Born in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1947, Yusef Komunyakaa grew up during the Civil Rights movement and later traveled to Vietnam as a correspondent for the US Army. Komunyakaa’s poetry draws on these experiences, as Bruce Weber notes in the New York Times: “his poems, many of which are built on fiercely autobiographical details – about his stint in Vietnam, about his childhood – deal with the stains that experience leaves on a life, and they are often achingly suggestive without resolution.” His poetry questions rather than answers, often blending past and present to create complex expressions of suffering, loss and memory.
In the poems ‘The African Burial Ground’ and ‘Envoy to Palestine,’ it’s the blending of a collective past and present with the personal that haunts. ‘Envoy to Palestine’ begins with the speaker having traveled to Ramallah “to place a few red anemones/ & a sheaf of wheat on Darwish’s gave.” The lush language and images quickly turn, though:
The land I come from they also dreamt
before they arrived in towering ships
battered by the hard Atlantic winds.
Crows followed me from my home.
My coyote heart is an old runagate
redskin, a noble savage, still Lakota,
& I knew the bow before the arch.
Komunyakaa’s work frequently circles around violence. While guns and physical violence reappear throughout, it is the internal violence that fascinates, as in the poem ‘Snow Tiger,' which ends:
If cornered in your head by cries from a cave
in another season, you can’t forget
in this landscape a pretty horse
translates into a man holding a gun.
The beautiful language in a Komunyakaa poem often works like the “pretty horse” in ‘Snow Tiger,’ acting as a gorgeous carrier for the terrifying. In a series of poems on sin, Komunyakaa renders the age-old vices newly frightening in their dominance over the presumed sinners. Fiercely detailed, these poems also tempt the reader with their beautiful language, as in these lines from ‘Lust’:
To step from the naked
Fray, to be as tender
As meat imagined off
The bluegill’s pearlish
Music, particularly jazz, pervades Komunyakaa’s poetry. Visible not only in the short, rhythmic lines of his poems, it appears also as a symbol of beauty through brokenness. In ‘Togetherness’ he writes, “I say a midnight horn/ & a voice with a moody angel/ inside, the two married rib/ to rib, note for note.” Music is both separation and unity, personal and communal. Komunyakaa’s poetry has a duende-like quality, finding artistic expression in confrontation with life’s hardships.
Komunyakaa’s recent collections include Testimony, a Tribute to Charlie Parker (Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) and Warhorses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). Komunyakaa is also the author of Gilgamesh: A Verse Play (Wesleyan University Press, 2006) and Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries (University of Michigan Press, 2000). He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, among others. Komunyakaa lives in New York City where he is currently the Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University's graduate creative writing program.
Dedications and Other Darkhorses, RMCAJ, 1977
Lost in the Bonewheel Factory, Lynx House Press, Amherst, 1979
Copacetic, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1984
I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1986
Toys in a Field, Black River Press, 1986
Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988
February in Sydney (chapbook), Matchbooks, 1989
Magic City, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1992
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1993
Thieves of Paradise, Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1998
Talking Dirty to the Gods, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001
Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2001
Taboo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006
Gilgamesh: A Verse Play, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2006
Warhorses, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008
The Chameleon Couch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011
Testimony, a Tribute to Charlie Parker, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 2013
(Editor with Sascha Feinstein) The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991
(Translator, with Martha Collins) The Insomnia of Fire by Nguyen Quang Thieu, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995
(Editor with Feinstein) The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Volume 2, Indiana University Press, 1996
Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, edited by Radiclani Clytus, University of Michigan Press, 2000
PoetryFoundation.org: ‘Every Tool Became a Weapon: Talking with Yusef Komunyakaa about race and war.’
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Kindness’ read by Yusef Komunyakaa
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Togetherness’ read by Yusef Komunyakaa
PoetryFoundation.org, Poetry Everywhere: ‘Facing It’ read by Yusef Komunyakaa
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem Guide, ‘Yusef Komunyakaa: Facing It’ by Robn Ekiss
PoetryFoundation.org, Essential American Poets: Yusef Komunyakaa
Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets: ‘Yusef Komunyakaa: An Argument Against Simplicity’