Our most recent meeting of the 3 Poems By…Poetry Discussion Group focused on the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. The poems we discussed were “Facing It” from the collection Dien Cai Dau, “The Towers” from Warhorses, and “My Father’s Love Letters” from Magic City.
Depending where you read about him, Komunyakaa is labeled a jazz poet, soldier poet, image poet, southern poet, or literary poet, and, depending which of his collections you read, these are all true. His work, which includes 15 books of poetry and several works of prose, spans a range of styles and themes, from surreal, imagistic poetry to short-lined elegies for famous jazz musicians to mediations on war heavily laced with mythological and literary allusions. Komunyakaa has received recognition for his oeuvre with many prestigious awards, including the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for the collection Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems.
The poet Toi Derricotte writes of Komuyakaa, “He 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.”
In the journal Ploughshares (via MasterFILE Premier or Literature Resource Center), Susan Conely writes that Komunyakaa:
“has been widely acclaimed by critics for his compassionate and well-crafted poems. His reputation as a poet has grown over the years; early in his career, he was derided for obscure imagery and superficial treatment of subjects. Yet commentators have traced his development as a poet and praise him for providing an insightful perspective on race and gender relations, surrealistic juxtaposition of images, and compelling storytelling. His recurring themes—childhood, identity, the ferocity and dehumanizing aspects of combat, romantic and sexual relationships, and concern for human suffering–have been frequent topics of critical attention. Komunyakaa has been lauded for his portrayal of a collective African-American experience in Vietnam. Critics have analyzed his use of historical allusions, classical mythology, and African-American folk idiom and note his concise use of language as well as the vivid imagery in his poems. His work illustrates reverence for the oral and musical traditions of African American culture. Considered one of today’s most distinctive poetic voices, Komunyakaa is viewed as a key contemporary American poet.”
Author, poet and critic Marilyn Nelson writes (in another article archived in LRC):
“…I applaud the courage with which Komunyakaa has confronted his childhood and youth. With his sensitive evocations of the child’s sense of the natural world, the driving curiosity of adolescent sexuality, and the slow transformation of the dreamer-child into the poet, he makes a great contribution to one of the newest genres in the canon: the black male epic of self.”
At the 3 Poems By… discussion, we were lucky to be able to stream video of Yusef Komunyakaa reading two of the poems. In fact, quite a bit of streamable audio and video files related to Konunyakaa exist online. Check out the following links and you’ll get the chance to hear the poet’s cadence and inflection as he reads, while you discover archives of visible and audible poetry of Komunyakaa and many other brilliant poets.
Here’s a live reading of “Facing It” from PBS’s Poetry Everywhere program:
You can also listen to “Facing It” at Poetry Foundation’s audio and podcast collection. Internet Poetry Archive includes recordings of Komunyakaa reading poems including “My Father’s Love Letters” here. Also, here is an hour-long reading and talk that Komunyakaa gave for the Helen Edison Lecture Series: