Yusef Komunyakaa, whose surname he took from his grandfather, a West Indian refugee of West African ancestry, was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Growing up in a rural southern town, Komunyakaa was the eldest son of five children whose father was an illiterate carpenter who drove his wife from the household as a result of his abuse. Komunyakaa’s childhood memories of segregated Bogalusa, including his family’s intimate customs and frequent tensions played out against a social backdrop of sharply demarcated color lines, became the subject matter of many of Komunyakaa’s later poems.
The town’s close proximity to New Orleans, only about seventy miles to the north, also instilled in the young Komunyakaa what was to be a lifelong passion for jazz and blues. The poet remembers that in the family home, the radio was always playing, and this music had a great influence on his subsequent work.
A graduate of the city’s Central High School, Komunyakaa joined the army in 1965 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star for his frontline reporting for the military newspaper The Southern Cross. In some ways, this foreign land reminded Komunyakaa of home: Like the sharecroppers of southern Louisiana, the peasants of Vietnam struggled to make a living in a landscape smothered in vegetation. The poems that came out of Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience are noteworthy for their insight into both warring factions—the Americans and the...
As an African American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa has made significant contributions to a number of literature traditions. In his poems about Vietnam, he enters the lists of other soldier-poets writing about their experiences on the battlefield; in his poems about childhood, he joins those poets who trace the shape of their adult lives, especially their poetic vocations, to their formative years; in his poems inspired by jazz and the blues, he adds his name to those who created verse that reflects musical sources or even, at times, aspires to the condition of music.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born James Willie Brown. The oldest of five children, he had a strained relationship with his father, which he chronicled vividly years later in a fourteen-sonnet sequence titled “Songs for My Father,” which appears in Neon Vernacular. The Bogalusa of Komunyakaa’s childhood was a rural community in southern Louisiana that held few opportunities economically or culturally, especially for a young black man. The main industry was the single paper mill, one that turned “workers into pulp,” according to one poem. There was a racially charged atmosphere. The public library admitted only whites; the Ku Klux Klan was still active. In “Fog Galleon,” Komunyakaa writes of these difficulties:
I press against the taxicabWindow. I’m black here, interfacedWith a dead phosphorescence;The whole town smellsLike the world’s oldest anger.
Daydreaming and reading were ways of escaping and coping with a slow life. Daydreaming, which Komunyakaa now sees as an important creative act of his youth, is evident in his early identification with his grandfather’s West Indian heritage. He took the name Komunyakaa from his grandfather, who, according to family legend, came to the United States as a stowaway from Trinidad. In the poem “Mismatched Shoes,” Komunyakaa writes of this...
Yusef Komunyakaa (koh-muhn-YAH-kuh) has repeatedly asserted that it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a “jazz poet,” largely because his poetic interests are founded upon a range of experiences that embrace a wide and fascinating complex of ideas. Nonetheless, he admits that jazz and the blues remain constantly influential forces in the formulation and working of his poetic aesthetic. Komunyakaa’s poetry, rich in its grappling with the dynamic of rhythm and language, remains an eloquent articulation of the African American experience expressed in verse. His name, which is of West African origin, was his grandfather’s, a West Indian (most likely a Trinidadian) who was a stowaway to the United States. Komunyakaa always finds a tension between the various strands of literary tradition that have shaped his imagination: the poetry of the Bible, the Western canon, and the cultures of Africa captured in the blues, jazz, gospel, and the poetic adventures of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, Komunyakaa grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong and the strong rhythms and poetic clarity of blues and gospel music. In this rural childhood (in a town infested with an active Ku Klux Klan chapter), Komunyakaa experienced the world of farming, watching the vicissitudes of African American subsistence and struggle for dignity in a deeply segregated community. The eldest of five children, his relationship with his father, richly dealt with in his poetry, was at best a strained one. A poet who claims to write verse that is at once public and private, Komunyakaa has written with vulnerability about the hardness of his father and the difficulties in the relationship between his parents. Caught in the isolation and desolation of the mill town Bogalusa, Komunyakaa led a rather isolated existence which would help shape his introspective but explosive poetic sensibility.
Seminal literary moments for him included two thorough readings of the Bible in his teens, reading volumes of an encyclopedia brought home by his mother, and then, at sixteen, reading James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961). He was inspired to write and began to produce poetry while still in high school. Although he grew up with a great deal of killing around him—guns, the slaughtering of hogs, hunting, community violence, and the constant threat of the Klan—Komunyakaa evolved a significant aversion to violence in the American context that is constantly being examined and critiqued in his poetry.
In 1969, Komunyakaa joined the Army and served in Vietnam as an “information specialist.” His task led him to the front lines, where he reported events in the war while editing a military newspaper, The Southern Call. He was awarded a Bronze Star while on duty in Vietnam. His experience there, marked by a complex realization of the problems of American racism (both as it...