Komunyakaa wears a number of hats: southern poet,
African-American poet, wartime veteran poet. Influences on his work include Countee cullen, Melvin tolson, Amiri baraka, William Carlos WILLIAMS, and T. S. eliot. Komunyakaa's poetry shifts in tone from lyrical and grand to streetwise and tough.
Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana. After graduating high school in 1965 he enlisted in the army and was sent to Vietnam. Between 1969 and 1970 he started writing for the Southern Cross, a military newspaper. He left the military in the early 1970s and was awarded the Bronze Star for his journalism. Upon his return to the states Komunyakaa received a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Colorado (1975, 1978), and an M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine (1980). Although he self-published two volumes of poetry in the late 1970s, it was not until the 1980s that he reached a broader audience and critical success. He has received many awards for his poetry, notably the Pulitzer Prize and William Faulkner Prize, both in 1994 for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems (1993). He has taught at Princeton University.
Coming from a tight-knit southern family, Komun-yakaa draws on his family experiences and regional roots. His combat experiences in Vietnam as well as his interest in jazz and African-American history also feed his unique poetic voice. Komunyakaa's journalistic brevity gives a stoic and clean structure to his subject matter, which is usually emotionally complex. "Seeing in the Dark" (1988) paints a troubled picture of soldiers trapped by their skin color, lower-class status, chauvinism, and a war that they must fight but know so little about. Komunyakaa shows the complex relationship between love, sex, powerlessness, and war: "We're men ready to be fused / with ghost pictures." There is a primal energy intermingled with romanticism as soldiers struggle to reconcile their mortality with their disconnection from their homes and loves. Komunyakaa employs sharp line breaks and brevity of language to illustrate the starkness and confusion of the men.
Komunyakaa focuses on the power of humanity and the excavation of complex emotions and truths. Through his individual quest he ends up revealing the stark and often lonely circumstances of everyday people, while also finding the beauty and passion residing there.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. "Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa," by William Baer. Kenyon Review 20.3-4 (summer/fall 1998): 5-29. Stein, Kevin. "Vietnam and the 'Voice Within': Public and Private History in Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau." Massachusetts Review 36.4 (winter 1995-1996): 541-561. Suarez, Ernest. "Yusef Komunyakaa." Five Points: A Journal of Literature & Art 4.1 (fall 1998): 15-28.
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