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Tom Orange

CULLEN, COUNTEE (1903-1946) Coun-tee Cullen was a central figure in the harlem renaissance in the 1920s and one of this period's finest practioners of lyric poetry. Publishing his first volume of poetry, Color, with Harper & Brothers in 1925, Cullen was one of the most promising and popular young African-American writers to emerge during an era that produced such writers as Langston hughes and Jean toomer.

Cullen's poetry is known for its formal lyricism influenced by the romantics, religious concerns, and, notwithstanding the author's declarations otherwise, racial themes. Although he differed with his peers, such as Hughes, over the relationship of racial identity to poetry (a view articulated in Caroling Dusk, the 1927 anthology of African-American poetry that he edited), racial matters figure prominently in many of his best-known works.

Cullen was adopted as a child by Reverend Frederick Cullen, an activist Harlem pastor, and Carolyn Belle Cullen. After writing a senior thesis on Edna St. vincent MILLAY and graduating Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, he continued his studies at Harvard, where he received an M.A. in 1926. During his undergraduate years, the literary prodigy won the Witter Bynner Poetry Award and prestigious contests sponsored by Crisis, Opportunity, Palms, and Poetry magazines. According to many people who knew Cullen, the Harlem social event of the decade was his 1928 wedding to Yolande DuBois, the only child of the era's leading intellectual and activist, W. E. B. DuBois. A few years after their 1930 divorce, Cullen began teaching French at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, where he worked until his untimely death.

The poet's dilemma concludes his oft-cited sonnet "Yet Do I Marvel" (1925): "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black and bid him sing!" "heritage" (1925), one of the longer works in Color, emphasizes the challenges posed by its query, "What is Africa to me?" In the widely anthologized "Incident" (1925), Cullen moves from a single to a double to a triple rhyme over the course of the poem's three ballad stanzas. He extends the iambic trimeters of the second and third quatrains by one syllable, using feminine or light endings. This method gives the work a strong, unpretentious rhythm that suits the poem's recollection of a childhood incident when a boy in Baltimore returned the narrator's smile with a racist epithet.

Like "Incident," "The Black Christ" (1929) turns on a racial insult. In rhymed couplets accented by periodic triplets, Cullen explores Christianity and racism, forces that the first line of the poem labels "God's glory and my country's shame," by equating crucifixion with lynching. The skillful application of formal mastery to unique thematic concerns characterizes Cullen's lyric achievements.

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