Ginsburg’s American Sentences

Allen Ginsberg

This weeks poetry challenge over at Khara’s House blog is to write a gaggle of short poems, called American Sentences and Monostich.  Both forms are one sentence poems the latter being limited to one line, while the former is 17 syllables, like a haiku without the line breaks. You can click on Khara’s link above and scroll down to the comment section to see my initial attempts at the form. This was a gas.

The American Sentence

The American Sentence was the invention of Beat poet, Alan Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997). Knowing Japanese haiku was written not in three lines but rather vertically, Ginsberg suggested a similar poetic disciple to sharpen the eye and ear of the American poet and their audience. The American version would be linear and not limited by the traditional Japanese haiku. Another influence that contributed to Ginsberg’s invention was his reading of the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra in Buddhism: Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. Notice the mantra has 17 syllables. You can read more about the development and practice of the American Sentence here.

I think Ginsberg was having a little fun as well by suggesting this form. As always, he was exploring correspondences and associating wildly. Calling it an American Sentence has no little amount of irony in it, being an amalgamation of cultural influences and promoted by an irreverent outcast of the then American poetic establishment. In many ways, Ginsberg was ahead and behind his time. The American Sentence could be seen as a forward movement of poetic form, a collage of sorts, and behind in that it exemplified in poetry the American melting pot brewing another hybrid form. Not surprising, poets are visionaries, inventors of new forms.

Alan Ginsberg on stage

I saw Allan Ginsberg reading poetry in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the late 1970’s. He was the embodiment of the disheveled hipster seated regally on center stage in his slightly over-sized wool blazer, scarf and beads. He read Howl from his book of the same name and projected an enormous amount of energy from is voice. (I have yet to find a recording of him that does justice to this live performance. They all seem rather tame.) Today’s slam poets had nothing on him that day. He literally trembled and shook while reading Howl. On stage at least, he appeared to be a man without pretense and plenty of cagey humor. He was definitely having fun. He loved playing with audiences as much as he did forms.

Paul Nelson’s American Sentences

Paul Nelson has written extensively on the American Sentence at his blog of the same name here. Nelson has done more than any other person to promote and explore the limits of the form. His blog is dedicated to the form and has several interviews and essays by him and others on the American Sentence. Besides this, he’s uses American Sentence as a poetic practice, writing one each day since January 1, 2001. He is a master of the form. See many examples here

If you haven’t tried this form, please do. Leave me one in the comment section below. It’s a gas.

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