Today’s post is on the American Sentence, a poetry form invented by the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1980’s as a twist on traditional haiku. Like haiku, American Sentences consist of 17 syllables, but instead of being arranged into three lines, they are written as a single line or sentence. They also may or may not have a title.
As far as the other rules of the form, there seems to be varying opinions. Many seem to feel the poem should be just one complete grammatical sentence, while others have written them as two, three, or four or even just as series of phrases. Paul E. Nelson (the poet most associated with the American Sentence, besides Ginsberg) emphasizes the use of concrete images though ones written by others often deal with abstractions. Ginsberg, himself, stated that the poem, if possible should mention either a time or place (or both) and the use of articles such as “a” and “the” should be avoided. But even he didn’t always follow the last suggestion as seen in these four of the original American Sentences composed by Ginsberg:
Nov 1991 N.Y.
Put my tie on in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate
Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y.
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella
On Hearing the Muezzin Cry Allah Akbar While Visiting the Pythian Oracle at Didyma Toward the End of the Second Millennium
At sunset Apollo’s columns echo with the bawl of the One God
Approaching Seoul by Bus in Heavy Rain
Get used to your body, forget you were born, suddenly you got to get out!
In comparison, here are four American Sentences that I attempted:
The ham slices squeal on the smoking grill like the ghosts of dying pigs
The Sad Truth About Aging
To grow old is to witness your world being dismantled around you
The Gambler’s Mantra
Luck is a middle finger waved in the face of probability
An Urban Stroll a Week After a Winter Storm
Propelled by my feet, chunks of frozen snow skitter down gritty sidewalks
As you can see, some of my American Sentences adhered to some of the rules stated above, while some others didn’t at all. If you decide to try your own hand at writing one (I really hope you do), please feel free to pick and choose which rules you want to follow. The only vital rule that should not be ignored is that the American Sentence be 17 syllables and written in one line.