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.
Having received such an enthusiastic response to the two poems I wrote as examples of the relatively obscure French invented poetry form known as the beau présent on a recent post, I have been inspired to try writing an entire series dedicated to some of my favorite poets (warning: there are hundreds of poets I really adore so this may turn out to be a very long series). In case you have not read that particular post and have no idea what I’m talking about, the beau présent is a poem written to honor another person using only words made up from the letters contained in that person’s name. This very first one is my attempt at a heartfelt tribute to the brilliant Pulitzer-winning Serbian-American poet, Charles Simic (I hope you will enjoy reading it and be encouraged to try your own about your favorites):
A Beau Présent For Charles Simic
Charles Simic is so chill,
he’s as cool as chili-lime ice cream.
His smile is a classic semicircle,
his ears mimic small cameras.
I recall his earlier careers
as a clerical armchair researcher,
a Maharishi, a macrame messiah.
I cherish his mesmeric charisma,
I relish his harmless sarcasm.
He’s a shameless schemer,
a rare charmer, a seamless liar,
a serial rimer (all his similes are
sheer miracles). He’s a hammer,
a chisel, a seismic missile –
he smashes racism, he erases malaise.
His cashmere lies caress me,
his alchemical mercies shall heal me.
He is a real mishmash (as harsh
as Islam, as rich as Israel). He is America!
Like the similarly-named acrostic selfie poem which I wrote about on this blog last April, the anagrammatic selfie is a short, usually whimsical self-portrait in verse. But unlike the acrostic version where the first letter of each line spells out the poet’s name, the anagrammatic selfie consists solely of words formed from only the letters contained in your name. So logically, the first step when writing one is to choose which variation of your name you want to use (this will also be the title of your poem). For example, if I just used my first and last names, Paul Szlosek, I could create a list of 333 different words to write my poem with, but if I add my middle name Michael, I would then have an even larger choice of 2724 (if you are one of those people that lack a middle name, you could substitute a maiden name, or a title like “Doctor”, “Mister”, or “Miss”). After deciding which version of your name you are using, you just start puzzling out all the words you can create with its letters. Just keep in mind a letter can be used in a word only as many times it appears in your name. In my case, I could not use the word pizzazz because in that word the letter z appears 4 times, but only once in my name Paul Michael Szlosek (however I could use the word pass since the letter s appears twice in Szlosek). To save time and effort, you may want to consider using an online word finder tool to create your word list (the one I would recommend most would be https://www.wordmaker.info). Once you have a list of at least a hundred words, start studying it to see if any words on it might suggest a certain pattern or theme to you. For instance, on my list, the words schlimazel, schlemiel, cellulose, calluses, and shoelaces caught my attention and inspired me to write the following:
Paul Michael Szlosek
Is a schlimazel, a schlemiel,
Has cellulose, calluses,
Smells like sheep’s pee,
Loses his shoelaces,
Lacks all social skills,
Is as musical as a homesick camel,
Helpless as Achilles’ heel.
So, please, POEM,
Please call Paul home.
Help him cope,
Heal his soul.
Help him hope.
Here is another one of my attempts at an anagrammatic selfie which I hope might serve as a model if you decide to try one for yourself:
Paul Michael Szlosek
He is so much like
A small, pale mouse.
He leaps up, escapes his maze.
Police mice chase him home.
So what do you think of this form, my friends? What I really love about this form myself is that the repetition of the sounds of the same limited set of letters gives your poem a natural sense of rhythm and resonance without you even trying. I really hope that you will try the anagrammatic selfie yourself. If you do, I am pretty sure you will be pleased with the results.
Like the monosyllabic sonnet which we recently discussed, today I will talk about another invented poetry form inspired by the traditional sonnet – the sonnette. Invented by the American poet, children’s author, museum curator, magician, and Boy Scout executive G. Sherman Ripley sometime in the early 1900s, the sonnette is basically a miniature or half sonnet consisting of seven lines (exactly half of the sonnet’s usual fourteen). It has two stanzas: a quatrain (4 lines) followed by a tercet (3 lines) with the quatrain having a rhyme scheme of abba. while the tercet has one of cbc. And just like its inspiration, the lines are metered, usually written in iambic pentameter.
As you can see, meter is definitely not my strong suit, but here is my own feeble attempt at a sonnette (for you to use as an example if you would like to try writing one yourself):
Ode to a Wannabe Baby Boomer Rocker
Once he dreamed of being the next Springsteen,
but he settled for a working man’s wage
and a once-a-week gig on a bar stage.
What seems like a dream is life in between
the hours he gets to strum guitar and sing
(he’s a remnant of the Rock and Roll age
in a time where Hip Hop and Rap’s now king).