By Benjamin C. Krause
The debate between the New Formalists and the freeverse poets seems to be over. Major literary journals are publishing formal poems alongside freeverse, and no one is raising a fuss about it anymore. And you should thank whatever deity you worship (if any) for that. After all, there is something attractive about form, just as there are advantages to freeverse. The two can and should co-exist.
I am primarily a freeverse poet, but I have recently made it a hobby to try to create new forms and see what I can do with them. I first did this by accident in the Spring of 2010. I was digging for inspiration, and Ernest Hemingway's six-word short story popped into my head. I wanted to write a poem of similar length, but decided to make it five words instead of six to further challenge myself. What I ended up with was the following:
perseveres like me.
I enjoyed writing the poem so much that I decided I would write more. But they would not just be more five-word poems. They would all have the line break in the exact same place as “Jerusalem.” Thus, a new form was born, if you consider those kinds of constraints to constitute form.
Of course, every form needs a name. Since they were five-word couplets, and I enjoy wordplay, the name “quincouplet” naturally came to mind. I quickly registered quincouplets.com and set up a blog there, and the rest is... well, you'll find out. For a short form of the word, I tried “quinc,” which was very awkward-sounding, so I decided to always wrote out “quincouplet.” Only very recently, a poet named Judi Armbruster inquired about them via email and called them “quins,” which sounded so much more natural than “quincs” that I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it.
The rules of a quincouplet, or quin, are simple. There are two lines, with two words on the first line and three words on the second. It need not have a title, but if it does, the title must consist of only one word. The title can be used for any purpose except as the first word of a sentence continued by the poem.
It may sound silly and unprecedented to set rules for titles, but for a quincouplet it is very important. The most fundamental principles behind a quincouplet are word economy and word precision. The title restrictions maintain those principles by closing loopholes that would otherwise allow an author to “cheat” the form by adding extra words to it.
There are plenty of uses for the one-word title of a quincouplet, if you decide to give it one. I generally use it to contextualize the poem, like in “JerusaIem” above—without the title, most people probably would not know it referred to the Western Wall. Sometimes I use an abstract word for the title, and then use the poem to tie it down to something concrete. Other times, I make the title a person, object, or place which the poem describes or comments on. It can also be used to set a general mood, or, if you're feeling witty, it could be a pun on something within the poem. Of course, it need not even relate to the poem, and there need not even be a title. But if there is, it can be used for just about anything, except what I mentioned earlier..
Perhaps the most important rule of a quincouplet is that it must be a poem, not just a five-word sentence with a line break. The word limit thus necessitates that quincouplets usually rely on a single image, metaphor, allusion, or other poetic device. This makes it a very basic form of poetry, but it can be incredibly powerful. On the day U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, ending a long and gruesome war which left the country objectively worse off than it was under Saddam Hussein, I wrote the following quincouplet:
Obama wipes hands.
I received an email a couple of days later from a reader, who said it had moved him to tears, and captured the complexity of the situation better than any long essay ever could. I am not sure it was that good, but the point is that one can say a lot with five words.
Despite the fact that I made a grown man cry with one, quins remained relatively obscure as I kept writing them. The form got a few mentions on some other blogs, and I got the occasional email from someone saying he or she really liked them, but that was about it. So, lacking much in the way of reinforcement, I eventually grew tired of them, and stopped updating my blog as frequently.
Luckily, I had plenty of other projects to work on. My small press, Diamond Point Press, puts out three literary journals, the most popular of which is an e-zine called twenty20 Journal. It publishes poetry and fiction under 20 words, and there are 10 pieces in each issue, so it's a quick read. Not surprisingly, both readers and writers love the concept. Based on our number of Facebook fans versus our number of contributors, I am one of the few literary e-zine publishers who can confidently say people are actually reading my journal other than contributors and would-be's.
