(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Komunyakaa has long been fascinated by and acknowledged for his interest in the fusion of poetry and music. With poet and jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein, for example, Komunyakaa edited two volumes of The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991 and 1996), and many of his own poems have been incorporated in larger musical compositions, such as Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio, composed by Elliot Goldenthal in 1995 and featuring two poems from Dien Cai Dau.

Komunyakaa’s own poems are often filled with musical allusions or shaped like musical compositions. In the latter regard, critics have noted the poet’s use of short lines whose rhythm is often unbalanced, a condition reminiscent of syncopated jazz riffs. Good examples of the poet’s style can be found in the thirteen poems that he expressly wrote as song lyrics for a collaboration with American jazz vocalist Pamela Knowles. Between 1995, when he met Knowles at a jazz festival in Australia, and 2000, when the recording Thirteen Kinds of Desire was released, Komunyakaa penned thirteen pieces whose “jagged symmetry” he felt would translate effectively into song.

A representative selection, one reprinted in Komunyakaa’s Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (1999), is “New Blues,” which begins with the stanza: “We are hurting/ We are dying/ For a new blues/ One that doesn’t rhyme/ With worn-out shoes.” This desire to produce updated lyrics for an old musical style rooted in the imagery of farm labor and urban poverty Komunyakaa himself satisfies with reference to problematic contemporary issues, such as the power of multinational corporations, the threat of computer viruses, and the homogenizing pervasiveness of pop-culture icons such as Batman. The poem is a good example of the poet’s characteristic tendency to merge levels of diction, formal and informal, and periods, past and present, to create a “nouveau blues/ To underline/ What’s left behind.”


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision, Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1993): 119-123.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassas: Poetry in Review 18/19, nos. 1/2 (November 1, 1993): 126-149.

Ehrhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Gotera, Vicente 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 and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990.

Salas, Angela. “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature 30, no. 4 (Fall, 2003): 32-53.

Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ’Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1995): 541-561.