“Poet Laureate” of the Harlem Renaissance

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The contributions of Countée Cullen to African American literature are well established. He was one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance—he is sometimes labeled its poet laureate—and in fact most of his major poetry was written during the 1920’s. In his day, Cullen was the most popular African American poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar, but since that time, his works have been viewed as too derivative and too locked into white, bourgeois perceptions of art—a criticism often launched against Dunbar as well.

There is a certain simplicity in the lyricism of Cullen, showing his indebtedness to William Wordsworth’s “language of the common man.” His poetry is also shaped by his admiration of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, other significant British Romantics. His diction is sometimes imprecise, sometimes sentimental and unoriginal. Nevertheless, at his best, Countée Cullen is an outstanding poet worthy of admiration and deserving of much more serious critical attention than he has received. While Cullen’s poetry is derived from the Western lyrical heritage, it raises a number of important and interesting questions about the poet and about race, spirituality, the outcasts of society, and the meaning of Africa for African Americans. Critics consider his most important poems those that reflect his own experiences as an African American, though he wrote many poems that have little or nothing to do with race. These poems deal...

(The entire section is 407 words.)