Yusef Komunyakaa (koh-muhn-YAH-kuh) has repeatedly asserted that it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a “jazz poet,” largely because his poetic interests are founded upon a range of experiences that embrace a wide and fascinating complex of ideas. Nonetheless, he admits that jazz and the blues remain constantly influential forces in the formulation and working of his poetic aesthetic. Komunyakaa’s poetry, rich in its grappling with the dynamic of rhythm and language, remains an eloquent articulation of the African American experience expressed in verse. His name, which is of West African origin, was his grandfather’s, a West Indian (most likely a Trinidadian) who was a stowaway to the United States. Komunyakaa always finds a tension between the various strands of literary tradition that have shaped his imagination: the poetry of the Bible, the Western canon, and the cultures of Africa captured in the blues, jazz, gospel, and the poetic adventures of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in 1947, Komunyakaa grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong and the strong rhythms and poetic clarity of blues and gospel music. In this rural childhood (in a town infested with an active Ku Klux Klan chapter), Komunyakaa experienced the world of farming, watching the vicissitudes of African American subsistence and struggle for dignity in a deeply segregated community. The eldest of five children, his relationship with his father, richly dealt with in his poetry, was at best a strained one. A poet who claims to write verse that is at once public and private, Komunyakaa has written with vulnerability about the hardness of his father and the difficulties in the relationship between his parents. Caught in the isolation and desolation of the mill town Bogalusa, Komunyakaa led a rather isolated existence which would help shape his introspective but explosive poetic sensibility.
Seminal literary moments for him included two thorough readings of the Bible in his teens, reading volumes of an encyclopedia brought home by his mother, and then, at sixteen, reading James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961). He was inspired to write and began to produce poetry while still in high school. Although he grew up with a great deal of killing around him—guns, the slaughtering of hogs, hunting, community violence, and the constant threat of the Klan—Komunyakaa evolved a significant aversion to violence in the American context that is constantly being examined and critiqued in his poetry.
In 1969, Komunyakaa joined the Army and served in Vietnam as an “information specialist.” His task led him to the front lines, where he reported events in the war while editing a military newspaper, The Southern Call. He was awarded a Bronze Star while on duty in Vietnam. His experience there, marked by a complex realization of the problems of American racism (both as it...
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