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Cullen, Countee (1903-1946)

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Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised by Elizabeth Porter until her death in 1908, this poet of the Harlem Renaissance was raised by the Rev. and Mrs. Frederick Cullen of a New York City Methodist Episcopal Church. When he attended Dewitt Clinton High School, Cullen not only edited the school paper, but won a citywide poem competition for “I Have a Rendezvous with Life.” Graduating from New York University in 1925 as Phi Beta Kappa, he was already writing some of the acclaimed poems published in books by Harper and Brothers: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927). He won first prize in the Witter Bynner Contest in 1925. Graduating with a Harvard University M.A. degree in 1926, the poet traveled to France as a Guggenheim Fellow. Upon his return in 1928, he married Yolanda Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, in a prominent celebration. She divorced him two years later, saying that he told her he was sexually attracted to men.

From 1934 on, Cullen taught English and French at the Frederick Douglas Junior High School, though he declined a Creative Literature invitation from Fisk University in Nashville. In 1940 he married an old friend, Ida Mae Roberson.

His favorite poet was John Keats, but his own work also included plays. In 1935 he translated Medea by Euripedes, seven choruses of which were set to music by Virgil Thompson. His one act play, The Third Fourth of July, ran for 113 performances at the Martin Beck Theater on Broadway, introducing Pearl Bailey as Butterfly.

His death in 1946 was occasioned by a gastrointestinal disorder. This representative of the Harlem Renaissance has public schools in both Chicago and New York named for him.

He selected for publication a volume of what he considered the best of his poems: On These I Stand.

A Note on Unitarian Universalist Connections

Countee Cullen’s widow, Ida Cullen, was a member of the Community Church of New York, a historically Unitarian congregation. For more information about the Community Church, see the Harvard Square biography of John Haynes Holmes.

The Poetry of Countee Cullen

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

Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and work
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.

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.

(For Carl Van Vechten)
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.