In 1925, Countee Cullen, a young star of the literary movement that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Witter Bynner Undergraduate Award. That same year, he graduated from NYU and published Color, his debut volume of poems. Major Jackson, the editor of the recently published Countee Cullen: notes in his wonderful introduction that Color sold two thousand copies in its first two years and that “as a result of his resolve to master the high literary tradition of poetry, Cullen emerged in the mid-1920s critically acclaimed by both black and white readers.”
Tomorrow at 3 pm, the Poetry Society of America and the Library of America present Yet Do I Marvel: ATribute to Countee Cullen just steps from Cullen’s grave in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery, also the resting place of such luminaries as Herman Melville, Damon Runyan, Miles Davis, Irving Berlin, W.C. Handy, Judy Garland, and Joseph Pulitzer. The 400-acre rural-style cemetery is also a magnificent urban public park, easily accessible by New York subway at the last stop on the #4 line. Major Jackson, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Robin Coste Lewis will read poems in tribute to Cullen, with musical performances by the mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran joined by guitarist Brandon Ross. For more details, check out the PSA’s event page here. We’ll be posting poems from the new volume over the weekend, beginning with his “Yet Do I Marvel”:
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!