Ai Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

Florence Anthony

Ai Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ai is a narrative poet who writes short, dramatic monologues, a form that allows her to get into the minds of her characters and speak with their voices. Her narrators are disenfranchised, spiritually bereft outsiders, often the voiceless members of society. She places them in a variety of settings and situations and uses direct, hard-hitting language to convey the essences of people who have no illusions. They do not have pretty lives, but they endure. They are from all races, reflecting America’s multiracial, multicultural society. These people assert their wills, understand pain, and want to make an impact. Their messages are gut-wrenching.

In the 1970’s, some feminists were so offended by Ai’s graphic, violent, and almost pornographic tales about spouse and child abuse, rape, and abortion that they found it hard to appreciate the technical aspects of her early works. They failed to see that she was portraying women as strong survivors. Ai’s women suffer from isolation, from being considered chattel by men. They are poverty-stricken. Although Ai purports not to have a political agenda, she does believe that she is recording the United States as it is. She sees Americans as a violent people, in thought and deed.

Ai’s poetry reflects the underbelly of the human condition, the thoughts too horrible to express verbally. The urge to kill becomes the need to kill. Passing anger does not pass; rather it leads to unspeakable, depraved actions, showing what monsters ordinary people are capable of becoming. Grim tales fill the newspapers every day, but readers, while stunned, go about their lives thinking that such things happen to other people.

Ai does not celebrate violence, but rather uses it to explore the possibility of achieving a state of grace, a transcendence of the self. She sees the cruelty that is inherent in intimacy. Her characters are both the victims and the victimizers.


Ai’s first collection of poetry, Cruelty, created a stir with its vivid details of abominations: mothers and fathers who do unspeakable things to their children, including a mother who feels satisfaction from devising new ways of inflicting pain on her two-year-old; children who enjoy killing; and religious leaders who do not lift up but instead destroy with base instincts that become baser when those who know of the abuses remain silent. Some of the details of physical abuse are too horrifying to give voice to, but Ai’s symphonic prose makes the specifics more palatable. It is the eloquence of her poetry, the beautifully expressed concept, the apt word, the melody she creates, the pleasing assonance, the unexpected interior rhyme, the simple language, and uncomplicated form that draw readers to her and allow them to glimpse the dark corners of their psyches.

Ai sees the essentials of life as love and hate, birth and death. Birth is a recurring theme, always matter-of-fact, if not deadly. She does not wonder at the miracle of new life; instead, in “The Country Midwife: A Day,” she describes the “scraggly, red child” and the “stink of birth.” In another poem, a husband sees his pregnant wife as a “brown walnut waiting to crack open and release her white meat”—no sentimentality here. Sex is always violent and base. In “Prostitute,” a woman kills her husband, searches through his pockets, puts on his boots, and holsters his guns, hoping to attract more clients, and then gratifies herself with his dead hand. Other titles attest to the general unpleasantness of Ai’s subject matter: “Tired Old Whore” and “A Forty-Three-Year-Old Woman Masturbating.” Writer Alice Walker said that...

(The entire section is 1506 words.)