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About Form: What Are American Sentences?


American Sentences: Catching the Shadow of the Moment

If poetry and science cannot change one’s life, they’re meaningless.
– Michael McClure

In a 1991 interview with Thomas Gladysz, Allen Ginsberg was asked about the sacramental nature of life as an aesthetic for his photography. Allen replied:

I think the notion is a Native American art aesthetic and life aesthetic, but my formulation of it is reinforced by a lot of Buddhist training. The notion is basically that the first noble truth most all of us acknowledge, especially senior citizens, is that existence is transitory — life is transitory. We are born and we die. And so this is it! It gives life both a melancholy and a sweet and joyful flavor…Any gesture we make consciously, be it artwork, a love affair, any food we cook, can be done with a kind of awareness of eternity, truthfulness…In portraiture, you have the fleeting moment to capture the image as it passes and before it dissolves…It captures the shadow of the moment.

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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.

In a 2001 interview with Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, Andrew told me that Allen’s idea for American Sentences: …was based on haiku. He was also very interested in Buddhism for the second half of his life, and probably the central mantra or wisdom phrase of Buddhism comes from the Heart Sutra. It runs: ” Gate Gate Paragate, Para Sam Gate Bodhi Swaha.” And Allen discovered that has seventeen syllables also. And so he felt that maybe seventeen syllables had a more universal (Anne chimes in: healing properties) …a more universal application. It was not just located in Japan or old India, and so this is a way of him playing with that possibility. Anne: And well also, the Japanese line, as we were pointing out in the workshop, is one line down, the characters running down the page. It’s not broken up into these three neat lines, as you see in translated haiku. So, the sense of that one, and also the running together of the thoughts that has the energy of the way the mind works. That actually you are putting these things together, though they seem tripartite and in the traditional view of the haiku Heaven/Earth/Man:

In the medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age.

(Jack Kerouac’s haiku.) Andrew continues: And if you think of Allen’s maxim, “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 and I think that fascinated him and should become a form that is used regularly in workshops.

Anne and Andrew taught this form at their 2001 workshop at the Northwest SPokenword LAB in Auburn, Washington. Having organized the visit, I had received the workshop description months in advance and thought I’d get a head start on this form by writing at least one American Sentence a day. The practice continues, perhaps due to what I saw as success in that first month I was writing:

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.
1.22.01 — Just beyond a thin layer of plastic feel the warmth of the dog shit.
1.27.01 — Outside ritzy Pine Street shops, two legless men among those seeking change.

Already one can see that, 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, though none of the above are season specific. They 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?

Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.
A.G., November 1991
New York

The format of American Sentences allows no excuse and serves as a reminder of the conditions, situation, atmosphere and shadow of the moment:

2.09.01 — One small spat & you reconstruct front room into bedroom-in-exile.

My partner at that time had an affinity for drama, and if the outer condition is only a reflection of what is going on inside, then these sentences become little clues that with hindsight, (and a recognition that the term shadow can be used in its Jungian context) can suggest the coupling was destined to be short-lived:

7.18.01 — “No time for THAT” she says releasing semi-erect morning penis.
8.27.01 — Migraine headache so bad it makes me yell: Eleanor, come eat my brain!
10.14.01 — Your mouth wide-open  w/  a  gaping  yawn  I  try  to  stick  my tongue  in.
11.08.01 — Three days after the split I revert to a diet of cake & meat.

but not without its satisfying moments:
5.11.01 — After the phone rings there’s a cold spot on my hip where your hand was.
3.06.01 — The moan of your approaching orgasm — while in the distance — train horns.

Yet, the American Sentence is without all limitations, except for that syllable count and thus, is often a reflection of the societal response to catastrophic events:

10.03.01 — A patriot steals the American flag of an eight yr old boy.
10.17.01 — United We Stand as long as you are not in my way in traffic.
10.23.01 — On sale @ Freddies American Flag Christmas tree ornaments.

