Some poems seem to be spontaneous outbursts of feeling—“My heart is like a singing bird…” (Christina Rossetti) or “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages:” (Shakespeare). But poetry is not easy. Most of the poetry that we continue to read and to love is the result of many long hours of careful work.
One of the scholars who spent years studying metrics—the way words can be put together to achieve art—was a young American poet named Adelaide Crapsey. Although she died young and her work is often forgotten, she was an important writer of the early twentieth century. Her work continues to influence many poets today.
Born in Brooklyn in 1878, Adelaide Crapsey and her family soon moved to Rochester, N.Y. where her father was pastor of an Episcopal Church. She was raised in a family that valued women’s education and Adelaide was encouraged to attend Vassar College. There she had a happy and successful educational life. She was president of the Poetry Club and graduated as valedictorian in 1897.
Two of Adelaide’s sisters died while she was in college, and Adelaide herself became sick with a severe illness that was later diagnosed as tuberculosis. After recovering and spending some time teaching, she went to Europe in 1904 to study at the American Academy in Rome. Although she was very happy in Rome, family problems prompted her return to the United States in 1905. Her father was accused of heresy by the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese, and he was brought to trial in 1906. He was found guilty of refusing to support the doctrine of virgin birth and lost his position with the Church after an unsuccessful appeal. He and his family had to leave the rectory.
Despite her desire to return to Europe, Adelaide chose to stay close to her family to offer support and encouragement. She taught at a private school and also continued to work on her scholarship and writing. Eventually she was able to return to Europe for a few months and while she was there she completed her book, A Study in English Metrics, although it was not published until after her death. She returned to America when her tuberculosis became more severe and died in 1914 at the age of 36.
Adelaide’s study of metrics led her to investigate various poetic forms such as the Japanese haiku and tanka. She invented a new form of poetry called the cinquain and much of the poetry for which she is remembered uses this form. One example is this well-known piece:
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
Although Adelaide Crapsey’s poems are no longer included in many anthologies, you can find a good sample of her work at the website of the Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/adelaide-crapsey
Another legacy of Adelaide Crapsey’s life is the effect her poetry has had on the teaching of poetry to school children. A simplified version of the cinquain has been introduced in many classrooms, for example:
Cinquain: (This is the format used in many schools—didactic cinquain)
- One word (subject)
- Two words
- Three words
- Four words
- One word (synonym for line 1 or five words to sum up the poem)
Many students, both children and adults, enjoy following this pattern and producing verses that can be satisfying both to write and to read.
Tickling children’s toes,
Hurling broken shells against bare legs,
Adelaide Crapsey’s early death deprived the world of a notable poet, but it is some comfort to know that her work is still inspiring other writers.