Tuesday, October 14, 2008

American Sentences

Okay, help me here. All the cool kids are writing these things called American Sentences. If I understand it right, this is a poetic form invented by Allen Ginsberg, and it's a single seventeen-syllable line. And I don't get it.

This is a humiliating confession for me. I pride myself on getting poetry. There are some forms I like less than other forms, but for the most part I feel like I understand what they're getting at. The way that the ballad form goes for repetition and undeniable closure with with every quatrain, say. I may like it or not, I may think it's suitable for some particular poem or not. But at least I get it.

Not so with American sentences. First of all, the line. One line is the same as none. Isn't it? I mean, a line only comes into effect by being divided from other lines. What lines make are pauses, where you draw breath, or lift your eye. A single line isn't a line, it's an absence of lines.

Okay. And now syllables. First of all, the American language is a heavily stressed language. Its rhythms aren't made by patterns of syllables, they're made by patterns of stresses. From day one, no one's really minded if you have a few too many unaccented syllables, or a few too few. Who's counting? Not Americans. Now, if you have a language with syllabic quantity, like Latin or Greek, where syllables are actually long or short -- I mean, long or short in the amount of time it consumes to say them, where a long 'a' is (more or less) twice as long as a short 'a' -- counting syllables makes sense. You can make patterns out of them. And some languages, such as French, are severely handicapped, having neither stress nor quantity, and they have to count syllables to make poetry. What else can they do?

So. In an American Sentence we have seventeen syllables. Why? Why seventeen? Why not eleven, or twenty-one? Most verse forms spin off rhythms or patterns of daily speech, exaggerating tendencies that are already there. A line is more or less what you can say before taking another breath. Iambic pentameter is more or less the rhythm of English speech. Jingly rhymes come naturally to children, and rhyme-schemes spin off of that.

But seventeen syllables? It's artificial. It's arbitrary. It has nothing to do with natural American speech. There's no one who just always pauses on his seventeenth syllable. No one even knows when he or she's come to the seventeenth syllable. The only way you can figure out if you have seventeen syllables is by counting them out on your fingers. You can't figure it out by singing, or chanting, because there's no American song that has a seventeen-syllable line.

So I don't get it. I like some of the American Sentences people write. But not as poems, just as sentences. And I can't see why they'd be any better, or any worse, if they were sixteen or eighteen syllables long. I simply can't see it as a poetic form.

So help me out, here. What does an American Sentence feel like? It must touch some chord for you all, or you wouldn't keep reading and writing them. It must have some source in speech or song that's hidden from me. What is it?

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