Wednesday, April 30

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 8 comments
Photo by GaborfromHungary,
Thoughts in a Zoo
By Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

They in their cruel traps, and we in ours,
Survey each other’s rage, and pass the hours
Commiserating each the other’s woe,
To mitigate his own pain’s fiery glow.
Man could but little proffer in exchange
Save that his cages have a larger range.
That lion with his lordly, untamed heart
Has in some man his human counterpart,
Some lofty soul in dreams and visions wrapped,
But in the stifling flesh securely trapped.
Gaunt eagle whose raw pinions stain the bars
That prison you, so men cry for the stars!
Some delve down like the mole far underground,
(Their nature is to burrow, not to bound),
Some, like the snake, with changeless slothful eye,
Stir not, but sleep and smoulder where they lie.
Who is most wretched, these caged ones, or we,
Caught in a vastness beyond our sight to see?

Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991).

On this final day of the A-Z Blogging Challenge, I share this riff on the heroic sonnet (they usually have an alternating rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefghghii, while this is aabbccddeeffgghhii) by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. Cullen's piece is a great example of what good poetry can do. It speaks into Cullen's own historic moment, when the nation was very racially divided and injustice prevailed, yet it also has a more universal application that extends beyond it. No matter the era, we tend to put other people in particular categorical boxes, not unlike animals at the zoo, and seek to contain what we consider dangerous.

I hope this month's foray into poetry has opened your eyes to new connections, like Cullen's recognition of his own caged self in the "smoulder[ing]" eye of a zoo snake.

What surprising things have you learned from this series? 


  1. Great inclusion for this month, Laurel! Thank you for sharing these insights into poetry. :)

    1. Thanks. I appreciate your many visits. Wow, what a whirlwind month!

  2. Thinking I might need to read more of these posts... love the interpretation of this poem, division and boxes

    1. Lots of goodies in my A-Z, introductions to all kinds of poems and some creativity tools also. Enjoy!

  3. Congratulations on successfully finishing this challenge! New follower here. I'm stopping by from the "A to Z", and I look forward to visiting again.


  4. I loved these two lines: "Gaunt eagle whose raw pinions stain the bars
    / That prison you, so men cry for the stars!" Wow.

    I also love your description of how this poem fit in to the time period. Very interesting.

    1. Many of the Harlem Renaissance writers only get the spotlight during Black History Month, but they were powerful shapers of culture for all strata in the US, and definitely worth studying.