The Poets Countée Cullen (1903-1946)


About the Poet

Countée Louis Porter Cullen, a metrical genius and star of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote less out of racial consciousness than for the joy of poetic music. He profited from readings in the works of John Keats, A. E. Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. He stood apart from his milieu in a split self that W. E. B. DuBois referred to as "two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body." In place of a prevalent heavy-handed social criticism, he integrated contemplation of négritude and white dominance with graceful phrasing, traditional British forms, and universal themes. He and colleague Langston Hughes became the era's most sought-after, most published poets.

Cullen was born under obscure circumstances on May 30, 1903, in Louisville, Kentucky. His mother transported him to Baltimore to the care of his paternal grandmother, who moved with him to Harlem in 1912. At her death in 1918, a friend implored her minister to take the orphaned youth. No longer linked to living family members, Cullen's last name changed after he entered the family of Carolyn Belle Mitchell and the Reverend Dr. Frederick Asbury Cullen.

Cullen, the only poet of the black renaissance to come of age in Harlem, attended DeWitt Clinton High School. His first submission to national journals was "To a Brown Boy" (1923), dedicated to Langston Hughes and published in Bookman. That same year, editor Jessie Redmon Fauset lauded his verse in Crisis, the NAACP magazine.

A self-confident go-getter during the heady days of Harlem's creative surge, Cullen asserted his voice in the Harlem Writers Guild, a significant Harlem symposium of young artists. A Phi Beta Kappan with a B.A. in literature from New York University, he completed his studies with a thesis on the verse of Edna St. Vincent Millay. He launched his literary career as an undergraduate with Color (1925), a youthful triumph based on classical forms and introduced by "Yet Do I Marvel," one of his most anthologized titles. "Heritage" remains a masterpiece of the era's joy in a long-subdued African past.

Cullen earned an M.A. in English literature from Harvard in 1926 and married Nina Yolande, the daughter of W. E. B. DuBois, in 1928. A post as assistant editor for Opportunity (1926-1928) was significant to Cullen's literary ripening. In addition, he flourished with the column "The Dark Tower," which far outlasted a marriage doomed by Yolande's frivolity and his covert homosexuality.

While teaching French and creative writing at Frederick Douglass High School in New York City, Cullen published two volumes of conventional poetry: Copper Sun (1927), which he dedicated to wife Yolande, and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). The second black to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent a year in Paris at the Sorbonne and wrote The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), a mediocre, self-conscious volume unworthy of his better efforts.

Cullen turned to prose by reworking Euripides' tragedy Medea. The staging never materialized, but Cullen published the text in The Medea and Some Other Poems (1935). He edited Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927) and produced the clumsy, stilted novel One Way to Heaven (1932), a blend of vigorous characterization and leaden satire. As his health deteriorated from hypertension, he composed light verse, including The Lost Zoo (1940), about the animals that Noah failed to load, and My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942), based on the activities of his pet, Christopher Cat.

Following a lecture engagement at Fisk University in 1940, Cullen returned to Harlem to collaborate on an adaptation of Arna Bontemps' novel God Sends Sunday (1931). Titled St. Louis Woman (1946), the play is the basis for the Broadway musical for which Vernon Duke provided music. Rehearsals were in progress at the time of Cullen's death on January 9, 1946, at Sydenham Hospital in the Bronx. He was eulogized at his father's church and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. A posthumous collection, On These I Stand (1947), appeared two years after his death.

Chief Works

At the age of 21, Cullen employed the standard English ballad stanza for "Incident," an impromptu but sturdy memoir of meeting a vulgar, impudent boy his own age. Set in Baltimore, the three-stanza recollection focuses on a youthful anticipation spoiled by an adversary's out-thrust tongue, which is both childish and ominous of future encounters with racism. The inevitable epithet "Nigger" reminds the speaker of the invisible boundary between blacks and whites. Composed in the raw stages of the poet's development, "Incident" minimizes action and states poetry's aims — to clarify and enlarge on human behaviors and attitudes in a single image.

That same year, Cullen produced a more polished effort, "From the Dark Tower," a fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet that illustrates the form's division into octet and sestet for the purpose of presenting a problem and a solution. In the opening five-beat lines, he speaks generally about the eventual demise of servitude, which he pictures as reaping others' harvests and entertaining the master with soulful flute music. Majestically, the closing lines turn to two examples from nature — the star-pocked night and frail blossoms that flourish out of the sun — to express the beauties of darkness. He closes with anticipation of a better time, when the poet's heartfelt "seeds" will flourish.

