With the proliferation of writing programs, it would seem that the maturation of poets could be speeded along, so that the years they normally spend raising their heads above the level of their juvenilia might be shortened to a few semesters. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case, at least not generally. More than speeding development, the programs are valuable for furthering careers, of both student and teacher, and if a career becomes recognizably such through publication, then the more publication—through appropriate channels, naturally-the better. Consequently, many more books of poetry are being published, not counting the multitudes being self-published, than ever before. The strong poet who once put forth five to ten books of new poems in a lifetime-or fewer; as in the case of Louise Bogan-today is a careerist who scores that much in a decade. In the foreword to New American Poets of the ’90’s (1991), editors Jack Myers and Roger Weingarten, two beneficiaries of the writing programs, characterize this postmodem condition as a “move toward pluralism and decentralization of aesthetic-political power,” a “historic breakthrough” that “has made it easier to find and gauge the pulse of the art.” Even stripped of its self-serving jargon, this statement is misleading. The problem with the contemporary situation in poetry—one that, ironically, the writing programs are, on the surface at least, meant to redress-is that by far most of the work produced, whether by teacher or ephebic teacher (that is, student), is weak. What strong work there might be gets lost among the rubble. Yet both are needed if readers are to acquire the ability to make judgments of strength and weakness. To seek strong work from the strong poets of the past is only a partial remedy, for the dead should only guide us, not live for us. We must find strength among those who live among us, and so it is that books like Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 1994 and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for poetry), which provides work both very weak and quite strong, are especially welcome.
Over a period of fifteen years, Komunyakaa published eight books of poetry, seven of which provide the selections in Neon Vernacular. Included is a section of twelve new poems. Thus the reader finds here encapsulated the development of Komunyakaa’s work reaching back to his years as a student at Colorado State University and as an M.F.A. candidate at the University of California, Irvine. The change in his poetry over the short span of fifteen years is remarkable and attests his desire, and ability, to strengthen his vision while at the same time seeking a voice, and a technique, suitable to that strengthening.
The earliest poems included are three from Dedications and Other Darkhorses (1977). These serve as a fitting introduction to the rest of Komunyakaa’s work; not only do they establish the particular voice-improvisational, hard-edged, and fancifully imaginative-that Komunyakaa is drawn to for the next ten years, but they also suggest some of the conflicts the more mature poet will have with this voice. This voice, as do many immature voices, finds its content in its style. The first poem follows its title “The Tongue Is” with the line “xeroxed on brainmatter,” which is to suggest that the matter of the brain, meaning both its material and its content, is blank paper until words, the tongue, are imprinted thereon. Yet the poem recognizes with its last lines that the tongue is also “a victrola in the mad mouth-hole/ of 3 A.M. sorrow.” That is, it simply plays back griefs. The heart, then, provides content for the tongue. Yet the content of these lines is not the griefs themselves, merely a generalized, abstracted statement about griefs, voiced in an amateurish and sentimental style (“mad mouth-hold,” “3 A.M. sorrow”). The speakers of these early poems are not ready to delve into the murk of human truths at the core of their pain but prefer to dash about among the flashy abstractions guarding that core from view. Equating these abstractions with the self reduces a person to the situation of the speaker in “Chair Gallows” who watches himself in a mirror swallowing himself in a mirror, and who can only “hope this is just another lie.” It is still many years from the time Komunyakaa will...
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