Slam, Dunk, & Hook
Slam, Dunk, & Hook
Yusef Komunyakaa is considered one of the most gifted poets of his generation, and critics acclaim the way his work transcends barriers of race and gender. At the same time, however, in the poems of Magic City, Komunyakaa draws heavily on his own experiences as a young black child and adolescent growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in the 1950s—a time when the town was segregated under Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan dominated local culture. In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," Komunyakaa depicts a group of African American youth engaged in a street basketball game, with undercurrents of anger, grief, danger, and the almost mystical beauty of movement.
"Slam, Dunk, & Hook" was first published in the Summer 1991 issue of the journal Callaloo. The poem was later included in Komunyakaa's 1992 collection, Magic City, and again in the 2001 collection, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems.
In an essay in Blue Notes (2000), Komunyakaa writes, "Poetry is the primary medium I have chosen because of the conciseness, the precision, the imagery, and the music in the lines. I think of language as our first music." The poem "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" illustrates these qualities. In a poem based on the rhythms of jazz and the basketball court, Komunyakaa compactly addresses the thorny issues of race, grief, and power.
Yusef Komunyakaa was born in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on April 29, 1947, the oldest of six children. Bogalusa was a paper mill town where Jim Crow laws segregated the African American residents from the white, and the Ku Klux Klan maintained a stronghold. Komunyakaa began writing during high school, composing a long poem in rhymed quatrains for his graduation, although he reports that his shyness prevented him from reading it to anyone. During these years he listened to jazz and the blues, music that deeply influenced his writing.
After graduating from high school, Komunyakaa enlisted in the United States Army. His duty included a tour of Vietnam during the height of the war, where he served as a correspondent for and editor of Southern Cross, a military magazine. He earned a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam.
After his return to the United States, he attended the University of Colorado, earning a bachelor of arts in 1975. His verse began appearing in small journals during this period, and he published his first chapbook, Dedications and Other Darkhorses, in 1977, and his second collection, Lost in the Bonewheel Factory in 1979. He continued his education at Colorado State University, receiving a master of arts degree in 1979, and at the University of California, Irvine, receiving an master of fine arts degree in 1980. Komunyakaa took a teaching position at the University of New Orleans in 1982, later moving to Bloomington, Indiana, to begin his tenure at Indiana University, a post he held until 1996.
Komunyakaa slowly gained critical attention during these years, receiving fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His first major collection, Copacetic, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 1984, and from this point on, he was a nationally recognized poet. Komunyakaa drew on his Vietnam experiences for some of the poems (and the title) of this volume, as he did in his subsequent book, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. It was not until his groundbreaking 1988 collection, Dien Cai Dau, however, that he fully mined the Vietnam War experience.
In the following years, Komunyakaa dug into the memories of his youth, publishing "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" in the journal Callaloo in 1991. The poem was included in a collection about growing up in Bogalusa called Magic City in 1992.
In 1994, Komunyakaa published the highly regarded Neon Vernacular, a volume that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the William Faulkner Award from the University of Rennes in France. After leaving Indiana in 1996, he taught at a number of universities, including Princeton, where he served as the Humanities Professor of Creative Writing beginning in 1998. Later, Komunyakaa's career took him to the graduate creative writing program at New York University where, as of 2008, he holds the position of Distinguished Senior Poet.
A prolific and profound writer, Komunyakaa's poetry volumes include Thieves of Paradise (1998); Talking Dirty to the Gods (2000); Pleasure Dome (2001); Taboo: The Wishbone Trilogy, Part I (2004); and Warhorses (2008). In 2006, he also cowrote with Chad Gracia a verse play based on the Gilgamesh epic. With each passing year, Komunyakaa further establishes himself as one of the most important voices in American poetry.
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury's
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk 5
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters. 10
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We'd corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good 15
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet … sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling, 20
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy's mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard 25
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack 30
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn't know 35
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous. 40
"Slam, Dunk, & Hook" is a poem of forty short, unrhymed lines. The poem is overtly about a group of young African American men playing basketball in the Deep South during the 1950s or 1960s. The narrator is a member of the group and includes himself in the descriptions.
The poem opens with two two-word phrases describing basketball moves, before quickly moving to a classical allusion to the Roman god Mercury. Mercury (called Hermes by the Greeks) was the messenger of the gods and was known for his swiftness. He wore wings on his shoes, designating speed. The word mercurial comes from Mercury and signifies quick, unpredictable, and changing movement. Thus, when Komunyakaa refers to the young men wearing Mercury's symbol on their shoes, he is suggesting that the players move quickly and unexpectedly. In addition, because of the wings on their feet, they are able to outwit and outmove evil people who would trip them up. His reference in line 4 suggests that these people may be members of the Ku Klux Klan. In lines 4 through 6, he describes a basketball going easily through a basketball net from a distance.
In line 7, Komunyakaa makes a second classical allusion when he mentions a labyrinth, or maze. In Greek mythology, King Minos ordered the builder Daedalus to construct a large maze that would contain the ferocious monster, the Minotaur, at its heart. A maze is a place that confuses those who enter, and causes them to lose their bearings. Thus, Komunyakaa is suggesting that the players, with their swift and unpredictable moves, are creating a confusing scene for not only the opposing players but also for the white establishment as well. These lines also suggest that the players themselves are nearly mythological, performing moves and feats only possible by young gods.
