Yusef Komunyakaa

Poet, Veteran, Man of Culture

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The Basics

  • Born April 29, 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana
  • Child during Jim Crow era
  • Served in US Army as correspondent and editor During Vietnam War
  • Read a lot of Shakespeare and E.A. Poe
  • First introduced to black literature in highschool
  • Lived in Colorado, Puerto Rico, Panama, Phoenix and Australia
  • One daughter, Kimberly Ann

What is in a Name?

Born James William Brown Jr., he changed his name to honor his Grandfather who immigrated as a stowaway from Trinidad. Yusef Komunyakaa means "Joseph the Compassionate" in Islam.

Inspirations and Themes

  • Personal experiences/ childhood
  • Vietnam
  • Racism
  • Personal identity
  • Cultural identity

Awards and Achievements

  • Bronze Star
  • MA and MFA in creative writing from CSU and UC Irvine
  • I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), San Francisco Poetry Center Award
  • Dien Cai Dau (1988), Dark Room Poetry Prize
  • Neon Vernacular (1994), Pulitzer Prize and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award


  • Poetry often has a jazzy "tune"
  • Many poems describe personal experiences in Vietnam
  • Some poems are inspired by African culture "Ode to the Drum"
  • Most famous poems include "Mismatched Shoes", "Ode tot he Maggot", and "My Father's Love Letters"

Poetry Everywhere: "Facing It" by Yusef Komunyakaa

"Facing It"

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

"Does poetry posess any power to affect the political sphere?"

"I think so. Not in ways one might usually think of, though. Interestingly enough, in times of crisis- social, political, and emotional- we tend to go to poetry for some kind of guidance."

Works Cited

Gotera, Vince. "Yusef Komunyakaa." The Scribner Writer Series African American Writers. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001. 489-504. Print.

Jones, Paul, ed. Internet Poetry Archive. UNC Press, 2006. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Thieves of Paradise. Hanover: Wesleyan UP ;, 1998. Print.

Marshall, Tod. "Yusef Komunyakaa." Range of the Possibilities. Spokane: Eastern Washington UP, 2002. 146-56. Print.

"Yusef Komunyakaa." Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.