HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 26, 2007
Three Poems by the American Man of Letters, Countee Cullen

John R. Guthrie


The one reference to blacks in South Carolina public school textbooks of my generation was in the required 7th grade course based on the Sims South Carolina History. Said text’s only reference to blacks was to note that chattel slaves of the Palmetto state were so delighted with their status that they felt compelled to frequently burst into song, dancing as they did so. Doubtless my fascination with Countee Cullen’s lyrically beautiful poetry, when I discovered it as an adult, was enhanced by my abysmal ignorance of black history early on.

Cullen began writing poetry at fourteen. He was recognized early on as a student of exceptional brilliance and promise, winning a city wide poetry prize while still a student at Manhattan's prestigious Dewitt Clinton High School. His prize winning poetry was widely reprinted. He graduated from New York University Phi Beta Kappa. The first of his many books was a poetry collection, Color, published the same year he graduated. It met with considerable critical acclaim.  He then took a masters degree at Harvard. Cullen became a noted figure of the Harlem Renaissance along with such luminaries as Langston Hughes. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928 and studied abroad for two years. He married Nina Yolande DuBois, daughter of W.E.B. DuBois. Playing out a tragedy reminiscent of the cowboy protagonists of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, after two months of marriage Countee traveled to Europe--not with his bride, but with his alleged lover Harold Jackman. Cullen and his wife divorced the next year. Cullen did eventually remarry; to one Ida Mae Robertson. He died of uremia on January 9, 1946. Three examples of his poetry follow:


  Incident

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 someday 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 brains compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing! 


  From the Dark Tower

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.


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