In lines 11 through 17, Komunyakaa uses a series of musical terms and images, including a treble tone that lingers and the sharp rap of a drum, to further describe the players and their basketball shots. The scene is one of high energy and movement, the players twisting and turning in the air. He also references a skullcap, a particular type of headgear, often called a kufi, worn by African Americans; in the poem, the skullcap symbolically disintegrates under the sheer force of the game. In line 17, Komunyakaa references a poetic form developed in the nineteenth century by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who connected the rhythm to the cadences of normal speech as well as early English poetry. Komunyakaa forms a pun in this line as he depicts the players springing toward the net, and a second pun on poetic metrical feet and the appendages of the young men. (A pun is a play on words that are identical or similar in sound but have different meanings.) In line 18, the narrator suggests that the players transcend their physical bodies in response to the encouragement of the young women who watch them play. Again, in the next sentence, Komunyakaa turns to sharp descriptions of action.
The sentence, however, ends on a religious image. The basketball net is attached to a large tree with a nail. This image suggests that the young men may view the hoop as a holy object; just as Christ was nailed to a piece of wood, so is the hoop. On the other hand, the image is also troubling because of instances in which young black men in the South were lynched from trees, or in extreme cases, nailed to them.
The poem shifts suddenly in line 24, when the narrator tells the reader that one of their members has lost his mother. On the day that she expired, the young man continuously engaged in shooting baskets for a full day, finally breaking the wood behind the net. This moment, while important to the overall poem, is inserted quickly before the narrator turns once again to describing the present action. Line 29 is also troubling. In its original publication in the journal Callaloo in 1991, line 29 is a two-word line. (Later publications of the poem move a word from the end of line 28 to the beginning of line 29.) Komunyakaa ends the sentence he has begun in line 28, describing the movement of the ball, mid-line in line 29. He thus completes a section on ball handling before abruptly turning to a new image, sentence, and thought mid-line. The second word of line 29, as the first word of a sentence, is capitalized. In addition, it starts with a hard "t" sound, drawing attention to the sudden insertion of evil into the poem. Although unnamed, it is likely that Komunyakaa is referring to a white policeman watching the boys play ball as he smacks a weapon in his hand. This action is described in line 30, reminding the young men of the power structure of their community.
Komunyakaa completes the image of the white policeman in line 31. Then the poem once again turns to a description of the players' movements as they fake out each other with tricky maneuvers. The narrator suggests that the players are transported beyond themselves, finding that they can move intuitively and instinctively, in ways they did not even know that they knew. In line 38, Komunyakaa asserts that the young men slip through a knot. The image is troubling because it brings to mind the lynchings of young black men. Here, however, the young men experience joy in their jumping. The poem ends as the players reach the knowledge that they are lovely to behold, but have powerful destructive potential as well.
Although "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" appears to be a poem about a group of young men playing basketball, it is also a poem about power, both physical and cultural power. The young men described in this poem are at the peak of their physical prowess. The narrator describes difficult maneuvers that the young men accomplish easily. Indeed, they seem to exist on some higher plane than the rest of humanity in this poem, accomplishing remarkable feats of physical grace while shooting hoops. Their strength is in their muscles, sinews, and bones.
Cultural power in this poem is not named but referenced obliquely. In line 29, Komunyakaa inserts the image of someone wielding a hand weapon. The weapon Komunyakaa refers to, sometimes called a truncheon, nightstick, or slap, is a rubber baton with a handle grip, weighted at one end. This weapon is often used by police to break up fights, riots, or other incidents in which they do not use guns. (In a particularly gruesome and difficult example, contemporary readers might recall the 1991 images of Rodney King, an African American man, being beaten with batons by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The beating was caught on videotape by a bystander.) The choice of the baton as a weapon is particularly potent, within the context of the poem. During the 1950s and early 1960s, young black men were routinely harassed by white policeman wielding batons or nightsticks. The baton itself became a symbol of police brutality and misuse of power. In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," therefore, the image of a policeman watching the basketball game, smacking one hand with a baton held in another hand, is a reminder of the unequal balance of power between the races. It also serves to suggest that the white power structures fear the grace and physical prowess of the African American youth playing basketball.
The final lines of the poem allude to yet another manifestation of power. The young men playing basketball are not merely physically powerful, they are also beginning to understand the importance of teamwork to achieve goals other than baskets. Just as in basketball they use strength and strategy to win the game, the coming fight for civil rights in the United States for all people will require courage, strength, wit, subterfuge, and strategy. The white establishment in this poem is right to consider the young men deadly; their anger over their ongoing mistreatment and oppression, percolating under the surface, will soon erupt in protests and riots across the nation. Komunyakaa, writing in 1991, has the wisdom of hindsight to impart to "Slam, Dunk, & Hook." He knows what the near future will hold for these young men. Thus, the expression of the last line of "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," asserting that the players are not only lovely to behold but also powerfully intent on achieving their goals and powerfully poised to overthrow their oppressors, rings as a prophecy.
