Dedications and Other Darkhorses, 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, 1979
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)
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.
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.