On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

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Countee Cullen Harlem Renaissaince

Countee Cullen. Image via FindAGrave.

After a LONG time out of print, Library Of America finally released Countee Cullen’s Collected Poems a couple of years ago. To those who know literature, this was a big deal- mostly because Cullen is one of the 3 or 4 greatest black poets to have ever written, even as (as per all great writing) he was quite free from the stereotypes of ‘blackness’, or whatever other limit artists typically impose upon themselves. An almost Constantine The Great-like Christian- just note the syncretism of the titular poem- he never gave a simple answer on politics, religion, or race, even arguing with Langston Hughes that he was above all a poet, first, and a black man second. In other words, while Hughes would sometimes dip into mere agitprop, Countee Cullen was less interested in canned answers- nor did he think that he necessarily had them in the first place. This made for mysterious sonnets, strange messages, and of course- having modeled himself on the Romantic poet John Keats- great lyricism, witty lines, and memorable inversions:

For John Keats, Apostle Of Beauty

Not writ in stone, nor in mist,
Sweet lyric throat, thy name;
Thy singing lips that cold death kissed
Have seared his own with flame.

Although I’d argue Cullen had a number of truly great poems, it is really “Heritage” that is special- on a deeper level- in my own life. I recall how, as a kid, after I’d decided to start reading with purpose, I first came across Countee Cullen’s work in a Harlem Renaissance anthology. I was 16 at the time and really had no knowledge of what made for good writing. Yet there was the feeling that Cullen’s work was somehow better than most of the pieces being represented. It was more subtle- it took quite a few readings to really know what was going on, even when the poems felt simple. The book featured small pieces, mostly, and while they ranged from good to great, it was really “Heritage” that made me want to UNDERSTAND poetry- as well as learn how to craft my own. My guess is that it simply came at the right time. I was intellectually maturing, I was getting ready to leave my Orthodox Christian faith, and I was- by way of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, among other works- diverging from the limits of ‘my’ world into the boundaries of another’s. And while there were many poets greater than Cullen that I’d initially sampled- John Donne, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane- they were completely inaccessible to a child. They are, for lack of a better term, more or less useless when first learning the craft- unless one realizes that their work is something to be conquered in time, and not merely put aside. Yet Cullen didn’t need to be awaited. He was always there:

Heritage

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

Right now, there doesn’t seem to be all that much- just a few nice visuals for the brain to latch on to then let go. Note the setup, here, for the poem will not deviate from it. It is (mostly, I guess- the argument gets tiring) trochaic tetrameter, which tends to have a lulling effect upon readers that will come in handy by poem’s end. The initial stress of each syllable is at odds with the imagistic drive of the poem- trochees tend to be a bit ‘insistent’. Keep this in mind, as it’ll be critical once things really develop.

So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.

Alright- more visuals, with the first word (“So”) indicating a slight change of narration. The speaker is lying around in an idealized Africa- or is he simply imagining it? Reading about it? There is already a sense of irreality about it all as the images deepen and become more memorable, as if it’s all blooming into a kind of dream.

So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.

It may have taken a bit, but here’s the first hint of what’s to come. The narrator’s skin color is referenced, but obliquely- ‘somber’ is often used to describe darkness, while the first direct color-word is actually reserved for “blood”. In short, one can see the skin without seeing the skin- a nice little inversion that will escape most readers the first time around, even as the poem utterly abounds in and is driven by such seemingly minor touches. The stanza ends with the most dramatic phrases so far, thus pushing back some of the former idealizations. But not quite. The tension is still “chafing”. The rest must come later.

Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.

A great little couplet- Africa isn’t ‘real’, in this sense. It is something in the imagination, something merely read about before it’s carelessly put down. We know this about the narrator now, yet he’ll contradict himself again as he zips in and out of his own head.

Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbards where they slept.

What’s this? The narrator previously admits to the illusion, yet bemoans how little of the ‘true’ Africa is in fact remembered. In effect, he’s recalling something that he hasn’t experienced, himself, but thinks he knows- or wishes that he did, for reasons that are not yet entirely clear. A couple of stellar images round things out: “bugle-throated roar,” and the regal finality of “monarch claws/ scabbards…”

Silver snakes that once a year
Doff the lovely coats you wear,
Seek no covert in your fear
Lest a mortal eye should see;
What’s your nakedness to me?
Here no leprous flowers rear
Fierce corollas in the air;
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year’s snow to me,
Last year’s anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set­­.
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,
Even what shy bird with mute
Wonder at her travail there,
Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

More idealization, but with a subtle twist that must be re-interpreted later. Note the lines that are sandwiched right in the middle of the stanza: “The tree/ Budding yearly must forget/ How its past arose or set.” A throwaway adage, or an implicit comment on the narration, and the narrator’s nostalgia for things that never were? It’s almost as if- in the midst of this half-dream- there’s a light that’s slowly coming through to awake the narrator, to put things back in working order. It’s the most telling comment so far, yet the fact that it’s so hidden means the poet wants you to work at finding it, thereby calling attention to it as the other lines gradually fall away.

