Introduction for Yusef Komunyakaa reading, Sarah Lawrence College


If you’re lucky enough to read Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry, you’ll find gods, and human women, and human men; you’ll find dragonsmoke and pomegranates, beautiful precise ampersands, “what the children of housekeepers & handymen know,” "darksome," "copacetic," "wolfbane," “treason & raw honey.” You’ll find someone making short free-verse lines as carefully and skillfully as a carpenter makes a lintel; and you’ll find music, as in “just let it take you/like Pres’s tenor & keep you human,” as in “Coltrane leafs through/the voluminous air for some note/to save us from ourselves.”

Let me read just part of this poet’s long honor roll: Tonight’s reader is a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing at Princeton, and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He is the author of a stack of books, some of which are available outside after the reading; they include Dien Cai Dau, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, Copacetic, the recent Scandalize My Name, a new and collected volume called Pleasure Dome, Talking Dirty to the Gods, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was Thieves of Paradise, and Neon Vernacular, which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Please add to this list various musical collaborations, two jazz poetry anthologies, a list of prizes as long as your arm, a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam, where he served as a correspondent and editor, and Blues Notes: Essays, Interviews & Commentaries, from the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series.

In 1984 Yusef Komunyakaa accepted a one-year appointment teaching writing at Indiana University, although he suspected he might be a carpenter; with the teaching salary he thought he’d buy a good set of tools. Anyone who’s read one of his books can see that the tools he’s since acquired are fine indeed. Marilyn Hacker said in The Nation, “Yusef Komunyakaa is a poet whose work...continues to grow in complexity and beauty”--Toi Derricotte in the Kenyon Review said, “Quite simply, Komunyakaa is one of the most extraordinary poets writing today.”

In a poem called “More girl than boy,” the narrator says, “You always could make that piano/talk like somebody’s mama.”

Please open your lucky ears and welcome Yusef Komunyakaa.