Grief and Anger
In lines 24 through 26, Komunyakaa inserts the image of a young black man called Sonny Boy who has just lost his mother. Sonny Boy's response to his mother's death is to play basketball continuously. His play is so hard and pounding that his shots end up shattering the wooden board behind the net. Although this image extends for only two short lines, it is a striking expression of both grief and anger. As a young black man in the 1950s South, Sonny Boy is rendered powerless by legal and social strictures of the day. His outlet is the basketball court, where, in the fast-paced movement of feet, hands, muscle, and sinew, he finds a language to express his rage and his grief.
These brief lines also serve to demonstrate the way Komunyakaa evokes strong emotion in his poems without ever naming the emotion or referring to it directly. It is left up to the reader to connect the force of Sonny Boy's play with the emotional force that drives him, and it is up to the reader to name just what that emotion is. Indeed, by leaving so much unspoken in "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," Komunyakaa encourages the reader to feel the grief and anger inside his or her muscles and bones, not merely read the words on the page.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- With a small group of classmates, prepare a multimedia presentation for your class on the topic of Jim Crow laws. Be sure to include a history of the laws that created a segregated society in the South. Use photos, music, poetry, essays, and historical statements in your presentation.
- Working with your classmates, organize a public reading of sports poems, written by both male and female writers, ranging from the 1950s to the present. Prepare introductory remarks for each poem, describing why you have selected it for inclusion in the reading.
- Komunyakaa is often compared to poet Robert Hayden. Research this poet, gathering biographical details as well as samples of his poetry. Then read some of the other poems in Magic City. Write an essay comparing and contrasting some of Komunyakaa's poems from Magic City with those of Hayden.
- Research the characteristics of jazz, and then listen to recordings by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. How does Komunyakaa's poetry reflect the rhythms of jazz? Select another poem from Magic City and write an essay analyzing it from the perspective of rhythm and sound. Use specific examples from the poem to illustrate and support your assertions.
In poetry, when critics speak of a motif, they mean a recurring image, subject, symbol, or detail that unifies a creative work. Readers at times confuse theme and motif, although the two can be distinguished easily if one remembers that the theme of an artistic work is not the same as the subject. That is, the theme is an abstract statement about the subject. A motif, on the other hand, is the device that a writer uses to develop his thematic concerns. In the case of "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," Komunyakaa uses the motif of basketball. Readers can easily identify
that this poem is, on the surface, about basketball. In addition, readers can bring to the poem everything that they know about basketball; for example, anyone who has watched a basketball game knows that it is a fast, powerful, highly competitive game in which players attempt to disguise their movements toward the basket. At the same time, basketball, while the ostensible subject of the poem, serves to help Komunyakaa develop and reinforce his thematic concerns of anger, grief, oppression, and power. The sensory details of the players's movements as they dodge, feint, and shoot the ball unifies the poem and allows Komunyakaa to make concrete the abstract notion of injustice.
In 1877, English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins developed a poetic meter known as sprung rhythm. While he acknowledged himself as a practitioner of the form, he never credited himself as its inventor. Rather, he believed that the form not only reflected the cadences of spoken English, it also hearkened back to the earliest Old English verse and continued into the time of William Shakespeare. Contemporary critics also see sprung rhythm reemerging in the free verse forms of the modernists.
Typically in poetry, meter is discussed in terms of accented and unaccented syllables, organized into "feet," or groups. For example, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable is called an iamb. When there are five such feet in a line, it is called iambic pentameter, the meter used by Shakespeare in his sonnets and soliloquies, and John Milton in Paradise Lost. Regular meter requires feet that observe the organizational structure of the line; thus, iambic pentameter requires that each line have five unaccented syllables paired with five accented syllables. For example, the following is a sentence written in iambic pentameter: "The time has come for us to go away."
Hopkins, however, through sprung rhythm, breaks free of the jurisdiction of the line, spreading feet across the ends of lines into the next line. Quite simply, then, sprung rhythm utilizes irregular feet comprised of one accented syllable alone, or one accent syllable followed by an unspecified number of unaccented syllables (generally fewer than four, however).
In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," Komunyakaa adapts Hopkins' sprung rhythm to his characteristically short lines, carrying feet from one line to the next. Each line has two or three accented syllables, followed by one to four unaccented syllables. The result is a poem that mimics the irregular, but marked, rhythms of jazz and the basketball court. The evidence that Komunyakaa intends to use sprung rhythm is manifold: first, in the strong stresses he places on individual syllables; second, in the way that he avoids the end stop and chooses instead to carry meaning and meter across lines; and third, by a direct reference in line 17, where he uses the term to describe the movement of the players' appendages.
First-Person Plural Point of View
The narrator of a poem or story is the voice that "speaks" the poem or the story. The point of view describes the relationship of the narrator to the events he or she narrates. For example, a first-person narrator will use the pronoun "I" and tell the events of the poem from the limited perspective of a single person. A third-person narrator may not be identifiable as a character or a voice but rather seem to be the voice of the author, who knows all. Such a point of view is often referred to as third-person omniscient.
A less common point of view is the first-person plural, told from a collective "we" point of view. Readers may have experienced this point of view in the short story by Mississippi writer William Faulkner, "A Rose for Emily." Like Faulkner, Komunyakaa chooses the first-person plural point of view for "Slam, Dunk, & Hook." By so doing, he places the narrator within a community of shared values and beliefs. The narrator, in effect, becomes the representative voice of that community. In the case of "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," the narrator is one of the group of basketball players. He shares their experiences, their frustrations, their fears, their joys, and their physical prowess.
