Saturday, June 29, 2013

Party in the Bronx!

My new goal is to feature one poet each month. I made this decision just a few days ago, and as it is already the end of June, the pressure was on. 

If you happen to be in New York today stop in and check it out: 

As part of the 2013 PSA National Series, Yet Do I Marvel: Black Iconic Poets of the 20th Century, and on the occasion of the publication by Library of America of Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, the Poetry Society of America has teamed with the Woodlawn Conservancy to pay tribute to this iconic black poet. Steps away from Cullen's own burial site, Collected editor Major Jackson and poets Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Robin Coste Lewis will read poems in tribute to Cullen; With musical performances by the stunning mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran joined by guitarist Brandon Ross.
(The picture I chose isn't a great one quality wise, but it has the best and most beautiful smile of all the available choices.)

After being eclipsed for many years after his death by the work of of other Harlem Renaissance writers, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen's beautiful work is experiencing a resurgence.

Poet, anthologist, novelist, translator, children's writer, playwright, and mystery man, he was born March 30, 1903 ... somewhere. (There are conflicting stories about his birthplace that he chose never to clear up.) He was adopted by the Reverend Frederick A. and Carolyn Belle (Mitchell) Cullen. ... probably. Again, the story is murky.

He was close to his adopted father, a Christian minister, and there is some evidence that he was homosexual, ... but again, nothing is certain. His marriage to Yolande Du Bois, was disastrous and ended quickly, and he remarried a year later. Rumor has it that he was in love with a young man named Harold Jackman.

Cullen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from NYU, and earned a masters degree in English and French from Harvard. He wrote noteworthy, even significant work in a number of genres, won many literary prizes, and was one of the most popular black literary figures of his generation - Harlem Renaissance.

Cullen was shaped by both his exposure to black ideas and yearnings, and his mostly white formal education and it heavily influenced his creative work. His work was in the vein of Keats and Shelly with a nod to A. E. Houseman, and he believed that art could transcended race and be used as a vehicle to minimize the distance between black and white peoples.

Yet Do I Marvel
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,   
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare   
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.   
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune   
To catechism by a mind too strewn   
With petty cares to slightly understand   
What awful brain compels His awful hand.   
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:   
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

from: Color. Copyright 1925. 

To Certain Critics
Then call me traitor if you must,   
Shout treason 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 no 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?

A Brown Girl Dead

With two white roses on her breasts,
   White candles at head and feet,   
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests;
   Lord Death has found her sweet.

Her mother pawned her wedding ring   
   To lay her out in white;
She’d be so proud she’d dance and sing   
   To see herself tonight.

from: My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen. Copyright 1991.

He has quite a Bibliography:

Countee Cullen Painting Poetry collections: Color, Copper Sun, Harlem Wine, The Ballad of the Brown Girl, The Black Christ and Other Poems

Prose: One way to heaven, Any Human to Another, The Medea and Some Other Poems, On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen, My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, One Way to Heaven, The Lost Zoo, My Lives and How I Lost Them

Drama: St. Louis Woman

Beautiful painting by Warren Goodson.

Sources: here, here, & here.

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