Authors: Yusef Komunyakaa

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American

Author Works


Dedications and Other Darkhorses, 1977

Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, 1979

Copacetic, 1984

I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, 1986

Toys in the 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, 2000

Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, 2001


Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, 1999 (Radiclani Clytus, editor)


The Insomnia of Fire, 1995 (with Martha Collins; of poetry by Nguyen Quang Thieu)

Edited Texts:

The Jazz Poetry Anthology, 1991 (with Sascha Feinstein)

The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2, 1996 (with Feinstein)


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.{$I[AN]9810001821}{$I[A]Komunyakaa, Yusef}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Komunyakaa, Yusef}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Komunyakaa, Yusef}{$I[tim]1947;Komunyakaa, Yusef}

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 targeted African American society and as it extended to the Vietnamese), offered Komunyakaa a perspective of human existence that would have a direct impact on his poetry. It took Komunyakaa fourteen years to write about Vietnam directly.

He attended the University of Colorado as an undergraduate and then went on to do graduate work in English at Colorado State University and the University of California at Irvine. He taught in various colleges in New England and then moved to the University of New Orleans where he continued to teach. In 1977, he published his first volume of poetry, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, which introduced readers to Komunyakaa’s fascination with the almost surreal effect of jazz-inspired work and sound improvisation in poetry. In poems such as “The Tongue Is” and “Translating Footsteps” he explores themes of sexuality with startling candor and wit, while forging the edgy uneasiness that would characterize even the most lyrical verse in his later publications.

In 1979, he produced Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, which reflected Komunyakaa’s fascination with the use of multiple voices and the black vernacular. At the same time, he was developing an almost Whitmanesque agenda of taking snapshots of the American experience and founding a series of philosophical ideas upon them.

While he was still in Louisiana, Komunyakaa’s collection Copacetic was picked up by Wesleyan University Press, an occasion that began to expand Komunyakaa’s critical acclaim. Copacetic may be Komunyakaa’s most musically grounded work; it combines the use of assonance, jive talk, and the language of the street with a density of metaphor and irony that establishes the poet’s distinctive qualities. In “April Fool’s Day,” an apparently dead sixteen-year-old contemplates the implications of his death while lying in the casket. At once a study in the tragedy of youthful death and a metaphysical engagement with human mortality, the poem is a fascinating examination of the absurdity of human existence.

In many ways, Komunyakaa’s poetry takes issues of suffering and hopelessness and filters them through the affirmation of song and lamentation found in the blues, creating a work that captures an ambiguously positive sensibility of survival in the context of the African American experience. His mid-1980’s collections Toys in the Field and I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head showed the poet continuing his fascination with jazz in poems such as “Copacetic Mingus,” “Woman,” “I Got the Blues,” and “Elegy for Thelonius,” but they also revealed him exploring metaphors of sight, blindness, and revelation. In 1986, Komunyakaa accepted a teaching position in the English Department of Indiana University. I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head won for him his first major prize, the San Francisco Poetry Award. These collections were followed by the critically acclaimed Dien Cai Dau, a touching and painfully vulnerable memory of the Vietnam War, with all of its attendant contradictions, and Magic City, a technically ambitious and confident work.

In 1989, he published February in Sydney, a collection containing a number of poems set in Australia. In 1993, a collection of new and selected poems entitled Neon Vernacular appeared, containing a rich assortment of poems from his entire body of work. Critics observed that the volume demonstrated that Komunyakaa has always been a poet of immense power, clarity, and innovation. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry as well as the Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award from the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California.

Thieves of Paradise, published in 1998, shows Komunyakaa’s ability to experiment with form and ease the reader into accepting poetry that is unfamiliar. Talking Dirty to the Gods, which appeared in 2000, stands apart from his earlier works in its adherence to a strict, traditional form. Each of its 132 poems consists of sixteen lines, in four unrhymed quatrains, that juxtapose mythology, jazz riffs, and contemporary culture. The 2001 title Pleasure Dome is a rich collection of more than 350 poems representing all of his earlier books, except for Talking Dirty to the Gods, in addition to sections called “New Poems” and “Early Uncollected.”

At its core, Komunyakaa’s poetry is a splendid demonstration of the dynamic interaction of history and personal experience. Memory is critical to the poet because of his conviction that contained in his memory and imagination are storehouses of poetic fodder that, when properly exploited and experienced–and when shaped by the discipline of form can–produce powerful poetry.

BibliographyAubert, Alvin. “Yusef Komunyakaa’s Unified Vision: Canonization and Humanity.” African American Review 27 (Spring, 1993). Explores Komunyakaa’s place as an innovator of African American prosody.Conley, Susan. “About Yusef Komunyakaa: A Profile.” Ploughshares 23, no. 1 (Spring, 1997): 202-207. Conley gives a concise overview of the poet’s career, his central themes and motifs, his views on race relations in America, and his usual method of writing poetry.Dawidoff, Sally. “Talking Poetry with Yusef Komunyakaa.” 20010114.htm. 2000. This interview begins by discussing Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods, then branches out into a variety of related subjects: political poetry, folklore and mythology, the jazz influence, and ways in which the poet can engage his or her audience.Gordon, Fran. “Yusef Komunyakaa: Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape.” Poets & Writers 28, no. 6 (November/December, 2000): 26-33. Gordon terms Komunyakaa “one of America’s most receptive minds” and “one of its most original voices.” This interview provides a glimpse into the poet’s thoughts on his background and early reading, his interest in nature and mythology, and his use of imagery and music in his poetry.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. New York: Garland, 1990. Komunyakaa differs from other war poets in his “devotion to highly textured language”; he refuses “to present Vietnam to the reader as exotica,” but rather “underline[s] the existential reality” of his experience.Jones, Kirkland C. “Folk Idiom in the Literary Expression of Two African American Authors: Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa.” In Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Makes a sophisticated comparison between these two poets of impeccable form and restrained passion.Kelly, Robert. “Jazz and Poetry: A Conversation.” The Georgia Review 46 (Winter, 1992). Offers an insightful look at Komunyakaa’s views on jazz and poetry in his own words.Ringnalda, Don. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Ringnalda suggests that much of the poetry about Vietnam is too safe in both form and content. Because Komunyakaa realizes that the old paradigms are shattered, he “gains the freedom to explore subterranean, prerational landscapes. This results in a poetry of rich, disturbing associations.”Weber, Bruce. “A Poet’s Values: It’s the Words over the Man.” The New York Times Biographical Service 25 (May, 1994): 666-667. Written three weeks after Komunyakaa won the Pulitzer Prize, this brief account adds several new and interesting anecdotes about the poet’s early years and his views on his craft.
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