blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Komunyakaa on Poetry

On American Poetry in 1990


What would you say the state of poetry is in America, by any definition? Where do you see poetry going? And where do you think it should go?


I’ve been kicking around the phrase neo-fugitives inside my head. What I mean by it is that there tends to be a fugitive sentiment that can be compared to John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. The creed states that basically the poet shouldn’t get social or political. That he or she should do better to stick with the impressionistic and ethereal to the extent that true feeling evaporates off the oage. That’s much safer, and too often it insures a poet’s empty endurance and superficial reverence in the literary world.

There’s a sameness about American poetry that I don’t think represents the whole people. It represents a poetry of the moment, a poetry of evasion, and I have problems with this. I believe poetry has always been political, long before poets had to deal with the page and white space . . . it’s natural. Probably before Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, banished poets from his ideal state – long before South Africa, Chile, Mississippi, and Marcos in the Philippines suppressing Mila Aguilar and others. There seems to be always some human landscape that creates a Paul Celan. Too many contemporary American poets would love to dismiss this fact. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: Michael Harper, June Jordan, [Carolyn] Forche, [Adrienne] Rich, C. K. Williams, and [Amiri Imamu] Baraka. But still, if you were to take many magazines and cut the names off poems, you would have a single collection that could be by any given poet; you could put one name on it, as if the poems were all by one person. True, a writer can say almost anything in America and have it completely overlooked, yet I think we should have more individual voices.

from "Lines of Tempered Steel: An Interview with Vincente F. Gotera," Callaloo 13:2 (1990)

On Didactic and Representational Poetry


You preface parts 1 and 2 of I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head with quotes from Aimé Césaire’s Poetry and Knowledge and Czeslaw Milosz’s "Dedication," respectively. Césaire contends that the poet’s "entire being [and] experience should become the poem," while Milosz suggests that "poetry which does not save / Nations or people" is deficient. The first poem seems to endorse a more esoteric or cathartic type of poetry; the second advocates a more exoteric, possibly didactic, poetry. I’m wondering which of the two types – the reflective or the instructional – is more important for your poetry? Are the two necessarily distinct?


I think they’re interwoven. I think I can’t have one without the other. But I don’t quite necessarily see Milosz as didactic. I see what’s happening there as a presentation of a certain reality that embraces images that are often beautiful, frightening. I don’t see at all how the attempt to get at the truth is didactic, the attempt to say "I witness this" is didactic. It’s more presentational than anything else – this is what happens, so consequently you don’t have to go through it. You only have to use your imagination to get there, necessarily.

from "The Body Is Our First Music: Interview with Tony Barnstone and Michael Garabedian, Poetry Flash no. 227 (June-July 1998)

What is Poetry?


Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.

from "Notations in Blue: Interview with Radiclani Clytus," in Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews and Commentaries, ed. Radiclani Clytus (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 2000)

Return to Yusef Komunyakaa