I was thinking about poetry today, and teaching poetry, and I remembered something which was very popular and successful with the young people where I worked. These students were fifteen and sixteen and in their last year of statutory education, but had found it difficult for a whole variety of reasons to stay in main stream school. Many of them had what you might call ‘issues’, and were not the most easy people to teach, however, the work was really rewarding and enjoyable, and they were great characters, and considering what most of them had to deal with in their lives, they were extraordinary.

They had to take public exams, and I was teaching English and poetry was part of it. I came across a type of short poem based on a Japanese form called a cinquain or a quintain. It is deceptively simple which appealed to my students, but as we worked on them more and more, their poems became more complex, subtle and clever. I wish I had kept some of them to share!

The quintain (as I preferred to call it, and I’ll explain later) was invented by an amazing woman who died young at the age of thirty-six, Adelaide Crapsey. She had a series of terrible tragedies in her life, but she was a poet, and she devised the quintain, inspired by haikus and tankas. There are different forms, but I chose the one which would be most suitable to introduce to my students:

  1. line title
  2. line two words, adjectives about the title
  3. line three words action
  4. line four words feeling
  5. line one word referring back to the title (but not a repeat)

I would start on the board (I loved using the board!) and ask for a subject, then two words describing it, then something which happens, then a response, feeling, or emotion, then another word connecting to the title – I would do that several times with us doing it together, then they had to set to and write their poems. When they were done I asked them to choose something with five sections – a hand, a foot, a leaf – one boy drew his bed as from above, head-board, pillow, covers, his feet, foot of the bed… and then they would write their poem out in the five sections of their design and illustrate them…

The reason I chose to use the word quintain as opposed to cinquain was that it is also the word for a device used to practice jousting. It’s a tall pole with a bar across the top which can swivel; hanging from one arm is a target which the jousting knight tries to hit with his lance and hanging from the other is a sack filled with sand. if the knight isn’t careful he strikes the target and then the bag of sand spins round and knocks him off his horse. I suggested to my students that the title and the last line of their poems were like the target and the sandbag!

2 thoughts on “A quintain

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