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For A Poet -- Countee Cullen

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #598) For A Poet
 I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
 And laid them away in a box of gold;
 Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
 I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
 I hide no hate, I am not even wroth
 Who found earth's breath so keen and cold;
 I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
 And laid them away in a box of gold.
-- Countee Cullen
I nominate this poem as a companion to Yeats' "He Wishes for the Clothes of
Heaven" [1]. Cullen seems to have been a spirited elegist, generous enough
to acknowledge his debts (see "To John Keats, Poet at Springtime", "For Paul
Laurence Dunbar") and slightly incredulous of his vocation ("Yet I Do
Marvel"). His life was brief (1903-1946), but within it he triumphed:
earning honors at New York University and Harvard, publishing his first book
before graduation, then becoming a Harlem Renaissance figure. He spent his
last years teaching in the New York City public schools.

"For a Poet" basks in the Celtic twilight. Besides adhering to Yeats' lyric
in key respects -- eight lines long, both poems are in a loose tetrameter,
pondering the fragility of dreams, and stating "cloth" or "cloths" three
times each, normally at the end of a line -- besides all this, Cullen's poem
suggests "The Song of Wandering Aengus" [2], with its conclusive "gold"
imagery, not to speak of the moth's flutter.

Sunil Iyengar.

[1] poem #597
[2] poem #1 - yup, the very
first poem ever run on the Minstrels. Indeed, I got the idea for this
mailing list after coming across this gem of a poem and wanting to share it
with some friends - t.


        b. May 30, 1903, Louisville, Ky.?, U.S.
        d. Jan. 9, 1946, New York, N.Y.
in full COUNTEE PORTER CULLEN American poet, one of the finest of the Harlem

Reared by a woman who was probably his paternal grandmother, Countee at age
15 was unofficially adopted by the Reverend F.A. Cullen, minister of Salem
M.E. Church, one of Harlem's largest congregations. He won a citywide poetry
contest as a schoolboy and saw his winning stanzas widely reprinted. At New
York University (B.A., 1925) he won the Witter Bynner Poetry Prize and was
elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Major American literary magazines accepted his
poems regularly, and his first collection of poems, Color (1925), was
published to critical acclaim before he had finished college.

Cullen received an M.A. degree from Harvard University in 1926 and worked as
an assistant editor for Opportunity magazine. In 1928, just before leaving
the United States for France (where he would study on a Guggenheim
Fellowship), Cullen married Yolande Du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. Du Bois
(divorced 1930). After publication of The Black Christ and Other Poems
(1929), Cullen's reputation as a poet waned. From 1934 until the end of his
life he taught in New York City public schools. Most notable among his other
works are Copper Sun (1927), The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1928), and The
Medea and Some Poems (1935). His novel One Way to Heaven (1932) depicts life
in Harlem.

Cullen's use of racial themes in his verse was striking at the time, and his
material is always fresh and sensitively treated. He drew some criticism,
however, because he was heavily influenced by the Romanticism of John Keats
and preferred to use classical verse forms rather than rely on the rhythms
and idioms of his black American heritage.

        -- EB

74 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Charlotte Masarik said...

I am not sure if this is the right email address...

I just want to thank you tremendously for your free website - I have so enjoyed reading your poems, the kind of anthology you are collecting and all the good comments on understanding such.

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Keep up the good work, it is a pleasure to read your choices.

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Janet Wales said...

This poem was sung at my wedding in 1955, I have treasured it ever since. Janet, Australia

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