Allen Ginsberg’s American Sentence

Workshop from October 21, 2013: Allen Ginsberg’s American Sentences

We’re reaching back to the Beats for this ultra-short, maximum-impact form. Ginsberg’s answer to the Japanese haiku, these one-liners are 17-syllable sentences which give a sense of immediacy and sharpen the writer’s powers of observation.

Paul E. Nelson, who interviewed Ginsberg over Cosmopolitan Greetings, where this poem-form first made its debut, has some suggestions for those attempting some of their own:

“The key comes from a Ginsberg notion, poets are people who notice what they notice. This is a mindfulness exercise and, the more aware you can be, the better the poems.”

“Maximum information, minimum number of syllables.” Condense, condense, condense! Leave out those extraneous modifiers and articles.

“As in most good poetry, commentary is implied through imagery.” The old maxim of “Show, don’t tell” applies here. These poems should have a sense of immediacy, and even an “A-ha!” as in the Japanese haiku… but it needs to be implied by the reader, not pointed out by the poet.


For more details about the form and examples, I strongly recommend Paul’s site,, which has much more information and even workshop recommendations. For more on Allen Ginsberg and examples of his own American Sentences, is a great place to start.


Here are a few of our stabs from the night’s workshop; I encourage you to try out some of your own and post in the comments below. Fired up by this super-short form, I’m also starting a Twitter meme & posting new poems daily. Look for the hashtag #AmericanSentences, and join in with your own. 🙂

Saturday morning–
Pop! Pulling up to the city library, front tire blows out condom.

Muse with a broken smile hunting for inspiration, cheek on cold tile.

Ginsberg don’t know shit about math; I only have ten fucking fingers.

…more to come!

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