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."
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.
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.
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."