinquains. A Sijo is “a Korean verse form related to haiku and tanka and comprised of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, for a total of 44-46 syllables.”

Immortalize your poetic memory this novel way.
Inventing a new form of poetry is easy to do.
With meter, hyperbole and rhyme – make your fame last for all time.

What follows is a medley of American Cinquains that I composed yesterday while waiting for an optometry appointment. My goal was not to awe readers, but to stretch my writing – what Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) refers to as one’s “writing chops.”

The last story you should write is the most important story. You should start with a story that is just an amusing, entertaining, fun story to write and learn your writing chops with the least important things before you start applying them to the most important things.

I intentionally attempted to write cinquains evoking a variety of emotions. Here you will find examples that are thoughtful and frivolous, serious and sentimental.

Cudgel
Beaten by words
Angry themes beget hate
Eardrums torn by condemnation
Wounds last.

Pet dogs
Each breed a joy
Humanity’s best friends
Frolicking with unbounded joy
Precious.

Just War
Tragic option
For innocents still die
Theology deems it okay
Last choice.

Poets
Can be stuck up
Denigrating others
Counting fine prose lower than verse
Vain pride.

Dinner
Fresh fare tonight
Feasting on each choice cut
Cannibals toast missionaries
Dessert.

Comfort
Love wraps its arms
About the wayward lamb
Carried safely back to the fold
Rescued.

Try your own hand at writing an American Cinquain. Or, better yet, establish your own unique poetry form. If you promote it well – say by getting someone like Oprah to endorse it – you could one day become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey.

22 responses to Inventing Poetry Forms

  1. 

    I enjoyed this post because I have been challenging myself to write in different poetic forms. This last April for the poem a day challenge I wrote in a different form each day. Maybe someday Oprah will read one of my poems… :)

    • 

      Glad to hear from a fellow writer who composes in poetry forms to enhance his writing. It seems to make my brain work a little differently, and can actually be fun.

      I’m not inclined to invest too much effort though, since the subjectivism of poetry critics makes regular editors look downright logical and consistent.

    • 

      Dear Jamey Boelhower and Reverend Stroud,

      I enjoyed your conversation here and decided to join in. I have also attempted to create my own poetic forms. However, I am not always sure how to name and label them. For example, I wonder whether you can help me to coin the form of my ten-stanza poem dynamically illustrated and animated in my post entitled “❄ ❅ ❆ Snowflakes, Tell Me Why You Are…” available at

      https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2021/08/25/snowflakes-tell-me-why-you-are/

      The form has a number of highly embedded, logical and structured features, including rhymes, syllabic numbers, syllabic groupings and syllabic patterns, and nothing is gratuitously used or presented. Please note that some of these features are variant (in consistent, cogent and/or predictable ways) whereas the others are invariant or fixed.

      I welcome your input and feedback there. Please enjoy!

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

      • 

        Interesting. I’ll check that out right now.

        As for a name for your unique form… we’ll see.

        However, to serve as an actual form you need strict enough requirements to allow for the form to be replicated. You have the number of lines noted here, but the other elements (e.g. rhymes and syllables) would need to be formally established within some specific boundaries to qualify something as a particular “form.”

      • 

        Dear Jamey Boelhower and Reverend Stroud,

        These elements are indeed strict and specific, though I do not know how many of them you have been able to identify or detect. Please be informed that a number of them are not immediately obvious and really require deeper observation or careful investigation to detect and codify. As I mentioned, none of them is gratuitously used or presented. In fact, one or two of the features has/have rarely or never been used in any existing poetic forms, as far as I can ascertain.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

      • 

        I will look into this poem. Give me a little time (day or two) to read an think about it. I can understand the challenge of creating a form and then having a new name for it. :)

    • 

      Dear Reverend Stroud and Jamey Boelhower,

      Apart from the aforementioned invariant and variant features, there are also global and local features. The former applies to the whole poem, the latter to parts of the poem. For example, two of the unique elements or features apply to the first three and last three stanzas. In any case, many of the features or elements are not immediately apparent or straightforward, and thus require deeper observation or careful investigation to detect and codify.

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

      • 

        First, I enjoyed the poem. I really like the idea presented in the last stanza of the snow globe… Naming a new form is not easy. The build up of the syllable count in the last line of each stanza can be the central idea. I know it’s a little silly but have to start with some idea my first thought was the The Count Up… I know, not the best name but it is a start of ideas…

      • 

        Dear Jamey Boelhower,

        Thank you for your suggestion about the name of this new form. Yes, you have successfully identified one of the central features. There are at least half a dozen main requirements for this form, which I shall codify formally soon. Then we can work together to come up with a good name for the form. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, you are welcome to submit comment(s) to my said post as a token of your visit. I hope that you have enjoyed the illustrations and animations there.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

  2. 

    I’m especially drawn to your “A Foreshadowing of Epics.” It encourages me to keep on with my motherline poems.

  3. 

    Cannibals, eh? :)

    Everyone should try poetry; as you say, everyone should try many forms and styles. Stretching is so beneficial.

    • 

      Your note about cannibals just make me wonder what it would be like to take an unusual “concept” such as that and try to “as naturally as possible” employ it in the widest possible number of genres.

      I’m sure writers have done that sort of thing in the past. The challenge would be slipping it in so subtly that it wasn’t actually noticed.

      Of course, the more perspicuous the word or concept, the greater the challenge… but it could also serve as a “stretching” exercise.

  4. 

    Interesting. I had no idea there were so many different forms of poetry. I’ve never wanted to write poetry either, but I do enjoy reading it on occasion. Tennyson is my favorite poet.

    • 

      Jack, you might be surprised if you give it a try. Like I said above, it gives you a good “stretch” and you’ll probably be surprised with how good the results actually are.

      When you opt for one of the shorter variants, it doesn’t even require that much time to play around with the forms.

  5. 

    Do you by chance watch “Socrates in the City”? I think you’d enjoy it. I caught an excellent interview there of CS Lewis’ Walter Hooper (now passed away).

  6. 

    I love the last one. I did not know about this form of poetry. It gives you options.

    • 

      It really is quite “flexible.” I enjoy spending a few minutes creating small poems like this… I don’t have the true poetic zeal to “labor” over verse. (Well, with a few exceptions.)

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