Countee Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance

As a rule, I try not to blog about my teaching. More specifically, I try not to blog about works I’m teaching in class, because such works form the basis for student papers, and I’d prefer students not be restricted by what I consider interesting or important—despite all our efforts, we know that students still turn to Google before they turn to Project Muse or JSTOR. This semester, however, for my HR class, I’m assigning so much reading—anywhere from 50-80 pages of poetry a week—that I’m fairly comfortable blogging about some of what we’re reading. We’re reading all of Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927), all of Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams (2nd Ed., 2006), and selections from Langston Hughes’s Collected Poems, up through 1950, though I’m very tempted to throw in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) because, why not. We begin with Cullen, so a few thoughts on the anthology.

While Cullen is highly regarded as a poet, there is still a surprising dearth of scholarship on him. This, I suspect, is because his formal inclinations—his Keatsian yearnings—are still deemed badly or wrongly political. And while Houston Baker’s wonderful Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) offered a paradigm through which to re-think Cullen—the “mastery of form” and the “deformation of mastery”—the leading poetry scholars of our times, and the trends toward sound and noise and jazz and blues and translation have privileged Hughes over Cullen, in ways that I think are regrettable. I love Hughes. I am spending 5 weeks on him this semester, but I think Cullen merits more than he is granted.

One must begin with Hughes to approach Cullen, because Cullen is often understood as the target of Hughes’s criticism about a poet who wanted to be a “poet,” not a “Negro poet.” For Hughes, this is a mark of deracination, a turn away from the race-work of poetry. Because we know Hughes so much better than we do Cullen, it has been easy to accept this reading of Cullen as craving deracination. And, certainly, by the time poetry as sound is theorized by Kamau Brathwaite, where he suggests that “nation language” breaks with the “pentameter,” Cullen is rendered further unthinkable, especially within the black diaspora circuits where I locate my work and interests.

But I want to press on this “deracination” thesis, because a closer reading of Cullen suggests not a turning away from “race” as something shameful, but a close, deeply considered way of thinking about deracination as a founding principle for African American, and, indeed, black diaspora aesthetics. Here is Cullen from the Foreword to Caroling Dusk:

I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accurate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. (xi)

Cullen does not simply register the impossible fantasy of belonging and nationalism that subtends notions of “Russian,” “French,” or “Chinese” poetry; instead, or, simultaneously, he registers the active, ongoing work of deracination that is the condition of being black in the 1920s. This is not simply about pride in place or origin or even desire for place or origin; it is about something more deeply felt.

Deracination is, of course, a vexed term, registering, as it does, geo-historical uprooting and socio-psychological fixing: at once descriptive and pathologizing, it fixes by unmaking. One might desire to escape deracination. But where to? We encounter this “where to” in Cullen’s self-authored note that precedes his poetry, written in the third person:

He has said perhaps with a reiteration sickening to some of his friends, that he wishes any merit that may be in his work to flow from it solely as the expression of a poet—with no racial consideration to bolster it up. He is still of the same thought. At present he is employed as Assistant Editor of Opportunity, A Journal of Negro Life.

His published works are Color, The Ballad of the Brown Girl, and Copper Sun.

And then listen to “From the Dark Tower”

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 subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to 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.

I read this longing Cullen, this intensely desiring Cullen, this deeply mournful Cullen, and I marvel at his ongoing attempts to forge a language adequate to deracination. I am overwhelmed by Cullen’s desire for a way of being, of making art, that might transcend the register of the wail—Cullen is not known as a poet of the blues, but one must hear what Fred Moten terms “mo’nin’”: “black mo’nin’ improvises through the opposition of mourning and melancholia, disrupts the temporal framework that buttresses that opposition” (In the Break). And I suspect that it is precisely this attention to “mo’nin’” that directs Cullen’s attention to the fragment. This is how he describes the anthology: “an anthology recording some snatches of . . . songs.” It is fragmentary, piecemeal, awaiting what he envisions as “that fuller symphony which Negro poets will in time contribute to the national literature.” At the active moment of 1920s deracination, Cullen can only cull “fragments,” get “snatches of songs,” so many prematurely ended—here, think of Moten’s argument that Al Green’s falsetto approximates the voice cut off by lynching. No full-throated singing is permitted or welcomed. But, in time, Cullen hopes, expression will be allowed. “Negro poets” will be considered part of “the national literature.”

