Yusef Komunyakaa Komunyakaa, Yusef - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Dedications and Other Dark Horses: Poems 1977

Lost in the Bonewheel Factory: Poems 1979

Copacetic 1984

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head 1986

Toys in a Field 1986

Dien Cai Dau 1988

February in Sydney 1989

Magic City 1992

Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems 1993

Thieves of Paradise 1998

Talking Dirty to the Gods: Poems 2000

Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems 2001

The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1991

The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2 [editor; with Sascha Feinstein] (poems) 1996

Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries [edited by Radiclani Clytus] (prose) 2000

Vincente F. Gotera (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gotera, Vincente 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, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, pp. 282-300. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.

[In the following essay, Gotera asserts that, unlike much of the poetry that emerged from the Vietnam War, Komunyakaa's poems collected in Dien Cai Dau offer some hope of solace and self-renewal for the Vietnam veteran. Gotera further comments on Komunyakaa's use of surrealist technique to express the experiences of American soldiers in the Vietnam War.]

One of the dominant...

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Yusef Komunyakaa with Robert Kelly and William Matthews (interview date winter 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Robert Kelly and William Matthews. “Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation.” Georgia Review 46, no. 4 (winter 1992): 645-61.

[In the following interview, conducted in April 1989, Kelly simultaneously interviews Komunyakaa and William Matthews regarding the influence of jazz music on their poetry.]

[Kelly]: Jazz has been present in literature at least since the twenties and thirties when James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes translated the emotion in the music into their poetry. The Beats used jazz to explore more open forms and to create new rhythms. Recently, Al Young and Michael Harper have written openly of their affection...

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Alvin Aubert (essay date spring 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Aubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-23.

[In the following essay, Aubert argues that Komunyakaa successfully combines his African-American and Euro-American cultural heritage to express a unified vision in his poetry. Aubert observes that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry expresses the shared humanity of the black and white soldiers who fought in Vietnam.]

In an interview in the journal Callaloo, Yusef Komunyakaa, author of seven collections of poems, expresses his admiration for poets whom he considers to have achieved a “unified vision” in their...

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Stuart Friebert (review date spring 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Friebert, Stuart. “The Truth of the Matter.” Field, no. 48 (spring 1993): 64-71.

[In the following review of Magic City, by Komunyakaa, and Sleeping Preacher, by Julia Kasdorf, Friebert asserts that both volumes address the “facts” of human existence. Friebert observes that Magic City is a sort of extended autobiography of Komunyakaa's childhood in Louisiana.]

These two books, Kasdorf's first (and winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize) [Sleeping Preacher], and Komunyakaa's mid-career volume [Magic City] are measured and sober books that settle within the lines of their subjects and stories, and do not fool...

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Michael Collins (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus 18-19, nos. 1-2 (1993): 126-49.

[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular and Magic City, Collins compares Komunyakaa's Vietnam War Poetry with his “peacetime” poetry. Collins observes that Komunyakaa's poetry expresses a broad conceptual and emotional range.]

I went to Vietnam as a basic naive young man of eighteen. Before I reached my nineteenth birthday, I was an animal. … They prepared us for Vietnam as a group of individuals who worked together as a unit to annihilate whatever enemy we came upon … There was this saying: “Yeah though I walk through the...

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Michel Fabre (essay date fall 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Fabre, Michel. “On Yusef Komunyakaa.” Southern Quarterly 34, no. 2 (winter 1996): 5-8.

[In the following essay, originally broadcast in fall of 1994, Fabre provides a brief overview of central themes and recurring motifs in Komunyakaa's poetry. Fabre praises Komunyakaa for his depth and originality of poetic voice, the broad scope of his poetry, and his ornate, sophisticated style.]

The following is the text of Michel Fabre's introduction of southern poet Yusef Komunyakaa to a French television audience in the fall of 1994 during a conference on southern literature celebrating the establishment of the Faulkner Foundation at the Université de Haute...

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Norman Finkelstein (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Finkelstein, Norman. “Like an Unknown Voice Rising Out of Flesh.” Ohio Review, no. 52 (1994): 136-9.

[In the following review of Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular, Finkelstein praises the poet's work.]

Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular presents about twenty years worth of poetry: poetry that shudders with desire, past and present, frustrated and fulfilled. Remembrance is the motive force behind much of this work, but the past is rarely presented as a scene, neither a background for a current emotional state nor a canvas on which the poet can show off his descriptive powers. Rather, in Komunyakaa's strongest poems, time is the medium for a complex...

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Kevin Stein (essay date winter 1995-96)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stein, Kevin. “Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (winter 1995-96): 541-61.

[In the following essay, Stein argues that Komunyakaa's Vietnam War poetry creates a dialogue between the official public history of the war, as created by the mass media, and the personal experiences of those who fought in the war. Stein observes that Komunyakaa “creates a soldier's history of Vietnam from an African-American perspective.”]

The haunting locale of Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) is as much the domain of the human heart and mind as the jungles of...

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Yusef Komunyakaa with Ernest Suarez (interview date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Ernest Suarez. “Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Southbound: Interviews with Southern Poets, edited by Ernest Suarez, pp. 130-43. London: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

[In the following interview, which took place in April 1998, Komunyakaa discusses his literary influences and the significance of music to his poetry.]

Yusef Komunyakaa's knowledge and love of music and painting have heavily influenced his poetry. His poems are meticulously crafted “tonal narratives” that present series of highly concentrated images. Komunyakaa uses the rhythms of jazz and other types of music to help create a visceral relationship between the images,...

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Angela M. Salas (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Salas, Angela M. “‘Flashbacks through the Heart’: Yusef Komunyakaa and the Poetry of Self-Assertion.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, pp. 298-309. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following essay, Salas praises Komunyakaa for the range, depth, and imaginativeness of his poetry.]

Yusef Komunyakaa's life and career fit almost perfectly into the American ideal of the self-made man, arising from the ashes of harsh childhood and youth to attain success and power by dint of hard work, good luck, and fierce intelligence. The prototypical American ideal is most often a lad who finds...

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Yusef Komunyakaa with Fran Gordon (interview date November-December 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Komunyakaa, Yusef with Fran Gordon. “Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape.” Poets & Writers 28, no. 6 (November-December 2000): 28-33.

[In the following interview, Komunyakaa discusses his influences, including jazz, Southern literature, and his experiences serving in the Vietnam conflict.]

In 1994 Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1993) won the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Prize, awarded by the Université de Rennes. His collection of poems Thieves of Paradise (Wesleyan, 1998) was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. That same year, Komunyakaa was...

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Adam Kirsch (review date 26 February 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Verse Averse.” New Republic 224, no. 4493 (26 February 2001): 38-41.

[In the following review, Kirsch discusses the jazz inspiration in Komunyakaa's poetry. Kirsch also praises Talking to the Gods as Komunyakaa's “best and more beautiful book so far.”]

Poetry may aspire, like all the arts, to the condition of music; but if it approaches too closely it is likely to pay a price. A poem can be said to be musical in several ways: it can take the form of a lyric to accompany instrumental music; it can create a coherent pattern of sound through meter and rhyme; it can attempt to mimic the overall impression created by a piece of music,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Asali, Muna, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” New England Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1994): 141-7.

An interview, conducted in 1992, in which Komunyakaa discusses the themes of personal and collective identity in his poetry.

Aubert, Alvin. “Rare Instances of Reconciliation.” Epoch 38, no. 1 (spring 1989): 67-72.

A review of Dien Cai Dau.

Baer, William, and Yusef Komunyakaa. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Kenyon Review 20, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1998): 5-29.

An interview in which...

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