5 Line Poetry

Since I embarked on the five-line-poem-a-day journey, which I’m hoping to maintain for the entire month, several people have asked me to define the form. The wonderful thing about five-line poetry is that there are many forms. Some of them are familiar to most: limericks and perhaps tanka. Then there are cinquain, pentastich, quintain and gogyohka. Ya du is a form of five line poetry from Burma. Five line poetry can be written in rhyme, blank verse, or free verse. Please note that I’m not claiming to be an expert, and the
following is intended only as a brief introduction to some of these forms.

Free verse is the easiest to write as it is unrhymed and follows no specific metrical or rhythmic patterns.

Blank verse is unrhymed, but the lines are all in the same meter, most often in iambic pentameter, but sometimes in other metrical rhythms. (The meter could be described as the rhythm, and a line of iambic pentameter is a line of poetry which follows an alternating pattern of weak and strong stresses on the syllables. Each pair of one weak + one strong makes an iamb, also called a foot. Five of these iambs make a line of iambic pentameter.)

Tanka is a Japanese poetry form known for the compression of meaning into a few short lines. These poems are written in 5 lines with a specific syllable count in each line, following this pattern: 5, 7, 5, 7, 7. However, I have noticed writers of English language tanka often stray from this tradition. Tanka Central is a wonderful site for fans of tanka. Tanka Online is another.

Gogyohka is tanka poetry without any rule as to syllable count. In contrast with tanka, there is also no requirement that it follow poetic or lyrical conventions, thus giving the composer of gogyohka more freedom of expression than the older, traditional form allowed. Gogyohka Junction is a great meeting place for all who are interested in this form.

Renga is a playful form developed from Tanka: one poet begins a tanka, and another finishes it.

A cinquain has no rhyme or meter, but the lines progress with either a specific syllable count or a specific word count, depending on the variation. The original style, for example,
followed a syllables-per-line pattern of 2, 4, 6, 8, 2. The didactic cinquain, which is a popular form taught in schools, uses a word pattern, rather than a syllable-based one. For
more on cinquain, have a look at Cinquain.org.

Quintain poems
follow a rhyme scheme, but the pattern depends on the style. English quintain follow the rhyme pattern ababb. Spanish quintain, also known as quintilla, are usually
written with either an aabba or an abbaa rhyming pattern.

A pentastich is a free verse poem, with one or more verses of five lines each. If anyone has anything of interest to add, please leave a comment.

Mukhammas is a form of Urdu poetry consisting of five-line verses. In the first verse, the final word of each line rhymes. Subsequent verses each introduce a new rhyme, but they all feature a fifth line which rhymes with the first verse.

A limerick is a humorous, usually irreverent five line stanza with a typical aabba rhyme pattern.

Ya du poetry from Burma offers more of a challenge to write. A ya du poem consists of one to three stanzas, each having five lines. The first four lines must have four
syllables. The fifth line may have 5, 7, 9 or 11 syllables. Just to make things
more interesting, there is also an interesting internal rhyme structure. It looks
something like a staircase (x represents a non-rhymed syllable):

x x x a
x x a x
x a x b
x x b c
x x x x c
(regardless of the syllable count in the final line, the final word rhymes with the last word of the previous line.)

Do you like to read or write five-line poetry? Are you taking part in #5lines on Twitter? As you can see, there are many styles to choose from. If you enjoying writing in a style that I haven’t mentioned here, I hope you’ll leave a comment and tell me about it.

About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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14 Responses to 5 Line Poetry

  1. yamabuki says:

    Thanks for exposition on the different forms.
    So would you say that Free Verse and Gogyohka are essentially the same?

  2. chris says:

    Hi Yamabuki,
    Gogyohka is free verse, but not all free verse is gogyohka. Free verse is exactly that; free. Could be any number of lines. Gogyohka has only one real restriction, and that is that it is written in five lines. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  3. yamabuki says:

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for clearing up the difference between the two forms.
    Another question. How does Prose poetry differ from Free Verse? I came across the following “Basically, free verse is any poetry that doesn’t use rhyme and meter. Prose poetry is a special kind of free verse that is printed on the page to look like paragraphs of prose, not like lines of poetry.” would you agree with this?

