Countee Cullen: Collected Poems

Early life

Countee Cullen was possibly born on May 30,[2] although due to conflicting accounts of his early life, a general application of the year of his birth as 1903 is reasonable.[3] He was either born in New York,[4] Baltimore, or Lexington, Kentucky, with his widow being convinced he was born in Lexington.[3] Cullen was possibly abandoned by his mother, and reared by a woman named Mrs. Porter, who was probably his paternal grandmother.[5] Porter brought young Countee to Harlem when he was nine.[5] She died in 1918.[5] No known reliable information exists of his childhood until 1918 when he was taken in, or adopted, by Reverend and Mrs Frederick A. Cullen of Harlem, New York City.[6] The Reverend was the local minister, and founder, of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church.[7]

DeWitt Clinton High School

At some point, Cullen entered the DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx.[8] He excelled academically at the school while emphasizing his skills at poetry and in oratorical contest.[9] At DeWitt, he was elected into the honor society, editor of the weekly newspaper, and elected vice-president of his graduating class.[8] In January 1922, he graduated with honors in Latin, Greek, Mathematics, and French.[10]

New York University and Harvard University

"Yet I do 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 someday 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!

“ ” "Yet I do marvel" (1925) [11]

After graduating high school, he entered New York University (NYU).[12] In 1923, he won second prize in the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry contest, which was sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, with a poem entitled The Ballad of the Brown Girl.[13] At about this time, some of his poetry was promulgated in the national periodicals Harper's, Crisis, Opportunity, The Bookman, and Poetry. The ensuing year he again placed second in the contest and finally winning it in 1925. Cullen competed in a poetry contest sponsored by Opportunity. and came in second with To One Who Say Me Nay, while losing to Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues. Sometime thereafter, Cullen graduated from NYU as one of eleven students selected to Phi Beta Kappa.[14]

Cullen entered Harvard in 1925, to pursue a masters in English, about the same time his first collection of poems, Color, was published.[14] Written in a careful, traditional style, the work celebrated black beauty and deplored the effects of racism. The book included "Heritage" and "Incident", probably his most famous poems. "Yet Do I Marvel", about racial identity and injustice, showed the influence of the literary expression of William Wordsworth and William Blake, but its subject was far from the world of their Romantic sonnets. The poet accepts that there is God, and "God is good, well-meaning, kind", but he finds a contradiction of his own plight in a racist society: he is black and a poet. Cullen's Color was a landmark of the Harlem Renaissance. He graduated with a master's degree in 1926.[15]


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