Poetry Friday: 1925 (part 2)

As I was leaving the library today after work, I checked out Color by Countee Cullen, which was published in 1925 (and is, I believe, his first book).  Man, can that fellow write a poem.  I’ve always liked Cullen (and almost always had students read at least one poem of his when we reached the Harlem Renaissance), but I haven’t read a lot of his work previously.  I want to post a dozen poems, but I’ll limit myself to two reasonably short ones–a double billing for the first Friday in Advent.  Countee Cullen offers for our consideration “A Song of Praise”, and “Saturday’s Child”:

A Song of Praise (for one who praised his lady’s being fair)

You have not heard my love’s dark throat,
Slow-fluting like a reed,
Release the perfect golden note
She caged there for my need.

Her walk is like the replica
Of some barbaric dance
Wherein the soul of Africa
Is winged with arrogance.

And yet so light she steps across
The ways her sure feet pass,
She does not dent the smoothest moss
Or bend the thinnest grass.

My love is dark as yours is fair,
Yet lovelier I hold her
Than listless maids with pallid hair,
And blood that’s thin and colder.

You-proud-and-to-be-pitied one,
Gaze on her and despair;
Then seal your lips until the sun
Discovers one as fair.

.

Saturday’s Child

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday—
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “One more mouth to feed.”

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

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3 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1925 (part 2)

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for these poems, unknown to me. A Song of Praise reminds me of Burns and his “My love is like a red, red rose….” because of its simple swinging rhythm and rhyme scheme. But sharper, a little in your face. The elegant beauty of “winged with arrogance” shows exactly how she walks, yet would the poet need to say this if this sort of beauty had not been scorned?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I’m so glad to share a bit of Cullen with you—to me he is one of the most unjustly neglected American poets. I so rarely hear or see him mentioned, but I think he really had a gift. This is an old PF post that (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) dates from the era before I left my own comments/thoughts on the poems posted, which is a shame, since I’d love a little insight into the poems from the vantage point I saw them from in 2009! As it is, I agree with your comments in general, although I’ll admit I’d never thought of Burns in this context before. That will bear some thinking on, I think. To me, one of the strengths of Cullen is the power and the unwillingness to back down—of all the black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, to me he is the most willing to express his anger, the most unafraid to admit the fire that burned inside him. Even in these relatively mild poems, I hear his contempt for the “proud-and-to-be-pitied one”, and I see the savagery as he cuts his teeth like the raccoon (which is a deft way of claiming a racial slur as a soldier’s badge). Strong stuff.

      • SilverSeason says:

        I am working my way through your old poetry posts. This approach has me reading poetry again. I like meeting poets outside the canon of dead white males I read in school.

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