Five Poems of Countée Cullen - (2007)
for medium voice and piano
( Please note: It is believed these texts remain under copyright and are
therefore not reproduced herein.)
i. Saturday's Child
[ 5 pages, circa 3' 00" ]
Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black racoon--
ii. Incident [ 3 pages, circa
2' 10" ]
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
iii. The Loss of Love [ 7
pages, circa 7' 10" ]
All through an empty place I go,
And find her not in any room;
candles and the lamps I light
Go down before a wind of gloom.
iv. For a Poet [ 3 pages,
circa 2' 05" ]
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box
v. The Wise [ 3 pages, circa
2' 30" ]
Dead men are wisest, for they know
How far the roots of flowers go,
How long a seed must rot to grow.
Total duration - 21 pages, circa 16' 25" ]
It is uncertain where Countee Porter (later known as Countee Cullen) was
born, but it was probably in Louisville, Kentucky on May 30, 1903. On his
application to New York University, he noted his birthplace as Louisville,
but later in life, he claimed that he was born in New York City. His mother
was Elizabeth Thomas and his father was unknown. Cullen had an
unstable home life. His mother left the rearing of Cullen to his grandmother
Amanda Porter, with whom he lived with her until her death in 1917. After
she died, he lived with Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen and his wife in New
York City. Rev. Cullen was the minister of the Salem Methodist Episcopal
Church. Cullen was not officially adopted, but he considered the reverend
and his wife his parents. The Cullens had such a strong influence in his
life that by the time that he was eighteen, he had changed his name from
Porter to Cullen.
He attended De Witt Clinton High School in New York and began writing poetry
at the age of fourteen. In 1922, Cullen entered New York University. His
poems were published in The Crisis, under the leadership of W. E. B.
Du Bois, and Opportunity, a magazine of the National Urban League. He
was soon after published in Harper's, the Century Magazine,
and Poetry. He won the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Prize and
other awards for his poem, "Ballad of the Brown Girl," and graduated from
New York University in 1923. That same year, Harper published his first
volume of verse, Color, and he was admitted to Harvard University
where he completed a master's degree. Most notable to critics, were the
racial themes of Cullen's poetry. In 1926, Cullen received his M.A.
from Harvard University. From 1926 to 1928, he served as assistant editor
for Opportunity. In 1928, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to
study in Paris, France. Before leaving, he married Yolanda Du Bois, the
daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois. The marriage was brief, and they divorced in
Cullen's second volume of poetry, Copper Sun (1927),
met with controversy in the black community because he did not give the
subject of race the same attention he had given it in Color.
Copper Sun dealt less with race, and focused more on life and love. He
was raised and educated in a primarily white community, and he differed from
other poets of the Harlem Renaissance like Langston Hughes in that he lacked
the background to comment from personal experience on the lives of other
blacks or use popular black themes in his writing.
The Black Christ and Other Poems, the product of his Guggenheim
Fellowship, was published in 1929. Unlike his previous work, this book of
poems received less than stellar reviews. From thereafter, Cullen's career
as a poet and writer waned. He continued to publish other works such as,
One Way to Heaven (1932), The Medea and Some Poems (1935), The
Lost Zoo (1940), and several other books and poems. However, his later
work failed to produce the same praise as his previous books of poetry.
From 1934 until his death, Cullen taught English and French at Frederick
Douglass Junior High School. In 1940, he married Ida Mae Roberson. Despite
taking a teaching position, Cullen continued writing. In collaboration with
Arna Bontemps, he wrote the script for the play, St. Louis Woman,
which was based on Bontemps' novel, God Sends Sunday. Cullen died
January 9, 1946, a few months before the play opening in March.
These song settings were composed on James Island, Charleston, and at Folly
Beach, a sea island nearby, while staying in lodgings on Arctic Avenue, five
blocks from that now washed-away extension of the road where George and Ira
Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward worked on their American classic,
Porgy and Bess. As with the reactions to this now well-accepted opera, I
expect some complaint for settings Cullen's and Campbell's poems in which
the variants of negro -- nigger, and niggah -- are an important part of the
text. For such complaints and those who would make them, I care not; the
importance of honoring these fine black American poets and their work far
exceeds the forced, enforcing "sensitivities" of those who would censor
their work or mine.
The first of these fine poems is a statement of harsh reality, as the child
learns to be an adult who has be denigrated as "one more mouth to feed." The
setting is therefore dark, with the shifting underlying harmonies not wholly
related to any one tonality, as the chord structures rise by subsequent
minor thirds up to the octave.
The characteristic "Scotch snap" rhythm is herein interpreted to mime the
harsh, accusatory word stress, "nigger." The dense, jazz oriented chords
shift under the melody line without common practice sensibilities.
The bass line which accompanies a chromatic, moving alto line begins its
statement with the six of the scale, as if to emphasize the instability and
dis-ease of this soul, moving through a home where once the loved one live
and now no longer moves. Blue notes in both the vocal line and accompaniment
flavor and accentuate this "loss of love," something about which one can do
nothing except experience it.
The change of pace and color is appropriate as the poet speaks of having
"wrapped" his dreams -- essentially in the published editions by which we
come to know their work. Cullen's work was praised in his era, and yet is
fostered various kinds of criticism from those who have much to say in
prose, and so little so add in a poetic voice.
The final statement of this song collection offers the view that the dead
"are wisest." Perhaps, from the poet's perspective and as one may find in
parallel voices speaking out of many other cultures, the "dead" leave off
the foolishness by which we of the living make our errors, our sins and our
lies part of the fabric of foolish lives.
I have tried through several avenues to receive a reply from the estate
representatives of Countee Cullen for these texts to be published, either
commercially or to be made freely available as PDF downloads, as are so many
other scores within this site. I will again get around to again seeking
permission, but chasing after permissions when letters are not answered
becomes uninteresting when balanced against composing and working with so
much fine poetry which is assuredly within the public domain or available
for publishing through arrangement with farsighted estates. For the sake of
this particular poet, I wish it were otherwise.)