So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittent beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body’s street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night —
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, “Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.

Alright- the stanza before the poem’s inner fulcrum. The images seem to reach a crescendo: there’s agitation over nothing, it seems; feet are “cruel,” but why? Is it more longing for things he hasn’t felt, and memories he’s never really made? Indeed: “Up and down they go, and back/ Treading out a jungle track.” His “body’s street” is merely that- the thing that gets molded by whatever he allows to work upon him, via neuroses we’ll soon come to know. At end, the rain is forcing all sorts of images into his head, and values that- he feels- are not entirely his. He seems to sober up at this, and quips that, for reasons he can’t quite express, rain’s still able to ‘work’ upon him, recalling in pith and phrasing the earlier line re: “the tree/ budding yearly must forget…”

Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.

The poem’s shortest stanza, but one of its most powerful. It is the turning point- the thing that absolutely forces virtually ALL of the poem’s previous images into a completely new context, challenges the dreaminess, and makes the reader review lines that- while seemingly innocent, at first- take on a different meaning. Just note the sudden bitterness- hatred, even. So much of the poem is spent on lulling the reader into a sense of complacency- of feeling the narrator’s ‘love’ for a heathen world, only to pull the rug out from under him at the last minute, and then do so a couple of more times as Cullen continues to play with these ideas. This is a level of subversion few poems ever reach.

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.

More subversion- this time, of the original subversion, as the reader can’t possibly take his original spin on “quaint, outlandish heathen gods” in the same way. There’s still so much silly- and boring- debate re: God’s color, and Cullen must have heard it all before. Yet it’s distilled to its essence here, as this is not mere agitprop or whining, but a reflection of- well, of Cullen, which is usually a lot more effective than an abstract discussion on something that’s usually so inert. The narrator’s wish for a black God is tempered by his distaste for the heathen world, even as he knows that he’s more or less putting his faith in images, and that the question of race vs. religion is little more than his own inner speech. Just look at those last 2 lines- how often does religion admit to its own human inclinations? How often does theology even CARE for such queries? Yet, with art, theology can do more, for it no longer serves a function. It no longer ‘just’ serves God. It serves Man, and Man has quietly made both:

All day long and all night through
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.

Africa is gone- and ‘they’, at this point, can be anyone, really: others- like the narrator- obsessed with externals, religious friends, Africans. Just consider this mysterious threat: “Lest the grave restore its dead.” Does the narrator mean what he says? It’s almost as if he cannot be seen by his predecessors, as he’ll be seen as a kind of sell-out, or even fears to fall back on ‘African’ customs. Whatever they are to him, personally, they are still a regression. Yet he STILL can’t accept this- Christ or not. The idea is that it’s all turned inward, and the poet must make do with the consequences.

5 Comments On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

  1. Ichimaru

    Excellent interpretation, and you write so flawlessly. What other poets would you recommend for someone who is wholly unacquainted with poetry? Thank you for this.

    Reply
    1. Alex SheremetAlex Sheremet

      Thanks. I’d recommend you look at Countee Cullen’s “Collected Poems”, which have been re-printed a year or so ago.

      I’d also recommend James Emanuel’s material…it’s out of print, but if you search my site you will see an essay on him as well as a good number of some of his best poems. He’s easy to ‘get’, too, although some the free verse might be a bit less accessible if you’re new.

      Then there’s the better-known stuff. Philip Larkin has excellent stuff, and “Church Going” is my favorite poem of his. “High Windows” might be his best poem, though.

      Tu Fu and Li Po are the best of the Chinese. Rainer Maria Rilke is fairly accessible much of the time, and also one of the greatest poets to ever write. Robinson Jeffers is wonderful. Robert Frost has a lot of good, easy material. And, if you haven’t read him yet, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” is an obvious choice as well.

      I’d recommend you take a look at Dan Schneider’s website, Cosmoetica. Some of the poetry is really tough if you’re just starting out but the essays are nicely explanatory of much what you should probably learn.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Pingback: Analysis Philip Larkin's "Church Going" | IDEAS ON IDEAS

  3. ICHIMARU

    I have been reading both your and Schneider’s essays on Poetry, among other things. I cannot thank you enough for your further guidance!

    Reply

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