Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
— Countee Cullen
It’s his birthday today.
Cullen is often compared to Langston Hughes (my post on Hughes here), seems a little unfair, not to mention reductive. You don’t have to pit these two artists against each other, or set them up in an either/or way … The Harlem Renaissance is such a rich subject, with so many figures and voices. I’m grateful I took a semester in college on the Harlem Renaissance because although some of the poets (Langston Hughes, primarily) had been “covered” in high school humanities classes, there was so much else going on and the course was a beautiful deep dive into the period. Countee Cullen was a major figure.
Langston Hughes took his inspiration from black American forms: blues, jazz, spirituals. He was criticized for this at the time, mainly by other black writers, who protested how they were being portrayed to the white world.
Countee Cullen used strictly European forms. Sonnets, ballads, Elizabethan rhyme schemes. He was criticized for this at the time, mainly by other black writers, for abandoning his heritage, and associating himself with the white world.
So you see where the criticisms were coming from, in both cases. To boil it down: Hughes was criticized for using so-called “low” forms, Cullen was criticized for using so-called “high.”
More about Countee Cullen below the jump:
Here’s a beautiful poem Cullen wrote for his guiding artistic star, John Keats:
To John Keats, Poet, At Spring Time
I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
There never was a spring like this;
It is an echo, that repeats
My last year’s song and next year’s bliss.
I know, in spite of all men say
Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
Yea, even in your grave her way
Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
Spring never was so fair and dear
As Beauty makes her seem this year.
I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,
I am as helpless in the toil
Of Spring as any lamb that bleats
To feel the solid earth recoil
Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats
her tocsin call to those who love her,
And lo! the dogwood petals cover
Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek
White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover
About her shoulders, and kiss her cheek,
While white and purple lilacs muster
A strength that bears them to a cluster
Of color and odor; for her sake
All things that slept are now awake.
And you and I, shall we lie still,
John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
Somehow I feel your sensitive will
Is pulsing up some tremulous
Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
Grow music as they grow, since your
Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
For life that opens death’s dark door.
Though dust, your fingers still can push
The Vision Splendid to a birth,
Though now they work as grass in the hush
Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.
‘John Keats is dead,’ they say, but I
Who hear your full insistent cry
In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,
Know John Keats still writes poetry.
And while my head is earthward bowed
To read new life sprung from your shroud,
Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.
Cullen’s working philosophy was in-depth: he felt strongly about why he did what he did, and he did so very consciously. He called out to other African-American writers to do the same.
Cullen asks in one poem, “What is Africa to me?” Provocative stuff. Such views are probably one of the reasons why Cullen is not more anthologized today, why Hughes is more well-known, because Cullen definitely did not display the “right” attitude (“right” as decided by a future generation, that is).
He addressed his critics in one poem:
To Certain Critics
Then call me traitor if you must,
Shout reason and default!
Say I betray a sacred trust
Aching beyond this vault.
I’ll bear your censure as your praise,
For never shall the clan
Confine my singing to its ways
Beyond the ways of man.
No racial option narrows grief,
Pain is not patriot,
And sorrow plaits her dismal leaf
For all as lief as not.
With blind sheep groping every hill,
Searching an oriflamme,
How shall the shpherd heart then thrill
To only the darker lamb?
Despite the European tradition in which he wrapped himself, Cullen did not ignore his own context, which was that of a black man living in America in the early years of the 20th century. And so let’s underline this because it is extremely important. Countee Cullen expanded the centuries-old white-dominated European-based tradition to include the experience of black Americans. This was – and remains – a major contribution.
A Brown Girl Dead
With two white roses on her breasts,
White candles at head and feet,
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
Lord Death has found her sweet.
Her mother pawned her wedding ring
To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing
to see herself tonight.
He used highly structured forms and sometimes archaic language, but the poems handle the subjects of racism and prejudice and oppression. He wrote one poem about a waiter in Atlantic City (based on his own experiences), and the poem is so sweeping in scope and yet so condensed in style/meter, it manages, in just four stanzas, to articulate the injustice of racism.
For him to be humble who is proud
Needs colder artifice.
Read that again. And again.
