Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa, here in Central Park, will read in an altogether different garden this Wednesday at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. (SHANA SURECK)

On Mother's Day, mother was away. For a 17-month-old boy, it is evidently an inconvenience to be the child of two poet-parents. On any given holiday, one of them can stray from Trenton's leafy capital neighborhood to give a reading in a place called New York City. And so Jehan - bushy-haired, bright-eyed and blessed with a too-wide smile - made do with the parent who was available.

Yusef Komunyakaa returned from the kitchen of the 5,000-square-foot, 100-year-old house with a handful of Cheerios, which he deposited on Jehan's play station. The little boy clasped a few pieces, looked up expectantly at his father, and waited for a word. A melody. A little life lesson.

Komunyakaa is a musical man, though he plays no instrument. His voice, mellifluous and deep, has a soothing quality. He proceeded through Jehan's lexicon, in which "Cheerios" comes out as if it spells "enchantment." There is "apple" and "ball" and "pear" and, for diversity's sake, "agua," which the astute Jehan understands as the Spanish way to ask for water. Variations on "no" turned the word from stern rebuke to a pleasant alternative. These sounds transfixed Jehan, and he stared contentedly at his 54-year-old dad.

In this musical admiration, the little boy was extending a family tradition. Music was the first poetry of his father. When Komunyakaa was a young man in Bogalusa, La., he made up his own lyrics to the songs he heard on the radio. Words that sounded good, and that came from the heart. It was, it turned out, a developing formula, influenced by the blues and the freedoms of jazz.

In fact, Alison Meyers, director of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, had emphasized the point when she explained why she chose Komunyakaa to lead off the 11th season this Wednesday evening. "My first connection with his poetry was on the page - it engaged me immediately with its uniqueness, originality of language and complex sensitivity. When I heard him read it only deepened my engagement. He inhabits his work. He has the capacity to be moved by the emotion of poems. He isn't performing. He has an organic connection, and a kind of musicality."

Little Jehan is not quite so eloquent in his appreciation. But one word, "Papa," was enough for the moment. And the boy seemed content that a stranger from Connecticut, if not his mother (Reetika Vazirani - author of "White Elephants") inhabited the living room and played with a toy. It was something called a Dell, and it opened up, like a clam. Jehan couldn't take his eyes off of it, and wondered what those words were.

They were words about a man whom Garrett Hongo, author of several acclaimed volumes, calls "the most original poet of his generation." Komunyakaa, a Princeton professor who has won the Pulitzer Prize and an array of other top poetry awards, is the author of 12 books, including the recent anthology, "Pleasure Dome" (Wesleyan University Press). It is a CV that clearly puts him among the most popular poets in America - an eye-opening circumstance for a man who has no intention of pandering to the reading public.

On the one hand, he is well aware of the standing of poets in American popular culture. When people ask him what he does, he replies in one word: writer. And then he hears, commonly, something like this: "Oh, you write novels. Have you written anything that's becoming a movie?" When he reveals he is a poet, he is likely to be asked, "Well, have you ever thought about writing a novel?"

On the other hand, Komunyakaa believes in the resources and innate abilities of readers who open themselves to poetry. It is his view that readers (or listeners) contribute to the poem, as co-readers, by bringing their own experiences to it. And so he is unusually harsh on his own words - slashing away at them, paring to syllables that matter. In this, he is influenced by Thelonius Monk, the late jazz composer and pianist, whom he referred to as a "technician of silence." Komunyakaa refers to silence as "part of the text," and argues that generally we all "say too much to little effect. Writers often do not trust the reader. We want them to understand every word and gesture - this extends to novel writing, and especially memoir writing. I've been asked to write memoirs many times. I've resisted. Memoir tells too much. It would take away from my creative effort."

His poetry relies on a certain level of "verbal innuendo," and does not resolve neatly. This isn't an impediment, even to an audience that doesn't qualify as poetry scholars. When I mentioned that the Sunken Garden attracts some who have little experience at poetry readings, and who worry they won't "get it," he argued on behalf of an inherent human capacity to get the point, in one way or the other - "people will go along with the musical language." He also related an experience in a manufacturing plant near Cincinnati. "I spent a whole day talking to people who'd been there 30 years, and I saw how individuals working at a factory could be drawn to poetry. They pulled out poems from their pockets to show me. They talked about Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes. I had assumed that workers were not reading poetry. But when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. In the 1930s, in the labor movement, workers were listening to folk songs and poets."

At the heart of Komunyakaa's own work are portraits from a period just as rich and difficult. As a young man, he went off to Vietnam with two anthologies of poetry in his duffel. As an information specialist, he reported on the "progress" of the war, but more than that, he recorded in his memory and his notebook scenes that, once translated to verse (beginning in the volume "Dien Cai Dau"), became as eloquent as any fiction and memoir that came out of Vietnam.

"I resisted the topic for so long. It was only 14 years later that I found a way to write about it. If I had written a year after, the work would have been different. I had to discover the importance of aesthetics, the importance of the images." Images are the key to the Komunyakaa body of work. Consider "You and I Are Disappearing."

The cry I bring down from the hills

belongs to a girl still burning

inside my head. At daybreak

she burns like a piece of paper.

She burns like foxfire

in a thigh-shaped valley.

A skirt of flames