Yusef Komunyakaa Komunyakaa, Yusef (Vol. 94) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yusef Komunyakaa 1947–

American poet and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Komunyakaa's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 86.

Best known for Neon Vernacular (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1994, Komunyakaa is noted for verse in which he uses surrealistic imagery, montage techniques, and folk idiom to focus on his identity as an African American, his upbringing in the small community of Bogalusa, Louisiana, and his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War. Incorporating violence, death, racism, and poverty, his poems are often infused with rage and exhibit a pessimistic outlook on life while invoking feelings of tenderness and hope. Toi Derricotte has observed: "Komunyakaa takes on the most complex moral issues, the most harrowing ugly subjects of our American life. His voice, whether it embodies the specific experiences of a black man, a soldier in Vietnam, or a child in Bogalusa, Louisiana, is universal. It shows us in ever deeper ways what it is to be human."

Biographical Information

Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969; he served in Vietnam as a front-lines correspondent and editor for the Southern Cross, eventually earning a Bronze Star. Komunyakaa attended the University of Colorado, graduating with a B.A. in 1975, and began writing poetry and publishing in small presses. He later earned an M.A. at Colorado State University and an M.F.A. in 1980 at the University of California at Irvine. After his early poems appeared in such journals as Black American Literature Forum and Beloit Poetry Journal, Komunyakaa published his first collection, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, in 1977. Komunyakaa has held fellowships and teaching positions in New England and New Orleans and has been a professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington. He has been the winner of many awards for poetic achievement, including Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1981 and 1987, and—in addition to the Pulitzer—the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Neon Vernacular.

Major Works

Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), Komunyakaa's second collection of verse, is comprised of six sequences addressing a wide variety of themes, including beauty, pathos, and moral degradation. Copacetic (1984), the first of his works to gain the attention of reviewers, is a collection of blues and jazz poems in which Komunyakaa focuses on his childhood and youth. In "Jumping Bad Blues," for example, Komunyakaa writes: "I've played cool, / hung out with the hardest / bargains, but never copped a plea." In I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Komunyakaa examines the effect of the past on the present, invoking lost loves, scenes of Bogalusa, his experiences in the Vietnam War, and past generations. In "Go Down Death," considered one of the most powerful poems in the collection, Komunyakaa states: "The dead / stumble home like the swamp fog, / our lost uncles and granddaddies / come back to us almost healed." The poems about Vietnam in Dien cai dau (1988) were not started until 1983–fourteen years after his tour of duty—but as Komunyakaa told critic Bruce Weber in a 1994 interview, beginning them "was as if I had uncapped some hidden place in me…. Poem after poem came spilling out." Focusing on the mental horrors of the war, Komunyakaa uses surrealistic imagery, a variety of personas, and the present tense to describe his experiences. Komunyakaa followed Dien cai dau with February in Sydney (1989) and Magic City (1992)—the latter a highly autobiographical examination of childhood and rites of passage. Neon Vernacular reflects Komunyakaa's penchant for travel and his passion for jazz, blues, and classical European music. Komunyakaa has also edited The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) with Sascha Feinstein.

Critical Reception

Komunyakaa's reputation as a poet has grown steadily over the years, with original charges of obscurity or superficial treatment of subjects and themes giving way to praise for both surrealistic juxtaposition of images and compelling storytelling. Critics especially laud Komunyakaa's examination of such complex themes as identity, war, and the paradoxes of art; his ability to transcend moral, social, and mental boundaries; and what Vince F. Gotera has called Komunyakaa's "counterbalancing of seeming oppositions and incongruities." As Kirkland C. Jones has stated, "Komunyakaa has come of age, not only as a Southern-American or African-American bard, but as a world-class poet who is careful to restrain the emotions and moods he creates, without overdoing ethnicity of any kind."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dedications and Other Darkhorses (poetry) 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (poetry) 1979
Copacetic (poetry) 1984
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (poetry) 1986
Toys in a Field (poetry) 1986
Dien cai dau (poetry) 1988
February in Sydney (poetry) 1989
The Jazz Poetry Anthology [editor, with Sascha Feinstein] (poetry) 1991
Magic City (poetry) 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1993

Joseph Parisi (review date 15 March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Booklist, Vol. 80, No. 14, March 15, 1984, p. 1024.

[Below, Parisi offers a mixed assessment of Copacetic.]

Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, but bred all over the place, Komunyakaa once edited a magazine called Gumbo. His own verse is rather a spicy concoction, too, mixing the scents, sights, and sounds of "cottonmouth country" with the patois of the bayous and the blues joints of Bourbon Street. Sometimes this heady brew [in Copacetic] conjures up authentic images of those southern climes and eccentricities, especially in several vignettes of jazz stars (among them Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus) and lesser known New Orleans "characters." When the poet's transcripts drift further from these deeply felt, personal experiences, the results are less satisfying. Perhaps it's the sophistication of his further education (especially those advanced arts degrees) that puts the somewhat off-putting "processed" and professionally jived up tone into others of these verses. Still, in the bluesy lyrics and elegies, there's a good deal of the steamy high spirits, as well as the sadness, of real life.

J. A. Miller (review date November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Copacetic, in Choice, Vol. 22, No. 3, November, 1984, p. 425.

[In the following review, Miller highly recommends Copacetic, stating that the work reflects a "wry, hard-won wisdom."]

Copacetic, Yusef Komunyakaa's first collection of poetry, signals the emergence of a fresh and distinctive Afro-American voice. Like that of many of his contemporaries, Komunyakaa's work is deeply influenced by the blues, but his poetry draws upon both the idiom and the philosophical core of the blues with a facility that is striking for a young poet. Komunyakaa associates the term "copacetic" with "… jazz musicians and street philosophers who have been educated by some real hard falls," and the voices he creates in his poetry often reflect this wry, hard-won wisdom. Komunyakaa has a fine command of language and rhythm. He is definitely a poet worth watching—and reading.

Yusef Komunyakaa with Vince F. Gotera (interview date 21 February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Lines of Tempered Steel': An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa," in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 215-29.

[In the following interview, which took place on February 21, 1986, in Bloomington, Indiana, Komunyakaa discusses such subjects as his upbringing, his poetic influences, and the nature of poetry.]

[Gotera]: Why don't we start with your background, biographical stuff, books you've written, and so on?

[Komunyakaa]: Okay. I grew up in a place called Bogalusa. That's in Louisiana, about 70 miles out of New Orleans. It's a rural kind of environment, and I think a great deal of the bucolic feeling gets into my work. If not...

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Fred Muratori (review date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 20, December, 1986, pp. 115-16.

[Below, Muratori notes that I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head "showcases a talented surrealist."]

Komunyakaa's poems [in I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head] create and populate a world in which the linchpins of common sense and everyday appearances come loose, "where simple / answers fall like ashes / through an iron grate." Photographers airbrush the truth, Cinderella wakes up in a California pleasure dome. Even individual poems take on phantasmagoric dimensions akin to Bosch's busy but fascinating paintings as the poet reels off catalogs of apocalyptic events: "A white goat / is staring into windows again. / Bats clog the chimney like rags. / An angel in the attic / mends a torn wing." The invention is considerable, and though the accretion of wild images and preposterous characters eventually wears thin, this volume showcases a talented surrealist whose future work will warrant close attention.

J. A. Miller (review date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, in Choice, Vol. 25, No. 1, September, 1987, p. 125.

[In the following positive review of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Miller calls Komunyakaa "one of the important poets of his generation."]

[I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head extends] and deepens the terrain Yusef Komunyakaa explored so effectively in his first collection of poems, Copacetic. Komunyakaa is a poet of the night and of the streets, and in this collection his narrator roams through the dark alleys and side streets of the American landscape—a world populated by hustlers, prostitutes, angels, and ghosts—witnessing and participating in the world he records. Ordinary experience is often transformed into allegory and everyday people appear as mythic figures: The Thorn Merchant, Mr. Magnifico, The Thorn Merchant's Wife. And the "I" that records these poems is also the eye that perceives them, seeking in the process to restore the vital connection between the heart and the brain, the mind and the senses. Komunyakaa's poems are works of impressive verbal dexterity and striking images and rhythms, and this collection should consolidate his place as one of the important poets of his generation.

Matthew Flamm (review date 4 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Facing Up to the Deadly Ordinary," in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, p. 24.

[Flamm is an American journalist. In the following excerpt, he characterizes I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head as "fierce yet mysterious," though he also notes some "poetic posturing."]

Yusef Komunyakaa's first book of poems was called Copacetic, a description it lived up to with its street-rhythmic, impromptu style. His new collection, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (the book is better than the title), continues his explorations of local history, private experience and the charged, semi-surreal language that can dig out the difficult...

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Alvin Aubert (review date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Rare Instances of Reconciliation," in Epoch, Vol. 38, No. 1, 1989, pp. 67-72.