Had it not been for twenty20 Journal, I may have forgotten about quincouplets entirely. But one day, I received a submission containing three poems in a form called hay(na)ku. I immediately went to look it up, and quickly noticed the similarity between that form, invented years ago, and mine, invented in 2010. The hay(na)ku is a six-word poem, with one word on the first line, two on the second, and three on the third. You could almost say a quincouplet is a “neutered” hay(na)ku.
My initial reaction was to give up on quincouplets permanently, because they were practically redundant. But then I started to notice the fundamental differences between the forms. Most basically, the difference between five words and six is much more significant than it seems. When writing a quincouplet, I often end up with six words and find myself having to make a difficult choice on which one to eliminate. Sometimes the elimination of a word requires a complete rearrangement of the poem.
The optional one-word title of a quincouplet, of course, seems similar to the first line of the hay(na)ku. But as stated above, that title cannot be used as the poem's “sixth word”; it cannot be the beginning of a sentence that is continued by the poem. So the title of a quincouplet does not serve the same purpose of the first word of a hay(na)ku, and, of course, need not even be there at all.
In the end, my discovery of the hay(na)ku did not kill the quincouplet, but save it. It is what got me in touch with Eileen Tabios, editor of this magazine, who was nothing more than encouraging. I have very recently begun writing quincouplets again, though slowly, and promoting them through twenty20 Journal and my personal webpage. I have published quincouplets by others in twenty20, and recently, upon googling “quincouplet,” found that someone had posted one to a writing forum, and a very good one at that. His quincouplet invigorated interest in many others on the forum, and they now write them frequently.
I have been receiving more and more emails about quincouplets lately, so I have set up a page on my personal website defining the form, providing advice on writing a good one, and giving an exhaustive list of links to quins by others, blog posts mentioning quins, message boards and publications that are quin-friendly, etc.
A year ago, had I deleted my blog, it would have been the end of the quincouplet. But today, that power is out of my hands. There are only a handful of quincouplet writers right now, but these kinds of things tend to grow exponentially once they have a solid base. The fact that quins are showing up in places I had never previously heard of can only be a good thing for them.
Now, instead of being the sole writer of quincouplets on a lonely blog in the dark corners of the Internet, I have begun taking on the role of an adviser to a group of excited writers, telling them what I think makes a good quincouplet while encouraging them to try their own things. Like I often did, many people write quins on current events, and I sometimes have to caution them against writing five-word sentences instead of poems. Mostly, though, I just encourage them to keep writing them, because above all else, it's fun to write quins.
And fun aside, if written properly, quincouplets teach (or reinforce) one of the most important lessons a poet can learn: that words are the most important parts of poems. When writing quincouplets, one must constantly be concerned with words, because one only has five to work with. That means not a single word can be wasted, and each should be the best possible word one can use.
What the poet hopefully will learn from quincouplets is that these rules are universal—ideally, a poet should put as much effort into each word of his or her freeverse and longer formal work as quincouplets. The best poets do, but the problem is most poets don't. That is why I feel a great deal of the literary world could benefit from trying out quincouplets.
To end this article, I'll post one more quin:
alive, she disrobes.
It was inspired by my high school poetry teacher, who said many wood sculptors did not believe themselves to be carving a wooden block into a shape, but taking the shape that was already there out of the block . He said poetry is a lot like that: you are not writing the poem; you are simply discovering the poem that is already there. You can come up with a paragraph about your neighbor's meth lab and put line breaks in it, but it wouldn't be a poem; it would be analogous to the wooden block. To turn it into a poem, you must chisel at it, chopping off unnecessary words, sharpening dull ones with fine precision, and slowly moving it toward its final shape, until you've found the poem that had been there the whole time. If you decide to write quincouplets, always keep that in mind, and feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Benjamin C. Krause is the editor of Diamond Point Press, an international publishing company. His writing has appeared in Gargoyle, Nibble, The Literary Bohemian, and elsewhere. His poem “Scene from a Pharmacy” was selected for the anthology Best of the Foliate Oak 2009-2010, and he is a Featured Artist at Counterexample Poetics. He can be found on the web at http://benjaminckrause.com/.