The Beat Take on Haiku: Ginsberg's American Sentences

Very Few Words Add Up to Significant Impact

Close up of Allen Ginsburg
Allen Ginsburg. Bettmann/Getty Images

Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, and went to Columbia University in New York in the 1940s. It was a seminal moment and decision in his life: There he met and became friends with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs; all four would become deeply identified with the Beat movement, and all would become legends.

Ginsberg published many volumes of poetry and won the National Book Award for "The Fall of America: Poems of These States" (1973).

Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1954 and by the 1960s was into gurus, Zen and political activism and protests against the Vietnam War. His book "Howl and Other Poems" (1956) was banned for a time on obscenity issues but eventually was reinstated, and the poem of the title ultimately was translated into 22 languages. Ginsberg died in 1997 in New York City.

Ginsberg's Dictum

He was a full believer in condense, condense, condense -- which is an Ezra Pound dictum, although he could have gotten the message across better by saying simply “Condense!” Check Ginsberg's poetry for articles ("a," "an" and "the") and you’ll see where he starts cutting -- these tiny words all but disappear in his work. Along with achieving the condensation he wanted, this technique also gives a rushing immediacy to his work. 

Still, Ginsberg never went for haiku. 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 five-seven-five 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" (1994), are his American Sentences: One sentence, 17 syllables, end of story. Minimum words for maximum effect. It makes for a rush of a poem, and if you're trying your own hand at these and decide to include the season and an aha!

moment as Japanese haiku do -- a divided poem with a hinge or pause separating the originator from the kapow! -- well, more power to you.

Ginsberg's Iconic Sentences

The website the Allen Ginsberg Project has volumes of material about Ginsberg, including examples of American Sentences. Here are a few of the best:

  • "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."
  • "That grey-haired man in business suit and black turtleneck thinks he's still young."
  • "Bearded robots drink from Uranium coffee cups on Saturn's ring."
  • "Crescent moon, girls chatter at twilight on the bus ride to Ankara."