Yusef Komunyakaa 1947-
American poet and author of essays, interviews, and commentaries.
The following entry presents information from 1989 through 2001 on the life and career of Komunyakaa. See also Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 86) and Yusef Komunyakaa Literary Criticism (Volume 94).
Yusef Komunyakaa (pronounced “koh-mun-yah-kuh”) gained widespread recognition when he received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his volume Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993). Komunyakaa's style shows the influence of jazz music, Beat poetry, and surrealism. He draws from both his childhood in Louisiana and his experiences in the Vietnam War as the subject matter of his poetry. Dien Cai Dau (1988), his volume of poetry about the Vietnam War, has been highly praised both as an expression of the experiences of African-American soldiers in Vietnam and as a work that acknowledges the common humanity shared by white and black soldiers as well as the Vietnamese people. Magic City (1992) chronicles Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana, addressing the racial tensions and the legacy of slavery in the South, as well as his childhood memories and personal family history.
Komunyakaa was born on April 29, 1947, in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where his father was a carpenter. In 1965, soon after graduating from high school, Komunyakaa entered the army, serving in Vietnam as editor of the military newspaper Southern Cross and as an information specialist. After returning from Vietnam in 1967, Komunyakaa graduated with a B.A. from the University of Colorado in 1975. He subsequently earned two Master's degrees, from Colorado State University, in 1979, and from the University of California at Irvine, in 1980. Komunyakaa has taught English literature, composition, African-American studies, and creative writing in several universities throughout the United States, including University of New Orleans, Colorado State University, University of California at Irvine and at Berkeley, and Indiana University at Bloomington. Komunyakaa is married to fiction writer Mandy Sayer. He currently holds a position as Humanities Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.
Komunyakaa's poetry is generally divided into two categories, poems focused on his experiences in the Vietnam War, and those focused on his childhood in Louisiana. His poems are characterized by short lines, powerful imagery, and vernacular speech patterns. Drawing from both his African-American and his Euro-American cultural heritage, Komunyakaa makes use of an array of intertextual references to literature, music, folk culture, and the mass media. His poetry collections focused primarily on his childhood and adolescence in Louisiana include Copacetic (1984), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), and Magic City. The subject matter of these poems is drawn from African-American folk culture, jazz music, the legacy of slavery in the Deep South, and Komunyakaa's personal family history. These poems cover a broad range of subjects, from neighborhood basketball games in “Slam, Dunk, and Hook,” to a child's mediation on his parents' fractured marriage in “My Father's Love Letters,” to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense.” Much of Komunyakaa's poetry in Copacetic and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head is inflected with the rhythms of jazz music. A number of these poems, such as “Copacetic Mingus,” include references to such jazz legends as Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Ray Charles. Komunyakaa commented in an interview with Robert Kelly, “For me, the poem doesn't have to have an overt jazz theme as such in order to have a relationship to jazz. But it should embrace the whole improvisational spirit of jazz.” He further noted, “jazz has been the one thing that gives some symmetry to my poetry, gives it shape and tonal equilibrium.” Many of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are collected in Dien Cai Dau. Dien Cai Dau is an expression, meaning “crazy,” that the Vietnamese used to describe American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poems are usually narrated from the first-person, and sometimes in the first-person plural “we,” which expresses the collective experience of soldiers in the war. His fleeting, concentrated imagery juxtaposes the natural landscape of Vietnam with the brutality of war. These poems chronicle the experiences of an African-American soldier in Vietnam, examining both the unique experiences of African-Americans in the war and the shared humanity of white and black soldiers with the Vietnamese people. “Tu do Street” describes the experience of an African-American soldier entering a bar in Vietnam that serves only white soldiers. “Hanoi Hanna” presents the radio monologue of a Vietnamese woman pleading with African-American soldiers to stop fighting for an America that does not represent their interests. In several poems, such as “2527th Birthday of the Buddha” and “Camouflaging the Chimera,” Komunyakaa utilizes surrealist literary techniques to explore the psychological terrain of the Vietnam War. As Vincente F. Gotera noted, the surrealism of Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry functions to express “the internal psychic state” of the soldier in combat. Other poems in Dien Cai Dau express the difficulties of the Vietnam vet upon returning home from war. “At the Screen Door” expresses a returning vet's hesitation to enter his home after the horrors he has experienced in the war. “Facing It” and “The Wall” are set at the Vietnam Veteran's memorial wall in Washington, D.C., and express the feelings of a Vietnam vet upon contemplating the names of those who did not survive the war. Komunyakaa's more recent poetry volumes include collections of both his Louisiana poetry and his Vietnam War poetry. Among these later volumes are Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Thieves of Paradise (1998), Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems (2000), and Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems (2001).
Komunyakaa has been widely celebrated and critically acclaimed for his striking, original, and well-crafted poetry. Many critics have favorably evaluated his Vietnam War poetry in comparison with other poetry that emerged from the American experience in Vietnam. Vincente F. Gotera commented, “Dien Cai Dau is a breathtakingly original work of art because of the believable, down-to-earth language which speaks the thoughts and feelings of authentic characters, filtered through Komunyakaa's atypical vision.” Several have observed that Komunyakaa's war poetry offers hope for redemption in the aftermath of war, while painting an unflinching, sometimes-journalistic picture of the brutality and moral quagmire of combat. Critics further praise Komunyakaa's portrayal of a collective African-American experience in Vietnam, as well as in the American South, while broadening his scope to include universal concerns common to humanity.