Weekly Prompt: American Sentences

Allen Ginsberg, creator of the American Sentences form. Photo courtesy of Stanford University Special Collections.

A colleague recently introduced me to American Sentences, a poetic form developed by Allen Ginsberg in the mid-1980’s as a response to the haiku.  If haiku involved seventeen syllables down the page, he reasoned, American Sentences would be seventeen syllables across the page–an attempt to more accurately “Americanize” a form that had previously translated only roughly across the Pacific into the context of American poetry.

Like (rough) English approximations of the haiku, American Sentences work closely with concision of line and sharpness of detail.  Unlike its literary predecessor, however, it is compressed into a single line of poetry and included a reference to a month and year (or alternatively, a location) rather than a season.

Seattle-based poet John Olson observes:

[American Sentences are] extremely vivid & detail-oriented, a la the haiku. Emphasis is on the image, rather than rhetoric, or lyricism. Unlike the haiku, however, which is a highly bastardized form in English, they’re more suited to the American idiom & so allow a greater range of natural expression. They don’t have the aesthetic stiffness of the haiku as they are practiced in English.

A few examples by Ginsberg:

Nov 1991 N.Y.

Put my tie on 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.


Write an American Sentence–or a series of American Sentences.  Focus not only on features characteristic of the haiku, like precision of detail and careful use of word, but also on the cadence and rhythm of “American vernacular,” however you understand it.

If you want, play with dialect and/or accent, challenging the boundaries of what constitutes the “American” Sentence and contextualizing the form to linguistic realities specific to your experience or understanding of the “englishes” of America.

For more information on the origin and possibilities of this form, check out Paul Nelson’s website on American Sentences, which includes an extensive archive of examples, interviews, and other helpful resources.