I want to thank Brian Miller for suggesting this topic as a post script to the Jazz and Beat Poetry articles that precede this one. These American haiku were invented by Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet best known for his poem Howl. Ginsberg a practicing Buddhist and a friend and student of William Carlos Williams sought to cut all unnecessary words from his work.
Apparently Ezra Pound’s dictum: “condense” hit home with him. He chose to compose his personal haikus which he termed the American Sentence in a line of 17 syllables. He Americanized the aspects of kiru and kireji. From An Introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Variation on Haiku by Bob Holman & Margery Snyder:
“In talking with him (Ginsberg), 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.
“Ginsberg’s solutions, which first appear in his book Cosmopolitan Greetings, are his American Sentences: One sentence, 17 syllables, end of story. It makes for a rush of a poem, and if you decide to include the season and an aha! moment as Japanese haiku do—i.e., a divided poem with a hinge or pause separating the originator from the kapow!—well, more power to you!”
From Tools for navigating your living universe by paul e. Nelson:
“In a 2001 interview with Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, Andrew told me Allen’s idea for American Sentences. Allen’s maxim was, “maximum information, minimum number of syllables,” seventeen is a small number of syllables. So how to make a poem that really carries the weight of a poem; I think that fascinated him and that it should become a form that is used regularly in workshops.
“Unlike authentic haiku, there is no seasonal reference and the content may often be more appropriate to the senryu. Of course dating the Sentences is a way of communicating the season…
“They (Nelson’s own) are snapshots of the moment. Many people have a journaling practice, but what makes it through the blur of 21st century living onto that morning journal? The moment comes and goes and who has time to write a poem when there is breakfast to make or rush hour traffic to take on?”
Here are some of Paul E. Nelson’s American Sentences: beginning 2001:
1.02.01 — Alternating oil massage, we decide against greasing up the cat.
1.03.01 — Bruxism she says, is like sleeping next to a running tractor.
1.27.01 — Outside ritzy Pine Street shops, two legless men among those seeking change.
and these from 2013
6.16.13 – Any writer can ink stain pants, a real writer ink stains boxers.
7.03.13 – The potted plants outside the medical marijuana shop are dead.
8.3.13 – After the rain, sidewalks under the plum tree are slick, smell like jelly.
In Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius, A Guide for the Poet Within – (a book I recommend for poets just starting out and for sparking the flint of seasoned writers) one of the techniques she uses for starting a poem is the American sentence:
“It’s easier to start with the goal of writing one short sentence than an entire poem. What interests me is how a short sentence can have all the qualities of a poem— a quick, perfectly executed brushstroke that surprises and delights, that’s full of mystery and meaning, and set to a rhythm that sings. Here is Ginsberg’s observation of a New York street scene as an American Sentence:
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
“What’s key here is the moment sharply observed, a brief “aha!” of pleasure or recognition or awareness. Begin with whatever is in your immediate environment, and then expand into memory, into ideas, to see what comes up. After that, change your work space. Get up and look out the window, or take a walk and jot down notes about what you see. Then revise your American Sentences so that they sound both specific and musical. You can do this exercise every time you begin to write. It’s a good warm-up, like playing musical scales. Sometimes, you can reorganize sentences from the many you’ve written, combine them, and end up with an interesting poem.”
This is the challenge to write one or more American Sentences today. One should take into consideration two images and put them in juxtaposition in order to create a sort of tension. It seems that in the texture of beat poetry they should have a kind of grittiness, or reality gleaned from the two images. Andrew Schelling recommends these devices to compose the American sentence: imagism, juxtaposition, phenomenology, found poems, dreams, relationships, mindfulness, rhythm and alliteration, demotic speech, condensing thought by extracting any unneeded words such as articles and extraneous adverbs or adjectives.