In this recently revamped Poetry Friday series, I’m setting myself a bit free from specific years in order to explore work that jabs at me. I hope to balance new work I don’t know with old work I love, and provoke a little conversation this way. So, for this week’s poem, with Martin Luther King’s birthday around the corner, I thought it was time to revisit a poet I have long admired, and a work of his I shared with many students over the years. I’ll comment on it in a moment, but first, take some time with the unmatchable Countee Cullen, and his poem, “From the Dark Tower”:
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.
Cullen’s vision is a dream deferred but not forgotten, a reminder of strength not yet extended in anger but also a kind of warning. I love the richness of Cullen’s language at all times, but there’s a beauty to his very organic language, much of it simple Anglo-Saxon words without the multi-syllabic frills of the words English borrowed from other tongues. I like a good multi-syllabic adjective most of the time (hey, who doesn’t?), but the strength of a phrase like “the night whose sable breast relieves the stark, white stars is no less lovely being dark” is thunderous. The divide between the octave and sestet (which, as my World Lit students will recall, are just fancy names for the first 8 lines of a sonnet, and the 6 that follow) is perfect—a transition from a looming warning to others of who “we” are NOT going to be forever to a soft-spoken but resilient reminder of what “we” continue to endure.
I distance myself from the “we”, not because Cullen pushes me away—to the contrary, I think most people who read this will be drawn in, and feel strangely close to him—but because I’m conscious of how much his experience isn’t mine. How strained and empty it would be for me to pretend that experiences of mine are comparable to his. This is not to say that I have no place to stand when the conversation turns to race and racism; that I think white people must be silent forever on these topics. But it will do, I think, to be silent a while longer, and listen. Cullen and millions like him were forced to stand largely “abject and mute” while the cheapness of human sympathy denied them the full measure of their humanity. No, not entirely mute. This poem is proof enough, and the African-American tradition of poem and song, of story-telling and prayer, builds from there. But the world can stand for some of us to be quiet for now and let them speak. Dr. King gets a day this weekend, and deservedly so—take time to hear him too, and many others, like Cullen, who will never have their own day.