Yusef Komunyakaa Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In the poems collected in Dien Cai Dau, how does Yusef Komunyakaa capture the confusion of battle?

The poem “Facing It” is called an elegy. What are the characteristics of an elegy? Can you think of other elegies to which “Facing It” can be compared?

Komunyakaa often returns to his personal past to trace the sources of his adult identity. Do you believe that the person you are now was shaped by childhood experiences?

Like music, poetry can be a means of healing the pain of life, such as the wounds caused by bigotry and racial oppression. Find evidence in Komunyakaa’s work to support this argument.

Komunyakaa is able to inhabit the lives of other people in his poems, to see the world through their eyes. Find examples.

Yusef Komunyakaa Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Despite his impressive poetic output—averaging more than a book of poems every other year since 1977 and publication in all the major poetry journals—Yusef Komunyakaa (koh-muhn-YAH-kuh) has not been content to stay within these traditional confines. He has made a number of sound and video recordings of his readings of his work. One of the more interesting of these is Love Notes from the Madhouse (1997), a live reading performed with a jazz ensemble led by John Tchicai. He has written two libretti, “Slip Knot,” with T. J. Anderson, about an eighteenth century slave, and “Testimony” (1999), about jazz great Charlie Parker. On Thirteen Kinds of Desire (2000), vocalist Pamela Knowles sings lyrics by Komunyakaa. Of his fight against traditional poetic boundaries, he notes: “I am always pushing against the walls [categories] create. I will always do this. . . . Theater and song won’t be the last of me.”

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (1999), edited by Radiclani Clytus, is an eclectic mix of seven interviews with the poet from 1990 to 1999, as well as twelve short impressionistic essays by him and five new poems with commentary by the author. With Sascha Feinstein, he edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (volume 1, 1991; volume 2, 1996). Together with Martha Collins, Komunyakaa translated the work of Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu. His own poetry has been translated into Vietnamese as well as Russian, Korean, Czech, French, and Italian.

Yusef Komunyakaa Achievements

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Many readers, critics, and fellow poets have long recognized Yusef Komunyakaa as a major poet of his generation. His poems about the Vietnam War place him among the finest writers who have explored this difficult terrain. His use of jazz and blues rhythms places him in the tradition of poet Langston Hughes and the best southern writers. Of his many awards and honors, perhaps the most impressive is the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Neon Vernacular, which also won the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize. Thieves of Paradise was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Komunyakaa has also won the Thomas Forcade Award, the Hanes Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award (1986), the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1997), the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award (1998), and the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize (1998). He served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1999 to 2005 and became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009. He received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2001), the Shelley Memorial Award (2004), the Louisiana Writer Award (2007), the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence from Centenary College of Louisiana (2006-2007), and the Jean Kennedy Smith New York University Creative Writing Award of Distinction (2009).

Komunyakaa has been awarded creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Louisiana Arts Council. He has served as a judge for numerous poetry competitions and has been on the advisory board for the Encyclopedia of American Poetry (1998, 2001). His work has appeared in all the major poetry journals, as well as national magazines such as The Atlantic and The New Republic. One indication of Komunyakaa’s appeal is the number of diverse anthologies that include his work. He appears repeatedly in the annual The Best American Poetry, collections of verse about Vietnam, and numerous periodicals.

Yusef Komunyakaa Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa’s Unified Vision: Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27 (Spring, 1993). Explores Komunyakaa’s place as an innovator of African American prosody.

Conley, Susan. “About Yusef Komunyakaa: A Profile.” Ploughshares 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 202-207. Conley gives a concise overview of the poet’s career, his central themes and motifs, his views on race relations in America, and his usual method of writing poetry.

Dawidoff, Sally. “Talking Poetry with Yusef Komunyakaa.” http://www.africana.com/DailyArticles/index_ 20010114.htm. 2000. This interview begins by discussing Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods, then branches out into a variety of related subjects: political poetry, folklore and mythology, the jazz influence, and ways in which the poet can engage his or her audience.

Gordon, Fran. “Yusef Komunyakaa: Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape.” Poets & Writers 28, no. 6 (November/December, 2000): 26-33. Gordon terms Komunyakaa “one of America’s most receptive minds” and “one of its most original voices.” This interview provides a glimpse into the poet’s thoughts on his background and early reading, his interest in nature and mythology, and his use of imagery and music in his poetry.


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