Yusef Komunyakaa 1947-
American poet and author of essays, interviews, and commentaries.
The following entry presents information from 1989 through 2001 on the life and career of Komunyakaa. See also Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 86) and Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 94).
Yusef Komunyakaa (pronounced “koh-mun-yah-kuh”) gained widespread recognition when he received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his volume Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993). Komunyakaa's style shows the influence of jazz music, Beat poetry, and surrealism. He draws from both his childhood in Louisiana and his experiences in the Vietnam War as the subject matter of his poetry. Dien Cai Dau (1988), his volume of poetry about the Vietnam War, has been highly praised both as an expression of the experiences of African-American soldiers in Vietnam and as a work that acknowledges the common humanity shared by white and black soldiers as well as the Vietnamese people. Magic City (1992) chronicles Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana, addressing the racial tensions and the legacy of slavery in the South, as well as his childhood memories and personal family history.
Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where his father was a carpenter. In 1965, soon after graduating from high school, Komunyakaa entered the army, serving in Vietnam as editor of the military newspaper Southern Cross and as an information specialist. After returning from Vietnam in 1967, Komunyakaa graduated with a B.A. from the University of Colorado in 1975. He subsequently earned two Master's degrees, from Colorado State University, in 1979, and from the University of California at Irvine, in 1980. Komunyakaa has taught English literature, composition, African-American studies, and creative writing in several universities throughout the United States, including University of New Orleans, Colorado State University, University of California at Irvine and at Berkeley, and Indiana University at Bloomington. Komunyakaa is married to fiction writer Mandy Sayer. He currently holds a position as Humanities Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.
Komunyakaa's poetry is generally divided into two categories, poems focused on his experiences in the Vietnam War, and those focused on his childhood in Louisiana. His poems are characterized by short lines, powerful imagery, and vernacular speech patterns. Drawing from both his African-American and his Euro-American cultural heritage, Komunyakaa makes use of an array of intertextual references to literature, music, folk culture, and the mass media. His poetry collections focused primarily on his childhood and adolescence in Louisiana include Copacetic (1984), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), and Magic City. The subject matter of these poems is drawn from African-American folk culture, jazz music, the legacy of slavery in the Deep South, and Komunyakaa's personal family history. These poems cover a broad range of subjects, from neighborhood basketball games in “Slam, Dunk, and Hook,” to a child's mediation on his parents' fractured marriage in “My Father's Love Letters,” to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense.” Much of Komunyakaa's poetry in Copacetic and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head is inflected with the rhythms of jazz music. A number of these poems, such as “Copacetic Mingus,” include references to such jazz legends as Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Ray Charles. Komunyakaa commented in an interview with Robert Kelly, “For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.” He further noted, “jazz has been the one thing that gives some symmetry to my poetry, gives it shape and tonal equilibrium.” Many of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are collected in Dien Cai Dau. Dien Cai Dau is an expression, meaning “crazy,” that the Vietnamese used to describe American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are usually narrated from the first-person, and sometimes in the first-person plural “we,” which expresses the collective experience of soldiers in the war. His fleeting, concentrated imagery juxtaposes the natural landscape of Vietnam with the brutality of war. These poems chronicle the experiences of an African-American soldier in Vietnam, examining both the unique experiences of African-Americans in the war and the shared humanity of white and black soldiers with the Vietnamese people. “Tu do Street” describes the experience of an African-American soldier entering a bar in Vietnam that serves only white soldiers. “Hanoi Hanna” presents the radio monologue of a Vietnamese woman pleading with African-American soldiers to stop fighting for an America that does not represent their interests. In several poems, such as “2527th Birthday of the Buddha” and “Camouflaging the Chimera,” Komunyakaa utilizes surrealist literary techniques to explore the psychological terrain of the Vietnam War. As Vincente F. Gotera noted, the surrealism of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry functions to express “the internal psychic state” of the soldier in combat. Other poems in Dien Cai Dau express the difficulties of the Vietnam vet upon returning home from war. “At the Screen Door” expresses a returning vet's hesitation to enter his home after the horrors he has experienced in the war. “Facing It” and “The Wall” are set at the Vietnam Veteran's memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and express the feelings of a Vietnam vet upon contemplating the names of those who did not survive the war. Komunyakaa's more recent poetry volumes include collections of both his Louisiana poetry and his Vietnam War poetry. Among these later volumes are Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Thieves of Paradise (1998), Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems (2000), and Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (2001).
