In the 1920s, the somewhat genteel world of American poetry was shaken to its foundations when the Harlem Renaissance started. During those times, all over the United States, there was an outburst of strong black voices, writing with African-American cadences and rhythms. Moreover, during that period, generally different and diverse subject matters and styles subsisted in poetry. Furthermore, the blues and jazz clubs in Harlem served as an opportunity for the up-and-coming Black writers who wrote to increase the awareness of the Negro people and inculcate pride in their African heritage.
Among these writers were Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. These writers employed the political, religious, and social facets of the African American happenings as springboard for poetic illustration. Nevertheless, these two writers differ in their life influences, style, and language usage.
The difference of Countee Cullen from other poets of the Harlem Renaissance period such as Langston Hughes was the fact that he was raised and educated in a mostly white community; hence, he did not have the experience to write based on his personal experience regarding the lives of other blacks and he did not employ popular black themes in his works. “Copper Sun,” which was Cullen’s second volume of poetry published in the year 1927 was controversial in the black community for the reason that Cullen he did not accord much attention to the theme of race.
Furthermore, Cullen was considered as a man who could be integrated while at the same time still upholding his racial self-consciousness. Nevertheless, it is possible that the reason why Cullen didn’t display a struggle with his individuality as an African American in the world of white intellectualism for the reason that he had a more urgent identity struggle. This struggle was that of his homosexuality or unconventional sexual desires against the Christian avowal of heterosexuality.
Meanwhile, as for Langston Hughes, the major work influences in his work came from his personal life, his concern for South America, Africa as well as the Caribbean, his participation and contribution in protest and radical movements, and his travels. The struggle that he came across in looking for his own cultural identity as a multiracial person with multiracial influences is revealed in his works. Furthermore, the uncertainties of his cultural adherence make him strive to resolve the disparities between the black voice and the point of view and the white voice and the happenings that his poetry can expose. Hughes’ poem “Cross” depicts this fight for unity and reconciliation as well as the struggle to search for his personal identity.
Hughes shows in his work “The Weary Blues” that blacks and whites are a part of each other and that they unite to build America. Each may possibly have their unique cultural customs and traditions; however, they are both a part of the American society and humanity as a whole, hence, in that way they are related or linked.
It is a fact that in his works, Hughes is searching for a balance between the black in his life and the white. Usually, Hughes’ life and poetry are viewed as being idyllically African America; nevertheless, he is much more than this. This is because he is tremendously proud of his African American birthright, however he does not disown that he has white cultural influence because of his white ancestors. Hughes makes use of his poetry as a means to further discover his own personality and unique identity.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen was considered as one of the most respected poets with the intellectual patrons of the priod. In fact, one of the primary spokepersons of the literary movement, Alain Locke, highly respected and praised Cullen’s works. A possible reason for this was because his works were of a more sophisticated and traditional style compared to the gritty blues influenced verses of Langston Hughes.
Cullen’s poetry was extremely different from the modern poetry of during his time. Despite the fact that his colleagues tried to imitate the jazz and blues in their verse, he stayed stuck trapped to the styles of Lord Tennyson and John Keats. Cullen even went out of his way to disapprove of African American authors and maintained that they must not emphatize with the unsophisticated traditions of folklore and that were stirring and encouraging poets during the Harlem Renaissance.
Even if Cullen’s tradition gave way, he still made poems that have enduring value, providing sophistication to individuals regarded as “primitive” and “barbaric” by a prejudiced society. Moreover, Cullen can be considered as an imaginative lyric poet for the reason that he wrote in just like Shelley and Keats and was opposed to the new poetic style of the Modernists.
Furthermore, Cullen was a conservative poet because he did not disregard racial themes, but founded his works on the Romantic poets, particularly Keats, and frequently employed the traditional sonnet form. Nevertheless, he likewise enjoyed Hughes’s black jazz rhythms, but more Cullen liked the skillful rhyme and the measured line of the 19th century poetry. Then, following the early 1930s, Cullen kept away from racial themes in his poetry.
In addition, Cullen followed a specific type of public “blackness” in his status as poet, but that same public status, which Cullen fervently hoped to uphold, contradicted with an exceedingly different kind of “blackness” exemplified in his personal desires for black men. Therefore, the conflict between these diverse forms of being generated the tension and conflict out of which much of his work was born.
Most of Cullen’s works, following the approach of “traditional lyric poets” of English romanticism, talked about love and thwarted love and sexual suppression and sexual.
Meanwhile, Langston Hughes happened to be well-known and admired during the Harlem Renaissance because he used modernist approaches to talk about the realities of black political and cultural life. Hughes’ purpose was to write a truthfully “Negro” poetry without being responsible for racial stereotypes. Influenced by modernism, Hughes incorporated blues rhythms into his poetry. Therefore, largely white audiences of Harlem Renaissance art and culture became accustomed to the specificities of cultural-political realism of African America.
Hughes was regarded as one of the greatest poets America has ever produced; nevertheless, more importantly, he has provided a voice to the African-American experience. Moreover, his works proclaimed to the whole world that the streets of black America had a culture vibrant and powerful and intensely poetic.
Critical to an appreciation and comprehension of Hughes’ work is the idiom, which is the rhythms of jazz and the blues and the feature of black colloquial speech. Furthermore, Hughes had the ability and competence for improvisation, creativeness and original rhythms. Cullen employed blues, jazz, gospel, be-bop, and Harlem slang. In addition, he had deep enthusiasm for the songs and language of the rural folk and lower-class urban or the so-called “street” Negro.
It can be said that the poetry that Hughes made in his entire lifetime was full of rhythm and beat. The stanzas in his poetry merge wildly smooth tunes regarding life as a black American. Certainly, he had constantly acknowledged or recognized that his major poetic influences were the blues bars of D.C. and Harlem. According to Hughes, blues had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.
Moreover, Hughes did not limit himself to exposing only the rhythms of black music to his readers. Instead, Hughes would like his audience to experience the entirety of the African-American experience.
Cullen had a significant academic training, hence, he could write ‘white’ verse or high brow style – sonnets, ballads, quatrains, and the like, much in the style of Keats and the British Romantics, with genuine skill and compelling power.
On the other hand, Hughes’ utilization of dialect was admired by critics because of his realistic and truthful depictions of Black vernacular speech as one of his work’s main features. In fact, Hughes’ employed considerable vernacular language in his work “The Weary Blues.” Although Hughes was establishing identifiably African American style poetry, to pursue this belief, he articulates himself explicitly; Hughes is not struggling to make himself white or black. Even if his work suggests African American form and dialect, the message of this works is not restricted to only blacks.
In conclusion, even if Cullen and Hughes were two famous poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes has surpassed his Cullen not for the reason that Hughes was a more gifted poet but because he had, ultimately, possessed a greater determination and resolve to be a writer and a greater confidence in what the act of poetry signified. Moreover, compared to Cullen, Hughes more re-articulated and personified his times by way of his poetry.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.