At the same time, however, the narrator is also an observer of the community. The poem is written in past tense, a small vignette from the narrator's past that has assumed significance in the years that followed. Thus, the narrator speaks to readers of the poem from a double consciousness: he is at once a basketball player, jumping for shots, and an older voice, probably of someone who has left the community, who recalls those hot summer days when trouble was just around the corner.
While the poems of Magic City are based on Komunyakaa's memories of growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, it would be a mistake to necessarily identify the narrator with Komunyakaa himself. The basketball game he describes might have been one he participated in or not; there is no way to tell. However, it is possible for Komunyakaa to draw deeply from the shared sense of community and create a first-person plural narrator who can speak for the group, a narrator who can provide a voice for a people who were voiceless.
Jim Crow was originally a character in a nineteenth-century minstrel show, played by a white man performing a caricature of a black man, dancing and singing silly songs. The character became standard during that century, and came to represent a stereotypical image of black inferiority. Ultimately, the term became connected to racist laws that not only deprived African Americans of their rights but also defined them as a subordinate and inferior group of people.
In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a landmark decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the concept of "separate but equal." That is, the decision stated that states could segregate facilities by race so long as both African Americans and whites had equal facilities. In reality, while facilities were indeed separated, they were scarcely equal, with African Americans forced to attend inferior schools with few resources, to use restroom facilities that were substandard or nearly non-existent, and to ride in train cars and bus seats in undesirable locations, separated from whites.
Plessy v. Ferguson heralded an era in which states passed laws that impinged on every part of African American life. African Americans could not sit with white people in a theater, they could not work with white people, their children could not swim in public swimming pools with white people, nor could they eat in white-only restaurants. States even outlawed marriage between whites and African Americans. Through what were known as miscegenation laws, many states continued to ban interracial marriage until these laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967.
Sports teams were also segregated, with African Americans banned from playing professional sports with white players. It was not until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play major league baseball. Likewise, Nat Clifton in 1951 became the first African American to play in the National Basketball League. Although the sports teams were slowly integrated, the laws dictating where team members could sleep and eat in the South were not changed immediately.
Likewise, Jim Crow laws prevented African Americans from participating in American democracy. When an African American showed up at a polling place to cast a vote, the person was often met by laws that required the person to pay a poll tax, or pass a literacy test, before being allowed to vote. As a result, few African Americans were able to make their voices heard.
As if the Jim Crow laws were not bad enough, many states did not have anti-lynching statutes on their books. As a result, young African American men in particular lived dangerous lives. Any
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: So-called Jim Crow laws continue to limit the civil rights of African American citizens throughout the South, including the right to vote, hold property, and use public facilities on an equal basis with white citizens.
1990s: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, guaranteeing that all persons are entitled to full and equal civil rights under the law, without segregation or discrimination, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin, remains the law of the land. In 1991, due to a series of court decisions limiting the rights of workers, the United States Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the first major civil rights legislation since 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 ensures the right to a jury for persons pursuing a discrimination claim against an employer.
Today: In January 2008, Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat from Massachusetts) and Congressman John Lewis (Democrat from Georgia), along with a number of additional senators, introduce the Civil Rights Act of 2008. The promise of the Act is to provide clear remedy for those who have been discriminated against, thus holding employers and school officials accountable for the treatment of minorities under their jurisdiction.
- 1950s: African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks breaks a literary color barrier by winning the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Annie Allen.
1990s: African American writers are finding a wide and receptive audience for their work. In 1994, Komunyakaa wins a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Neon Vernacular. Novelist Toni Morrison becomes the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, and Rita Dove becomes the first African American poet laureate of the United States in the same year.
Today: African American writers are among the best-selling and most esteemed writers in the United States today, regularly winning nominations for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award, among many others.
- 1950s: Schools throughout the South are segregated, with African American children prohibited from attending schools with white students. In the North, de facto segregation (segregation as a matter of fact and not law) also exists, with most African Americans attending largely black schools. Universities likewise are segregated, and few African American professors teach in the United States except at historically black universities and colleges such as Howard, Stillman, and Tuskeegee. In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka calls for an end to segregation in public schools. Many school systems and communities publicly resist integration or are slow to comply with the court's mandate.
1990s: While public school systems have ended legal segregation, some de facto segregation still exists. Pressure is placed on historically black colleges and universities to integrate, based on the 1992 Supreme Court ruling U.S. v. Fordice. Universities and colleges with a majority white population often utilize affirmative action, sometimes called racial preferencing, in their admissions process, thereby increasing the number of minority students enrolled.
Today: A racial divide in many cities persists. However, African American and white students attend classes together and on an equal basis. Likewise, some of the leading professors at universities across the United States are African American. Affirmative action in college admissions has been outlawed in states such as California and Michigan, leading to a decline of minority students at some universities.
violation of the strictly enforced code of racial etiquette could be met with a beating, tarring and feathering, or at worst, a lynching. As a result, many African Americans survived by pretending to be subservient and nonconfrontational, hiding their true thoughts and intentions.
The 1954 Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in regard to schools; ultimately, the decision undermined and struck down all Jim Crow laws, but not without a long and difficult struggle on the part of African Americans. On Tuesday, July 29, 2008, The House of Representatives of the United States passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for slavery and for the Jim Crow era.
The Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan began in the nineteenth century as a secret society of white men, who, through vigilantism and terror, attempted to control the African American population of the South by burning churches and schools and murdering those who did not adhere to strict racial etiquette designed to maintain the superior position of white people. Although the federal government broke up the Klan in the 1870s, it reemerged, according to Richard Wormser in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, in 1915, and by the 1920s, had become a nationwide, powerful force. Many politicians were associated with the Klan during this era. In the South, police and local government officials by day were often white-robed, hooded Klan vigilantes by night.
According to Angela M. Salas, in an article appearing in College Literature, Komunyakaa's home town of Bogalusa "had an active, intimidating Klan presence" during Komunyakaa's youth and adolescence. The young basketball players in the poem "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" could be targets for Klan violence, particularly as the early civil rights movement began in the mid-1950s. Tellingly, as Salas asserts, Bogalusa "was also the birthplace of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of African American men who exercised armed resistance to white racist oppression." The tension that inheres in "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" between beauty and danger, then, has at its roots racial confrontation, the basketball players representing a new breed of young African Americans who refuse to be oppressed any longer.
Komunyakaa's work has been widely lauded by critics. Angela M. Salas, writing in College Literature in 2003 suggests that this is due to "readers' and critics’ sense that his is an ‘authentic’ voice, the voice of a man who has been to the places and experienced the things of which he writes." Certainly, in the poems of Magic City, the collection including "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," there is a sense that Komunyakaa is examining his own life through a poetic lens.
Just as critics found much to praise in Komunyakaa's earlier volumes, Magic City elicited strong positive reviews. Jennifer Richter, writing in Callaloo in 1994, asserts that "for its keen eye, its rich language, and for the honest answers it offers … Magic City ranks as Komunyakaa's best book to date."
The theme of racism runs through many of the best poems, and critics are quick to note this. Susan Conley, writing in the Spring 1997 issue of Ploughshares, asserts,
In Magic City … Komunyakaa turned back to his youth, revisiting it with an unflinching eye. The result is poetry that refuses to offer a simple reprieve for our history of racism, poetry that insists we pay witness to life in all its contradictions.
Likewise, Richter sees in the collection "the almost overwhelming issues of race."
Other critics focus on the craft and sophistication of Komunyakaa's poems, noting in particular his wide knowledge and use of classical, Shakespearian, musical, and popular culture allusions. David Wojahn, for example, writing in the December 2001 issue of Poetry, notes,
There's a synthesizing erudition at work in Komunyakaa's poems that makes for some surprising linkages…. It's as though the associational play at work in Komunyakaa's metaphors … can also be found in the way he makes use of literary and musical allusions.
Likewise, other critics have asserted that Komunyakaa draws on the work of other writers, musicians, and historical figures in his work. Michel Fabre, in a speech printed in the Southern Quarterly in 1996, notes that Komunyakaa's poetry, "like that of [poet Ezra] Pound, makes much use of intertextuality." Salas argues in her book Flashback through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa that Komunyakaa uses allusion as a way of compacting meaning: "Allusion, in Magic City, is used … as a technical device to achieve compression of meaning rather than a tool to intimidate readers."
Not all reviews of Magic City have been completely positive. Calvin Bedient, in a review of Magic City appearing in the June 1993 issue of Poetry, writes, "The poems tend to stick so close to imaginatively colored grounds that they lack vistas, just as they lack marked development…. Magic City lacks the ferocious concentration necessary to convert memory into revelation." Bedient, however, is nearly alone in his analysis. Far more typical is the critical response of Kirkland C. Jones, who states in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Yusef Komunyakaa has come of age, not only as a Southern-American or African-American bard, but as a world class poet."
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a college professor and literary critic who writes widely on contemporary literature. In this essay, she closely examines Komunyakaa's prosody, demonstrating how the rhythms of jazz and the basketball court figure in both the structure and meaning of "Slam, Dunk, & Hook."
The poems of Komunyakaa's Magic City are often discussed in relationship to the poet's life and to the historical context of the 1950s and 1960s. Angela M. Salas, for example, argues in an article in College Literature, "In Magic City Komunyakaa makes an imaginative return to his childhood home of Bogalusa, Louisiana." She adds that the volume is "marked by the time and place Komunyakaa reflects upon: the pre-Civil Rights, Jim Crow South." Salas also locates Komunyakaa's themes within this framework, calling the collection "an extended meditation upon race, class, and gender, and how these things mark, indeed, vex, the lives of those with whom Komunyakaa grew up."
There is little doubt that the poems of Magic City, including "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," can be read in just such a manner. At the same time, however, it is possible to overlook Komunyakaa's supreme artistry by concentrating solely on historical and autobiographical details. He is a master craftsman, a poet who uses the devices of poetry so deftly that the brilliance can go unnoticed in the sheer power of the poem. Therefore, while "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" is surely a poem about rage, grief, fear, pride, danger, and beauty, set in an historic period in the South, it is also a poem that can be fruitfully discussed in terms of technique. In other words, studying how the poem means can be an important aspect of determining what the poems means.
