Countée Cullen recognized early in his life that he wanted to use poetry to express his belief that a poet’s skin color should not dictate style and subject matter in a poem. He began writing poetry while in high school. Cullen, a Phi Beta Kappa honoree from New York University, had already published Color by the time he entered graduate school at Harvard University. With a master’s in English and three additional books of poetry, Cullen was widely known as the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance.
In his introduction to Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, Cullen set forth many of the ideas that shaped his identity as a poet and an African American. He believed that poetry elevated any race and that African American poets could benefit from using the rich traditions of English and American verse. Cullen also chose not to include dialect poetry in his anthology, viewing this style as out-of-date, restrictive, and best left to the white poets who were still using it.
Cullen was not ashamed of his race, nor did he deliberately seek white approval. He did feel that he should be receptive to many ideas to enhance his poetry. Many of his poems, such as “Incident,” “From the Dark Tower,” and “Colors,” protest racism and bigotry. However, in his collection The Black Christ and Other Poems, themes of love and death prevail. Such themes show the influence of the British Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats especially was Cullen’s artistic mentor. Cullen records his response to having visited Keats’s grave in “Endymion,” a poem celebrating the power of Keats’s lyricism.
Cullen’s use of genteel traditions and the black experience caused dilemmas and conflicts throughout his writing career. Critics praised Cullen for his skillful use of the sonnet form, but they castigated him when he did not use racial experiences as the primary source of his themes. However, even as he cautioned Harlem Renaissance poets about excessive use of racial themes, he published a novel about Harlem characters, One Way to Heaven.
From 1934 until his death, Cullen taught French and English at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, guiding students in the traditions that made him a celebrated poet.