Komunyakaa has been widely celebrated and critically acclaimed for his striking, original, and well-crafted poetry. Many critics have favorably evaluated his Vietnam War poetry in comparison with other poetry that emerged from the American experience in Vietnam. Vincente F. Gotera commented, “Dien Cai Dau is a breathtakingly original work of art because of the believable, down-to-earth language which speaks the thoughts and feelings of authentic characters, filtered through Komunyakaa's atypical vision.” Several have observed that Komunyakaa's war poetry offers hope for redemption in the aftermath of war, while painting an unflinching, sometimes-journalistic picture of the brutality and moral quagmire of combat. Critics further praise Komunyakaa's portrayal of a collective African-American experience in Vietnam, as well as in the American South, while broadening his scope to include universal concerns common to humanity.
Dedications and Other Dark Horses: Poems 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory: Poems 1979
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head 1986
Toys in a Field 1986
Dien Cai Dau 1988
February in Sydney 1989
Magic City 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems 1993
Thieves of Paradise 1998
Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems 2000
Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems 2001
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1991
The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2 [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1996
Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries [edited by Radiclani Clytus] (prose) 2000
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SOURCE: Gotera, Vincente F. “‘Depending on the Light’: Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, pp. 282-300. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
[In the following essay, Gotera asserts that, unlike much of the poetry that emerged from the Vietnam War, Komunyakaa's poems collected in Dien Cai Dau offer some hope of solace and self-renewal for the Vietnam veteran. Gotera further comments on Komunyakaa's use of surrealist technique to express the experiences of American soldiers in the Vietnam War.]
One of the dominant impulses informing war literature is the documentary urge: the drive to make the horrors, the senselessness of war concrete to the uninitiated. Not surprisingly, in the course of this documentation, the writer often discovers the self, grappling with the realities of war; Jeffrey Walsh has pointed to “uniquely American visions of self-renewal and discovery through the exigencies of warfare, and [how] most of them draw upon the literary reworking of the writer's own experience” (5). Typical examples are Whitman, Dos Passos, cummings, Mailer, Jarrell—writers who were close to the fighting, if not literally combat veterans themselves.
American involvement in Vietnam, however, has fostered a consciousness of war which is...
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SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Robert Kelly and William Matthews. “Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation.” Georgia Review 46, no. 4 (winter 1992): 645-61.
[In the following interview, conducted in April 1989, Kelly simultaneously interviews Komunyakaa and William Matthews regarding the influence of jazz music on their poetry.]
[Kelly]: Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection for jazz musicians. And James Baldwin reminds us in “Sonny's Blues” that such music has contributed both form and content to literature when he says that jazz helps us to tell “the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph.” Why is jazz important to the two of you in your work?1
[Komunyakaa]: For me, jazz works primarily as a kind of discovery, as a way for me to discover that emotional mystery behind things. It helps me to get to a place I thought I had forgotten. What I mean by that is a closer spiritual connection to the land and the place I came from. For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should...
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SOURCE: Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-23.
[In the following essay, Aubert argues that Komunyakaa successfully combines his African-American and Euro-American cultural heritage to express a unified vision in his poetry. Aubert observes that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry expresses the shared humanity of the black and white soldiers who fought in Vietnam.]
In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Yusef Komunyakaa, author of seven collections of poems, expresses his admiration for poets whom he considers to have achieved a “unified vision” in their poetry, an achievement he apparently strives for in his own work. A closely associated, if not identical, goal and a source of tension in Komunyakaa's poetry is his desire to gain admittance into the American literary canon, but not at the expense of surrendering his African American cultural identity.
At the core of Komunyakaa's pursuit of a unified vision and literary canonization is his stern resistance, textualized formalistically as well as thematically in his poems, to those forces in the hegemonous counterculture aimed at excluding him as an African American from the ranks of humanity. Indeed, in the singularity of his perseverance and in both the high quality and quantity of his poetic output, Komunyakaa approaches...
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SOURCE: Friebert, Stuart. “The Truth of the Matter.” Field, no. 48 (spring 1993): 64-71.
[In the following review of Magic City, by Komunyakaa, and Sleeping Preacher, by Julia Kasdorf, Friebert asserts that both volumes address the “facts” of human existence. Friebert observes that Magic City is a sort of extended autobiography of Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana.]
These two books, Kasdorf's first (and winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize) [Sleeping Preacher], and Komunyakaa's mid-career volume [Magic City] are measured and sober books that settle within the lines of their subjects and stories, and do not fool around with things the poets don't know. Though they celebrate very different cultures, lives and landscapes, both pursue the “facts” of human existence, often in similar ways and strategies.
There's something of Rita Dove's strategy with Thomas and Beulah in Kasdorf's ways with her relatives, her past—she was born into Mennonite and Amish communities in Pennsylvania—and her early experiences; she keeps the focus on the grown-ups and stays mainly out of the way except to record and denote. She almost never chooses to judge, which is welcome in any writer, especially one hoping to speak for so many; the reader is left to make the emotional calls, though sometimes that can be exasperating when complex situations...
