Yusef Komunyakaa Biography


Yusef Komunyakaa, whose surname he took from his grandfather, a West Indian refugee of West African ancestry, was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Growing up in a rural southern town, Komunyakaa was the eldest son of five children whose father was an illiterate carpenter who drove his wife from the household as a result of his abuse. Komunyakaa’s childhood memories of segregated Bogalusa, including his family’s intimate customs and frequent tensions played out against a social backdrop of sharply demarcated color lines, became the subject matter of many of Komunyakaa’s later poems.

The town’s close proximity to New Orleans, only about seventy miles to the north, also instilled in the young Komunyakaa what was to be a lifelong passion for jazz and blues. The poet remembers that in the family home, the radio was always playing, and this music had a great influence on his subsequent work.

A graduate of the city’s Central High School, Komunyakaa joined the army in 1965 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star for his frontline reporting for the military newspaper The Southern Cross. In some ways, this foreign land reminded Komunyakaa of home: Like the sharecroppers of southern Louisiana, the peasants of Vietnam struggled to make a living in a landscape smothered in vegetation. The poems that came out of Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience are noteworthy for their insight into both warring factions—the Americans and the...

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As an African American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa has made significant contributions to a number of literature traditions. In his poems about Vietnam, he enters the lists of other soldier-poets writing about their experiences on the battlefield; in his poems about childhood, he joins those poets who trace the shape of their adult lives, especially their poetic vocations, to their formative years; in his poems inspired by jazz and the blues, he adds his name to those who created verse that reflects musical sources or even, at times, aspires to the condition of music.


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:

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...

(The entire section is 617 words.)