Saturday, March 28, 2009

Yusef Komunyakaa: A Question of Taste

Yusef Komunyakaa is a presence: tall and rangy, very dark-skinned, with white hair now, and a beautiful warm voice. Saw and heard him read poems last night at Wash U. as a special guest of the Callalloo conference.

I went so I could try once more to appreciate his work as others do. Komunyakaa's poetry is eclectic but no component of it fully engages me. These components include jazz, blues, vernacular speech, maleness, blackness, the segregated Deep South, and service in Vietnam. He read a poem about off-duty GIs segregating themselves in different bars, but having the same women, whose brothers it is their job to kill. Another poem described a black GI throwing himself on a grenade, thereby saving the rest of his company. Komunyakaa said such an event happened at least 14 or 15 times that he knows of, and the poem asks why. In the poem, and probably in real life, the self-martyred soldier takes over, forever after, the inner lives of those he has saved.

Komunyakaa is highly honored -- Pulitzer Prize, Chancellorship at the Academy of American Poets, and countless other awards -- but the full enjoyment of his poetry requires steps up for me that I had not prepared myself to take. Is that what taste is?

1 comment:

  1. You had a busy day of readings!

    I guess I'm not sure if you actually took those steps you mentioned, and if you did, if you enjoyed taking them? Or perhaps you'd rather not say?

    Some poetry, like all literature, I guess, is not pleasurable, accessible, or even applicable to everyone. But the new experience and perspective can be worth the work. It sounds like that's what Komunyakaa has done for you.