Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
Yusef Komunyakaa was born James Willie Brown. The oldest of five children, he had a strained relationship with his father, which he chronicled vividly years later in a fourteen-sonnet sequence titled “Songs for My Father,” which appears in Neon Vernacular. The Bogalusa of Komunyakaa’s childhood was a rural community in southern Louisiana that held few opportunities economically or culturally, especially for a young black man. The main industry was the single paper mill, one that turned “workers into pulp,” according to one poem. There was a racially charged atmosphere. The public library admitted only whites; the Ku Klux Klan was still active. In “Fog Galleon,” Komunyakaa writes of these difficulties:
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I press against the taxicabWindow. I’m black here, interfacedWith a dead phosphorescence;The whole town smellsLike the world’s oldest anger.
Daydreaming and reading were ways of escaping and coping with a slow life. Daydreaming, which Komunyakaa now sees as an important creative act of his youth, is evident in his early identification with his grandfather’s West Indian heritage. He took the name Komunyakaa from his grandfather, who, according to family legend, came to the United States as a stowaway from Trinidad. In the poem “Mismatched Shoes,” Komunyakaa writes of this identification:
The island swelled in his throat& calypso leapt into the air,. . . . . . . . . .I picked up those mismatched shoes& slipped into his skin. Komunyakaa.His blues, African fruit on my tongue.
The Bible and a set of supermarket encyclopedias were his first books. He has noted the influence of the Bible’s “hypnotic cadence,” sensitizing him to the importance of music and metaphor. James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961), discovered in a church library when Komunyakaa was sixteen, inspired him to become a writer. Jazz and blues radio programs from New Orleans, heard on the family radio, formed a third important influence. Komunyakaa speaks fondly of those early days of listening to jazz and acknowledges its importance in his work.
After graduation from high school in 1965, Komunyakaa traveled briefly and in 1969 enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was sent to Vietnam. He served as a reporter on the front lines and later as editor of The Southern Cross, a military newspaper. The experience of being flown in by helicopter to observe and then report on the war effort laid the groundwork for the powerful fusion of passion and detached observation that is a hallmark of his war poems, written years later. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam.
Upon being discharged, Komunyakaa enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he majored in English and sociology, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1975. A creative writing course there inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing at Colorado State University, which he earned in 1978. He received his master of fine arts degree from the University of California, Irvine, in 1980. During this period, he published limited editions of his first two short books of poems, Dedications and Other Darkhorses and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory.
Komunyakaa taught poetry briefly in public school before joining the creative writing faculty at the University of New Orleans, where he met Mandy Sayer, whom he married in 1985; they were divorced in 1995. Also in 1985, he became an associate professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, where he was named Lilly Professor of Poetry in 1989. In the 1990’s, he began a relationship with Reetika Vazirani, with whom he had a son, Jehan. In 2003, Vazirani and Jehan were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. Komunyakaa became a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University in 1997. In 2005, he joined the faculty of New York University as distinguished senior poet.