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Teaching Poetry Cinquains

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By Maggie S. Hogan

Teaching Poetry

"Reading a poem should not be like performing an autopsy, looking at a dead object and figuring out what killed it."
Paul B. Janeczko in Opening a Door

National Poetry Month is in April, but anytime is the perfect time to explore poetry! So, when is the last time you taught poetry or read poetry aloud to or with your students? Have your kids known the pleasure of creating their own poems? As the school year comes to a close, I want to offer you a simple, painless way to get a little poetry into your school day. We're going to read about - and then write - cinquains.

Synonym

To read or write cinquains, it is important to understand the word "synonym." Synonyms are words that have the same, or almost the same meaning.
Examples of synonyms:

  • cars/automobiles
  • happy/joyful
  • cow/bovine
  • fast/quick

Why do you need to know synonym for this lesson on poetry? Because every cinquain includes a synonym.

What is a Cinquain?

At its most basic level, a cinquain (pronounced "cin-kain") is a poem composed of five lines. This short poem has specific line (or verse) requirements. Unlike most forms of poetry, it also calls for standard English grammar and punctuation.

Although the origin of the form dates back to medieval French poetry, it was more recently (early 1900's) popularized by an American woman named Adelaide Crapsey. She was influenced by short, specially formatted Japanese poetry called ‘haiku.' Although there are a number of cinquain variations, let's work with this basic form:

Line 1 - a one word title (noun)
Line 2 - two words that describe the title subject (adjectives)
Line 3 - a three word phrase (action words/verbs) that describe your subject
Line 4 - a four word phrase that further describes your topic
Line 5 – one or two words that rename what the poem is about (synonym)

Here's an example I wrote using this format:

Appaloosa
mottled, spirited
cantering, neighing, jumping
an animal of beauty –
my horse!

And here's one written by Jeanne Cassler.
(You can see she adapted the form slightly.)

Shade Tree
The oak
in my backyard
holds twisted rope and wood
and knows the name of every child
that swings.

Writing

Now get ready to write! Pull out a notebook, grab a favorite writing utensil and fresh paper, and get comfy. Sometimes it is easier if you start with a familiar person or object. Perhaps a friend or relative, a pet, a favorite hobby or a sport will jog your creative juices. Once you get the hang of it, you might find yourself writing a whole slew of cinquains!

Directions for writing a cinquain

  1. Choose a person, place, or thing as the subject of your cinquain.
  2. Brainstorm words and phrases that describe your subject.
  3. Look over your words/phrases. Are they the best choices?
  4. Try to fit them into the format of the cinquain.
  5. Remember to use synonyms for the first and last lines.
  6. Use appropriate English grammar and punctuation.

A more traditional cinquain is based on a syllable count, rather than on a word count. This makes it more challenging to write. You can remember the form by saying: "2/4/6/8/2."

line 1 - 2 syllables
line 2 - 4 syllables
line 3 - 6 syllables
line 4 - 8 syllables
line 5 - 2 syllables

Good luck and have fun creating your work of art!

Maggie Hogan, from www.brightideaspress.com, is an author, publisher, and nationally recognized speaker. She lives in Dover, DE with her husband, Bob and two spoiled cats. Maggie is co-author of The Ultimate Geography and Timeline Guide, Young Scholars Guide to Composers and other homeschooling books. When not reading, writing, or playing with her grandbabies, you can find her drooling over travel magazines and reading poetry.

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