On one of American literature’s forgotten poets
The American poet Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one mini poetic legacy: the cinquain. The word ‘cinquain’ had existed before her miniature verse innovation, but Crapsey co-opted it to describe the five-line unrhymed form which she used in her finest poetry. Previously, we’ve discussed one of Crapsey’s finest examples in this poetic form, but we thought it worth sharing another of her cinquains, which subtly links autumn with death:
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
The tongue and teeth cannot help slightly stumbling over the fricatives and dentals of ‘frost-crisp’d’, the gentle assonance sibilantly summoning the sound of crisp autumn leaves falling to the ground and being trodden underfoot. The poem resembles the Japanese haiku form in that its central image is formed of two elements: the falling leaves and the steps of the ghosts. In many of Crapsey’s poems, something small and everyday (such as leaves) is juxtaposed with something large and timeless (here, the dead). In this respect, the dying leaves are a memento mori; the simile linking them to ghostly footsteps only intensifies this.
Born and raised in New York, Crapsey remained there throughout her life, until her death from tuberculosis, aged 36. Although her cinquains look 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.
Fittingly for a poem with an autumnal setting, ‘November Night’ ends with the apt word ‘fall’. It is also the single stressed syllable in that final line. The cinquain is always destined to shrink away to nothing.
Image: Adelaide Crapsey in c. 1900 (author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.