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.


Anonymous Susan Donnelly said...

I love Cullen's poetry. I've used ideas from Only the Polished Skeleton in a poem I wrote about the Tuskegee Airmen:
"they practised for survival some deceit/ accepting bitterness to make it sweet." Thanks for posting the poems.

11:17 AM  

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