Countee Cullen Revisited


Some days or weeks ago, Dylan included Mr. Cullen in a list of underrated poets. The name rang a bell although I don't know that I had read anything by him before that time. I recognized the name as one of the "Harlem Renaissance" school of poets (although labels tend to get in the way of the real power of any poet). I picked up a thick volume of his work and started to read--I was surprised by the power and the beauty of the poetry. A poem from Mr. Cullen is, perhaps, a good introduction to the thoughts on my mind for the day.

Any Human to Another
Countee Cullen

The ills I sorrow at
Not me alone
Like an arrow,
Pierce to the marrow,
Through the fat
And past the bone.

Your grief and mine
Must intertwine
Like sea and river,
Be fused and mingle,
Diverse yet single,
Forever and Forever.

Let no man be so proud
And confident,
To think he is allowed
A little tent
Pitched in a meadow
Of sun and shadow
All his little own.

Joy may be shy, unique,
Friendly to a few,
Sorrow never scorned to speak
To any who
Were false or true.
Your every grief
Like a blade
Shining and unsheathed
Must strike me down.
Of bitter aloes wreathed,
My sorrow must be laid
On your head like a crown.

There are two points I'd like to make about this wonderful little poem. First, the comparison with John Donne's remarkable "No man is an iland" meditation is immediate and interesting. The themes of both are the shared burden of each individual--what affects one affects all through our incorporation in the Body of Christ. These meditations are sisters.

But the Cullen piece adds a unique interpretive twist. Because there is no audience and the title "Any Human to Another" opens up the possibility that we have at points the poetic voice speaking to Christ, and Christ returning that speech. The final seven lines are indicative of the possible fruitful ambiguity of the poem. I could see the lines "Your every grief/ Like a blade/ Shining and unsheathed/ Must strike me down.", as spoken by Jesus, and I think particularly of the scene at Mary and Martha's before the tomb of Lazarus. Or for that matter, weeping for lost Jerusalem. Every grief weighs heavily of Christ's head. The last three lines, I speak to Him, "Of bitter aloes wreathed,/ My sorrow must be laid/ On your head like a crown." My sorrows, and particularly those sorrows and sicknesses of spirit that we call sins helped to form the crown of thorns (I imagine that this crown of aloes is little less painful) pressed down upon the sacred brow.

Now, I don't insist that this is what Countee Cullen was trying to do, nor is it an exposition of the fullness of the poem. But good poetry and good poetic language gives rise to "fruitful ambiguities" that allow a reader to , in Harold Bloom's famous phrase, "be read by the work of literature." I see in this poem, in part, what I bring to it. The poem acts as a partial mirror, as any great poem will. We can find within its structure things that may not have been intended by the poet, but which naturally arise because the poet is communicating with a vast audience all of whom have different backgrounds, and so different interpretive texts. In good poetry, all interpretive texts will find a key in the words. I believe this to be not merely a good poem, but truly a beautiful poem, and ultimately a truthful poem. Mr. Cullen has opened up a rich storehouse of meaning and possibility in a very simple, very streamlined poem. And he notes a truth--whatever happens to any one of us ripples out and touches all of us, directly or indirectly.

Bookmark and Share



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 6, 2002 8:08 AM.

The Stunning Grace of God was the previous entry in this blog.

The Great T'ang Poets is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll