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From the Stacks: “Your spirit speaking to mine…” – The Poetic Conversation of Helen Keller and Countee Cullen

An earlier post on Amistad’s blog referenced a current project to reconstruct the personal library of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, which is housed at the Center. The project aims to update our catalog records for copies of books owned by Cullen, noting ownership signatures, inscriptions, annotations by Cullen, and other unique bibliographic elements. One particularly interesting book updated as part of this project is a presentation copy of Helen Keller’s 1908 collection of essays The World I Live In.

 

The front fly-leaf of Cullen’s copy reads in Keller’s blocky, yet beautiful, script:

 

 

to Countee Cullen

with warm regards

         Helen Keller

April 1928

“the Lord has risen,

Lilies say, in burst

Of snowy blooms”

 

In addition to this inscribed copy, the Countee Cullen Papers at Amistad contain Keller’s letter that accompanied the gift, which provides some context to an ongoing poetic conversation between Keller and Cullen. The letter, dated 6 April 1928, mentions a visit by Cullen to Keller’s home in Forest Hills on Long Island and her receipt of Cullen’s first book, Color. Indeed, Keller’s own personal library, now housed as part of the Helen Keller Archives at the American Federation for the Blind, contains an inscribed copy of Color, dated 24 March 1928.

 

Writing to Cullen to thank him for his gift, Keller returned the favor with her own inscribed copy. Not only did Keller add a poetic dash by paraphrasing Margaret Deland’s poem “The Message of the Lilies” in her inscription, but her letter to Cullen includes an insightful commentary on his poetry and the question of race within his work. She singles out Cullen’s poem “To You Who Read My Book” by quoting multiple lines, and comments on Color overall, saying “I find the poems intensely race-conscious; but I cannot agree with the criticism I read sometime ago, I think in the ‘Nation,’ that this is a fault. A man must write out of his deepest experience, or there will be no individual tang to what he writes.”  Keller continues her commentary by stating that while the perspective of a young poet may at times be considered “shrill” or “crudely elaborated” – “until time has lessened the pain of bitter memories, it is absurd to counsel an objective approach to racial antagonism.”

 

As a young blind and deaf woman who faced her own adversities and societal judgements, Keller seemed to exhibit an understanding of Cullen’s expressions of  what it felt like to be from a marginalized community in early 20th century America. Perhaps it was Keller’s perceptive reading of Cullen’s poems or Cullen’s own reading of the long poem “A Chant of Darkness” that closes The World I Live In, but he did not end the poetic conversation between the two individuals with the exchange of books in 1928. The following year, Cullen published his third collection of poetry, The Black Christ and Other Poems, which contained the following:

 

For Helen Keller

 

Against our puny sound and sight

In vain the bells of Heaven ring,

The Mystic Blossoms red and white

May not intrigue our visioning.

 

For lest we handle, lest we touch,

Lest carnally our minds condone,

Our clumsy credence may not clutch

The under or the overtone.

 

Her finer alchemy converts

The clanging brass to golden-pealed,

And for her sight the black earth spurts

Hues never thought there unrevealed.

 

In letters, inscribed books, and individual poems, Helen Keller and Countee Cullen seemed to have shared a mutual admiration. One that is documented in their remaining archives at the Amistad Research Center and the American Federation for the Blind.

 

*A special thank you to Helen Selsdon, Archivist for the American Federation of the Blind and the Helen Keller Archives for permission to quote from Keller’s letter to Countee Cullen. Copyright © American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archive.

 

 

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