    Also regarding Free Verse, I noticed in some of my own poetry, there is some rhyming and meter, but not with any consistency. I try to write with what feels like natural language and sometimes find rhyming and meter occurs unintentionally. I assume this still counts as Free Verse.

    Thanks for your comment on my poem.

    And finally, let me ask your thoughts on the question of “What is Poetry?”


  4. chris says:

    Hi Yamabuki,
    You pose some great questions here! I’d say that prose poetry falls between prose and poetry. The interpretation is open, and perhaps subjective. Prose poetry breaks the traditional rules of both prose and poetry, allowing more freedom of language. Where does prose poetry end, and poetic prose begin? Perhaps they are the same. One rule seems to be that it is never written in verse.

    Free verse may be free, but is still written in verse, and often does have a feeling of bits of rhythm here and there, and sometimes the odd rhyme. Those are the things that lend a lyrical quality to a poem. However, the verse is the poetic version of the paragraph. Oh, blurry lines indeed. The definition was more clear when prose poetry first developed, because in those times, the rules for writing poetry or prose were so strict. Now, we have so much more leeway, except when writing in a specific form that has strict rules. I like how at the time of emergence, the prose poem was considered subversive.

    So how does prose poetry differ from free verse? Well, how does it differ from flash fiction for that matter? The boundaries are so blurred. Maybe that’s where your question, “what is poetry”, comes in. People have argued until blue in the face over that question. I’m getting dizzy trying to come up with a short and succint answer. A lot of what I think of as good poetry is good in part because of the presence of things that I think make good prose too — an aesthetic quality, good use of metaphor, a way with words, and so on. Perhaps intent is what makes a piece into a poem. If the author intends to write a poem, then the result will most likely have some characteristic that is poetic. I doubt a person would write a novel and then try to call it a poem, but then again, why not?

    What are your feelings on this Yamabuki?

  5. yamabuki says:

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for your wonderful response. I appreciate the work you put into sharing your knowledge with us. It helps us to have a better understanding of poetry and its forms.

    I have been thinking and wondering about Poetry, and what makes it different from Prose. In thinking on Poetry, I thought of its origins. I believe that due to the fact that language began orally and was based on memory rather than writing, we humans used mnemonic tools to help us remember stories, sacred scriptures and whatever else we wanted to remember. Breaking up into shorter sections, strict use of meter and rhyming, all work as ways of checking for correctness and ease of proper recitation. Thus are excellent tools for memory.

    Another place I think that led to poetic differentiation was oracles, magical chants, and prayers. Oracles often use psychoactive substances such as mushrooms to suppress the rational mind and let the ‘gods’ speak through the oracle. Such oracles are usually cryptic and poetic in nature. Magical chants are usually repetitive and hypnotic and are often accompanied by drums and other musical instruments to create altered states that also suppress the rational mind. Prayer when spoken aloud in ritual in a group such as the Catholic Mass works in a similar manner.

    In modern times, when the written and printed word made the use of mnemonic devices less important, they hung on in areas where they were useful, such as plays, where actors still had to remember their lines. One has only to think of the poetic brilliance of Shakespeare’s plays to see this. As schools and universities gained in prominence, the poetic was of less and less importance since libraries now served for memory. Yet something in us rebels at giving up the poetic.

    My own feeling, based on my own experiences, points towards our mystical side, that reflects our soul’s need for connection the the greater whole.

    All my life I looked to poetry for poems that spoke to this connection to the greater whole, but was frustrated because all the poetry that reflected this seemed to be of another age, and used a language that did not feel natural to me. So now that I am writing poetry, I have chosen to write the poems that I longed for, that speak to the spirit.

