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Yet Do I Marvel
Countee Cullen
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
February is Black History Month. It’s a time to learn about the experience of Black Americans through history, and to discover—or rediscover—that there is no America without Black people. And there is no American art without Black artists.
Countee LeRoy Porter was born in 1903. His childhood was a series of losses, as he lost his parents, his brother, and then, at age 15, of his grandmother, who was raising him. He was adopted by Frederick Cullen, the pastor of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, and became Countee Cullen.
Frederick Cullen was at the center of everything that happened in Harlem, and thus Countee was, too. Those were the years of the Harlem Renaissance, when the music, art, literature, and thought coming out of Harlem were reaching and shaping the whole nation. Cullen’s gifts were soon recognized, and he thrived. He had a brilliant academic career, first at NYU, then at Harvard. By the age of 22, he had already published a well-received volume of poetry called Color.
Cullen’s primary influences were white authors from the great poetic tradition in English—his favorites were Keats and Housman. At a time when many Black authors were looking for their own roots and seeking to incorporate forms that were distinctly Black into their work, Cullen felt that his task was to demonstrate that Black writers could equal or surpass white authors in traditional English verse forms. As one critic has written, “he came to believe that art transcended race and that it could be used as a vehicle to minimize the distance between black and white peoples.” (Poetry Foundation)  Cullen sometimes criticized Black writers who wrote too exclusively about race—and yet his own best poems touch on issues of race.
In the poem Lisa read, “Yet do I marvel,” we see both sides of Cullen’s literary philosophy. The poem was published in 1928, when Cullen was just 25 years old. It demonstrates his total mastery of the sonnet—a form that perhaps more than any other, represents the white literary establishment of the authors Cullen loved—Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and so many others.  Cullen uses the familiar form of a Shakespearean sonnet, with three quatrains and a final couplet—fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.
“I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,” Cullen begins. Of course, he goes on to doubt just that, giving example after example of things that make him ask God why. Why is the mole sentenced to be underground all the time, blind, never seeing the light? Why are human beings, made in God’s likeness, doomed to death? 
In the second quatrain, Cullen draws on classical imagery to ask that same question. He references Tantalus and Sisyphus, two figures from Greek mythology who have entered into the language to represent lack of fulfillment, unrealized desire, fruitless labor, and capricious destiny.
The last couplet packs a punch. After all these examples, Cullen says, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” To be a Black poet, Cullen suggests, is to be Tantalus or Sisyphus—to have the desire and the ability, but to have the achievement snatched away. It’s to be asked to do the impossible.
Cullen would experience that paradox in his own life. After his early success in the 1920s, his career faded, for a variety of reasons. He died at the age of 42, never having fulfilled the brilliant potential of his youth. In principle, Cullen earnestly believed that art should be an equal meeting place of minds, regardless of the race of the artist. But in practice, he found that Black writers—like Black Americans—experienced challenges that white writers simply didn’t. For Cullen, as for Tantalus, he could see what he wanted, but it was always just out of reach. Throughout his life, he kept asking that question: why would God give a vocation—and make it so hard to achieve?
Of course, today, Cullen is remembered today as one of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and many of his poems have never gone out of print. In spite of the disappointments he experienced, and his overpowering sense of unrealized potential, Countee Cullen lived his vocation.
Read more about Countee Cullen here:




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