This is our seventeenth column in the "Poet's Classroom" series.
One of poetry's attractions to both reader and writer is its brevity. What other genre can tell a story in fourteen lines, or eight, or less? What other type of writing challenges its creator to count even syllables in the pursuit of economy (all the while preserving aesthetics, of course)?
Short forms of poetry have intrigued me ever since I began to study the craft. This month and next join me in an exploration of some short poetry forms. In this installment we'll look at three types of five-line poems: the tanka, the cinquain and the limerick.
Tanka is a traditional form of Japanese poetry that has been around for over twelve centuries (versus haiku, which developed out of tanka and has only been around for three centuries). The word tanka actually means short poem.
A traditional Japanese tanka is made up of 31 syllables spread over five lines as 5, 7, 5, 7, 7. In English the syllable count is looser, given English’s differences from Japanese, with a total syllable count not to exceed 31 syllables and the lines to shadow a Japanese tanka’s in length (short, long, short, long, long). Like haiku, it needs no title, though a collection of tanka is sometimes presented by topic with the topic name acting like a title.
Tanka resemble haiku in choice of subject matter—nature and the seasons. But they differ in that greater liberties are allowed. In a tanka the poet is encouraged to use metaphors, similes and personification. Tanka also commonly address human relations—love, sadness, heartache, longing, loss (not surprising, as the earliest were secret love notes, written to thank the lover and work through emotions). Contemporary scholars who study tanka emphasize its human and autobiographical elements. “The best tanka harmonizes the writer’s emotional life with the elements of the outer world used to portray it,” writes William J. Higginson of the Haiku Society of America.1
One interesting element of the tanka is the place where the writer’s emotion enters the poem. This is called a pivot point or turn, and occurs where the poet adds information about his emotional state or introduces another image that reflects it. This pivot point usually happens somewhere within or after the third line.
You might start writing a tanka as you would a haiku. Then add the last two lines that describe your emotions or tell how the image at the beginning impacts you or what it means to you. The end product is a poem that appears as simple as a haiku but has underlying layers and resonances.
This early tanka is from a translated 712 A.D. anthology of Japanese poems.
Eightfold rising clouds
Build an eightfold fence
An eightfold Izumo fence
Wherein to keep my bride—
Oh! splendid eightfold fence.
To read modern tanka, check out the Contemporary Tanka page of the Tanka Society of America web site.
Cinquain (sing-kane’), though French-sounding (the word is French for ‘group of five’), is a poetic form invented by American poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878–1914). The Tanka inspired it.
The cinquain, as Ms. Crapsey devised it, had twenty-two syllables spread over five lines as 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. However, it appears such a count is to be taken only as a guide. For in the twenty-eight cinquain she wrote (before her death at only 36) she sometimes added or subtracted a syllable from any line.
Raymond Luber later adapted the traditional cinquain form to a modern one in which the writer counts words instead of syllables:
Line 1: one word (subject or noun).
Line 2: two words (adjectives that describe line 1).
Line 3: three words (action verbs that relate to line 1).
Line 4: four words (feelings or a complete sentence that relates to line 1).
Line 5: one word (synonym of line 1 or a word that sums it up). 2
A cinquain, unlike its tanka progenitor, can have a title. These types of poems are most effective when they deal with concrete subjects (versus emotional, philosophical or other complex ones).
The challenge, given the limited syllable or word count, is to write a cinquain with momentum that builds toward a climax. Thus the last line in both types of cinquain is key. Build a surprise into it and you have delivered a cinquain coup.
Here is the most famous Adelaide Crapsey cinquain:
Three silent things:
The falling snow … the hour
Before the dawn … the mouth of one
The limerick is a folk poem that doesn’t have the best reputation. One limerick scholar maintains that the true limerick is always obscene, that it is essentially transgressive, and that violation of a taboo is part of its function.3 The same man is credited with dividing limericks into three categories: “Limericks to be told when ladies are present; limericks to be told when ladies are absent and clergymen are present—and LIMERICKS.” 4 If true limericks are indeed characterized by their bawdiness, it is curious that it was a collection of clean limericks by Edward Lear (A Book of Nonsense—1846) that first made them popular.
Though the form bears the same name as a city in Ireland, there is no hard evidence that they have any connection. (For those interested, The Pentatette is an internet special interest group with lots of information about the limerick’s history and in all other things limerick.)
The limerick’s form is rigid. It begins with two long lines (three feet each) of anapest (da da DUM / da da DUM / da da DUM) or amphibrach (da DUM da / da DUM da / da DUM da). The next two lines contain two feet of the same meter. The last line is again three feet, same meter. Limericks also rhyme. The scheme is AABBA. They may or may not have a title.
Limerick specialist Doug Harris from Stockton-on-Tees in England has written a limerick that helps teach the form to children. He gives permission to reproduce it here:
A limerick rhyme’s like a rap.
When letters are purple—just clap!
Soft beats in between
(Leave 2 if you’re keen).
Let’s do it again to recap …
© 2009 by Doug Harris
To write a limerick, introduce a person and some fact about them in the first line. From there on be as silly and ridiculous as the rhythm and rhyme scheme will allow. Below is another helpful Harris limerick with a recipe for its subject matter. Lear, in his limericks, would often echo the first line in his last. That is certainly not the rule now. Keep in mind that the form lends itself to humor and satire.
There once was a (person) from (place)
Who (add things that lead to disgrace)
They (impossible scene)
With their (dirty or clean)
Summing up (better cut to the chase).
© 2009 by Doug Harris
Though limericks are not considered real poetry by some—seeing as how they’re relatively easy to write and most at home in the nursery or pub—they must be, since even Shakespeare wrote them (found in King Lear and Othello). Here is a limerick from Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense:
There was a Young Lady of Bute
Who played on a silver-gilt flute;
She played several jigs,
To her uncle’s white pigs,
That amusing Young Lady of Bute.
Of course modern poets continue to exploit the limerick’s potential for humor, wit, and naughtiness. Canadian humorist Judith Millar has given permission to quote a limerick of hers that won second place in the 1994 Leacock Limerick Competition:
The hamburger saw it was true.
The event was a beef barbecue.
He mustard a smile
And went out in style
Yelling, “Fate’ll ketchup with you too.”
© 2009 by Judith Millar5
Find more limericks by Millar and Harris sprinkled throughout the September and October archives of Millar’s blog MillarLITE.
So, have you caught short-poem fever yet? Try writing some five-liners inspired by the season and the Christmas holiday.
Capture the sights, sounds and emotions of the Christmas season—negative or positive—in a tanka. Write a cinquain about winter. Compose a limerick at Santa’s, Rudolph’s or Frosty’s expense.
Then sharpen your pencil for January, when we’ll go even shorter, to poem forms of four, three, and two lines.
Coming January 1:
Sharpen your pencil for January, when we’ll go even shorter, to poem forms of four, three, and two lines
Did you find this article helpful? Please let us know.
Copyright ©2009 by Violet Nesdoly
 Quoted in "What is Tanka?"
 From an article "Cinquain Poetry" on the Los Angeles County Office of Education website
 Gershon Legman, cited in the Wikipedia.com article "Limerick"
 Gershon Legman, quoted in “’There Once was a man from Nantucket’ – the Limerick” by Robert Lo
 Judith Millar as published on the MillarLITE blog