First published in Raven Chronicles Journal #23, November 2016, pages 233–239. +
by Paul E. Nelson
Loyola University Maryland
4501 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21210
2015, paper, 118 pages, $11.99
In his introduction to American Sentences, Paul E. Nelson writes that the book’s poems are “the fruit (sometimes rotten) of an effort to cultivate awareness” (8). Indeed, the poems in this book are the result of a daily writing exercise, with some poems understandably succeeding more than others. Yet they are presented as a way of accepting what comes, noting that “the process of such a practice . . . sharpens perception and therefore deepens consciousness” (10). It’s a practice that others may well want to try. And even if not, the book makes for a stimulating, diary-like read, at times feeling voyeuristic. These pages are filled with energy, inventiveness, anger, love, and often blunt observation. This is a book of noticing, of paying attention.
The form, of course, is American Sentences, a variation of haiku invented by Allen Ginsberg. It amounts to seventeen syllables in a single line, but pays little or no attention to other haiku techniques or aesthetics, many of which are seldom understood or taught in the West. Ginsberg’s examples are unflinchingly honest, and Paul follows in these footsteps, yet makes the form his own by presenting his own life with concrete details. American Sentences features 745 examples selected from more than 5,100 one-line poems written daily over fourteen years (and Paul is still going). “Unlike traditional haiku,” Paul says, “there is no seasonal reference and the content may often be more appropriate to the senryu,” but observes that including the date with each poem “is a way of communicating the season” (4). He advises that “American Sentences work best when there is an AHA! moment” (7). It has that much in common with haiku. The introduction also quotes Ginsberg as saying that “Any gesture we make consciously, be it artwork, a love affair, any food we cook, can be done with a kind of awareness of eternity, truthfulness. . . . It captures the shadow of a moment” (1). And that’s what this book is—the shadows of moments, a selection of poems spanning more than a decade of daily writing practice, yet just a glimpse—all of which, as Paul says, chronicles post-modern velocity.
Ginsberg’s poetic invention has not been written by many people, and certainly not in as sustained a way as Paul has done with his practice, documented in this book. Perhaps no one else has done more to promote the form, either. Paul runs the www.americansentences.com website [it now redirects to http://paulenelson.com/american-sentences-2/] and, at my invitation, spoke about American Sentences at the 2005 Haiku North America conference in Port Townsend, Washington. He’ll often share his Sentences at poetry readings too—he’s the American Sentences guy, even while he also writes mostly longer poetry. His book collects selections from each of fourteen years starting in 2001 (ranging from 16 to 92 poems for each year), and the poems repeatedly show a sensitivity to and awareness of everyday life in all its manifestations. They echo with haiku as a literary practice, even while they differ. Here are three examples (not always seventeen syllables, but usually):
My binoculars scan the coastal mountains then WHOA! A GIANT EAR!
Morning sun reflects off sidewalk slug trails as I drag my ass into work.
Useless! Useless! – flossing in the mid-day, eating popcorn at night.
That last poem alludes to a Kerouac haiku. Many other allusions and contexts abound in these poems. One is the setting of the Seattle region, with occasional forays elsewhere, so when we see a reference to the “International District,” we know it means a specific neighborhood in Seattle. Another context is the people in the author’s life, many of whom are specifically identified by first and last names, or just by first name, whether they are Seattle locals or people on television.
Sherry Marx reports of the peace protestor who broke a man’s nose.
Martha Stewart’s prepared for her jail term – she’s on a low carb diet.
Carolyne says: I don’t know what to say and then she keeps on talking.
Sam takes his Thursday pills on Friday – washes ’em down w/ tequila.
Some poems may seem to fall flat, being just so-what records, but Paul readily admits that on some days it was a stretch to do his daily discipline. The poems range from dark to witty, joyous to gritty, producing a collection of variety, embracing different emotions with a kaleidoscope of images. In this context, some selections are more closely aligned to haiku and the haiku moment.
Shimmer of the hot springs pool as reflections of raindrops intersect.
Watching insects swirl in afternoon sun – no plum blossoms falling.
The passing bus ripples the maple tree reflection in my teacup.
Other Sentences are “found” poems, or they record the wit of others. But then, aren’t most haiku “found” also, through the living of daily life?
At Green Valley Meats a smiling bunny sign says Trespassers Butchered.
Graffiti on an old fridge in New Orleans: Make Levees, not War.
Billboard in Idaho on I-90: “Jesus, the call that never drops.”
Some poems may be overly private, but including them amplifies the diaristic nature of this every-day discipline and the oddities of daily life.
Charlie told us: If you hear gurgling noises it’s my leg falling off.
The look on RR’s dream face when the army crushes a piano.
Everything he says in his phone chat’s in Igbo except for “Craigslist.”
Other poems reflect the news, offer aphorisms or jokes, or are profoundly sad.
After the terror bombing cel phones ring next to corpses in Madrid.
Everything is empty but some things are more empty than others.
I tell April to flesh out her poem about anorexia.
Just to take the shine off Ma one last time, my Dad dies on Mother’s day.
These and other Sentences show lifefulness, honesty, and an endless openness to whatever happens—not just to the experiences of life, but an openness to whatever ends up in the poems. In that regard they have much in common with Ginsberg’s approach to this form as well as to haiku. It’s an exploration of the aesthetics of Open Form, or what Charles Olson called “composition by field,” which Paul explains as being “what comes into one’s consciousness,” underscoring that “The practice of writing a daily American Sentence will change that field, if one is open to change” (9).
Poet John Olson provides an appreciative blurb to start the book that is worth a mention. He says “Emphasis [in the poems] 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,” and that they “don’t have the aesthetic stiffness of the haiku as they are practiced in English.” One has to wonder what he means by haiku as they are practiced in English, and the degree to which he is aware of the leading English-language haiku journals and anthologies—and their tremendous breadth and range. Has he read Haiku 21, Modern Haiku, or the recent Norton anthology, Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years? Such work is dramatically far from stiff or bastardized. Rather, I’m guessing that he means all the pseudo-haiku that infects the Internet, perpetuating myths of haiku in English—indeed, highly bastardized. But then, none of that should be given attention, and it would be more rigorous to compare Paul’s work to literary haiku (in English) rather than bastardizations. It stands up for its energy, its imagism, its openness, its shadowed revelations of the human condition.
And yet, a comparison to haiku isn’t necessary at all, because American Sentences stand on their own, distinct from haiku, whether in Japanese or English. One could argue that the American Sentence form itself is a bastardization of literary haiku, especially with its omission not only of season words (kigo), the two-part juxtapositional structure (kireji), and other techniques vital in English and Japanese. But American Sentences offer their own clear rewards and potentials, and Paul has mined them deeply, being open to imagistic clarity, randomness, spontaneity, wittiness, and thoughtful contemplation, not to mention the discipline of regular composition as a poetic practice. This is a book that welcomes whatever life has to offer, in all its highs and lows, and it shares the shadows of these moments for others to revel in. Paul E. Nelson’s American Sentences are in love with the world.
Better write down today’s American Sentence before I get drunk.