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,”...

(The entire section is 563 words.)