A reading of a short modern poem
The American poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one mini poetic legacy: a new form she called the cinquain. ‘Cinquain’ had existed as a word before her miniature verse innovation, but Crapsey co-opted it to describe the five-line unrhymed form which she used in her finest poetry. ‘Amaze’, which is reproduced below, is an example of Crapsey’s cinquains – and perhaps her most famous poem.
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Although this looks like free verse – the vers libre that T. E. Hulme and Ezra Pound, over in London, were beginning to experiment with at around the same time – Crapsey’s cinquains do actually follow a strict pattern. The first line must contain one beat, the second two beats, the third three, the fourth four – with the fifth and final line reverting to a single beat. The cinquain thus offers a steady progression, followed by a sudden retreat.
Born and raised in New York, Crapsey remained in New York throughout her life, until her death from tuberculosis, aged 36. It’s tempting to read ‘Amaze’ in light of this: was Crapsey acutely aware of her mortality when she wrote the poem a year or so before she died? Probably. Is this poem about her altered and weakened state? Perhaps. But it is not self-pitying: the simple, flat repetition of ‘hands’ at the ends of the second and fourth lines stands in for the usual patterning of a rhyme, but denies us the satisfying progress offered by conventional rhyme, as ‘hands’ is paired with itself, as if underscoring the speaker’s shock (or ‘amaze’) at noticing the change that has come upon her body. The simple, barely registered sliding of ‘I know’ into ‘I think’ reinforces this state of puzzled doubt.
Her cinquains, which she devised three years before her death, representing the flourishing and maturing of her poetic voice: until this, she had been heavily influenced by Keats and the Romantics, and her poetry had been interesting but unremarkable. It was through her analysis of versification and metre (about which she wrote a book) that she was able to come up with the poetic form that perfectly suited her voice: a tinge of Romanticism pervades the poems, but their brevity and strict metrical control prevent the poetry from overflowing into excess – what T. E. Hulme called ‘spilt religion’.
If this short discussion and analysis of ‘Amaze’ has whetted your appetite for more of Adelaide Crapsey’s cinquains, you can discover a fuller selection here.
Image: Adelaide Crapsey in c. 1900 (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.