Yusef Komunyakaa: Poet of Witness

Here’s Yusef Komunyakaa’s advice to young poets:


And here’s what Jasmine has to say about him:


Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on April 29 of 1947. He was born with name James William Brown, but took the name Komunyakaa after his grandfather. He grew up in the center of the Civil Rights Movement and served in the Vietnam War. He started writing poetry in the early 70’s at the Colorado State University. In 1985, he married Mandy Sayer, an Australian novelist. They divorced ten years later. He later began dating poet Reetika Vazirani who, in 2003, committed suicide after murdering their infant sun Jehan. He is currently a professor in the writing program at NYU.


One of his latest books, Warhorses, has a lot to do with war and human nature. He derived a bit of his inspiration towards approaching these poems from the Civil War poems of Walt Whitman. He’s also a big fan of Pablo Neruda and Plato. A lot of his poems retell the stories of his childhood and the dynamic of the relationship between his parents. He is often inspired and landscape and what is around him. “I think it all connects to image. I rely heavily on an image,” he mentions in an interview with the Tufts Observer.


He’s very nostalgic. There’s usually an underlying emotion beneath his poems, but most of them are pretty easy to understand. As mentioned above, he is influenced by Walt Whitman, and he names him as one of the great poets. He heavily relies on image, and often a single image can be the inspiration for an entire collection of poems, as he did with the poem “Venus Fly-Traps” and the collection Magic City.

3 thoughts on “Yusef Komunyakaa: Poet of Witness

  1. lauren March 8, 2012 / 8:32 pm

    One may be asking themselves, why is Lauren reporting on Komunyakaa? Well here’s my answer:
    -He wasn’t in my pair… He was in my QUAD thank you very much.
    -No, I’m not reporting on him just because he’s black.
    I’m reporting on him because Komunyakaa seems like an unlikely poet. Generally when people think of artsy poets, they think of white hipsters who drink tea and coffee at the same time, and write about God knows what. Komunyakaa isn’t really like that. He seems simple, yet regal at the same time—the sort of person who you wouldn’t want to dislike you, but rather be on your side.
    His work is sort of narrative. He always gets his point across. He tells stories. But that doesn’t mean that he neglects to include a poetic voice in his works. That’s how I try to make my work be, but somehow I end up stumbling with what I try to say.

  2. Laura March 9, 2012 / 7:57 pm

    I like he idea of facing ones past. I hear that phrase and am reminded of Simba returning to the pride land in an attempt to own up to what he thought was his fault but was truly not. It was an act of courage that I admire in both Simba and Komunyakaa. I think that in my own poetry, especially after I was first introduced to the confessional poets several years back, I do a lot of returning to my past in an attempt to face it. Though, I do admit, that often times I use poetry to escape it. The thing that I love about his poems is that they are honest and still poetic. I feel like so often I forget that honesty and poeticism can go hand in hand. I tend to think that in order to be poetic, I ought to avoid the truth in order to make the poem more pretty. I learn that a beautiful poem can be beautifully honest, but I often forget it and act as if I haven’t learned anything about the matter. So, yes, I admire Komunyakaa and hope that I can strive to write more like him in the future (forever remembering Simba as well).

  3. Elli March 10, 2012 / 11:12 pm

    There is something about this man that radiates wisdom. I feel like if I asked him for advice, he would have the perfect answer on the tip of his tongue; it would be as if he already knew my question and was waiting to enlighten me.

    This air of wisdom, or rather of enlightenment and peace, is shown through his poetry – typically in the last few lines. There is usually a “wow factor” after reading one of his poems.

    I distinctly recall the memory of staring at the piece of paper blankly, barely comprehending the complexity and depth of the ending statement of Komunyakaa’s poem.

    As someone said in our class discussion, he’s like Gandhi. He has a similar type of peaceful relationship with the universe like Gandhi, and I can only assume that he tries to share his way of understanding of the universe through his poetry.

    I hope to write more like Komunyakaa and try to articulate my own understanding of the universe. I almost feel like he is trying to teach a lesson through each of his poems – perhaps because I gain a new perspective each time I read one – but I would like my readers to react similarly to my poems as I reacted to Komunyakaa’s.

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