Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Discovering the American Sentence, I muse why now-- why not!

I bathe in the freedom to write small-- unrestrained by lines and limits.

One new sentence of wisdom and flashes of insight  mark this moment.

The American Sentence opens new writing frontiers and choices.

Each of these sentences represent my initial attempts at a form I have just discovered.

Invented by Allen Ginsberg, the American sentence offers us the beauty and brevity of haiku but removes the strict line limits usually imposed in English, making it a more fluid, flexible form.

The rules are simple.  A complete sentence 17 syllables long.

This form captures all that attracts in the haiku but seems better suited to English.

I have always loved haiku-- As I go about my daily life, small moments compose themselves into haiku.  Many times these are never written down, but simply serve as my special way of savoring a feeling,  an observation, or  a memorable moment.

I guess my natural instincts have been searching for this form for a long time.
I have always felt that  if I needed to add or subtract a syllable for the sake of sound, beauty, or meaning,  my Japanese writer-mentors would forgive me and nod in agreement.

Likewise, I teach my students, both children and adults, that poetic rules should not lead to rigid structuring that won't bend and wave.  Meaning is always first, while structure and form provide frames and containers to enhance that meaning.

In teaching haiku, ironically, one tip I usually provide is to begin with a sentence that holds your intended meaning, one that causes readers to notice a shift or juxtaposition, to pause----  only then play with sounds and syllables.

A discussion of haiku on Wikipedia includes the following:

The essence of haiku is "cutting" (kiru).This is often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji ("cutting word") between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.

In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed in a single vertical line containing seventeen Japanese characters, while haiku in English often appear in three lines to parallel the three phrases of Japanese haiku. 

That single vertical line seems to more closely resemble our linear sentence then the 3 lines of phrases that we have traditionally used to compose haiku in English.

Bob Holman & Margery Snyder write  that although Ginsberg is a staunch advocate of sparing words and condensed writing:

...(He) never went for the haiku. In talking with him, he spoke of how the 17 characters of this Japanese form just don’t cut it as 17 syllables of English, and that divvying them up in 5-7-5 syllable lines makes the whole thing an exercise in counting, not feeling, and too arbitrary to be poetry.

As with any new form that I want to explore, I  needed to read many American Sentences, allowing them to teach me how to write them.

I found many references and samples online

Paul Nelson has devoted several pages of his website to the American Sentence and, since his introduction to the form, has written one each day.

His article, American Sentences: Catching the Shadow of the Moment, includes samples of Ginsberg's earliest American Sentences:

American Sentences as a poetic form was Ginsberg’s effort to make American the haiku. If haiku is seventeen syllables going down in Japanese text, he would make American Sentences seventeen syllables going across, linear, like just about everything else in America. In Cosmopolitan Greetings, his 1994 book, he published two and a half pages of these nuggets, some of which had scene-setting preambles. For example:
Tompkins Square Lower East Side N.Y.Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till
I’m dead.
August 8, 1990, 3:30A.M.
According to Nelson, Ginsberg also reflected on the number 17--17 syllables like haiku in Japanese and like the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra in Buddhism: Gate, gate, paragate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha ( which translates loosely: Gone, gone, gone beyond altogether beyond, Awakening, fulfilled!-- He was interested in Buddhism in later life.)  He began to wonder about the recurrence of 17 and whether it had a universal property. 

Paul Nelson gives us some keys for getting  started with American Sentence

Here are more samples from Ginsberg and samples from other folks.

Steve Kowit, editor of Serving House Journal published American Sentences (#4, Fall 2011)  
and here are even more samples.

These books contain useful sections about the American Sentences.

See Chapter 8
See Chapters 4 and 5

What do  American Sentences seem to have in common?
What isessential to this form--besides the 17 syllables and a complete sentence?

Will I abandon haiku, the form I have loved and embraced most of my life? Of course not! But I now have a new form to add to my writing toolbox. 

And I now have  a new decision to make when writing small--haiku or American sentence?

Previous Posts Related to Short Poetry

Haiku Meditations
Oulipian Exercises and Text Transformations
Book Spine Poetry
Conversations in Poetry

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

The American Sentence is a short poetic form created by Allen Ginsberg.
Read samples of American Sentences using the links in this post.

Write several American Sentences marking moments you wish to savor or explore.
Remember to use 17 syllables, if possible.

Can you write a poem or short prose piece composed entirely of American Sentences?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for the plug. See also:

    1. I will check out this collection. Thank you for your continuing work.