Keatsian in tone, style, and imagery, the poem refrains from the bold thrust of "Incident" with a genteel, almost tender restraint. His choice of romantic terms like "beguile," "sable breast," and "no less lovely" disclose the poet's immersion in nineteenth-century romanticism and in the stylistic touches common to European masters. With consummate skill, he links monosyllables in a firm rhyme scheme of abbaabbaccddee. The rhymes focus on a pure ee, oo, and ah sounds. Nearly obscured by classic grace and technical perfection are the implications of the plantation's "bursting fruit," a foreboding of the former slave's own seeds, which produce a tortured mix of anguish and promise.

In 1925, Cullen crafted one of the most memorable works of the Harlem Renaissance, "Yet Do I Marvel," an Elizabethan sonnet showcasing a saucy, yet poignant retort that has become a prized epigram. In the opening octave, the speaker ponders the purpose of God's creation, which immures the blind mole underground just as it shrouds human spirits in mortal flesh. Turning to the standard Greek images of the underworld, where Tantalus forever snatches at a grape cluster out of range of his fingers and Sisyphus never pushes the boulder to the top of the hill, the speaker hesitates to accuse God of torment. In answer to the puzzle, he avoids militance or sacrilege to conclude that the human mind is incapable of judging God's actions. Still, the one question won't stop nagging at him: Why would God create a black poet and place him in a world where white domination suppresses the nonwhite writer's song?

At the height of his poetic power, Cullen wrote his masterpiece, "Heritage," a beguiling, lyric odyssey set in a hypnotic three-beat line. Evocative and moody, the rhapsodic journey takes the speaker on a mental tour of Africa's beauty. Along the coast on paths echoing bird voices, he enters jungle bowers. With careless ease, the speaker ponders beasts of the savannahs and the black lovers who couple freely in "tall defiant grass." Without specifying a fault, the speaker makes a pun on lie, meaning "recline" and "falsify," in token of his or her concealment of Negro heritage. By deliberately shutting out the jungle thrum, the speaker rejects the blackness that courses through the speaker's veins like a bloodtide that threatens to overwhelm human control.

Combining wry commentary with mysticism, the viewer, paging through a book on Africa, muses over the hidden snake sloughing its skin and the furtive lovers concealed in rainforest damp. The speaker questions a driving, elusively erotic impulse to slip back in time to Africa's former grandeur. He ignores self-doubt and proceeds along the imaginative path, alliterating bough with blossom and flower with fruit as the eye converges on the tentative nest-building of a jungle bird. The image returns the speaker to the initial question: Why yearn for a fragrant land that his ancestors left 300 years ago?

In the falling action of the speaker's anguish, he continues to conceal the internal throb of black heritage. Obsessed in mind and spirit, he enunciates "primal measures," a carnal music that impels the body to nakedness and the feet to tread forbidden measures out of keeping with a Christian upbringing. At the poem's high point, he must admit "a double part," a duplicity of behavior and identity that conceals love of blackness and primitivism. In the last twelve lines, the speaker acknowledges a poignant truth — that leading a double life is hazardous if it masks fierce yearnings.

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Contrast the rhythms and tone of Cullen's "Life's Rendezvous" with Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" and "The Harlem Dancer" or Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." Express the interplay of youthful optimism and pessimism in each work.

2. Discuss Cullen's ethnic pride in "Heritage." Compare his spirit with that revealed in Carl Sandburg's Chicago poems, Isabel Allende's nationalism in House of the Spirits, Amy Tan's ambivalence toward China in The Kitchen God's Wife, or tribe-centered lines from N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain or Derek Wolcott's Caribbean epic Omeros.

3. Apply Keats's comment in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that contemplation "doth tease us out of thought / As doth eternity" to the throbbing African cadence that distracts and consumes the speaker in Cullen's "Heritage." Determine how and why the two poets can experience a simultaneous ecstasy and misery and why Cullen earned the sobriquet of "the black Keats."

4. What does the term "Dark" in the title "The Dark Tower" symbolize? Does this term change meanings throughout the poem? If so, what are the different meanings of the term?