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.
Last year on this very date, I decided to go through my massive collection of old notebooks and journals filled with poems I penned, find an old poem I totally forgot about, and attempt to give it a new chance at life by publishing it on this blog. This is a practice I would encourage every writer to try at least once. Though revisiting your past words might prove to be quite embarrassing, it also helps track your progress as a writer. On this first anniversary of that post, I’ve chosen to repeat that experiment, settling on an even older piece which I estimate is about 25 years old. Rereading the following has proven extremely illuminating to me, showing me how much my writing has changed (and hopefully improved). Back then I was writing strictly in free verse, not yet having developed my fanatical obsession with weird poetry forms. Also slam poetry was a definite influence on me, although I didn’t really care much for that style (I still don’t), but it seemed like during that time slam poetry was the only type of open poetry readings that were happening in my area (the line about “greater Providence” is a reference to AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island which hosted a slam poetry venue I frequented). As a result, I heard a lot of angst-filled rants and I remember this poem being an attempt to parody that type of poetry even though it probably wasn’t much better than what it was trying to satirize. Truthfully, I don’t even think this poem is all that terrible. I sort of rather enjoy the building and construction metaphor which I later recycled in what I believe was a much more successful poem. Still, like its title indicates, it probably is an example of fairly bad poetry. But I am not sure, so please let me know what you think:
In Celebration of Really Bad Poetry
There is enough venom in my veins
to poison greater Providence
(or at least make their spirits sick)
and I have bled all over this verse,
flooding the foundation with
an ocean of my insecurities.
The previous metaphor
was so poorly mixed,
the whole damn construction
is structurally unsound,
and ought to be condemned.
So unsuspecting reader,
be forewarned, do not seek shelter
in this poem so full of holes,
the similes like a leaky
ceiling drip incessantly,
disturbing this slumber
I once thought was my life.
This third in a series of beau présents for my favorite poets was written in tribute to a poet I have adored since childhood, Ogden Nash. Because beau présents are composed only of words made up from the letters contained in the person’s name, I decided to expand the vocabulary I could use by utilizing his full name (did you know his first name was actually Frederic?). They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I have attempted to copy his familiar style with rhymes and irregular lines. I’m afraid the poem that resulted may just be nonsense, but hopefully, as fun to read as it was to write:
A Beau Présent For Frederic Ogden Nash
Frederic Ogden Nash
carried no foreign cash
(no francs, dinars, or Danish coins in his coffers),
ignoring his French granddad’s condescending offers
and offended France.
The following beau présent, a poem written as tribute to a person by using just the letters of their name, is my humble attempt to pay honor to the wonderful Naomi Shahib Nye (in case you are not familiar with her fabulous poetry, lines 12 & 14 are intentional allusions to her poems “Bees Were Better” and “The Traveling Onion” respectively):
A Beau Présent For Naomi Shahib Nye
I am a boobish boy,
she’s a bonnie lass.
I am a baby, a bambino.
She’s a nanny, a mom.
I am a homeless hobo,
she is a shiny mansion.
I am a minion.
She is a boss.
I am an amoeba,
she’s an immense biomass.
I am honey (so messy).
She is a bee.
I am a banana,
she’s an onion.
I’m a noisy hyena.
She’s a mime.
I am no one,
she is somebody.
I’m a nebbish, an inane ninny.
She is my bohemian shaman.
By no means mean,
she eases my shyness,
minimises my mania,
banishes my insomnia.
I am me.
She is Naomi Shahib Nye.