[Aubert is an American educator, critic, and writer who specializes in African-American studies. In the following review, he discusses the major themes in Dien cai dau, including war, nature, and home.]

Yusef Komunyakaa, a Black American poet and Vietnam vet, achieves striking surrealistic effects in his poetic renditions of the horrors of Vietnam. He is careful, however, not to overdo it. We find him equally cautious in dealing with his ethnicity, apparently apprehensive of some of the aesthetic risks involved on both counts. In incorporating his African-Americaness into his...

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Steven Cramer (review date May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dien Cai Dau, in Poetry, Vol. CLVI, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 102-05.

[In the following positive review, Cramer examines Komunyakaa's depiction of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]

Dien Cai Dau (the title, meaning "crazy," is Vietnamese slang for "American soldier") strives for total immersion in the visceral horrors of America's most unpopular war, the book's forty-four poems assembled without the intervention of section dividers or the mediation of an epigraph. It's as if Komunyakaa wanted nothing to palliate the blinding immediacy of combat.

Komunyakaa served in Vietnam as a correspondent, and as a number of his titles...

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Samuel Maio (review date May-June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Truth," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 27.

[Maio is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt from a comparative review of Dien cai dau and Lowell Jaeger's War on War (1988), he discusses Komunyakaa's examination of the psychological effects of the Vietnam War in Dien cai dau.]

Of the many recent books of poetry concerned with the Vietnam War, Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa and War on War by Lowell Jaeger share the most in common, each resembling the other in thematic focus: the mental anguish of this war, for combatants, observers, participants, and objectors, which...

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Vince F. Gotera (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "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, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 282-300.

[In the following excerpt from a comparative study of Vietnam War poets, Gotera discusses Komunyakaa's use of surrealism, language, and imagery in Dien cai dau.]

Dien Cai Dau is Komunyakaa's fourth book of poems. In his earlier three books, he has not included a single poem on Vietnam, because he has been waiting for emotional distance—objective and journalistic—from his 1969–70 Army tour there. George Garrett, in...

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Eileen Myles (review date 12 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lost City" in The Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, January 12, 1993, pp. 80-1.

[In the following review, Myles states that while Magic City "starts off a little sticky," its "information is unforgettable."]

Yusef Komunyakaa, an African American poet whose last book, Dien Cai Dau, drove a shaft of light into the inarticulate spectacle of the Vietnam War, has now taken on a story easy to mistell: childhood. Magic City is the name of this foray. It starts off a little sticky, in my opinion. I don't think Komunyakaa feels confident with the first person—certainly not a re-assembled first person, like that of the speaker in the first poem:...

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Alvin Aubert (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yusef Komunyakaa: The Unified Vision—Canonization and Humanity," in African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Aubert discusses Komunyakaa's "quest for a unified vision, his bid for literary canonization, and his push for the completion of his humanity."]

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 poetry, an achievement he apparently strives for in his own work. A closely associated, if not identical, goal and a source of tension in Komunyakaa's poetry...

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Robyn Selman (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, in VLS, No. 116, June, 1993, pp. 6-7.

[In the review below, Selman examines stylistic features of Komunyakaa's poetry, noting in particular his focus on music in Neon Vernacular.]

An old anger drips into my throat,
& I try thinking something good,
letting the precious bad
settle to the salty bottom.
Another scene keeps repeating itself:
I emerge from the dark theatre,
passing a woman who grabs her red purse
& hugs it to her like a heart attack....

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Toi Derricotte (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tension between Memory and Forgetting in the Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. XV, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 217-22.

[In the essay below, Derricotte surveys Komunyakaa's works, focusing on his major themes.]

The publication of Yusef Komunyakaa's Magic City and his new and selected poems, Neon Vernacular, provide an opportunity for a detailed examination of the body of his work. Nine collections have been published since his first, Dedications & Other Darkhorses, in 1977. All the poems discussed here can be found in Neon Vernacular, except those from Magic City. Quite simply, Komunyakaa is one of the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Collins, Michael. "The Metamorphoses: Jazz and Poetry." Parnassus: Poetry in Review 19, No. 2 (1994): 49-80.

Negative review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology in which Collins states Feinstein and Komunyakaa "lose the way to the bridge between poetry and jazz."

Ratner, Rochelle, Review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology, by Yusef Komunyakaa and Sascha Feinstein. Library Journal 116, No. 4 (1 March 1991): 94.

Brief mixed review of The Jazz Poetry Anthology.


Kelly, Robert; Matthews,...

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