Poetry Wednesday: Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.

(For a Poet—Countee Cullen)

I love a lyrical poet.  I love a poet who can sing and waltz with words, whirling around the stanzas without one misstep or accidental hip check. Half of my poetry folder is filled of the work of these wordmasters.

And Countee Cullen is one of them.

According to his closest friends, Mr. Cullen was born in Lexington, Kentucky, though he always claimed New York City as his birthplace. It’s generally agreed that he was born in 1903, possibly around the end of May. He might have been raised by his father’s mother, whose last name was probably Porter and who definitely brought him to Harlem around his ninth birthday,  and who mostly likely passed away when he was about fourteen years old.  Maybe.

As James Weldon Johnson wrote in his Book of American Negro Poetry, “There is not much to say about these earlier years of Cullen—unless he himself should say it.”

And he mostly didn’t.

It is known that in 1918, he was taken in—if not officially adopted—by Reverend Frederick A. Cullen, a Methodist minister, and his wife. He started writing poetry around the same time.

Fruit of the Flower
(Countee Cullen)

My father is a quiet man
With sober, steady ways;
For simile, a folded fan;
His nights are like his days.
My mother’s life is puritan,
No hint of cavalier,
A pool so calm you’re sure it can
Have little depth to fear.

And yet my father’s eyes can boast
How full his life has been;
There haunts them yet the languid ghost
Of some still sacred sin.

And though my mother chants of God,
And of the mystic river,
I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod
Set all her flesh aquiver.

Why should he deem it pure mischance
A son of his is fain
To do a naked tribal dance
Each time he hears the rain?

Why should she think it devil’s art
That all my songs should be
Of love and lovers, broken heart,
And wild sweet agony?

Who plants a seed begets a bud,
Extract of that same root;
Why marvel at the hectic blood
That flushes this wild fruit?

His poems were published in several magazines while he was still attending New York University, including The Crisis,* Century Magazine, and Harper’s, which published his first collection, Color, in 1923—the same year he entered Harvard to earn his master’s degree.

In his spare time, Mr. Cullen won awards:  the Witter Bynner Poetry contest, the John Reed Memorial Prize, the Amy Spingarn Award, you name it.  One of his poems, “Ballad of the Brown Girl” won almost every competition he cared to enter. By the time he graduated, he had won more literary awards than any other African-American poet. In addition, he was only the second African-American to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Can’t say I’m shocked.

That Bright Chimeric Beast***
(Countee Cullen)

That bright chimeric beast
Conceived yet never born,
Save in the poet’s breast,
The white-flanked unicorn,
Never may be shaken
From his solitude;
Never may be taken
In any earthly wood.

That bird forever feathered,
Of its new self the sire,
After aeons weathered,
Reincarnate by fire,
Falcon may not nor eagle
Swerve from his eyrie,
Nor any crumb inveigle
Down to an earthly tree.

That fish of the dread regime
Invented to become
The fable and the dream
Of the Lord’s aquarium,
Leviathan, the jointed
Harpoon was never wrought
By which the Lord’s anointed
Will suffer to be caught.

Bird of the deathless breast,
Fish of the frantic fin,
That bright chimeric beast
Flashing the argent skin,–
If beasts like these you’d harry,
Plumb then the poet’s dream;
Make it your aviary,
Make it your wood and stream.

There only shall the swish
Be heard of the regal fish;
There like a golden knife
Dart the feet of the unicorn,
And there, death brought to life,
The dead bird be reborn.

What may be surprising is that although Mr. Cullen was writing in Harlem in the 1920s and was making a name for himself,  he wasn’t always considered a real part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mr. Cullen didn’t care for the modernistic style of poetry that was starting to simmer to the surface—he also didn’t care for the use of dialects or jazz-inspired rhythms.  And barring his shrouded early years, he was raised and educated in relative affluence compared to the other poets of the Renaissance.

This led some to believe that Mr. Cullen couldn’t fully understand the struggles of the black artist—though he supported other African-American writers and certainly explored his personal feelings about race and inequality in his own work:

From the Dark Tower
(Countee Cullen)

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

It didn’t help that Mr. Cullen stated more than once that he considered himself a poet first and a black man second. He felt that all poetry was one—to him,  it held the key to integration and he was wary of poems that seemed to build on the differences between races, while ignoring the similarities.

At a time when African-American artists were beginning to shout at the tops of their lungs for the right to be heard, this was not the popular viewpoint and he took some serious flack for it, as well as for his second poetry collection, Copper Sun, which many thought didn’t treat the subject of race with the attention it required.^

Mr. Cullen wasn’t too pleased with the criticism.

To Certain Critics
(Countee Cullen)

Then call me traitor if you must,
Shout reason and default!
Say I betray a sacred trust
Aching beyond this vault.
I’ll bear your censure as your praise,
For never shall the clan
Confine my singing to its ways
Beyond the ways of man.

No racial option narrows grief,
Pain is not patriot,
And sorrow plaits her dismal leaf
For all as lief as not.
With blind sheep groping every hill,
Searching an oriflamme,
How shall the shepherd heart then thrill
To only the darker lamb?

After Copper Sun, he published a novel or two, a few children’s books,** and a translation of the Medea story from the original Greek accompanied by some of his original sonnets.

But by 1935, his popularity had waned.  He taught languages and creative writing at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New York City until his death in 1946.

The Loss of Love
(Countee Cullen)

All through an empty place I go,
And find her not in any room;
The candles and the lamps I light
Go down before a wind of gloom.
Thick-spraddled lies the dust about,
A fit, sad place to write her name
Or draw her face the way she looked
That legendary night she came.

The old house crumbles bit by bit;
Each day I hear the ominous thud
That says another rent is there
For winds to pierce and storms to flood.

My orchards groan and sag with fruit;
Where, Indian-wise, the bees go round;
I let it rot upon the bough;
I eat what falls upon the ground.

The heavy cows go laboring
In agony with clotted teats;
My hands are slack; my blood is cold;
I marvel that my heart still beats.

I have no will to weep or sing,
No least desire to pray or curse;
The loss of love is a terrible thing;
They lie who say that death is worse.

I love Countee Cullen’s poetry. It’s clever and joyous and sad and serious and witty, and his turns of phrase linger with me.

His verses make me smile, frown, or wince in remembered or anticipated pain—but they always make me feel.

What more can I ask?

So for what’s it’s worth—and to me, it’s worth a lot—Mr. Cullen will always be among my favorite poets.
_______________

*Which at the time was run by W. E. B. Du Bois.  Later, Mr. Cullen married his daughter in a huge, elaborate celebration—but the marriage didn’t last long.

**His autobiography of his cat, My Lives and How I Lost Them, is well worth the search, by the way. I haven’t read The Lost Zoo, which is a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark, but I have a feeling it might be available from the New York Public Library.

***This was my favorite of his poems for a long time and I’ve been waiting to share it. And I’ll probably share it again.

^ Yeah, I realize I’m a white woman sitting here in 2012 Illinois, discussing  a African-American poet from 1920s New York like I know what I’m doing, when clearly I can’t presume to truly understand what it was like for him or for his contemporaries. But I still  feel the need to call bullshit on anyone who said—or says—Mr. Cullen didn’t examine with sufficient depth what it meant, to him, to be a black man of his time:

Heritage
(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.

You don’t have to like what or how he says what he says, but please don’t dismiss or diminish it.

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6 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Countee Cullen

  1. His work is so classical in style, how can you not want to wrap yourself in the silken cloth of those words?

    You’ve introduced me to yet another poet, Sarah. You do a good deed every Wednesday.

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