Deracination is, of course, a structure of desire. And I would argue that of the HR poets, Cullen more than anyone else occupies its insistent wail, its terrible fractures, its insistent pull. To insist on the desiring nature of HR poetry, a desire activated and sustained by ongoing deracination, is to contend, I think, with its embedding within the afterlife of slavery and the memory of post-reconstruction violence. But it is also, as Cullen teaches us, to re-think conceptual and other geographies. Thus, I find the inclusion of Jamaican-born Claude McKay (his bio insists on this) and Gold Coast-born Gladys Mae Casely Hayford (her bio insists on this) to be especially significant in capturing the (ex)national imagination Cullen pursues in the collection. Here, Cullen is not simply being “inclusive” on racial terms. Instead, he is using the aesthetic to create ways of being together apart from those offered by deracination or the impossible promise of national belonging. This is where I’d like to start thinking of Cullen’s work as an editor, an anthologist, and a poet.

4 thoughts on “Countee Cullen and the Harlem Renaissance

  1. “[A]gonizing seeds” is one of the most beautiful phrases (ever). Each word imbued with so many potential layers. These layers trandscend the mythical, singular ways of being you point to (deracination or belonging).

    There is something about the culture or the inclusiveness (and even the syntactical finality) of those meanings that really speaks to me, as a reader. It’s not simply historical moment, but a set of almost infinite universals–as long as they are sad, long, and low (for now)–and I wonder if that potential, expansive universality is the epiphanic flip at the end of the sonnet?

  2. Hi Catherine!

    “Agonizing seeds” is such a fascinating place from which to think of poetry’s embodiment–from the fleshiness of reproductive bodies to the bodies of plantation-era slaves to the very notion of poetic “genius.”

    So many HR poets (and before) write about the pain of being a poet: “I know what the caged bird feels” (Dunbar); “Ah, how poets sing and die” (Spencer); “To make a poet black, and bid him sing” (Cullen). And one thinks back to Du Bois’s “sorrow songs” as those “agonizing seeds” from which poetry springs (sprouts?). Even as, I think, Cullen is trying to think very deliberately about poetry and pain; this is why the book is suffused with mourning, why the elegy is so prominent, and why Keats subtends the book’s imagination.

    So much to say about it! Let’s keep chatting!

  3. So, I have been scouring my shelves for my copy of Caroling Dusk. To no avail, but in the process I randomly grabbed (selected poems of) Thomas Hardy. Among others, “Darkling Thrush” is there, and it got me thinking more about the notion of poetic genius.

    There is that age old condition, so prominent in Whitman (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” for example), but also in “Darkling Thrush” or “From the Dark Tower” among many others, of the poet as some all-seeing, all-embodying, thrilling/melancholic figure. That idea of having the gift of sight, and sometimes insanely (but often insightfully) speaking loudly for/as those the poet chooses to inhabit. (I am thinking even of the titles of these poems–all perspective-based, all from elevated positions, through which the poet observes, imprisoned by art and vantage, then lives self-consciously in/through the subject.)

    This poem is interesting to me, because I think Cullen deliberately (your word!) explores, observes, and speaks for the *poet* (at least on one level). The metaphor is one of agricultural labor, but he swiftly moves on to the condition of “being”–blooming, falling. He recognizes labor of course, but creates a parallel to art-creating and then to potential poetic imagination. (I see that also in the distinction between “Negro verse” and “Negro poet”–the creator transgresses the creation.)

    I guess I mean I need to think more about the we/our figure. There are some clear meanings, but I almost never imagine I’m reading something the poet hasn’t thought of. And, to me, this poem is almost Whitman-esque in its “what you have felt I feel too [because I am the cursed/blessed poet]” sort of leanings, but it seems so “meta” (ah!) to say “what you *agonized poets* have felt I feel too”.

    (My coffee ran out hours ago, so this is a jumble. But I’d really like to read a collection of poems organized by a matrix of images, themes, and chronology, so I could see the poems actually communicating. Maybe even like a choose your own adventure book.)

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