Perhaps the most noticeable device employed by Komunyakaa in "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" is his prosody, the metrical and rhythmic quality of the work. As David Wojahn remarks in a review of Pleasure Dome in Poetry:
[Komunyakaa has] found a prosody so characteristic that it's hard to mistake one of his stanzas for anyone else's. When these qualities come together at their frequent best, the writing has an implosive quality that makes even his shortest lyrics quite powerful.
In other words, although Komunyakaa does not write in regular meter, the overall rhythmical quality of his work is not only structural but essential to the meaning of the poem itself. As Wojahn continues, "[Komunyakaa] favors short lines, few of them longer than three-beats, and surprising enjambments…. His writing has a jittery and hyper-kinetic quality."
In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" there are two strong influences on Komunyakaa's prosody: jazz and the sounds of a basketball game. Fran Gordon, introducing an interview with the poet in Poets & Writers magazine, notes that "Komunyakaa was raised on the blues and jazz of his birthplace." Indeed, Komunyakaa makes frequent reference to the influence of jazz on his work in interviews, speeches, and essays.
More than melody, more than lyrics, it is rhythm that makes jazz jazz. Specifically, musicians use syncopation, the unexpected accenting of a note, to delight and surprise listeners. Four-four time, also called common time because of its prevalence in the music of Western culture, is a musical meter that has four beats to each measure of music. Listeners expect to hear the rhythmic stresses in four-four time on each of four beats to the measure, with the strongest stress on the first beat. This is regardless of the number of notes in the measure. In a measure comprised of eighth notes in four-four time, for example, there would still be four beats in a measure, but there would be eight notes. In this case, a listener would expect an accented downbeat followed by an unaccented upbeat, for a total of four accented downbeats and four unaccented upbeats. In syncopated rhythms, however, the stress might fall on the upbeat, rather than the downbeat. Further, a musician might unexpectedly lengthen or shorten a note, forcing the stress to fall just off the beat. The overall effect is one of surprise. Indeed, ragtime music, the early precursor to jazz, was so called because of the "raggedy" rhythms it employed, with its accents in unexpected places.
The "jittery and hyper-kinetic" quality that Wojahn refers to in Komunyakaa's poetry is much like the use of syncopation in jazz. Komunyakaa increases this effect through his use of enjambment, a device through which a poet does not end a line with a grammatical resting place, punctuated with a period or a comma. That is, the syntactical unit, such as a sentence, clause, or phrase, is carried on to the next line rather than ending with the line. This forces the reader to continue to the next line to understand the meaning of the sentence, clause, or phrase. As a corollary, enjambment also often results in pauses or stops called "caesuras" in the middle of a line. Again, the unexpected flow of meaning across lines juxtaposed with a sudden caesura midline throws off the reader's expectations, in much the same way that jazz rhythms do, with sudden stops, starts, and unexpected accents.
Similarly, the noises of a basketball game are also rhythmic, although not regular. The dribbling of the ball down the court makes strong beats that speed up or slow down, depending on the play, the player, and the pace of the game. Thus, the downward motion of the ball hitting the floor or ground can be likened to the downbeat in a piece of music, with the upward motion of the ball to the player's hands similar to the upbeat. When a player speeds up play, the beats come faster, and at times, unexpectedly. It is important for players to shift their rhythms in order to mask their intentions. Otherwise, the opposing players will be able to read the play, and the player will not have a shot on the basket. Like jazz, and poetry, basketball depends on surprise, varying rhythms, speed, and the drive to the goal.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In 2006, Komunyakaa teamed up with playwright Chad Gracia to create an adaptation of the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic for the stage. Gilgamesh: A Verse Play (published by Wesleyan) demonstrates the wide range of Komunyakaa's interests and talent.
- Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (1988) contains highly respected poems that reflect Komunyakaa's experience in the Vietnam War.
- Ann Moody's 1992 Coming of Age in Mississippi is a memoir of a young African American woman, growing up in Mississippi during the 1940s and 1950s.
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a novel written by Mildred D. Taylor in 1976, remains one of the most acclaimed young adult novels about an African American girl growing in the South.
- The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1999) is a collection of the essays and poetry of this seminal African American writer.
It is also possible to connect jazz, basketball, and poetry with a discussion of, oddly enough, feet. The jazz player must keep track of the beat in order to vary, disguise, and play with the rhythm; the player will often do so by tapping a foot. With his or her foot marking the regular beat, he or she is free to improvise and swing the rhythm. Likewise, in basketball, the player must keep close track of his or her feet, timing dribbles to his or her movement down the court in order to avoid a double-dribble penalty. Fancy footwork is essential for basketball.
Unexpectedly, it is also possible to talk about poetry in terms of feet. In poetry, accented and unaccented syllables are grouped together in units called feet. Komunyakaa employs what is known as "sprung rhythm" in "Slam, Dunk, & Hook." Sprung rhythm is a form of irregular feet developed by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in the nineteenth century. In sprung rhythm, an accented syllable is followed by an unspecified number of unaccented syllables, comprising a foot of poetry. In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," for example, in line 1, there are three feet. The first foot has one accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable. The second foot repeats this pattern. The third foot, however, has an accented syllable, followed by two unaccented syllables in line 1 and then a third unaccented syllable in line 2.