    Still to get back to the question of what is poetry, let me end here with part of my poem “How is Poetry Different” http://bit.ly/l2KY6W
    Here is what I came up with:

    I’m not sure that there is an answer
    A definitive answer to Poetry
    Perhaps this is itself an answer
    Or perhaps a meta-answer
    To the question of
    How is Poetry different

    Poetry is different in a way
    That cannot be defined with words
    Poetry slips through our hands
    Like water through a sieve
    Like smoke and mirrors
    It fools us into thinking
    We know what we are seeing
    But when we try to pin it down
    It disappears

    Poetry defies our formulas
    Poetry defies our programs
    Poetry defies our learning

    Poetry, like art is creation
    Poetry, like art is dangerous
    Poetry, like art can not be pinned down

    Why then am I writing about Poetry
    A Poem cannot define Poetry
    But a Poem can explore
    A Poem can reverberate
    A Poem can reflect
    But not just any reflection

    Sometimes when I go swimming
    I will stand in the water
    With only my head above the water
    And watch the watery reflections
    I’m tempted to say that
    Poetry is like the reflections
    There may even be some truth to that
    But I’m more inclined to see
    That Poetry is much like
    The surface of water
    That indefinable transition
    Where water meets air

    The surface of water
    May be smooth as glass
    Or turbulent as boiling water
    Or somewhere in between
    But the transition
    Is always sustained
    Yet no matter how closely we look
    We can never fully define
    Where the water stops
    And the air begins
    Or so it seems to me

    I hope this did not add to you dizziness


  6. chris says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your poem, and also for the long comment; I can see that you have put a great deal of thought into this. I think that the theory you put forth is an excellent one. I’d like to add that poetry of a rhythmic and rhyming nature is also aesthetically pleasing (though some would disagree), and it is just as pleasing to create as it is to read or hear. I think poetry would still have developed even without the need for mnemonic devices.

    What you mention about short verses is interesting; that most certainly would be helpful in remembering lines. Some old prose, as opposed to poetry, had very long paragraphs. This is aesthetically pleasing to some, but not to others. Today, many people tend to write prose in much shorter paragraphs. I was surprised when told recently that an eight sentence paragraph I had written was too long. But then, we also tend to leave out more punctuation, which helps the reader to get through the longer paragraphs. Punctuation in poetry is also an interesting study.

    I’m going to reread your comment. I think you’ve raised some great points, but I also think poetry is more than this. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as they say.
    Thanks again,

  7. chris says:

    I found this amusing definition in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1817):

    “Prose means straightforward speaking or writing (Lat. oratio prosa), in opposition to foot-bound speaking or writing, oratio vincta (fettered speech, i.e. poetry).”

    It seems Dr.Brewer had a rather narrow view of poetry.

  8. chris says:

    By the way, I especially love the line
    “Poetry slips through our hands
    Like water through a sieve”

    Perhaps this is the best definition of poetry. You chose water as a metaphor for poetry, and I think it’s apt.

    Water flows around obstacles
    seeps through tiny spaces
    Water is soft and yet it is hard
    and erodes solid rock
    It has no colour of its own
    but reflects the sky or takes on the colour of silt
    swirling up from the bottom
    In the ocean, we can bob with the waves
    or let them crash against us
    beat us down into the water
    and carry us away

    We can walk out
    to the very end of a long pier
    let the slowly flowing water seduce us
    with the illusion that we are moving
    on the surface of a lake
    Or watch like a frog
    with lapping water
    threatening to seep over
    our lower eyelids
    the world above mirrored
    obscuring the world below
    the world below with the glass ceiling
    clear glass yet mirrored on one side

    Water frozen is solid yet still water
    Steam mist fog, it rises–still water
    falling again it completes the circle
    moving through a thousand definitions
    of jagged icicles and rising floods
    lacy snowflakes and crystals of hail
    a dewdrop on a leaftip at night
    that disappears after dawn
    or the treasury inside a desert cactus

    Water flows like poetry
    We wade through poetry

  9. trisha says:

    thanks a lot chris for this post, i am trying my hands on form poetry and am looking for some short ones.

    thanks a lot.

    • chris says:

      Hi Trisha,
      Thanks so much for dropping by and for commenting. Sorry I didn’t answer your comment until now. So glad to know the post is of some use. 🙂

  10. Far away Hawks circle
    Spiders weave their schemes
    Her morning eyes are purple
    In your broken dreams
    Dead Raven’s vision of the Bardo

  11. yamabuki says:

    Dare we open the door
    To follow the way through
    Many Secrets lie hidden there
    For long and deep
    Are the paths of the soul

  12. bldodson says:

    Good information, Thanks!

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