Yusef Komunyakaa is often described either as a jazz poet or a war poet, but he would rather think of himself as a poet who transcends labels. With a body of work spanning 40 years and running the gamut from poetry to prose and back to song lyrics, Komunyakaa never flinches from raising complex moral issues and launching them into the cultural discourse. OnWednesday, Dec. 2, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reads at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of this season’s Lannan Foundation Readings & Conversations series.
Komunyakaa has written more than a dozen books of poetry. In his latest, Warhorses, he attempts to capture the history of warfare on a global, mythical, and personal scale in three sections. The first part, “Love in the Time ofWar,” is a cleverly numbered collection of sonnets— 14 poems for the 14-line format. Komunyakaa calls them quasi-sonnets and expands the sonnet’s traditional form by dividing many of the poems into two sections. Komunyakaa said this style allows elements of public history to “collide softly” with personal, private history.
“I didn’t form the structure of the poems; they sort of organized themselves,” the poet said from his home in New York City. “I find there is a certain amount of freedom in that. They have the music and the emotional arc of a sonnet and at the same time are grounded in contemporary speech.” Komunyakaa is an expert in capturing everyday language. In his early collection, Copacetic, the use of vernacular speech earned him wide recognition as a jazz poet.
The eight-piece title poem in the second section of Warhorses, “Heavy Metal,” is an investigation of the evolution of the horse as a war machine. “It’s almost as if the horse is an extension of warfare,” Komunyakaa said. “The horse relies heavily on speed— that swift action that war embraces.” Horse imagery often crops up in Komunyakaa’s work. “I admire the power of the horse, but I am also interested by how the horse is oppressed— how it can be dominated through rehearsal, through training.”
Komunyakaa served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War as a writer and managing editor for a military publication called The Southern Cross. He wrote about the war in his award-winning poetry collection Dien Cai Dau and had promised himself that he would stop writing about Vietnam because there were so many other subjects he was interested in. Although nearly all the poems in Warhorses focus on war, it is the prose poem “Grenade” that marks a return to the plain, narrative style of poems from Dien Cai Dau. “Grenade” is a snapshot of a soldier who saves his platoon by throwing his body onto a primed enemy grenade.
“I probably had been writing [the poem] in my head, in my soul really, for a very long time,” he said. “There were 14 or 15 young black American soldiers— Marines—[who] threw themselves on grenades in Vietnam. That’s a bit of information that had troubled me for some time because I just couldn’t understand that kind of action.… I’m still interested in the question: Why?”
In Dien Cai Dau, Komunyakaa created a chronological poem-narrative about his personal experience in Vietnam shortly after being immersed in the conflict. In Warhorses, he stands back and observes war, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, which changes his relationship to the subject matter. “With Vietnam, there was more of an urgency [in the poems],” he said. “With Warhorses, each image that came to me was in my psyche already. It was an extensive state of meditation.”
Throughout his extensive career, Komunyakaa has written librettos, plays, prose, and song lyrics. Earlier this year he collaborated with musician Tomás Doncker on a CD called The Mercy Suite. Somewhat surprisingly, The Mercy Suite is more folk than jazz. “I love folk music,” Komunyakaa said. “I think the words are often so simple and necessary. Coupled with music they are elevated [because] we return to [them] again and again.”
Komunyakaa recounts an early memory as a 5-year-old singing his own made-up songs. “Maybe it’s a return to that,” he said. “I find myself singing a lot. It’s a very happy, cherished moment for me, you know? I just hope that the voice isn’t going through the walls!”
His librettos include collaborations with composers T.J. Anderson ( Slip Knot) and Sandy Evans ( Testimony: The Legend of Charlie Parker), as well as a jazz chamber opera, Shangri-la, with percussionist Susie Ibarra. Komunyakaa said he finds it difficult to keep the integral complexity of a poem when it is sung, and he struggles with the limitations of the operatic form. “For me, the form can calcify the potential of a piece. I don’t think the form should dominate the piece, but it’s an ongoing argument,” he said. “Many times composers can already hear what the piece is supposed to sound like, and I like the idea of there being more freedom to experience.”
In 2004, Komunyakaa brought new life to Gilgamesh— believed to be the oldest recorded story in the world— when he collaborated with playwright and dramaturge Chad Gracia to refashion the epic as a verse play. “At the moment there’s a return of the poet to the stage — writing plays for the stage,” Komunyakaa said. “[It works] because the allegiance is to the muse as opposed to the narrative.”
Komunyakaa said it’s important for poets to become part of the expanded dialogue, which is probably the reason he works across mediums. “We need a dialogue that questions everything,” he said. “I see the poem not only as a moment of compressed inquiry but also a celebration. When you celebrate those things that we think of as elemental, it’s so important.… We are responsible for what we say. We hope that language will keep us honest and will also move us toward deeper observation. Sometimes it’s not the observation out there in space so much as the observation of things that are very simple. The role of the poet is to trouble the waters but not to purposely trouble the waters.”