Of course, here’s where the cheating, or poetic license comes in. Is the word steals two syllables, or one? The dictionary will tell you two, but in the American vernacular, perhaps one. In the case of the first sentence above, I count it as one. It IS one of the longer syllables in the American language, but what is through or church? This is an important notion if one is serious about the seventeen syllable requirement, but after four years of writing at least one of these sentences a day, I can recognize a successful sentence simply by the skill with which the moment is reflected. Taste is a limitation. Of course taste is relative and Ginsberg’s sexual proclivities were not appreciated by everyone:

I can still see Neal’s 23 year old corpse when I come in my hand.
January 1992

You may suggest here that Ginsberg was cheating by counting the word Neal as one syllable. Some readers may wonder if the word Neal is one syllable or two. If it’s two, then Ginsberg seemingly cheated by adding an extra syllable, though the poem IS still a visceral snapshot. If it’s one syllable, then he stayed within his seventeen-syllable rule. Ginsberg was one of the 20th century’s proponents and masters of Open Form and his ethos was First Thought, Best Thought. I think what that boils down to in this form is capturing the moment and then hacking away if the syllable count is too high. After a couple of years, as haiku writers will likely attest, one has the rhythm in their head. An Open Form ethos would suggest that if it comes to you in seventeen syllables the first time, it’s done.


American Sentences work best when there is an AHA! moment and when the modifier comes in the last word, or even last syllable:

6.06.02 — In charred bus after suicide bomb two corpses in one last embrace.
3.21.03 — Ground TOTALLY pink from fallen blossoms except for piles of dog shit.
8.09.03 — Stop sign on Wilson   west of Kedzie   someone put sticker says:  BREEDING.

The times they don’t work is the same as with any other poetry, when people tell, rather than show, when the energy drops out, often when simile is used or when the writer is intent on commentary:

Abort the American Holocaust; the shame of America.
Roger W Hancock © December, 2002


Stealing a U.S. flag reveals a perverted sense of loyalty.
Roger W Hancock © June, 2002

In my American Sentence process there is the composing and then the transcribing. First, I always carry a small notebook to capture these sentences. This requires some wardrobe considerations and cargo pants and vests are the ways in which I have adapted to this practice. The second part is the harvesting of said sentences, which usually happens at the end of the month. At this time I often review the work and find a way to tighten a Sentence, improve the word, or make some other fine-tuning. But once in print, nothing but a typo will be altered. My sources for Sentences are not limited to what is usually referred to as nature, but the discussion about what is nature and what is not is one for another time. Sentences can come from TV shows, like Ken Burns’ Jazz:

2.01.01 — Coronas reflect off Trane’s horn exposing universe’s beauty.

Or Seattle traffic:

2.03.01 — 12 vehicle crash northbound I-5 caused by slick roads & a rainbow.

They can be found Sentences:

2.08.02 — Next to condom dispenser is written: This is the worst gum ever.

Or Sentences found in traffic:

4.18.01 — Best bumper sticker this month, seen on Volvo: Midwives Help People Out.

What they all are is the fruit (sometimes rotten) of an effort to cultivate awareness, a specific discipline that is designed to make the practitioner more aware of his or her surroundings.

3.10.02 — Shimmer of the hot springs pool as reflections of raindrops intersect.
5.08.02 — Shoes really make a difference she said, they DO said the one on the scale.
5.27.02 — Man in Superman shirt walks down alley w/ empty plastic gas can.
6.22.02 — Man who sprays Round-Up on his lawn complains when my dog pisses on it.
8.20.02 — Auburn bumper sticker says: The hell w/ rent, I’m getting’ a tattoo.
9.16.02 — It occurs to me your returning the book on Vodou’s a good thing.
10.10.02 — Almost drowning out traffic noise, starlings in the Monkey Puzzle tree.

This dedication to phenomenology, has benefits for the practitioners long-form work, as well as his or her consciousness in general. The American Heritage Dictionary defines phenomenology as: A philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness. Charles Olson also called his take on Open Form Composition by Field, and according to field theory in physics, what comes into one’s consciousness is a matter of what kind of impulse or resonance one sends out. The practice of writing a daily American Sentence will change that field, if one is open to change. There is only so much suffering one can take, though some thrive on it, a daily effort to catch beauty (or irony) as it is happening, and the editing that happens in the course of whittling the snapshot to its essence, can only sharpen the imagery and the aerodynamic nature of one’s work.

With any discipline, honestly practiced, there are results. A daily American Sentence practice certainly makes one more aware of their surroundings. It makes one more aware of words we use to fill space, such as that or often the. And while there will not soon be an American Sentence North America conference, for anyone willing to be among the first into the field, this form is very satisfying.

Get use to your body, forget you were born, suddenly you got to get out!
A.G., August 1990

Paul Nelson, Slaughter, WA – 7.26.05, 1:19PM


American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Ginsberg, Allen. Spontaneous Mind. New York: Perennial, 2001

Ginsberg, Allen. Cosmopolitan Greetings. New York: Harper Collins, 1994

Hancock, Roger

Interview with Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman, conducted by the author in April, 2001.