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SOURCE: Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus 18-19, nos. 1-2 (1993): 126-49.
[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular and Magic City, Collins compares Komunyakaa's Vietnam War Poetry with his “peacetime” poetry. Collins observes that Komunyakaa's poetry expresses a broad conceptual and emotional range.]
I went to Vietnam as a basic naive young man of eighteen. Before I reached my nineteenth birthday, I was an animal. … They prepared us for Vietnam as a group of individuals who worked together as a unit to annihilate whatever enemy we came upon … There was this saying: “Yeah though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil, ‘cause I'm the baddest motherfucker in the valley’”. … I collected about 14 ears and fingers. With them strung on a piece of leather around my neck, I would go downtown, and you would get free drugs, free booze, free pussy because they wouldn't wanna bother you ’cause this man's a killer. It symbolized that I'm a killer. And it was, so to speak, a symbol of combat-type manhood.
—Specialist 4 Arthur E. “Gene” Woodley, Jr.
(aka Cyclops and Montagnard)
… There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan. …
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SOURCE: Fabre, Michel. “On Yusef Komunyakaa.” Southern Quarterly 34, no. 2 (winter 1996): 5-8.
[In the following essay, originally broadcast in fall of 1994, Fabre provides a brief overview of central themes and recurring motifs in Komunyakaa's poetry. Fabre praises Komunyakaa for his depth and originality of poetic voice, the broad scope of his poetry, and his ornate, sophisticated style.]
The following is the text of Michel Fabre's introduction of southern poet Yusef Komunyakaa to a French television audience in the fall of 1994 during a conference on southern literature celebrating the establishment of the Faulkner Foundation at the Université de Haute Bretagne in Rennes. Professor Fabre graciously consented to translate his remarks and to allow us to introduce Mr. Komunyakaa and his work to Southern Quarterly readers.—Ed.
I feel greatly honored to have been asked to introduce Yusef Komunyakaa. Preparing this talk was also for me a splendid introduction to his work since I did not know the range of his achievements, which have already won him the Pulitzer Prize. I have only become familiar with his work during the last couple of months. This may be an asset. Today I can speak of the poet—and speak to him—with the enthusiasm of a recent initiate.
You have read, on the program of this symposium, that he has published eight volumes from 1979 to...
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SOURCE: Finkelstein, Norman. “Like an Unknown Voice Rising Out of Flesh.” Ohio Review, no. 52 (1994): 136-9.
[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular, Finkelstein praises the poet's work.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular presents about twenty years worth of poetry: poetry that shudders with desire, past and present, frustrated and fulfilled. Remembrance is the motive force behind much of this work, but the past is rarely presented as a scene, neither a background for a current emotional state nor a canvas on which the poet can show off his descriptive powers. Rather, in Komunyakaa's strongest poems, time is the medium for a complex dialogue, which is intensified by the poet's mordant wit and flashy but carefully modulated language. Komunyakaa's sense of personal time is infected by the disease of history. When memory and anecdote constitute the poem's body, it's best not to seek a cure.
Thus, much of Komunyakaa's best poetry emerges from his experiences in the Vietnam War. This work, which dates from the mid-eighties, has an immediacy that goes well beyond typical poetry of remembrance while preserving all of its powers of reflection. Difficult to excerpt, these poems depend on the interplay of searing images and a sad, knowing, cautious voice which enunciates them over a temporal distance both too long and too short for words. Here is the entirety...
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SOURCE: Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (winter 1995-96): 541-61.
[In the following essay, Stein argues that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry creates a dialogue between the official public history of the war, as created by the mass media, and the personal experiences of those who fought in the war. Stein observes that Komunyakaa “creates a soldier's history of Vietnam from an African-American perspective.”]
The haunting locale of Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) is as much the domain of the human heart and mind as the jungles of Southeast Asia. Based on Komunyakaa's Vietnam war experiences, the book details an inward turning, “a way of dealing with the images inside my head,” as Komunyakaa tells an interviewer, a means to put in order a private history that exists as much outside of history as within it (Houghtaling). Komunyakaa abjures the war's “objective” history that flickered in America's living rooms on the nightly news, objectivity figured most shockingly by the daily body count fulgurating behind Walter Cronkite's head like heat lightning on a steamy July evening. Instead, Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau operates within an essentially dialogic structure in which he carefully directs a dialogue between such communal history and the more personal...
