Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



When Cullen began to write, he was a great admirer of Tennyson. Later he

was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Housman, Robinson, and, most

of all, Keats. He is essentially an emotional and lyrical poet.



Books by Countee Cullen

Color (1925) / Copper Sun (1927) / Caroling Dusk (1927)  / The Black Christ (1929)  / My Soul’s High Song (Anchor, 1990)

Houston Baker, Many-Colored Coat of Dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen. Broadside Press, 1974

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Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

Harlem Renaissance Poet


Countee Cullen was born in New York city in 1903, the son of the Rev. R. A. Cullen, minister and founder of Salem M.E. Church. He was educated in New York public schools, being graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1922, and he received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from New York University in June 1925 after being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. he entered Harvard University in the fall of 1925 and received his A.M. in English literature in 1926.

Cullen began to write when he was fourteen years old. A teacher in DeWitt Clinton High School gave an assignment to his class to write some verse and Cullen handed in “To A Swimmer” (the only free verse poem he has ever done). He thought no more of writing until a year later when he saw this poem published in The Modern School Magazine issue of May 1918. Cullen then became ambitious to write and his first verse appeared in The Crisis, official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP]. While still in high school he was awarded first prize in a contest by the Federation of women’s Clubs with his poem, “I Have a Rendezvous With Life.”

When Cullen began to write, he was a great admirer of Tennyson. Later he was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.E. Housman, [Edwin Arlington] Robinson, and, most of all, Keats. He is essentially an emotional and lyrical poet. His only present tendency towards free verse is limited to experimental attempts and he finds himself more and more inclined towards rigid forms. 

“Most things I write,” he says, “I do for the sheer love of the music in them. A number of times I have said I wanted to be a poet and known as such and not as a Negro poet. Some how or other, however, I find my poetry of itself treating of the Negro, of his joys and his sorrows–mostly of the latter–and of the heights and depths of emotion which I feel as a Negro.”

Cullen has published: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), Caroling Dusk, a comprehensive anthology of Negro verse (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927), and The Black Christ (1929).

Source: Dilly Tante, ed. Living Authors: A Book of Biographies. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1932

posted 9 November 2007

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Yet Do I Marvel

By 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 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!

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Excerpts from “Forward” of

Caroling Dusk

By Countee Cullen

The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of the work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue. From the roots of varied experiences have flowered the dialect of Dunbar, the recent sermon poems of James Weldon Johnson, and some of Helene Johnson’s more colloquial verses, which, differing essentially only in a few expressions peculiar to Negro slang, are worthy counterparts of verses done by John V. A. Weaver “in American.”


Attempt to hedge all these in with a name, and your imagination must deny the facts. Langston Hughes, poetizing the blues in his zeal to represent the Negro masses, and Sterling Brown, combining a similar interest in such poems as “Long Gone” and “The Odyssey of Big Boy” with a capacity for turning a neat sonnet according to the rules, represent differences as unique as those between Burns and Whitman. Jessie Fauset with Cornell University and training at the Sorbonne as her intellectual equipment surely justifies the very subjects and forms of her poems: “Touché,” “La Vie C’est la Vie,” “Noblesse Oblige,” etc.; while Lewis [Grandison] Alexander, with no known degree from the University of Tokyo, is equally within the province of his creative prerogatives in composing Japanese hokkus and tankas

Although Anne Spencer lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, and in her biographical note recognizes the Negro as the great American taboo, I have seen but two poems by her which are even remotely concerned with this subject; rather does she write with a cool precision that calls forth comparison with Amy Lowell and the influence of a rock-bound seacoast.

And Lula Lowe Weeden, the youngest poet in the volume, living in the same Southern city, is too young to realize that she is colored in an environment calculated to impress her daily with the knowledge of this pigmentary anomaly.

There are lights and shades of difference even in their methods of decrying race injustices, where these peculiar experiences of Negro life cannot be overlooked. Claude McKay is most exercised, rebellious, and vituperative to a degree that clouds his lyricism in many instances, but silhouettes most forcibly his high dudgeon; while neither Arna Bontemps, at all times cool, calm, and intensely religious, nor Georgia Douglas Johnson, in many instances bearing up bravely under comparison with Sara Teasdale, takes advantage of the numerous opportunities offered them for rhymed polemics.

If dialect is missed in this collection, it is enough to state that the day of dialect as far as Negro poets are concerned is in the decline. Added to the fact that these poets are out of contact with this fast-dying medium, certain sociological considerations and the natural limitations of dialect for poetic expression militate against its use even as a tour de force. In a day when artificiality is so vigorously condemned, the Negro poet would be foolish indeed to turn to dialect. The majority of present-day poems in dialect are the efforts of white poets. . . .

