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The Poems



The poetry of Countee Cullen (1903-1946) exhibits a profound awareness of the American context of racial discrimination and his place, as both an African-American and a poet, within it. He was “a sensitive black man who heard and heeded the need to be a poet in a world that made it difficult—when not impossible—for the black” (Shucard 15).

Cullen established his poetic career during the Harlem Renaissance, but published only one volume of poetry during the 1930s, The Medea, and Some Poems, in 1935. It would be his last volume of new verse, for, after this volume he effectively abandoned the writing of poetry. Cullen stopped writing poetry because of “doubts over the role that art could play in the betterment of race relations [… and] increasing doubts through the course of his poetic career concerning his effectiveness as a poet” (Shucard 94). He is largely seen as a poet who failed to develop artistically; who showed early promised but did not grow (102). In part, this reputation derives from Cullen’s attachment to earlier poetic forms. In his use of classical allusion, exalted language, and strict formal structure Cullen diverged from the experimental and innovative trends of his time.

Cullen's "Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song" is a direct expression of his frustration both with the racial inequity in America and also with the failure of artistic expression and the artistic community to impact the situation.

The poem is addressed to "American poets" and rhetorically questions the lack of response to the trials of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teenagers accused of raping a white woman and steam-rolled through the legal system.

The poem addresses the "American poets" as self-proclaimed defenders of justice who send their complaints

Like lightning dart
Into the nation's heart.
Against disease and death and all things fell
And war,
Their strophes rise and swell
To jar
The foe smug in his citadel.
The gentility of form and mannerism in the poem diffuses its emotional impact. The image of imagery of rage and destruction applied to “strophes” creates a sense of absurdity and disdain grown of disillusionment. It was such disillusionment that ultimately overwhelmed Cullen's career, as it collapsed under the feelings of hopelessness generated by an indifferent, even hostile, nation.


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