Ode to a Drum Critical Overview
by Yusef Komunyakaa

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Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

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Thieves of Paradise, the collection in which “Ode to a Drum” is included, was Komunyakaa’s tenth book and the first since his Pulitzer Prize–winning Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems. As a highly anticipated volume, the book was widely reviewed in mainstream and poetry publications, though very few reviewers made direct mention of “Ode to a Drum.”

Writing in Poetry, John Taylor describes Komunyakaa’s poetry as bristling with “vitality, vibrancy, and an admirable concern for human suffering.” The poems in Thieves of Paradise, Taylor writes, are at times “[s]o compelling . . . that only second readings reveal his tours de force.” In a brief New Yorker review, the anonymous reviewer writes of the book’s “surrealist riffs, with their almost hallucinatory lushness [and] their power to convince us that the individual imagination is more than equal to the most excruciating historical burden.” Similarly, Publishers Weekly describes Komunyakaa’s language as “lush” and concludes that the “resulting vision of [Komunyakaa’s] paradise . . . is a compelling one.”

Poet Kate Daniels, writing in the Southern Review, offered one of the rare criticisms of Komunyakaa’s collection, citing what she calls a “weakness in [his] aesthetic in the way he represents women.” Daniels’s critique focuses on the shallow dimensions the poet’s female figures take on. On the one extreme, they are viewed as objects of desire, and on the other they are “too often like the casually homicidal lioness in [Komunyakaa’s poem] ‘Ecologue at Twilight’ ” who is described in the act of casually devouring her mate. However, Daniels concludes her review by recommending Komunyakaa’s work. “Like the blues music he loves, Komunyakaa takes us down, then pulls us up again on the tidal rhythms of grimly powerful images,” she writes.

Although “Ode to a Drum” was not mentioned directly in major reviews, several reviewers touched upon themes directly pertinent to the poem. Donna Seaman, writing in the Booklist, says, “The full weight of history is felt in these poems, sonorous works that echo the myths and revelations of many cultures but which revolve around the paradoxes of African American life.” Poet Rafael Campo, in a review for the Washington Post, comments on the poet’s technique and the way he uses “unusual syntactic constructions and meaning-packed line breaks,” as opposed to traditional forms, to create his art. And, Campo writes, “Komunyakaa creates what every great poet must: a language that is at once utterly specific and universally recognizable, one that ultimately engenders in his reader that most elusive of all human emotions, empathy itself.”