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SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Ernest Suarez. “Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets, edited by Ernest Suarez, pp. 130-43. London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
[In the following interview, which took place in April 1998, Komunyakaa discusses his literary influences and the significance of music to his poetry.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's knowledge and love of music and painting have heavily influenced his poetry. His poems are meticulously crafted “tonal narratives” that present series of highly concentrated images. Komunyakaa uses the rhythms of jazz and other types of music to help create a visceral relationship between the images, inviting the reader to enter into an emotional and intellectual dialogue with the poem. His poems shun the didactic and draw on a wide range of subject matter—family, landscapes, rural and urban life, race relations, sports, philosophy—to jar the reader by confronting him or her with new, and often contradictory, relationships toward experience.
Raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Komunyakaa served as a military correspondent in the army during the Vietnam War. In 1994 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. He teaches at Princeton University, where he is Humanities Professor of Creative Writing. The following interview was conducted in my home in Kensington, Maryland, on April...
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SOURCE: Salas, Angela M. “‘Flashbacks through the Heart’: Yusef Komunyakaa and the Poetry of Self-Assertion.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, pp. 298-309. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
[In the following essay, Salas praises Komunyakaa for the range, depth, and imaginativeness of his poetry.]
Yusef Komunyakaa's life and career fit almost perfectly into the American ideal of the self-made man, arising from the ashes of harsh childhood and youth to attain success and power by dint of hard work, good luck, and fierce intelligence. The prototypical American ideal is most often a lad who finds himself a mentor and rises through the ranks of the business world, attaining money and power, yet remembers his humble beginnings. He is a practical man, doing practical things, and he never challenges the social or economic status quo; he fits in, gets to work, and by his good fortune reassures others that anyone can succeed—with Horatio Alger luck and pluck.
Komunyakaa both embodies and redefines this American dream. From his birth in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where he admits he never really learned to play his part in the tragicomedy that was the Jim Crow South, through youthful service as a military correspondent during the Vietnam War, Yusef Komunyakaa survived and thrived. Now having reached middle age, Komunyakaa is...
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SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Fran Gordon. “Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape.” Poets & Writers 28, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 28-33.
[In the following interview, Komunyakaa discusses his influences, including jazz, Southern literature, and his experiences serving in the Vietnam conflict.]
In 1994 Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1993) won the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Prize, awarded by the Université de Rennes. His collection of poems Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan, 1998) was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. That same year, Komunyakaa was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His distinguished list of honors began with a Bronze Star for his work as a news correspondent during the Vietnam War. At a reception earlier this year commemorating the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, Komunyakaa—who has been classified as a “jazz poet” or a “Southern writer”—was introduced as a “soldier poet,” a distinction that has followed his career since the publication of Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan, 1988), a book of poems extracted from his experiences during the war. Dau's “Facing It” was anthologized in The Best American Poetry 1990, chosen by Harold Bloom for Best of the Best, and read by retired air force colonel Michael...
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SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Verse Averse.” New Republic 224, no. 4493 (26 February 2001): 38-41.
[In the following review, Kirsch discusses the jazz inspiration in Komunyakaa's poetry. Kirsch also praises Talking to the Gods as Komunyakaa's “best and more beautiful book so far.”]
Poetry may aspire, like all the arts, to the condition of music; but if it approaches too closely it is likely to pay a price. A poem can be said to be musical in several ways: it can take the form of a lyric to accompany instrumental music; it can create a coherent pattern of sound through meter and rhyme; it can attempt to mimic the overall impression created by a piece of music, usually by straying from denotation into rich connotation. The first kind of verbal music is ancient: the word “lyric” originally meant poetry accompanied by a lyre. The second is still what we usually mean when we praise a poem's music. It is the third type, a product of the nineteenth century and its dream of a unified artwork, that is most problematic, and most easily abused.
In his essay “Swinburne as Poet,” Eliot pointed out that this latter kind of poetry is musical only by a rather loose analogy: “an expression of sound, which could not possibly associate itself with music.” Actual songs tend to be lucid and simple, as in Shakespeare:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious...
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Asali, Muna, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” New England Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1994): 141-7.
An interview, conducted in 1992, in which Komunyakaa discusses the themes of personal and collective identity in his poetry.
Aubert, Alvin. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Epoch 38, no. 1 (spring 1989): 67-72.
A review of Dien Cai Dau.
Baer, William, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 20, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 5-29.
An interview in which Komunyakaa discusses the significance of his childhood in Louisiana and his experiences in the Vietnam War on his poetry.
Derricotte, Toi. “The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 15 (fall 1993): 217-22.
Discussion of central themes in the poetry of Komunyakaa.
Gotera, Vincente F. “Killer Imagination.” Callaloo 13 (spring 1990): 364-71.
Review of Dien Cai Dau.
Jones, Kirkland C. “Folk Idiom in the Literary Expression of Two African American Authors: Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by...
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