A Poetry Without Emotion

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Few American poets have established such a distinct voice as has Ai. Some commentators on American poetry believe her pseudonym to be the sound of a cry, such as those uttered by many of her personas; critic Hayden Carruth suggests that her name means “love” in Japanese (Ai has described herself as one-half Japanese). In one important sense, she does not fall within the canon of traditional African American writers. Her subjects transcend the most common concerns of that canon, and her style, as it has developed, incorporates a flat, almost emotionless tone, regardless of her subject matter—no matter how beautiful or how hideous.

Ai awakened critics to her work in 1973 with poems that treat such subjects as murder, suicide, sexual and physical violence, whoring, and simple lusts. She presents her subjects usually through first-person voices that are flat and atonal. Indeed, the experience of listening to her early poems on the audiotape Nothing But Color (1981) adds to a sense that there is a terrible rhythm to the cruelties of the world and that she has tapped into that rhythm. She reads in a flat yet lyrical voice; all of her poems sound the same, as if she were in a trance and reading the work of some other poet. The experience can be at once delightful and unsettling. All but two of the poems on the tape are from Killing Floor (1979). A different version of her “Blue Suede Shoes,” titled “Blue Suede Shoes: A Fiction,”...

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Fellowships and Awards

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1975, Ai was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship, providing her with invaluable time to spend on her art. In 1976, she received a fellowship from the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation. Awards quickly followed. Killing Floor was the 1978 Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets, and Ai received the first of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1980. The second came in 1985. The writing of Sin was further augmented by receipt of an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant and an Emergency Fund for Writers award from the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists. Sin was awarded the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999) won the 1999 National Book Award for Poetry.

These awards established Ai as a major poet, despite the controversy surrounding her work and its lack of widespread, mainstream appeal. In 2003, Ai released another book of poems, Dread. Following a stint as visiting associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder (1996-1997), Ai held the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing for the 2002-2003 academic year at Southwest Texas State University. She then moved to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she became a professor of English as well as serving as the vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association.

Few African American writers can boast as an impressive list of grants, awards, and fellowships as early in their careers as could Ai. Although she eschews the “African American” classification, she will be remembered as one of the most important African American writers and as one of the leading voices in contemporary poetry.

A Controversy over Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ai’s poetry can be disturbing, so much so that debates have raged about whether she writes a kind of pornography, a pornography of pain and extremity, raising the question of why readers participate in the dissemination of her work. Clearly, Ai is skillful at manipulating words and at drawing readers into poems about a multiplicity of subjects. Critics have questioned, however, whether readers participate primarily because they take a perverse pleasure in watching others in the throes of pain, or because they marvel at the ability of the poet to so capture the fringes of human emotion.

The poems in Sin are longer and more meditative than the poems in the first two books. Where the early poems posed a kind of disorder and dismemberment in the social fabric, these longer poems explore human consciousness through the poetic medium, as if primal acts are those intended for the most basic understandings. Ai’s dispassionate readings indicate a split in her approach to her work between identification with and analysis of her characters. She suggests in some of the poems that to give oneself up to another completely—by voice, by body, by relationship, by poetry—would constitute a kind of suicide.

“The Resurrection of Elvis Presley,” from Fate: New Poems (1991), presents a man who cannot be Elvis Presley, a man who knows Vaslav Nijinksy in life and Ernest Hemingway in death, a man who becomes the embodiment of appetite. His life is a series of pills, women, television sets, and shows to perform. Ai’s Presley is not resurrected; rather, he exists in a purgatory in which he must do what Hemingway says—including not sing—for reasons that remain unclear. The time that they share is portrayed as better than the ice-encrusted world of heaven.

The difference between this poem and others like it, on one hand, and the early poems, on the other hand, is that the later poems develop an ontology, or an attempt at one. The early poems are about death, despair, suicide, and murder. The later poems investigate the necessity for such conditions and the possibility that they are not inevitable, that through the voices of (often) famous people, a reader can learn lessons to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

If lessons may be learned, however, they are not guaranteed. Ai’s “Two Brothers,” about John F. Kennedy and Robert...

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Ai’s Subjects

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ai is not interested in heroes; she is interested in survivors, for only the living are capable of any kind of real epiphany. Even a comatose patient, the speaker of “Sleeping Beauty: A Fiction,” is fully aware of the violation that occurs when a hospital aide rapes her, sensing how he steals into her room to pay his “furtive visits” and “prick” her with “the thorn of violence” in a fairy tale that is more of a horror story and has no happy ending. Ai’s larger agenda has been her assertion of how little one person can affect the world—except perhaps for people such as Oppenheimer. She is interested in raising the consciousness of a social order that has become increasingly anesthetized to the brutalities of the human condition as they have become increasingly recognized.

Ai moves from private, personal myth to a public myth that may have the capacity for salvation. In the title poem of Dread, for instance, Shirley Herlihy describes her life as a police officer in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombing. Despite her own brother’s disappearance in the terrorist attacks, she must maintain a tough but fair public demeanor and go about the business of cleaning up the rubble and “remnants of people.” She is no stranger to hardship, both of her parents having died in an episode of domestic violence when she was fifteen and her brother was twelve. She says “we raised ourselves,” yet, because of her brother’s drinking and difficulty holding a job, Shirley often supported him financially. In a twist of irony, when her brother stopped drinking “for good” and told her that he would soon return to work, he was pulled into the “fire’s cold embrace” of the bombing, after “having barely escaped the inferno of family violence.”


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Albers, Randall. “Ai’s Killing Floor.” Chicago Review 30, no. 4 (Spring, 1979): 119-122. An in-depth critical reaction to Ai’s early poetry.

Carruth, Hayden. “Impetus and Invention: Poetic Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Harper’s 258, no. 1548 (May, 1979): 88-90. Carruth places Ai in the poetic tradition from which she springs and attempts to explain her idiosyncratic style.

Forché, Carolyn. “Sentenced to Despair.” The Washington Post Book World, March 11, 1979, F2. The author comes face to face with the subjects of Ai’s work: rape, sodomy, death, drowning, all in relation to the contemporary world.

Morris, John N. “Making More Sense Than Omaha.” The Hudson Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1974): 107-108. Examines Ai’s biographical roots and compares them to the subjects of her poems.

Murray, G. E. “Book Notes: Killing Floor.” The Nation 228, no. 19 (May 19, 1979): 578. Another early view of the idiosyncrasies of Ai’s poetry by a well-known Chicago columnist and book reviewer.

Walker, Alice. “ ‘Like the Eye of a Horse.’ ” Ms. 2 (June, 1974): 41. Walker uses a line from the poet to show the distance that Ai utilizes in describing potentially subjective events from an objective viewpoint.

Yenser, Stephen. “New Books in Review: Killing Floor.The Yale Review 68, no. 4 (Summer, 1979): 566-569. Still another attempt to explain Ai’s excesses so that they might fit in the contemporary canon.