Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Ai’s style may seem straightforward, but if it were as simple as it appears, someone else would long ago have done what she has done so masterfully. Critics such as Hayden Carruth commend her passion; reviewers such as G. E. Murray admire her authority. Randall Albers appreciates Ai’s unflinching confrontation of grim reality and her portrayal of human determination in the face of it. Carolyn Forche is struck by her ability to capture a moment that is “the hinge of history” and allows the possibility for radical change. Ai’s passion, her authority, and even the seeming dispassion of her poetic voice all come from the development of a clean, largely unpunctuated free-verse line.

The use of personas, literally masks, is paramount in the poet’s work. There is, however, a modulation present in the control of that work that resounds with rhythms of the living, with the breath line of modern American poetry, and with the chanting of a more primal human element. Fastidious, disciplined, organized, chastened: All these words have come to characterize Ai’s writing. She is not enamored of figurative language, but she utilizes it much more in the later work than in the earlier.

Not every commentator on Ai’s poetry praises it. Several question the need for such brutality. Stephen Yenser, for instance, attributes an obsession with violence to the poems in Killing Floor. Nevertheless, he respects Ai’s style, which he calls highly disciplined, clean, organized, and well-punctuated free verse. John N. Morris, on the other hand, finds little to commend in Ai’s poetry, which he doesn’t believe is worthy of the name. Instead, he would classify it as a “pornography of pain.” Some wonder at the poetry’s dispassion, and at least one critic has questioned Ai’s distortion of facts to fit her presentation. To her credit, she subtitles many of her poems “a fiction,” as if to implore readers to accept a mythic version of what has been seen as a “real” event.

Ai’s intention in the blurring of fact and fiction becomes especially clear in her poem “Evidence: From a Reporter’s Notebook”: She does not trust “real” accounts as they have been given to the world. She trusts the voices of her created and mythic personas more. The world knows versions of the Kennedys, Elvis Presley, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Hoffa, George Armstrong Custer, and James Dean, but the world does not know the truth about these people and the events that surround them. Ai’s versions may as well be that truth. It is in that light that one must read her poetry. As one reviewer noted, dying does not end anything. For Ai, though, there is a truth in the final act of life that cannot be denied, and she has taken it upon herself to render that truth as vividly, as eerily, as voluptuously, and as terrifyingly as any poet can.

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