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Yusef Komunyakaa began publishing his poetry during the turbulent 1960s and continued after serving in the Vietnam War. His poetry collection Neon Vernacular (1993) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1994.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Louisiana to Vietnam
Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on April 29, 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa attended public school there, graduating from Central High School in 1965. Immediately thereafter he entered the U.S. Army, doing a tour in Vietnam, for which he earned the Bronze Star and during which he served as correspondent for and editor of the Southern Cross, a military paper. After returning to the United States, Komunyakaa entered the University of Colorado, where he earned his BA in 1975; he then attended Colorado State University and received his MA in 1979. He earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine, in 1980.
Teaching Career and Early Publication
Komunyakaa taught English at the Lake-front Campus of the University of New Orleans and for a brief period he taught poetry for grades three through six in the public schools of New Orleans. In 1985 Komunyakaa married Australian novelist Mandy Sayer and became a professor at Indiana University, where he taught until 1997. During the academic year 1989-1990 he held the Ruth Lilly Professorship, an endowed chair. In the fall of 1997, Komunyakaa accepted a professorship at Princeton University. His marriage to Sayer had ended during his tenure in Indiana. Komunyakaa’s early verse appeared in the periodicals Black American Literature Forum,the Beloit Poetry Journal, Chameleon, Colorado Quarterly, Free Lance,and Poetry Now. Some of his Vietnam verse has been collected in Carrying the Darkness (1985), an anthology edited by W. D. Ehrhart, and in The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets (1985), edited by Dave Smith and David Bottoms. In 1977 he published his first book, Dedications and Other Darkhorses and in 1979 his second, Lost in the Bonewheel Factory.
Jazz, Blues, and Contrasts
Komunyakaa’s next book-length collection, Copacetic (1983), presents jazz poems and blues poems in the manner of Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. The poems in Copacetic hearken back to his boyhood and early manhood. These poems examine folk ideas, beliefs, sayings, and songs, and the terminology of blues and jazz. He later published February in Sydney (1989), which was influenced by his experiences with jazz in Australia.
A Book of Contrasts
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986) is a book of contrasts etched in verse. The mood changes from light and breezy to deeply sorrowful. From lost love in the city to loved ones and friends lost to the evils of slavery and Jim Crowism in the Deep
South, Komunyakaa continued his fascination with ghosts reflected in life’s looking glasses, with images of skeletons, and with other symbols of mortality and life’s fragility. He experimented with longer poems, such as ”Dreambook Bestiary” and “1984.”
Toys in a Field (1987) was his first work dedicated to Vietnam War poetry. It was well received and included on the American Library Association’s ”Best Books for Young Adults” list in 1988. His next volume, Dien Cai Dau (1988), also deals with his experiences in the Vietnam War. Its title, military slang for ”crazy,” suggests his reliance on surrealistic imagery to chronicle the Vietnam experience. These poems emphasize the mental warfare that the American soldiers waged along with their physical struggles. Each brief poem chronicles an aspect of Komunyakaa’s wartime experience. He uses imagery from nature to describe the acts of war, which are superimposed on a bleak landscape.
Second Marriage Ends in Tragedy
During the 1990s, Komunyakaa was involved in a new romantic relationship with fellow poet Reetika Vazirani, with whom he had a son, Jahan Vazirani Komunyakaa. During this time Komunyakaa published his most famous work, Neon Vernacular, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. During his relationship with Vazirani, Komunyakaa published several other collections including Thieves of Paradise (1998), Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000),and Pleasure Dome (2001). Reekita and Jahan were found dead in 2003, Reekita having killed her son and then taken her own life. After this event, Komunyakaa attracted negative attention from critics who speculated about the events leading up to these deaths. In 2004 Komunyakaa published Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part I.
Other Prose In addition to his own poetry, Komunyakaa compiled and edited two jazz poetry anthologies with jazz saxophonist Sascha Feinstein. He has also published prose, including a co-translation of Insomnia of Fire (1995) by Nguyen Quang Thieu and a compilation of writings about blues, titled Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (2000).
Komunyakaa currently works as the Senior Distinguished Poet in the Graduate Writing Program at New York University.
Works in Literary Context
Komunyakaa is held in high regard for his Vietnam poetry, which many critics praise for its exceptional sensitivity and artistic merit. As a poet, he is careful to restrain the emotions and moods he creates, without overdoing ethnicity of any kind. In his Vietnam verse, he keeps before the world what it meant and still means to be American, black, and a soldier, and what the painful inequities of this combination add up to. His writing is influenced by other authors including William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin Tolson, Sterling Brown, Helen Johnson, Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay.
