Yet Do I Marvel

Yet Do I Marvel Cullen and the Poetic Tradition

Cullen was part of the intellectual and cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s New York. Different than poets like Langston Hughes, who often wrote poetry in a style and voice influenced by blues music and popular culture, Cullen preferred to write highly structured poems using the meter, rhyme schemes, and allusions of classical, Renaissance, and Romantic poetry. For example, “Yet Do I Marvel” is a sonnet. This fourteen-line poetic form is associated with the Italian poet Petrarch as well as Shakespeare. Cullen also learned Greek and Latin during his studies at Harvard and New York University. In 1935 he published a translation of the Greek writer of tragedies Euripides. Cullen felt strongly that he should be seen as a poet plain and simple, not as a black poet. He pushed back against other poets who thought that African Americans should write work inspired by folk culture rather than European forms like sonnets. For example, he wrote: “As heretical as it may sound, there is the probability that Negro poets, dependent as they are on the English language, may have more to gain from the rich background of English and American poetry than from any nebulous atavistic yearnings toward an African inheritance.” Cullen’s decision to write poetry in traditional forms was a symbol of his affiliation with the dominant traditions of English-language poetry. Yet Cullen was also aware that American society would not allow people like himself to "simply" be poets. This is why “Yet Do I Marvel” sarcastically describes being a black poet as a “curious thing” and a “marvel.”