Monday, February 21, 2022

Countee Cullen*

Countee Cullen (1903—1946) is one of the key poets of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925 he published his first collection — Color — and entered Harvard University to earn his Masters degree. Educated in a white system, he was influenced by poets such as John Keats and Edna St. Vincent Millay; he utilized their traditional poetic forms to wrestle through the difficulties of being black in a racist society.

In the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Cullen it says, “On the subject of religion, Cullen waywardly progressed from uncertainty to Christian acceptance. Early on he was given to irony and even defiance in moments of youthful skepticism…” But later he overcame his uncertainties “in favor of Christian orthodoxy by 1929, when he published The Black Christ, and Other Poems.”

Written for the Reverend Frederick A. Cullen — who was pastor of Harlem’s largest congregation, Salem Methodist Episcopal Church, and Cullen’s adoptive father — this poem is from My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen.

Lines to My Father

The many sow, but only the chosen reap;
Happy the wretched host if Day be brief,
That with the cool oblivion of sleep
A dawnless Night may soothe the smart of grief.

If from the soil our sweat enriches sprout
One meagre blossom for our hands to cull,
Accustomed indigence provokes a shout
Of praise that life becomes so bountiful.

Now ushered regally into your own,
Look where you will, as far as eye can see,
Your little seeds are to a fullness grown,
And golden fruit is ripe on every tree.

Yours is no fairy gift, no heritage
Without travail, to which weak wills aspire;
This is a merited and grief-earned wage
From One Who holds His servants worth their hire.

So has the shyest of your dreams come true,
Built not of sand, but of the solid rock,
Impregnable to all that may accrue
Of elemental rage: storm, stress, and shock.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about Countee Cullen: first post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.