Yusef Komunyakaa wins the 2021 Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award

The Zbigniew Herbert Foundation has announced the winner of the 2021 Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, which honours Yusef Komunyakaa, an African-American living in the United States, a Vietnam War veteran, and a poet inspired by jazz and blues.

"Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the most original and expressive poets of our time. His voice, combining the experiences of a black man born in the American South, a soldier who fought in Vietnam, an artist raised in the jazz and blues tradition, yet writing about the most painful experiences of contemporary life in the USA, is, all at once, universal, referring to the traditions of many cultures. Despite the painful themes he tackles, his poetry is never dry, on the contrary - it has great sensual energy, it is the poetry of dance and love, a song in honour of life and existence," Tomasz Różycki, chairman of the Jury, justified the verdict.

"Just like Zbigniew Herbert, Komunyakaa is an avant-garde classicist, never forgetting ethics, the 'tables of values'. His work, characterised by a unique poetic artistry, can be read as a lifelong search for peace, freedom, and social justice," emphasised another member of the Jury, Edward Hirsch, American poet and essayist.

The laureate himself wrote, “I am honored to receive this year’s Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award. Especially since the award bears the name of a poet whom I truly admire. I remember when I first read Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry in an issue of »Field« magazine published at Oberlin College in Ohio. Indeed, literature travels; I am thankful to be initiated into the tradition, one that crosses both geographical and cultural borders, as well as borders of time and space. One’s work (…) grows when it comes in contact with others. (…) I often trust a persona to render a deeper truth of our world, and, in this sense (…) I envy the poet whose name this award bears, who conjured the great persona, Mr. Cogito. I am blessed to know that no topic is taboo, when language reveals truth. I believe poetry is an action, and I believe the great poet, Zbigniew Herbert, would have agreed with me.”

Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947 in the town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. He grew up in the US South at a time of racial segregation and terror brought on by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1969, he enlisted in the army, was sent to Vietnam, and it was there, during the war, that he began to write. He published his first volume of poems in the second half of the 1970s, American critics discovered him in 1984, after the publication of the collection Copacetic, which refers to jazz by its title (in the slang of professional jazzmen - ‘well composed’). Komunyakaa has published several volumes of poetry to date, has written librettos for jazz operas, edited poetry anthologies, won the Pulitzer Prize (in 1994, for the volume Neon Vernacular), and is a university lecturer. His work is part of the tradition of African-American literature, but, at the same time, it crosses its boundaries, eagerly referring to European culture, antiquity, or Shakespeare.

Polish readers could get acquainted with his works thanks to the volume Praising Dark Places (translated into Polish by Katarzyna Jakubiak), which was published in Poland in 2005. In recognition of Komunyakaa’s Zbigniew Herbert award, the Krakow-based publishing house Znak has prepared a new, greatly expanded edition of this retrospective selection of poems, which will soon be available in bookshops under the title Niebieska godzina (“Blue Hour”). Jerzy Illg, Znak’s editor-in-chief, points out that the poetry contains "numerous polonica. Komunyakaa visited our country many a time, and thus Hasior's sculptures, the murdered professors of the Jagiellonian University, and the anonymous victims of the Holocaust gained poetic testimony from the African-American artist.”

The Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award is a distinction in the field of world literature – mainly in the field of poetry. The award has been granted since 2013 for outstanding artistic and intellectual achievements relating to the ideas that guided the work of Zbigniew Herbert. Previous laureates include W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Ryszard Krynicki, Lars Gustafsson, Breyten Breytenbach, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Agi Miszol, and Durs Grünbein.

"In the academic year 1970/1971, Herbert and I lived in Pasadena, my husband was a lecturer at the California State College there, taught American students about Rimbaud and Rilke. He himself was working on a volume of “Mr Cogito”, the hero of which fell to the heart of this year's laureate. Although Herbert was primarily interested in European culture, he obviously recognised the tragic plight of African-Americans, and instinctively sided with, as he put it, 'the humiliated and the beaten'. I am sure that today he would be happy that the award named after him goes to a representative of this very culture, which is only nowadays acquiring its full rights," recalled Katarzyna Herbert, the poet's widow and founder of the Foundation.

"Zbigniew Herbert once said that he was particularly interested in those nations or peoples who had "failed in history", adding, thinking about the Poles: "we haven't really done very well either". He valued freedom, the heroic struggle to defend or conquer it, and therefore I believe he would have been in favour of granting the award to Yusef Komunyakaa. His assessment of contemporary American poetry of his time would also fit this choice, as he said that it is "maximalist, courageous, and attempts to provide answers to the issues besetting contemporary man," summarised Andrzej Franaszek, secretary of the Award and author of the two-volume book Herbert. Biografia (“Herbert. Biography").

The winner was named by a Jury consisting of poets, essayists, translators, and publishers: Yuri Andruchowycz (Ukraine), Edward Hirsch (USA), Michael Krüger (Germany), Mercedes Monmany (Spain), and Tomasz Różycki (Poland).

The award ceremony will take place on 15 September 2021 in Teatr Polski in Warsaw. A direct live broadcast of the ceremony will be available on the Zbigniew Herbert Foundation social media accounts.