The carryover of feet between lines mirrors Komunyakaa's use of grammatical enjambment. Thus, not only does a syntactical unit such as a sentence, clause, or phrase become divided up in unexpected ways, so, too, do the metrical units of feet spill from one line to the next in surprising ways. The overall effect is to throw the reader off guard in every way. Readers must be alert to Komunyakaa's movement with words and rhythms in order to keep track of the poem itself.
Yet another device used by jazz musicians is counterpoint. In counterpoint, two melodic lines move against each other. In jazz, this is further complicated by the unexpected rhythms. Thus, in ragtime piano, for example, the left hand might follow one melodic line and rhythm while the right hand traces another. The two hands thus work apart, and together, in a complicated and complex manner.
In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," Komunyakaa opposes what appears to be a local pickup basketball game with the larger picture of race relations in America. The undercurrents of rage move raggedly and unexpectedly against the regular slap of the policeman's baton. Just as the jazz musician and the basketball player hide their intentions until the surprising moment of revelation, Komunyakaa suggests that the young men playing ball also hide their intentions from the white power structures of their time. Their fancy footwork, feints, lunges and dives in the basketball game mirror not only the rhythms of the poem but also the dissembling they must do in order to survive in a country that has stacked power against them.
Komunyakaa's deft handling of jazz rhythms, basketball imagery and sounds, and metrical feet parallels the magical movement of the young basketball stars, who play not only for a win but for their very lives. He augments his meaning in the poem through his prosody, demonstrating his mastery of sound and sense, music and rhythm, image and allusion. "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" is a swing tune, a mourning dance, a demonstration of remarkable prosody, and a treatise on Jim Crow, all at the same time. The attentive reader, like the listener of jazz and the basketball aficionado, will discover something new with each reading of the poem.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following essay, Komunyakaa discusses the influence of growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, on his poetry.
I believe that each of us internalizes a landscape composite of myths and stories, and we carry that psychological terrain within us as we make our way through the world, whether we are facing that green divan that Anna Akhmatova slept on in St. Petersburg or gazing out at Stone Mountain in Georgia, an overlay by which the future is often colored and through which it is often perceived. However, like Lillian Smith—"Miss Lil"—some of us attempt to refashion that inherited landscape through consciousness. That is, we attempt to bring ourselves to an awareness of what has shaped us. Since landscape is both regional and emotional, I learned to meditate on everything around me, people and nature.
Like the word made flesh, the South has been woven through my bones. My collection of poetry, Magic City (1992), is an attempt to capture my early years of growing up in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Coming of age there, I was fully aware of both the natural beauty and the social terror surrounding me. The challenge became to acknowledge and resist this terror. My early emotional life grew into the kind of questions that lead men to ponder philosophy and psychology, eventually guiding me to poetry. I became aware of the troublesome contradictions in my town.
James Baldwin says a black boy can't survive if he doesn't know the score by fourteen. Of course, this is doubly true in the South I knew in the '50s. This was near the time Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi.
But the South was also a mecca of language and images. I learned about the naming of things there. The wrong word could get a man killed. The South taught me how to look at things, to see into the shape and design of reality. I began to take things apart. My first ventures alone were into nature, then into my imagination, which allowed me to exit Bogalusa. I saw things when I didn't, when I wasn't supposed to.
I don't view myself primarily as a southern writer; however, what I depict in my poetry is connected to rural Louisiana. Even in my gazing into a viewfinder as a boy, trying to daydream myself away to Mexico or Japan, into the future, my eyes had been tutored by the green surety and sunlight of that place called home. I continue to pose questions based on my early experiences and observations. While I was briefly in Florida, my mind kept asking, Where is Rosewood? Where are the Seminoles? And, in retrospect, I realize that Bogalusa taught me almost everything I know about writing poetry. It showed me how to get up inside a question and shake it till the insides let go. But home also instructed me in ways to embrace mystery and beauty.
Source: Yusef Komunyakaa, "More Than a State of Mind," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 163-67.
Marilyn Nelson Waniek
In the following excerpt, Waniek addresses poverty, racism, and the friendship of boys in the poems of Magic City, including "Slam, Dunk, & Hook."
…Magic City, Yusef Komunyakaa's eighth book of poems, is punctuated by dramatic encounters, most of them racial. The thrust of the book is clearly autobiographical, yet its subject remains for the most part a point of view, clear-eyed and loving, yet rarely differentiated from the communal "we." Partly a Bildungsroman and partly an album of snapshots by which a neighborhood can remember its history, the book is rooted in family, community, and place. In "Glory," Komunyakaa remembers baseball games played by
… married teenagers
Working knockout shifts daybreak
To sunset six days a week—Already
old men playing ball
In a field between a row of shotgun houses
& the Magazine Lumber Company.
He remembers the cheering children and wives, the daring, impossible catches, how "The old deacons & raconteurs/ Who umpired made an Out or Safe/ Into a song & dance routine." And he understands that "A stolen base or homerun/ Would help another man/Survive the new week."
In several such clearly realized poems the community comes to life and takes on meaning. In "Slam, Dunk, & Hook" a group of boys—"Bugeyed, lanky,/All hands & feet … sprung rhythm"—plays basketball:
… Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair …
They play because
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside, feint,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
While retrospectively standing their poverty and the unspecified but palpable threat of racism with which they live, Komunyakaa at the same time fully enters the memory and the community of boys:
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn't know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.
The poems in which the young Komunyakaa appears as a character are quiet and introspective, their grief caused by something larger than poverty or racism. They mourn the passage of time, "the struggle underneath," inexplicability, love's mystery and that of sex, the pain we inflict, death. In "The Smokehouse" the child prowls through a smokehouse:
I was a wizard
In that hazy world,
& knew I could cut
Slivers of meat till my heart
Grew more human & flawed.
In "My Father's Love Letters" the boy writes weekly letters for his illiterate, father to his mother, who has run away from her husband's beatings:
Words rolled from under the pressure
Of my ballpoint: Love,
Baby, Honey, Please.
Komunyakaa confesses he
… sometimes wanted
to slip in a reminder, how Mary Lou
Williams' "Polka Dots & Moonbeams"
Never made the swelling go down.
But finally he stands humbled by his father's inarticulate love:
… This man,
Who stole roses & hyacinth
For his yard, would stand there
With eyes closed & fists balled,
Laboring over a simple word, almost
Redeemed by what he tried to say.
There is in Komunyakaa'ss work a tendency to let figurative language grow unpruned. This tendency flaws several poems with overwriting. In one poem a disemboweled pig carcass is described as "opened like love,/ From snout to tail." Excuse me, but "like love"? Another poem, "The Millpond," describes time's passing:
Till April oozed sap
Like a boy beside a girl
Squeezing honeycomb in his fists. But would honey squeeze out of a boy's fists any differently because he is "beside a girl"? Sometimes one simple sentence contains as many as three unrelated metaphors and one simile. Occasionally he resorts to the paint-box trick: thinking colors named "fulvous," "molybdate," and "titanous" more poetic than yellow, orange, and white, for example. I'm sorry to say that he often allows himself to be both coy and what Etheridge Knight used to call "fancy-schmancy." Several important stories—most painfully the one about the grandfather whose "true name" Komunyakaa has chosen to carry, are left in misty innuendo. About this grandfather we learn in a poem called "Mismatched Shoes" that "He wore a boy's shoe/ & a girl's shoe." There must be an interesting story there. Enquiring minds want to know.
Despite this criticism, I applaud the courage with which Komunyakaa has confronted his childhood and youth. With his sensitive evocations of the child's sense of the natural world, the driving curiosity of adolescent sexuality, and the slow transformation of the dreamer-child into the poet, he makes a great contribution to one of the newest genres in the canon: the black male epic of self ….
Source: Marilyn Nelson Waniek, Review of Magic City, in Southern Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 405-20.
Bedient, Calvin, Review of Magic City, in Poetry, Vol. 162, No. 3, June 1993.
Conley, Susan, "About Yusef Komunyakaa," in Ploughshares, Vol 23, No. 1, Spring 1997, pp. 202-207.
Davis, Ronald, "From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview," in History of Jim Crow, 2004, http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/history.htm (accessed August 1, 2008).
Fabre, Michael, "On Yusef Komunyakaa," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 5-8.
Gordon, Fran, "Blue Note in a Lyrical Landscape: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa," in Poets & Writers, Vol. 28, No. 6, November-December 2000, pp. 28-33.
Jones, Kirkland C., "Yusef Komunyakaa," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120, American Poets Since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 176-79.
"Kennedy, Lewis, Introduce Civil Rights Act of 2008," http://kennedy.senate.gov/newsroom (accessed September 18, 2008).
Komunyakaa, Yusef, "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," in Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 2001, pp. 300-301.
"Princeton University's ‘Jazz' Poet," in Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 34, Winter 2001-2002, p. 38.
Richter, Jennifer, Review of Magic City, in Callaloo, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 650-52.
Salas, Angela M., "Magic City and the Landscapes of Childhood and Memory," in Flashback through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef of Komunyakaa, Susquehanna University Press, 2004, pp. 88-110.
———, "Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa," in College Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 2003, pp. 32-55.
Wojahn, David, Review of Pleasure Dome, in Poetry, Vol. 179, No. 3, December 2001, pp. 168-73.
Wormser, Richard, "Ku Klux Klan," in Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, 2002, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_kkk.html (accessed September 17, 2008).
Buchwald, Emilie, and Ruth Roston, eds., This Sporting Life: Poems about Sports and Games, 2nd ed., Milkweed Editions, 1998.
The editors have collected in this book poems about swimming, climbing, running, basketball, football, baseball, and racquet sports, with work from such well-known poets as Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Don Welch, and Louise Erdrich.
Komunyakaa, Yusef, Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, edited by Radiclani Clytus, University of Michigan Press, 2000.
In this book, Komunyakaa examines several poets and musicians who have influenced him, followed by four poems that illustrate his points. The book also includes a number of interviews with the poet and concludes with some experimental writing.
———, Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
A large collection of Komunyakaa's poetry, this book includes poems from the poet's early chapbooks, which are no longer in print, as well as many previously uncollected poems. The book also includes significant representation from each of Komunyakaa's pre-2001 collections, including Magic City.
Packard, Jerrold M., American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow, St. Martin's Griffin, 2003.
A very readable overview of the history of segregation in the United States, focusing on the legal statutes (the so-called Jim Crow laws) that both created and upheld institutional racism, including the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the separate-but-equal policies and customs in both the South and the North.