“Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”
Countee Cullen was one of the most respected poets with the intellectual patrons of the Harlem Renaissance. His work was highly revered by Alain Locke, one of the major spokespersons of the literary movement. Perhaps it was because his poetry was of a more traditional and “sophisticated” style than the gritty blues influenced verses of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown.
Born in 1903, Cullen was adopted by a Harlem preacher at a young age. His first poetry was written for his high school magazine “Magpie”, at a predominately white high school. It was at this same school that he would later become a mentor for writer James Baldwin.
Cullen graduated from New York University in 1922 and began publishing poetry in various literary magazines. His first volume of poetry, “Color” was published in 1925, and he was established as one of the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He also became assistant editor at ‘Opportunity’ magazine, which helped him meet other Renaissance authors such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.
Countee Cullen also published “The Black Christ and Other Poems” in 1929, but published little original poetry in his last decades. He died in 1946, and the next year a posthumously released volume was released entitled “On These I Stand”.
Countee Cullen’s poetry was a far cry from the modern poetry of his day. While his contemporaries sought to emulate the blues and jazz in their verse, Cullen remained stuck to the styles of John Keats and Lord Tennyson. He even went as far to criticize African American authors and stated that they should not identify with the “unsophisticated” traditions of jazz and folklore that were inspiring Harlem Renaissance poets. Though his tradition gave way, he still wrote poems that have lasting value, giving sophistication to people considered “barbaric” and “primitive” by a prejudiced society.
Below are two poems by Countee Cullen:
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.
Yet Do I Marvel
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!