Friday, April 24, 2015

The American Sentence Goes to High School

Poster sheet 1 of 3 on which one class created their American sentence
chain by posting their individual lines based on a shared-environment
free write. (4/21/15)
Each year during National Poetry Month, I like to have classes work first with that form with which they are most familiar (at least in terms of its superficial structure), the traditional (Western) haiku. The next logical step, and one that provides as many opportunities for for the meaningful application of imagistic writing skills, introducing a personal favorite form, the American sentence.

The American sentence is a modern poetic form initiated by Allen Ginsberg (Howl) as a means of compressing (“Maximum information, minimum number of syllables”) Western language in a style similar to that of the Eastern haiku. The key comes from a Ginsberg notion that poets are "people who notice what they notice." Ginsberg felt that divvying syllables into three 5-7-5 lines makes the poetic process an exercise in counting, not feeling. American Sentences are haiku-length poems that Allen suggested be limited to 17 syllables, like haiku in Japanese.

By using a free write centered on our classroom, at the time a common point in time and location, the class's first experience playing with this poetic form can also ultimately be used as an opportunity to collaboratively prepare an extended American sentence chain. (As the teacher, I also model the entire process from free-write to "publishing", on the computer and SMART board.) The idea that each student opening their individual awareness of a moment (or four minutes of "moments") can yield similar superficial observation filtered through varying perspectives can be powerful. The collection of sensual notes and observations taken during the free write always seem to result in enough brain fodder for students to pull two images with which to play and build their introductory American sentences.

Reviewing with class the potential contributing elements to an American sentence also creates the opportunity to review several concepts that are valuable in their analysis on literature (fiction and non-fiction) in a context that is easily accessible. For Regents-level students, the American sentence also is an excellent way to review and practice the use of figurative language. In a broad sense there is not much "new" here; students play with common literary elements in a new and open manner, by extending the but the application within the context of a modern form (an insight that some lack anyway: that understanding that forms and language do change and evolve).

Four applicable strategies in particular are especially fun to re-frame for classes:
  • Imagistic: a style of poetry that employs free verse and the patterns and rhythms of common speech. 
  • Found poetry: Found poetry is a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources (written or oral) and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and/or lines (and consequently meaning), or by altering the text by additions and/or deletions. The resulting poem can be defined as either treated: changed in a profound and systematic manner; or untreated: virtually unchanged from the order, syntax and meaning of the original. 
  • Busted syntax: poorly worded, incorrect syntax perhaps to illustrate a point 
  • Demotic speech = of or pertaining to the ordinary, everyday, current form of a language; vernacular: a poet with a keen ear for demotic rhythms.
While one of my classes has already completed the activity (with part of the final results posted above), two more will be working through the format over the next few classes. Sadly one of the skills standardized test don't currently assess are creativity or the use by students of figurative language. This is unfortunate as this is where the majority of students excel despite the limited opportunities to develop a unique authorial voice outside the academic one favored by the exams.

Given that the topic of our the American Sentence Chain is our classroom, occasionally the lines students' choose as their personal favorites to contribute do not reflect what I think of as a fairly productive learning environment. In addition being of the proper syllable count and imagistic, some lines evoke feedback that is personally and professionally helpful.It is always insightful to see the work of students' reflect their inner lives (at least the little of which I am aware) in writing. The American sentence is just one of the poetic forms that provide a wonderful vehicle for reflection.

Paul E. Nelson's Blog
Allen Ginsberg's American Sentences by Bob Holman and Margery Snyder

1 comment:

Paul Nelson said...

Thanks for the plug. My book of poems using this form is now out: