On "Tableau" Essay

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Syllabus--American Poetry from 1900-1950
FACE="Courier,Courier New"> ALIGN="center">Cary Nelson align="left">Except as noted, all poems are in Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford). All authors have web sites ...

Gregory Woods

Among the most accomplished of the ambiguous poems is Countee Cullen’s elegant and fussy "Tableau", which celebrates the sight of a black boy and a white boy crossing the street, arm in arm, followed by disapproving glances. The poem offers a perfectly harmonized counterpoint of the two themes, sexuality and race, in a manner which, while saying nothing explicitly gay to the inattentive reader, nevertheless broaches the scandalous topic of homosexual miscegenation without subterfuge or disguise. To be so discreetly indiscreet is an excellent feat of anti-homophobic irony only rarely achieve in the pre-Stonewall conditions which provoked it. No amount of paraphrase can do it justice. The poem manages to negotiate its passage between safety and risk in a manner which seems almost as light as it is actually solid and secure.

From Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. New York: Haworth Press, 1993.

Joseph Aimone

Contemporary identity politics is a confusing and complicated game, played in deadly earnest. Once we have begun to consider how Countee Cullen articulated his poetry with regard to race, we inevitably hear the following footsteps . . . "Race, class, gender." ;And we want to know how Cullen’s poetry is implicated in other sorts of politics than those out in the open in Harlem dialogues over the "New Negro." ;A reasonably complete accounting of Cullen’s work to satisfy such demands will have to wait for a study with great biographical and historical scope, one which focuses on his intentions and specifically on his formalist poetics as they shape and are shaped by his ideas about race politics, and the covert politics of homosexuality in a milieu anxious at once for (or about) independence from and acceptance by wider white audiences. But gender politics in his work does demand attention even so, given recent claims of Cullen’s homosexuality.

Considering Cullen’s poetics as a matter of queer gender politics as well as one of race politics adds a notable dimension to our reading of his poems. An excellent example that poses the issues pointedly is "Tableau."

We should read this poem three times. In our first reading, the shock to the sensibilities of the "fair folk" ;and "dark folk" ;is summed up in the way

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