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For several decades many readers of modern American poetry have believed that Countee Cullen was a lesser poet than Langston Hughes. This judgment is rather sharply at odds with how the two poets stood relative to each other during the Harlem Renaissance. Large numbers of readers in that period — from the elite to the newly enlarging community of “common readers” in the African American population — admired both men. Hughes himself described his status as that of the “poet low rate,” punning on the unofficial title of “poet laureate” which he gladly ceded to Cullen. The joke at once mocked the notion of laurels, and yet demonstrated that such categories had their social and literary critical function. But despite all the distortions (more of which in a moment) involved in assessing laurels and their correct bestowal, we can learn something about African American poetry and its merits and context by rehearsing the difference as well as the affinities, elective and natural, between the two men. More… “The Poets Low Rate”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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