Countée Cullen Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

Countée Porter

Countée Cullen Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In his scholarly book of 1937, Negro Poetry and Drama, Sterling A. Brown, whose poems and essays continue to exert formidable influence on black American culture, remarked that Countée Cullen’s poetry is “the most polished lyricism of modern Negro poetry.” About his own poetry and poetry in general, Cullen himself observed, “Good poetry is a lofty thought beautifully expressed. Poetry should not be too intellectual. It should deal more, I think, with the emotions.” In this definition of “good poetry,” Cullen reflects his declared, constant aspiration to transcend his color and to strike a universal chord. However, the perceptive poet, novelist, essayist and critic James Weldon Johnson asserted that the best of Cullen’s poetry “is motivated by race. He is always seeking to free himself and his art from these bonds.”

The tension prevalent in Cullen’s poems, then, is between the objective of transcendence—to reach the universal, to enter the “mainstream”—and his ineluctable return to the predicament his race faces in a white world. This tension causes him, on one hand, to demonstrate a paramount example of T. S. Eliot’s “tradition and the individual talent” and, on the other, to embody the black aesthetic (as articulated during the Harlem Renaissance). In his best poems, he achieves both. Transcending the bonds of race and country, he produces poetry that looks to the literature and ideas of the past while it identifies its creator as an original artist; yet, at the same time, he celebrates his African heritage, dramatizes black heroism, and reveals the reality of being black in a hostile world.

“Yet Do I Marvel”

“Yet Do I Marvel,” perhaps Cullen’s most famous single poem, displays the poet during one of his most intensely lyrical, personal moments; however, this poem also illustrates his reverence for tradition. The sonnet, essentially Shakespearean in rhyme scheme, is actually Petrarchan in its internal form. The Petrarchan form is even suggested in the rhyme scheme; the first two quatrains rhyme abab, cdcd in perfect accord with the Shakespearean scheme. The next six lines, however, break the expected pattern of yet another quatrain in the same scheme; instead of efef followed by a couplet gg, the poem adopts the scheme eeffgg. While retaining the concluding couplet (gg), the other two (eeff) combine with the final couplet, suggesting the Petrarchan structure of the sestet. The poem is essentially divided, then, into the octave, wherein the problem is stated, and the sestet, in which some sort of resolution is attempted.

Analysis of the poem’s content shows that Cullen chose the internal form of the Petrarchan sonnet but retained a measure of the Shakespearean form for dramatic effect. By means of antiphrastic statements or ironic declaratives in the first eight lines of the poem, the poem’s speaker expresses doubt about God’s goodness and benevolent intent, especially in his creation of certain limited beings. The poem begins with the assertion that “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind” and then proceeds to reveal that the speaker actually believes just the opposite to be true; that is, he actually says, “I do doubt God is good.” For God has created the “little buried mole” to continue blind and “flesh that mirrors Him” to “some day die.” Then the persona cites two illustrations of cruel, irremediable predicaments from classical mythology, those of Tantalus and Sisyphus. These mythological figures are traditional examples: Tantalus, the man who suffers eternal denial of that which he seeks, and Sisyphus, the man who suffers the eternal drudgery of being forced to toil endlessly again and again only to lose his objective each time he thinks he has won it.

The illustration of the mole and the man who must die rehearses the existential pathos of modern human beings estranged from God and thrust into a hostile universe. What appeared to be naïve affirmations of God’s goodness become penetrating questions that reveal Cullen himself in a moment of intense doubt. This attitude of contention with God closely resembles that expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his sonnet “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord.” The probing questions, combined with the apparent resolve to believe, are indeed close; one might suggest that Cullen has adapted Hopkins’s struggle for certainty to the black predicament, the real subject of Cullen’s poem. The predicaments of Tantalus and Sisyphus (anticipating Albert Camus’s later essay) comment on a personal problem, one close to home for Cullen himself. The notion of men struggling eternally toward a goal, thinking they have achieved it but having it torn from them, articulates the plight of black artists in the United States. In keeping with the form of the Petrarchan sonnet, the ninth line constitutes the volta or turn toward some sort of resolution. From ironic questioning, the persona moves to direct statement, even to a degree of affirmation. “Inscrutable His ways are,” the speaker declares, to a mere human being who is too preoccupied with the vicissitudes of his mundane existence to grasp “What awful brain compels His awful hand,” this last line echoing William Blake’s “The Tyger.” The apparent resolution becomes clouded by the poem’s striking final couplet: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:/ To make a poet black, and bid him sing!”

The doubt remains; nothing is finally resolved. The plight of the black poet becomes identical with that of Tantalus and Sisyphus. Like these figures from classical mythology, the black poet is, in the contemporary, nonmythological world, forced to struggle endlessly toward a goal he will never, as the poem suggests, be allowed to reach. Cullen has effectively combined the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet forms; the sestet’s first four lines function as an apparent resolution of the problem advanced by the octave. The concluding couplet, however, recalling the Shakespearean device of concentrating the entire poem’s comment within the final two lines, restates the problem of the octave by maintaining that, in the case of a black poet, God has created the supreme irony. In “Yet Do I Marvel,” Cullen has succeeded in making an intensely personal statement; as Johnson suggested, this poem “is motivated by race.” Nevertheless, not only race is at work here. Rather than selecting a more modern form, perhaps free verse, the poet employs the sonnet tradition in a surprising and effective way, and he also shows his regard for tradition by citing mythological figures and by summoning up Blake.

Regard for tradition

Cullen displays his regard for tradition in many other poems. “The Medusa,” for example, by its very title celebrates once again the classical tradition; in this piece, another sonnet, the poet suggests that the face of a woman who rejected him has the malign power of the Medusa. In an epitaph, a favorite form of Cullen, he celebrates the poetry of John Keats, whose “singing lips that cold death kissed/...

(The entire section is 2929 words.)