'To Make a Poet Black': Constructing an Ethnic Poetics in Harlem Renaissance Poetry

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Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 16,058 words

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[(essay date 2006) In the excerpt below, Leonard builds a detailed theoretical framework to support his assertion that the conflict between the bourgeois and the vernacular impulses, together with a "self-contradictory individualism," shaped the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.]

In his 1925 poem "Yet Do I Marvel," Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen did more than identify the African American poet's characteristic need to resolve the tension between a potentially liberating ethnic culture and the potentially strangulating conventions of the Anglo-American poetic tradition. ... His poem also characterizes the defiant romantic imagination by which poets of the Harlem Renaissance--that remarkable flowering of African American literary culture in and around Harlem in the 1920s--constructed the conception of poetic genius commensurate with the "New Negro" cultural identity that they rightly claimed had provisionally resolved the aesthetics and the politics of this problem. Like the heroic odes of nineteenth-century dialect poet Paul Laurence Dunbar ...--conventional poems that celebrated a heroic ethnic communal version of national cultural ideals exemplified by the moral heroism and aesthetic persona of the poetic bard--the verse of the Harlem Renaissance predicated its celebration of African American identity upon the poet's capacity to elevate African American folk culture into the pantheon of traditional literary fame through a combination of traditional and vernacular poetic techniques. But unlike in Dunbar's verse, in Harlem Renaissance poetry this provisional unity of folk and formal more fully articulated a distinctive and hybrid ethnic cultural self that also more fully transformed as it embraced the mainstream social and cultural values of which it was partly constituted. In other words, instead of being the heroic culmination of communal racial uplift, moral heroism, and national becoming, as they were for Dunbar, poetic genius and ethnic self-hood in most Harlem Renaissance poetry were the culmination of a marvelous construction of an empowering individual ethnic self whose distinctive cultural heritage became the necessary foundation for its claim to fulfilling national ideals. Enacting the paradox that individuality created community, the marvel of Harlem Renaissance poetry was that this pursuit of individual distinction did indeed make poetic genius black.

In other words, the bourgeois cultural model and romantic poetic ideals of Countee Cullen more accurately illuminate the construction of ethnic selfhood in Harlem Renaissance poetry and, by extension, in the study of African American poetry than do the models of vernacular self-definition or political activism that dominate the studies of this movement. Instead of seeking to find in the Harlem Renaissance a commitment to the vernacular entirely analogous to that found in contemporary literary and cultural thinking, I am suggesting we view the complex negotiation of individuality and poetic achievement as the means to construct a communal cultural identity, as exemplified by Cullen. While Harlem writers defined cultural identity as a cultural intersubjectivity, a shared communal mind-set, their artistry constructed that intersubjectivity through the pursuit of individuality and through traditional poetic glory. In "Yet Do I Marvel" Cullen posits his own imaginative questioning as an answer to the injustice of God of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420090820