Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Celebration and Confrontation: Yusef Komunyakaa in Conversation about Walt Whitman

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Celebration and Confrontation: Yusef Komunyakaa in Conversation about Walt Whitman

Article excerpt

Yusef KomunYaK a a is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry, in- cluding the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1994 collection Neon Vernacular. His many other honors include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Wallace Stevens Award. His most re- cent book, The Chameleon Couch (2011) was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University. The absorptive, kaleidoscopic range of Komunyakaa's verse has led some reviewers to draw parallels between his work and Whitman's-a comparison Komunyakaa has modestly described as "an easy-less than critical-gesture."1 However, while he may not be a "Whitmanesque" poet, Komunyakaa has long displayed a keen interest in Whitman's work, as manifested in the allusions contained within poems such as "Kosmos" (1992), "The Poetics of Paperwood" (1992), and "Praise Be" (2005), as well as references to Whitman that the poet has made in interviews, and his participation in the 2008 PBS documentary American Experience: Walt Whitman. At least one parallel between the two writers is worth preser ving: both defy easy generaliza- tion. For example, Komunyakaa's work often explores the meanings of black experience. Yet race, unquestionably one of the major themes of his poetry, is not a connective thread holding all of it together. Rather, if there is a perpetual theme in Komunyakaa's work, it is the startling diversity that exists within both his own-and the collective-imagi- nation. Whitman's lines from "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand" are a fitting description of Komunyakaa's protean verse, always disclosing the unexpected:

Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught me, behold!

Already you see I have escaped from you.2

The inter view that follows was conducted in New York in August 2010.

-Jacob Wilkenfeld

Jacob Wilkenfeld: What first drew you to Whitman? What were the most significant aspects for you of your first readings of Leaves of Grass ?

Yusef Komunyakaa: I was in high school when I first came across Whit- man's name. And at the time I was reading poetry from the Harlem Renaissance. Before that, I had been reading poems such as Tennyson's "The Eagle," James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation," and Paul Lau- rence Dunbar's "The Colored Soldiers." I went to check out Whitman's poems from the school library, but the volume wasn't on the shelf. The librarian had been instructed to keep Whitman behind the circulation desk. Yet, somehow, I actually checked out the volume. Of course, it was different from Tennyson. It was also different from the Harlem Renais- sance poets (their protest sonnets), and it was definitely different from Poe ("Annabel Lee"). I became immediately caught up in Whitman's language. In retrospect, what was instructive to me was the music in his poetry. And much later, decades later, I found myself reading him again, and it was almost like reading the volume for the first time-Leaves of Grass. But I think my body remembers the music more than my mind remembers the music. There was urgency, an experience underneath the language that surprised me. And his imagination was so huge. That was the thing. His imagination was almost otherworldly at times, but also seemed naturally insightful and encompassing. His references on democracy were interesting, because I had never heard anyone speak so passionately about democracy except possibly James Baldwin, whom I discovered at fourteen. And Baldwin, of course, was constantly talking about the possibility of democracy and of the responsibility to ideas of freedom. I think Whitman, in a certain sense, speaks about responsi- bility, responsibility through, first, the imagination-that one has to imagine another person free before he or she can even see that person, feel that person in a moment of shared freedom.

JW: In the recent PBS American Experience program on W hitman, you single out the auction block scene in "I Sing the Body Electric" as an example of Whitmanian empathetic identification with others, regard- less of their cultural origins. …

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