The headings of the six sequences of Lost in the Bone Wheel Factory (1979)—”Intermission,” ”Rituals and Rides,” “Sideshows,” “Testimonies,” “Passions,” and ”Family Skeletons”—indicate the range of Komunyakaa’s subject matter. In these sequences, as also seen in his subsequent volumes, he is absorbed in the pathos of the human experience, but he insists all the while that the reader accept and cope with hard reality, for only then can the beauty that lies within the human spirit come forth. The ability to see life’s bareness and coldness is addressed in the first poem of the book, ”Looking a Mad Dog Dead in the Eyes,” a title that becomes a metaphor for life in the South of his youth, one of Komunyakaa’s favorite and most fruitful themes.
In some of his poems Komunyakaa invokes biblical imagery, including crucifixion. The reader also discovers the root-and-vine imagery of the medieval mystic alongside Judeo-Christian metaphors, such as ”Jacob and the Nocturnal Angel,” a phrase in the poem ”Following Floor Plans.” Repeatedly stone and rock images surface, and the landscape of life is ”granite-colored.” A pretty woman’s face becomes, again and again, a mirror reflecting humanity’s nakedness, and the bones left by death’s decay are not able to come to life again the way the biblical ”dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision will live.” The human tongue is evil: like the Valley of Jehosophat, it is a sign and agent of sin, death, disease, the mortality that bespeaks God’s judgment upon humanity’s evil heart. Repeatedly, the reader sees a deformity of the skeleton, symbolizing the moral and physical grotesqueness of the poet’s created world. In ”Sitting in a Rocking Chair at the Window, Going Blind” Komunyakaa shapes the lines on the page to form the s curve of ”a woman’s dance …in a dark world.” Beauty is tomorrow’s ”sack of bones,” and no matter how much the dancer denies death and death’s message, ”what we deny comes full-swing around again,” for ”[e]verything isn’t ha-ha in this valley.”
Works in Critical Context
The critical reception of Komunyakaa’s poetry has been largely positive. His Vietnam War poetry is widely anthologized, drawing praise for its complexity and emotional depth. Some critics celebrate his portrayal of the African American experience of Vietnam, while others note the breadth of his scope, applauding his engagement with the human condition and the hope he offers by conveying a belief in redemption.
Critics reacted positively to the publication of Komunyakaa’s award-winning collection Neon Vernacular. Writing for the Nation, critic Marilyn Hacker praises the work: ”Neon Vernacular includes some of the best Vietnam testimony, in verse or prose, that I’ve ever read.” Similarly, Toi Derricotte, writing for the Kenyon Review, notes Komunyakaa’s ability to engage readers with the depth and complexity of his work: ”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.” Offering a more general assessment, the Harvard Review calls Neon Vernacular ”a vibrant look into another sense of memory and language, of history both personal and global.” In Parnassus Review critic Michael Collins writes, ”Komunyakaa’s poetry conveys the pain and grace involved in maintaining not so much the middle ground between these two positions as the shifting ground of possibilities that lies under them both.”
- Collins, Michael. Yusef Komunyakaa. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
- Ehrhart, W. D. Carrying the Darkness: American Indochina: The Poetry of the Vietnam War. New York: Avon Books, 1985.
- Pettis, Joyce Owens. African American Poets: Lives, Works, and Sources. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
- Salas, Angela. Flashback through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2004.
- Bernard, A. ”Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yusef Komunyakaa.” New York Times Book Review 105, Part 50 (December 10, 2000): 36.
- Collins, Michael. ”Staying Human.” Parnassus 18, no. 2, 19, no. 1 (1993): 134-135.
- Kirsch, A. ”Verse Averse: Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yusef Komunyakaa.” New Republic no. 4493 (February 26, 2001): 38-41.
- Leonard, Keith. ”Yusef Komunyakaa’s Blue: The Postmodern Music of the Neon Vernacular.” Callaloo 28, no. 3 (2005): 825-849.
- Pinson, Hermine. ”Yusef Komunyakaa’s New Blues.” Callaloo 28, no. 3 (2005): 568-571.
- Salas, Angela. ”Race, Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.” College Literature 30, no. 4 (2003): 32-53.
- Stein, K. ”Vietnam and the ‘Voice Within’: Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau.” Massachusetts Review 36, no. 4 (1996): 541-561.
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