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Allen Ginsberg's American Sentences

An Introduction to His Variation on Haiku


Allen Ginsberg was a full believer in condense, condense, condense—which is an Ezra Pound dictum, although I think he could have gotten the message across better by saying simply “Condense!” Check Allen’s poetry for articles (remember? “a,” “an,” “the”?) and you’ll see where he starts—these bitty words all but disappear in his work, which not only condenses but gives a rushing immediacy to his work.

Still, Allen 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.

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!

The terrific Web site that Peter Hale maintains for the Allen Ginsberg Trust has eternally revolving American Sentences. Here are a few of my favorites:

Taxi ghosts at dusk pass Monoprix in Paris 20 years ago.

Put on my tie 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.

Rainy night on Union square, full moon. Want more poems? Wait till I’m dead.

~Bob Holman

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