Countee Cullen did not live long. He was born in 1903 and died in 1946. In his short life he accomplished a great deal. He was highly educated, and did his master’s thesis on Edna St. Vincent Millay (a poet he was influenced by – my post about her here). He married the daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, but she left him a couple months after the wedding. He was most probably gay. He published a lot. He got a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent a year in Paris, he published five books of poetry, a novel, he translated Euripedes’ Medea, he wrote plays, and was a major figure at the time. His star fell in the coming years due to his “incorrect” attitudes. The past is often more complex and nuanced and diverse than contemporary critics acknowledge.
Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen represent two opposite poles of, essentially, the same experience. It’s not that you can’t have one without the other. It’s that both are of value, and the tension between the two shows the vastness of what was really going on – a plus-side not a negative. Generations of poets revere John Keats, including Keats’ contemporaries: Keats is the Poet Among Poets, the Ultimate Poet. Countee Cullen absorbed a tradition which had excluded him, for centuries – but after Cullen, that same culture HAD absorbed him. He carved out new space within that tradition. This is major. H.L. Mencken, one of the first to publish Cullen’s work, recognized it instantly.
Cullen’s poem “Incident” is probably his most famous. It had a giant impact on the class I took back in college (and it was an elective, we were not a bunch of English majors. We were engineering students and theatre students and business school students and marine biology majors and guys on a football scholarship. I loved my classes like that). I re-read “Incident” for the first time in years while I was out on Block Island for that freezing month many years ago. The poem’s rhythm is reminiscent of Longfellow’s drum-beat rhyme scheme. There’s a child-like quality to it, which makes it that much more devastating.
Once riding in Old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger”.
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
[W]e have always resented the natural inclination of most white people to demand spirituals the moment it is known that a Negro is about to sing. So often the request has seemed to savor of the feeling that we could do this and this alone.
H.L. Mencken, who first published one of Cullen’s poems in 1924 in his magazine American Mercury:
He became famous, like Byron, overnight.
Countee Cullen, forward to Caroling Dusk, an anthology of African American writing (1927)
This country’s Negro writers may here and there turn some singular facet toward the literary sun, but in the main, since theirs is also the heritage of the English language, their work will not present any serious aberration from the poetic tendencies of their times…Negro poets, dependent as they are on the English language, may have more to gain from the rich background of English and American poetry than from any nebulous atavistic yearnings toward an African inheritance.
Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
Like [Claude] McKay, another poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, whose first book of poetry was Color (1925), also adhered to European forms and diction, but he enacted in his verse the conflict between such Eurocentric allegiance and racial alienation.
W.E.B. DuBois, 1928, Crisis magazine:
In a time when it is vogue to make much of the Negro’s aptitude for clownishness or to depict him objectively as a serio-comic figure, it is a fine and praiseworthy act for Mr. Cullen to show through the interpretation of his own subjectivity the inner workings of the Negro soul and mind.
I find my poetry of itself treating of the Negro, of his joys and sorrows–mostly of the latter, and of the heights and the depths of emotion which I feel as a Negro.
Melvin Tolson, on Cullen and Langston Hughes, “antipodes” of the Harlem Renaissance movement:
The former is a classicist and conservative; the latter, an experimentalist and radical.
James Weldon Johnson, in The Book of American Negro Poetry:
Strangely, it is because Cullen revolts against … racial limitations – technical and spiritual – that the best of his poetry is motivated by race. He is always seeking to free himself and his art from these bonds. He never entirely escapes, but from the very fret and chafe he brings forth poetry that contains the quintessence of race consciousness.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
In “Atlantic City Waiter,” the title character is split between his “acquiescent mask, / Of bland gentility” and his inward, emotive, irrepressible blackness. If Cullen’s verse sometimes wears a similar mask, it nevertheless gives powerful expression to the African American experience of divided allegiances–to a white America that demands conformity and to a racially specific divergence. At the heart of Cullen’s work are these conflicting desires of assimilation and resistance–to excel within European formal conventions and yet to voice an experience that remains unassimilable and apart.
The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:
Rejecting Hughes’s call for black poets to explore African American oral traditions, Cullen hews to the Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, the elegy, the ballad, and other European forms. For all these differences, Cullen, like Hughes, writes about the vexed experience of African Americans in a predominantly white society.
Countee Cullen, review of The Weary Blues (1926):
[I doubt whether jazz and blues] belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression which we call poetry.
In order for a writer to succeed, I suggest three things – read and write – and wait.
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