Yusef Komunyakaa’s “We Never Know”

Yusef Komunyakaa published his sixth book of poetry, Dien Cai Dau, in 1988. In Vietnamese, the title literally translates to “crazy in the head,” a term that the Vietnamese used to refer to U.S. soldiers fighting in their war-torn country. The poems in Dien Cai Dau, more than any other of Komunyakaa’s books, witness the events he saw and wrote about as an army correspondent during the Vietnam War. Often cited among the best books of poetry written about the Vietnam War — or any war, for that matter — the poems also explore the unique experiences of African American soldiers on the front lines. In 1968 — the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr, was assassinated — African Americans made up roughly 12% of the total Army and Marine soldiers fighting in Vietnam; however, they represented around 50% of the total front-line combat force and suffered significantly higher casualty rates than other soldiers. Komunyakaa’s poems are important in many ways, but especially for bringing attention to the military sacrifices of African Americans in the turbulent 1960s and ’70s.

There’s no other way
to say this: I fell in love.

Komunyakaa would go on to publish many more books of poetry, publish a book of essays and a translation of Vietnamese poetry, and co-edit two important anthologies of Jazz Poetry. Some of his other books focus on the Civil Rights era, his childhood growing up in the segregated South, and his African heritage. His book Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems won both the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1994. In 2001, Komunyakaa won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, widely considered the most prestigious award that can be won by an American poet while living. Komunyakaa currently teaches at New York University.

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Rita Dove’s “Yellow House on the Corner”

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Rita Dove is an award-winning poet and author and the second African-American poet to receive a Pulitzer Prize, which she received in 1987 for her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah. Dove grew up in Ohio, taught for almost a decade at Arizona State University, and eventually settled in Virginia, where she teaches at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Among many awards and honorary doctoral degrees bestowed on her, Dove also served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, one of our country’s most prestigious honors for American poets.

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Sharon Olds’ “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921”

Sharon Olds’ poem “Race Riot, Tulsa, 1921” focuses on the racially-motivated violence that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in which whites burned 35 city blocks in Tulsa’s Greenwood district to the ground. Though records were not kept, it is estimated that as many as 300 black citizens and a dozen white citizens were killed in the riots, and over 10,000 black citizens were left homeless. At the time, the Greenwood area of Tulsa was the wealthiest black community in the United States, also known as the “Black Wall Street”. An estimated 1256 homes, 191 businesses, several churches, a junior high school, and the area’s only hospital were destroyed.

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