Black American Poets and Dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists of the Harlem Renaissance

Excerpt

Countee Cullen, introducing his anthology, Caroling Dusk (1927), said of the African-American poets of the Twenties that "theirs is also the heritage of the English language." "Rhymed polemics," he added, did not typify his poets, who went back to Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) and then included James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Cullen himself, and Jean Toomer, the principal poets now generally assigned to the Harlem Renaissance. McKay, Brown, Hughes, Cullen, and Toomer hardly constituted a school, though they help to mark off an era. Except for Toomer, these poets had more in common with John Keats than with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot: their blackness insulated them against literary Modernism, which may have been all to the good.Langston Hughes, on internal evidence, was stimulated by Carl Sandburg, now forgotten as a poet but useful in helping to focus Hughes's polemic on behalf of his people. Like his fellow poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes shrewdly found his models in poets a little remote from him in time and place. Only in the generation prefigured by Melvin B. Tolson, and culminating in Robert Hayden and in Gwendolyn Brooks, is there much of a direct influx of the High Modernism of Eliot and of Hart Crane, and by then enough of a black poetic tradition had been forged so that the influence could be accommodated, most brilliantly by the Hayden of "Middle Passage," "Runagate Runagate," and such ballads as those of "Remembrance" and "Nat Turner."

There are powerfully shaped poems in Claude McKay's work, where the mode of insulation is heightened by culture, and by the penitence of his turn to Roman Catholicism. His devotional sonnets seem to me stronger than most critics now acknowledge, and are scarcely fashionable, yet their highly wrought baroque intensity will preserve them into a time more receptive to formal control than our own. Countee Cullen already seems undervalued, as does Edwin Arlington Robinson, who mediated Keats for Cullen (on the basis again of internal evidence). Like Robinson, Cullen tones down his cadences to a perpetually dying fall, perfectly expressive not only of a sense of belatedness, as in Robinson, but also of a disciplined sensibility attempting an impossible balance between moral outrage and the realization that such outrage in itself cannot constitute a poem. Like Oscar Wilde, and . . .

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