Ai is a poet noted for her uncompromising poetic vision and bleak dramatic monologues which give voice to marginalized, often poor and abused speakers. Though born Florence Anthony, she legally changed her name to Ai which means “love” in Japanese. She has said that her given name reflects a “scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop” and has no wish to be identified “for all eternity” with a man she never knew. Ai’s awareness of her own mixed race heritage—she self-identifies as Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche—as well as her strong feminist bent shape her poetry, which is often brutal and direct in its subject matter. In the volumes of verse she published since her first collection, Cruelty (1973), Ai provoked both controversy and praise for her stark monologues and gruesome first-person accounts of non-normative behavior. Dubbed “All woman—all human” by confessional poet Anne Sexton, Ai has also been praised by the Times Literary Supplement for capturing “the cruelty of intimate relationships and the delights of perverse spontaneity—e.g. the joy a mother gets from beating her child.” Alicia Ostriker countered Sexton’s summation of Ai, writing: “‘All woman—all human’; she is hardly that. She is more like a bad dream of Woody Allen’s, or the inside story of some Swinburnean Dolorosa, or the vagina-dentata itself starting to talk. Woman, in Ai’s embodiment, wants sex. She knows about death and can kill animals and people. She is hard as dirt. Her realities—very small ones—are so intolerable that we fashion female myths to express our fear of her. She, however, lives the hard life below our myths.”
Ai explained her use of the dramatic monologue as an early realization that “first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing.” Her poems depict individuals that Duane Ackerson characterized in Contemporary Women Poets as “people seeking transformation, a rough sort of salvation, through violent acts.” The speakers in her poems are struggling individuals—usually women, but occasionally men—isolated by poverty, by small-town life, or life on a remote farm. Killing Floor (1978), the volume that followed Cruelty, includes a poem called “The Kid” which is spoken in the voice of a boy who has just murdered his family. Sin (1986) contains more complex dramatic monologues as Ai assumes actual personae, from Joe McCarthy to the Kennedy brothers. Ai’s characters tend to speak in a flat demotic, stripped of nuance or emotion. Poet and critic Rachael Hadas has noted that “although virtually all the poems present themselves as spoken by a particular character, Ai makes little attempt to capture individual styles of diction [or] personal vocabularies.” For Hadas, however, this makes the poems all the more striking, as her “stripped-down diction conveys an underlying, almost biblical indignation—not, at times, without compassion—at human misuses of power and the corrupting energies of various human appetites.”
Fate (1991) and Greed (1993), like Sin before them, contain monologues that dramatize public figures. Readers confront the inner worlds of former F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, missing-and-presumed-dead Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, musician Elvis Presley, and actor James Dean as voices from beyond-the-grave who yet remain out of sync with social or ethical “norms.” Noting that Ai “reinvents” each of her subjects within her verse, Ackerson added that, through each monologue, what these individuals say, “returning after death, expresses more about the American psyche than about the real figures.” Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999) contained work from Ai’s previous five books as well as 18 new poems. It was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. Ai’s next book, Dread (2003), was likewise praised for its searing and honest treatment of, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, “violent or baroquely sexual life stories.” In the New York Times Book Review, Viijay Seshadri wrote that “Dread has the characteristic moral strength that makes Ai a necessary poet.” Aiming her poetic barbs directly at prejudices and societal ills of all types, Ai has been outspoken on the subject of race, saying “People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person. The insistence that one must align oneself with this or that race is basically racist. And the notion that without a racial identity a person can’t have any identity perpetuates racism…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is. More than ever, it is a medium of exchange, the coin of the realm with which one buys one’s share of jobs and social position. This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness.”
In addition to the National Book Award, Ai’s work was awarded an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, for Sin, and the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets, for Killing Floor. She received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College and the National Endowment for the Arts. She taught at Oklahoma State University. She died in 2010.
A Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Po (also known as Li Bai, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po, and Li T’ai-pai) was probably born in central Asia and grew up in Sichuan Province. He left home in 725 to wander through the Yangtze River Valley and write poetry. In 742 he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy by Emperor Xuanzong, though he was eventually expelled from court. He then served the Prince of Yun, who led a revolt after the An Lushan Rebellion of 755. Li Po was arrested for treason; after he was pardoned, he again wandered the Yangtze Valley. He was married four times and was friends with the poet Tu Fu.