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               By Countee Cullen

What is Africa to me: Copper sun or scarlet sea, Jungle star or jungle track, Strong bronzed men, or regal black Women from whose loins I sprang When the birds of Eden sang? One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me? So I lie, who all day long Want no sound except the song Sung by wild barbaric birds Goading massive jungle herds, Juggernauts of flesh that pass Trampling tall defiant grass Where young forest lovers lie, Plighting troth beneath the sky. So I lie, who always hear, Though I cram against my ear Both my thumbs, and keep them there, Great drums throbbing through the air. So I lie, whose fount of pride, Dear distress, and joy allied, Is my somber flesh and skin, With the dark blood dammed within Like great pulsing tides of wine That, I fear, must burst the fine Channels of the chafing net Where they surge and foam and fret. Africa?A book one thumbs Listlessly, till slumber comes. Unremembered are her bats Circling through the night, her cats Crouching in the river reeds, Stalking gentle flesh that feeds By the river brink; no more Does the bugle-throated roar Cry that monarch claws have leapt From the scabbards where they slept. Silver snakes that once a year Doff the lovely coats you wear, Seek no covert in your fear Lest a mortal eye should see; What’s your nakedness to me? Here no leprous flowers rear Fierce corollas in the air; Here no bodies sleek and wet, Dripping mingled rain and sweat, Tread the savage measures of Jungle boys and girls in love. What is last year’s snow to me, Last year’s anything?The tree Budding yearly must forget How its past arose or set­­ Bough and blossom, flower, fruit, Even what shy bird with mute Wonder at her travail there, Meekly labored in its hair. One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me? So I lie, who find no peace Night or day, no slight release From the unremittent beat Made by cruel padded feet Walking through my body’s street. Up and down they go, and back, Treading out a jungle track. So I lie, who never quite Safely sleep from rain at night– I can never rest at all When the rain begins to fall; Like a soul gone mad with pain I must match its weird refrain; Ever must I twist and squirm, Writhing like a baited worm, While its primal measures drip Through my body, crying, “Strip! Doff this new exuberance. Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!” In an old remembered way Rain works on me night and day. Quaint, outlandish heathen gods Black men fashion out of rods, Clay, and brittle bits of stone, In a likeness like their own, My conversion came high-priced; I belong to Jesus Christ, Preacher of humility; Heathen gods are naught to me. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, So I make an idle boast; Jesus of the twice-turned cheek, Lamb of God, although I speak With my mouth thus, in my heart Do I play a double part. Ever at Thy glowing altar Must my heart grow sick and falter, Wishing He I served were black, Thinking then it would not lack Precedent of pain to guide it, Let who would or might deride it; Surely then this flesh would know Yours had borne a kindred woe. Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, Daring even to give You Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair, Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes. Lord, forgive me if my need Sometimes shapes a human creed. All day long and all night through, One thing only must I do: Quench my pride and cool my blood, Lest I perish in the flood. Lest a hidden ember set Timber that I thought was wet Burning like the dryest flax, Melting like the merest wax, Lest the grave restore its dead. Not yet has my heart or head In the least way realized

They and I are civilized.

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Countee Cullen (1903–1946), poet, anthologist, novelist, translator, children’s writer, and playwright. Countee Cullen is something of a mysterious figure. He was born 30 March 1903, but it has been difficult for scholars to place exactly where he was born, with whom he spent the very earliest years of his childhood, and where he spent them. New York City and Baltimore have been given as birthplaces. Cullen himself, on his college transcript at New York University, lists Louisville, Kentucky, as his place of birth. A few years later, when he had achieved considerable literary fame during the era known as the New Negro or Harlem Renaissance he was to assert that his birthplace was New York City, which he continued to claim for the rest of his life.

Cullen’s second wife, Ida, and some of his closest friends, including Langston Hughes and Harold Jack-man, said that Cullen was born in Louisville. As James Weldon Johnson wrote of Cullen in The Book of American Negro Poetry (rev. ed., 1931): “There is not much to say about these earlier years of Cullen—unless he himself should say it”. And Cullen—revealing a temperament that was not exactly secretive but private, less a matter of modesty than a tendency toward being encoded and tactful—never in his life said anything more clarifying.

n 1927 Cullen published Caroling Dusk, an anthology of 38 black poets from Paul Lawrence Dunbar to 18-year-old Lula Lowe Weeden. In committing himself to the elevation of African-American art, Cullen stated in the book’s introduction that, “I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse.” In an effort to promote the universal consciousness in the art of the black poet, Cullen added that, “As heretical as it may sound, there is the probability that 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 towards an African inheritance.”

The year 1927 also saw the publication of Cullen’s Copper Sun and Ballad of a Brown Girl. Although Copper Sun won the general approval of critics, many agreed that it lacked the intensity of Color.

Cullen dedicated Copper Sun to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of famous National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founder and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. Introduced to Yolande in the summer of 1923, Cullen’s courtship greatly pleased her father. But despite her prestigious social position, Yolande was, according to historian David Levering Lewis, “a kind” yet “plain woman of modest intellectual endowment,” who, as it was well known among Harlem circles, was infatuated with jazz band leader Jimmie Lunceford. Nevertheless, Yolande and Cullen were married by Reverend Cullen on April 9, 1928, in the Salem Methodist Church. The ceremony became a grand showing of African-American wealth and talent from around the country. Among the ushers were the famous black poets Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes.

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[Countee] Cullen‘s Guggenheim Fellowship of 1928 enabled him to study and write abroad. He married in April 1928 Nina Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W. E. B. DuBois, the leading black intellectual. At that time Yolande was involved romantically with a popular band leader. Between the years 1928 and 1934, Cullen travelled back and forth between France and the United States. By 1929 Cullen had published four volumes of poetry. The title poem of The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) was criticized for the use of Christian religious imagery—Cullen compared the lynching of a black man to Christ’s crucifixion.

Cullen married Yolanda Du Bois in 1928. The marriage was the social event of the decade, but the marriage did not fair well, and he divorced in 1930. It is widely said that Cullen was a homosexual, and his relationship with Harold Jackman’s was a significant factor in the divorce. Jackman was a a teacher whom the writer Carl Van Vechten had used as model in his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). In 1940 Cullen married Ida Mae Robertson; they had known each other for ten years.—Wikipedia

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