On Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

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 … Continue reading →