Li Po wrote occasional verse and poems about his own life. His poetry is known for its clear imagery and conversational tone. His work influenced a number of 20th-century poets, including Ezra Pound and James Wright.
A Poem of Changgan
BY LI PO
My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch’ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.
…At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.
…Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch’u-t’ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.
…Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.
The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance
BY LI PO
TRANSLATED BY EZRA POUND
The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.
Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.
Source: Personae (1990)
Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
BY LI PO
TRANSLATED BY SAM HAMILL
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” translated by Sam Hamill from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., Rochester, New York.
Source: Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions Ltd., 2000)
Helene Johnson was born in Boston and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts. She never knew her father, and her mother was the child of former slaves. Johnson lived for a time at her grandfather’s house, as well as with two aunts, one of whom nicknamed her Helene. She attended Boston University and Columbia University. Her talents as a writer were noticed early when she won first prize in a short story contest sponsored by the Boston Chronicle. In the 1920s, she moved to New York City with her cousin Dorothy West, a novelist, and became part of the Harlem Renaissance. In his essay in the book The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Ronald Primeau described her work: “Helene Johnson … combines an expression of unquenchable desires with a realistic description of ghetto life and a discovery of the roots of her people.”
Johnson published many poems in small magazines during the 1920s and early 1930s, including the first and only issue of Fire!!, edited by Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent. Johnson’s work also appeared in journals such as Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life and Vanity Fair and in later anthologies such as The Poetry of the Negro (1949), American Negro Poetry (1963), and Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (1976). Her last published poems appeared in the mid-1930s, in an issue of Challenge: A Literary Quarterly. Johnson married William Hubbell in 1933 and had one daughter, Abigail McGrath. Though Johnson continued to write, and her work appeared in anthologies, she never published original poetry again. She died in 1995.
Born Donald Luther Lee in Little Rock, Arkansas, the poet adopted the Swahili name Haki R. Madhubuti after traveling to Africa in 1974. As he shared in a 2006 interview, he sensed that “a new African name would help me in arriving at a final definition of self.” Haki means “justice” and Madhubuti means “precise, accurate, and dependable.”
Madhubuti received an MFA from the University of Iowa and served in the army from 1960 to 1963. A member of the Black Arts Movement, Madhubuti has published more than 20 books of poetry, nonfiction, and critical essays, and his work has been widely anthologized. Influenced by Gwendolyn Brooks, Madhubuti writes experimental, free-verse, politically charged poetry with a staccato rhythm. Over the span of his career, his poetry has shifted its focus from the personal to the political. Early work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) informs his activist poetics. Said Madhubuti in a 2006 interview, “If an artist, or any person, actually understands the condition of the Black world, it will be a dereliction of duty to not write about that world and expose the injustices that exist in it—injustices imposed upon the weak by white, Black and other cultures.”
His collections of poetry include Don’t Cry, Scream (1969) and Groundwork: Selected Poems of Haki R. Madhubuti / Don L. Lee (1996). He has also published Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s (1971) and Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? (1990), and edited Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology (1996).
Recognizing the lack of resources and forums for black writers, Madhubuti has founded and led numerous institutions and organizations dedicated to serving that need. In 1967, Johari Amini, Carolyn Rodgers, and Madhubuti founded Third World Press, with the mission of “provid[ing] quality literature that primarily focuses on issues, themes, and critique related to an African American public.” Madhubuti co-founded the quarterly Black Books Bulletin with Larry Neal, the Institute of Positive Education (1969), the New Concept School (1972), the Betty Shabazz International Charter School (Chicago, 1998), the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, and the National Black Writers Retreat.
