Komunyakaa is a product of the segregated Deep South. As a young boy who loved to read, growing up in rural Louisiana in the 1950s and 1960s, he was not allowed into the public libraries or many other public places, because of his race. The one cultural form of expression he had direct access to was music, through his mother’s radio, and it was through that contact that he came to love jazz and the blues. And as he advanced in his writing career, those influences, along with his reading of African and African American literature and history, came to play major roles in his verse. Poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka, both known for the ways they fused music with their poetry, came to influence Komunyakaa’s work significantly.
“Ode to a Drum” is very much a reflection of Komunyakaa’s experiences and influences. In it, the influences of African history, music, and political and social struggles are apparent, all taking form in an allegory about a drum maker, an allegory that can also be read in the context of the struggles African Americans have had in the United States, the struggles that he grew up around and understood from firsthand experience. Through the power of culture, and music in particular, African Americans have the same potential powers as the panther; they do not have to think of themselves as gazelles waiting to be hunted down.
Drum makers and drummers were, and continue to be, vital members of traditional African societies. (And, of course, in American jazz and blues music, drummers are essential to the African American tradition as the ones who maintain the beat.) Drumming has long been used for rituals in cultures around the world. The poem makes reference to keeping “troubles” away with the drum. These troubles can range from plagues and pestilence to enemy invasions. Drumming, dancing, and singing, as well as hunting, played and continue to play sacred roles in traditional African societies.
Though the poem clearly takes place in Africa, it is significant that the actual date in which the poem takes place is indeterminate. It could be during the time of slavery; the “troubles” the drum maker refers to could be slave traders coming up the river. Or the “troubles” could be colonial administration officials in the early twentieth century coming to take away the village land to build a road to the rubber plantations. Or perhaps the setting is more contemporary, and the drum maker is referring to AIDS or some other infectious disease moving into this area. The point of the blues is that troubles have always been and will always be but music itself helps people survive. This, as much as any other idea, is the point that Komunyakaa is making in “Ode to a Drum.”
Stanzaic Structure and Lineation
“Ode to a Drum” comprises a single stanza of twenty-nine lines of four to nine syllables each, with the majority of the lines five or six syllables long. Technically, the poem is considered free verse, although Komunyakaa closely controls the poem’s lineation (that is, the way each line breaks) to control the poem’s rhythm and to emphasize the poem’s meaning. Most of the lines also carry between two and four stresses each, which help to give the poem a drum-like drive as it is read, particularly toward the end as the drum maker lists the necessities his family lacks. “Kadoom,” the drum sounds, “Kadoom. Kadoom,” as if punctuating the mounting emotions he is feeling from all his troubles. The line breaks also help underscore the meaning of the drum maker’s monologue. The first line, “Gazelle, I killed you,” offers a terse and dramatic opening to the poem, whereas the rest of the sentence goes on to explain the killing as a step in the act of the drum making. Lines 16 through 20 become shorter and tighter to reflect the tension he is creating from tightening the lashes and stretching the hide.
Diction and Tone
“Ode to a Drum” is written in the second person, from the point of view of a drum maker addressing the spirit of the gazelle he has killed. The drum maker, from a traditional African village, does not have a formal education, as we know it, but neither is he considered “simple.” He must be a wise man with a reverence for the work he is doing, and the diction must reflect that. As a result, Komunyakaa uses a conversational, informal diction in the poem. The words are simple, but not overly so, and as a result the tone of the poem reflects the reverence the drum maker has for the life he has taken. He is neither angry nor sad over what he is doing; he knows this act is necessary for his survival, and he clearly respects the gazelle’s role in this act.
The combination of stress and short lines gives the poem a driving rhythm, with the stresses punctuating the reading like a drum punctuating the air. Komunyakaa has tight control over the rhythm of each line, stretching some lines further, as the meaning of the poem dictates, and shortening others.
“Ode to a Drum” is very much about recreation: the drum maker has turned the gazelle into a mighty panther through the making of his drum. As such, the drum he has created is not merely a fabrication of hide and wood; it also possesses the soul of the gazelle. The drum itself is described, using images from the body—a ribcage and face, in particular. There is also an undercurrent of sadness, an infusion of the blues, in the poem, and words like “broke,” “shattered,” and “pressure” help underscore that connection. As the drum maker begins to use the gazelle hide on the drum, he compares his work to that of stretching “bowstrings,” which helps to highlight the fact that he is turning this animal of prey into a mighty predator who will be ready for the hunt and who will protect his people from troubles.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Campo, Rafael, “A Finger on the Pulse of Poetry,” in the Washington Post, June 14, 1998, p. X01.
Daniels, Kate, “Old Masters,” in Southern Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 621–34.
“Books Briefly Noted,” in the New Yorker, Vol. 74, November 9, 1998, p. 103.
Komunyakaa, Yusef, Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan Press University, 1998.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1981.
“Forecasts,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 8, February 23, 1998, p. 70.
Seaman, Donna, “New Works by African American Poets,” in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 12, February 15, 1998, p. 970.
Taylor, John, “Short Reviews,” in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 2, December 1998, p. 180.
Clytus, Radiclani, ed., Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, University of Michigan Press, 2000. As part of the acclaimed University of Michigan Press’s “Poets on Poets” series, this collection includes Komunyakaa’s views on music as well as commentaries on his poetics.
Feinstein, Sascha, Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present, Greenwood Press, 1997. Covering the entire history of jazz poetry, this book discusses the major poets and jazz musicians who fused poetry with music, along with the movements that they inspired. Komunyakaa has cited many of the figures included in this book as inspirations for his poetry.
Harris, William, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2000. Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, was a strong influence on Komunyakaa and is cited as one of the premier poets to fuse jazz with the written word. This collection was compiled in collaboration with Baraka and is the best place to begin a study on the influential poet’s craft.
Palmer, Robert, Deep Blues, Viking Press, 1995. Written by late music critic Robert Palmer, Deep Blues traces the history of blues in America. An early chapter explores the influences African music had on the blues, as well its role in the liberation struggles of blacks.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vols. 1–2, Oxford University Press, 1986–1988. One of Komunyakaa’s greatest influences was the African American poet Langston Hughes. Rampersad’s two-volume biography is the most extensive study of Hughes available.
Komunyakaa, along with many international poets, can be heard reading several poems in the Rhino/World Beat CD entitled Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work (2000).
As part of the acclaimed Lannan Foundation series of readings, Komunyakaa reads from Thieves of Paradise and is filmed in conversation with poet Tori Derricotte in this one-hour video.
“Ode to a Drum” is set to music, along with several other poems, in the CD Love Notes from the Mad House (1998). The CD is a collaboration between Komunyakaa and saxophonist John Tchicai.