What do the mole, the mortal human being, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and the black poet share in this poem? What are they given as examples of?
The poem begins with a premise and then offers evidence to illustrate it. In the first line, the speaker articulates the premise that God is good and kind. Then the mole, the mortal human being, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and finally the black poet are given as examples of things that God has made which are difficult to square with his goodness. Why, for example, create a pitiful animal like the mole, who lives most of its life underground and is mostly blind? Or why devise such elaborate and cruel forms of torture, such as was given to the mythological figures Tantalus and Sisyphus? The speaker insists that God must have his reasons. What's more, even if these reasons were to be explained to us, we would be unlikely to comprehend them with our mere mortal brains. This raises the question, what does the final example, the black poet, share with the others? The poem ends by suggesting that the most strange or "curious" thing of all God's incomprehensible decisions, was to create black poets. In other words, to be both black and a poet is a form of punishment.
Inferring from the poem and from what you know about Cullen's other poetry and the context he lived in, why is being a black poet described as "marvel" or a "curious thing," and perhaps even a kind of torture?
After listing a number of seemingly inexplicable actions by God, such as making human beings (who were created in God's own image, according to the Bible) subject to decay and death, the speaker states that the strangest or most "curious thing" is that He made "a poet black, and bid him sing!" Racism is a common theme in many of Cullen's other poems, such as "Incident." He was also a prominent voice in the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of literature and art by African Americans that occurred in 1920s New York even while harsh segregation continued in the southern United States. Reading between the lines, we can say that that it is a "marvel" for an African American to become a poet when they have to overcome so many difficulties, such as accessing education in the face of barriers or being accepted by a literary and publishing scene that was overwhelmingly white. Coming after the example of Sisyphus being forced to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, the appearance of the black poet in "Yet Do I Marvel" suggests that being black and being a poet could almost be like a form of torture. At the same time that black poets seek to express themselves, society is indifferent to their work—or at most sees them as curiosities.
Identify the form of this poem and its meter. What kinds of references and allusions are present? How might these elements all be speaking to the plight of the black poet?
"Yet Do I Marvel" is a sonnet, a poetic form most strongly associated with Shakespeare. It has fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter. The poem discusses an important theological problem: why a good God allows bad things to happen. To make its argument, it uses allusions to Sisyphus and Tantalus, two figures from Greek mythology. Because this is a poem fundamentally about racism and art, these formal elements are important for its meaning. The famous final lines of the poem suggest that, in a racist society, being black is incompatible with being a poet. Yet the form and references of this masterfully executed poem show in fact that even in explicitly talking about race, a black poet can write himself or herself into the literary tradition, both being true to themselves and their experiences while taking full advantage of the resources of the poets that came before. It is in this more positive sense, too, that the black poet is a "marvel."