Madhubuti has won an American Book Award, the Kuumba Workshop Black Liberation Award, the Broadside Press Outstanding Poet’s Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (in both 1969 and 1982) and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
For the Consideration of Poets
where is the poetry of resistance,
the poetry of honorable defiance
unafraid of lies from career politicians and business men,
not respectful of journalist who write
official speak void of educated thought
without double search or sub surface questions
that war talk demands?
where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion
not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,
not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises,
not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic
Haki Madhubuti, “For the Consideration of Poets” from Run Toward Fear © 2004 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Run Toward Fear (Third World Press, 2004)
she doesn’t wear
& she knew that walt disney
was/is making a fortune off
false-eyelashes and that time magazine is the
authority on the knee/grow.
her makeup is total-real.
a negro english instructor called her:
“a fine negro poet.”
a whi-te critic said:
“she’s a credit to the negro race.”
somebody else called her;
“a pure negro writer.”
johnnie mae, who’s a senior in high school said:
“she and Langston are the only negro poets we’ve
read in school and i understand her.”
pee wee used to carry one of her poems around in his
the one about being cool. that was befo pee wee
was cooled by a cop’s warning shot.
into the sixties
a word was born . . . . . . . . BLACK
& with black came poets
& from the poet’s ball points came:
black doubleblack purpleblack blueblack beenblack was
black daybeforeyesterday blackerthan ultrablack super
black blackblack yellowblack niggerblack blackwhi-te-
blackthanyoueverbes ¼ black unblack coldblack clear
black my momma’s blackerthanyourmomma pimpleblack
black so black we can’t even see you black on black in
black by black technically black mantanblack winter
black coolblack 360degreesblack coalblack midnight
black black when it’s convenient rustyblack moonblack
black starblack summerblack electronblack spaceman
black shoeshineblack jimshoeblack underwearblack ugly
black auntjimammablack, uncleben’srice black
black blackisbeautifulblack i justdiscoveredblack negro
and everywhere the
lady “negro poet”
appeared the poets were there.
they listened & questioned
& went home feeling uncomfortable/unsound & so-
they read/re-read/wrote & rewrote
& came back the next time to tell the
lady “negro poet”
how beautiful she was/is & how she helped them
& she came back with:
how necessary they were and how they’ve helped her.
the poets walked & as space filled the vacuum between
them & the
lady “negro poet”
u could hear one of the blackpoets say:
“bro, they been calling that sister by the wrong name.”
Haki Madhubuti, “Gwendolyn Brooks” from Don’t Cry, Scream © 1969 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Don’t Cry Scream (Third World Press, 1969)
Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power
Who has the moral high ground?
Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse
on small corners in northwest, d.c.
boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out
with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.
across the planet in a land where civilization was born
the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives
in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people.
their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba
or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not
cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way
of making murder commonplace and not news
unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.
modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies
by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water
the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot
into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile,
we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.
Haki Madhubuti, “Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power” from Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems © 1969 by Haki R. Madhubuti. Used by permission of Third World Press, Chicago, IL.
Source: Heartlove: Wedding and Love Poems (Third World Press, 1998)
Gwendolyn Brooks: America in the Wintertime
in this moment of orangutans, wolves, and scavengers,
of high heat redesigning the north & south poles
and the wanderings of new tribes in limousines,
with the confirmations of liars, thieves, and get-over artists,
in the wilderness of pennsylvania avenue,
standing rock, misspelled executive orders
on yellow paper with crooked signatures.
where are the kind language makers among us?
at a time of extreme climate damage,
deciphering fake news, alternative truths, and me-ism
you saw the twenty-first century and left us
not on your own accord or permission.
you have fought and fought most of the twentieth century
creating an army of poets who learned
and loved language and stories
of complicated rivers, seas, and oceans.
where is the kind green nourishment of kale and wheatgrass?
you thought, wrote, and lived poetry,
knew that terror is also language based
on denial, first-ism, and rich cowards.
you were honey and yes to us,
never ran from Black as in bones, Africa,
blood and questioning yesterdays and tomorrows.
we never saw you dance but you had rhythm,
you were a warrior before the war,
creating earth language, uncommon signs and melodies,
and did not sing the songs of career slaves.
keenly aware of tubman, douglass, wells-barnett, du bois,
and the oversized consciousness and commitment of never-quit people
religiously taking note of the bloodlust enemies of kindness
we hear your last words:
if you see me as your enemy
you have no
Source: Poetry (June 2017)