Thursday, March 23, 2006

Countee Cullen

Of the many Harlem Renaissance poets we still study, Countee Cullen (1903-1946) remained technically closer to the poetic conventions of English Literature; in doing so he transcended his role as the "poet of the people" and became solely "the poet." In addition to poetry, he wrote fiction and children's stories, and edited an important early anthology of slave verse, Caroling Dusk (1927). He was a native of Harlem and lived in New York City for his entire life, where he worked as a public school teacher.

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.

Black Majesty

These men were kings, albeit they were black,
Christophe and Dessalines and L'Overture;
Their majesty has made me turn my back
Upon a plaint I once shaped to endure.
These men were black, i say, but they were crowned
And purple-clad, however brief their time.
Stifle your agony; let grief be drowned;
We know joy had a day once and a clime.

Dark gutter-snipe, black sprawler-in-the-mud,
A thing men did a man may do again.
What answer filters through your sluggish blood
To these dark ghosts who knew so bright a reign?
"Lo, I am dark, but comely," Sheba sings.
"And we were black," three shades reply, "but kings."

Only the Polished Skeleton

The heart has need of some deceit
To make its pistons rise and fall;
For less than this it would not beat,
Nor flush the sluggish vein at all.

With subterfuge and fraud the mind
Must fend and parry thrust for thrust,
With logic brutal and unkind
Beat off the onslaughts of the dust.

Only the polished skeleton,
Of flesh relieved and pauperized,
Can rest at ease and think upon
The worth of all it so despised.

Carruth, Hayden, Ed. The Voice that is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. New York: Bantam, 1970.

Enjoy. If you have any requests, I'm glad to hear them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) - He was one of the rowdiest drunken fools of the seventeenth Century. He was also one of the most talented - he received his Master of Arts from Oxford at age fourteen, more common then than now, but still a sign of amazing ability. He drank, whored, vandalized, and walked around naked in public. I've included some of his more bawdy poetry in honor of our own approaching drunken festival of St. Patrick's Day.

Lampoon {On the Women About Town}

oo long the Wise Commons have been in debate
About Money, and Conscience (those Trifles of State)
Whilst dangerous Grievances daily increase,
And the Subject can't riot in Safety and peace;
Unless (as against Irish Cattle before)
You now make an Act to forbid Irish whore.
The Coots (black, and white) Clenbrazell, and Fox,
Invade us with Impudence, beauty, and pox.
They carry a Fate which no man can oppose:
The loss of his heart, and the fall of his Nose.
Should he dully resist, yet would each take upon her,
To beseech him to do it, and engage him in honour.
O! Ye merciful powers, who of Mortals take Care,
Make the Women more modest, more sound, or less fair.
Is it just that with death cruel Love should conspire,
And our Tarses [penises] be burnt by our hearts taking fire?
There's an end of Communion if humble Believers
Must be damned in the Cup like unworthy Receivers.

Signior Dildo

ou ladies all of Merry England
Who have been to kiss the Duchess's hand,
Pray did you lately observe in the Show
A Noble Italian called Signior Dildo?

The Signior was one of her Highness's Train
And helped to Conduct her over the Main,
But now she Cries out to the Duke, 'I will go,
I have no more need for Signior Dildo.'

At the Sign of the Cross in Saint James's Street,
When next you go thither to make your Selves Sweet,
By Buying of Powder, Gloves, Essence, or So
You may Chance get a Sight of Signior Dildo.

You'll take him at first for no Person of Note
Because he appears in a plain Leather Coat:
But when you his virtuous Abilities know
You'll fall down and worship Signior Dildo.

My lady Southesk, Heav'ns prosper for 't
First Clothed him in Satin, the brought him to Court;
But his Head in the Circle, he scarcely durst Show,
So modest a Youth was Signior Dildo.

The good Lady Suffolk thinking no harm
Had got this poor Stranger hid under her Arm:
Lady Betty by Chance came the Secret to know,
And from her own mother, stole Signior Dildo;

[...] Our dainty fine Duchesses have got a Trick
To Dote on a Fool, for the sake of his Prick,
The Fops were undone, did their Graces but know
The Discretion and vigour of Signior Dildo

That Pattern of Virtue, her Grace of Cleveland,
Has swallowed more Pricks, than the Ocean has Sand,
But by Rubbing and Scrubbing, so Large it does grow,
It is fit for just nothing but Signior Dildo.

... and so on. You'll like the rest of the poem, but it's too long for me to type out fully. Enjoy these, and others. I also recommend "A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind."

Friday, March 10, 2006

Aside from Moby Dick, "Bartleby the Scrivener" (that staple of American Literature Survey courses), and Billy Budd, the works of Herman Melville are largely ignored. He was probably the most profound fiction writer of the American Romantic movement. His writing career began with the bestselling adventure novels Typee, Omoo, and Mardi. After the huge success of these, he began to delve deeper into philosophical treatments of American ideals, policies, culture, and lifestyles through a series of bildungsroman novels. Of his first three "deep" novels, Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick, only the latter remains widely studied outside of literary circles, a true shame, because the other two, aside from being more readable, are equally valuable as literary texts. Ironically, while we remember Melville most as the author of Moby-Dick, it was a miserable failure in his lifetime.

Another fact about Melville that I can't understand is that almost nobody studies his poetry anymore. In my thinking, the man was truly a finer poet than many of his more well-known contemporaries, especially Edgar Allan Poe, whose maudlin maunderings are reminiscent of an adolescent hooked on nursery rhymes. Below, I've posted a few of his better poems, and I hope you can appreciate them:
The Maldive Shark (from Sea Pieces)

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive Sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread.
But liquidly glide on his ghostly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a leaven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat -
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The College Colonel (From Battle Pieces - a collection of Civil War poems)

He rides at their head;
A crutch by his saddle just slants in view,
One slung arm is in splints, you see,
Yet he guides his strong steed - how coldly too.

He brings his regiment home -
Not as they filed two years before,
But a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn,
Like castaway sailors, who - stunned
By the surf's loud roar,
Their mates dragged back and seen no more -
Again and again breast the surge,
And at last crawl, spent, to shore.

A still rigidity and pale -
An Indian aloofness lones his brow;
He has lived a thousand years
Compressed in battle's pains and prayers,
Marches and watches slow.

There are welcoming shouts, and flags;
Old men off hat to the Boy,
Wreaths from gay balconies fall at his feet,
But to him - there comes alloy.

It is not that a leg is lost,
It is not that an arm is maimed,
It is not that the fever has racked -
Self he has long disclaimed.

But all through the Seven Days' Fight,
And deep in the Wilderness grim,
And in the field-hospital tent,
And Petersburg crater, and dim
Lean brooding in Libby, there came -
Ah heaven! - what truth to him.
Enjoy them.