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Countée Cullen’s "Saturday’s Child" and Vernon Scannell's "Makers and Creatures"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1961.

Countée Cullen - poet, novelist, and  contributor to the Harlem Renaissance

Countée Cullen - poet, novelist, and contributor to the Harlem Renaissance

Introduction and Text of “Saturday's Child”

Countée Cullen’s “Saturday’s Child” features a speaker who bemoans his situation, as he compares the circumstances of his birth to those of the wealthy.

Refreshingly, instead of the disgusting whine that flows out from many poems with similar themes, this speaker manages to remain dignified, and even humble.

Saturday’s Child

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday—
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “One mouth more to feed.”

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

Interpretive Reading of “Saturday's Child”

Commentary on “Saturday’s Child”

This poem is offering a little drama with an allusion to the Mother Goose nursery rime, “Monday’s Child,” specifically the line, “Saturday’s child works hard for a living.”

First Stanza: Mother Goose

Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon—
For implements of battle.

In the first stanza, the speaker begins the allusion to Mother Goose by transforming the “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” into “[s]ome are teethed on a silver spoon.” The old saying means that the baby was lucky enough to be born into wealth.

Continuing the wealthy baby allusion, the speaker further adds that instead of plastic rattle toys, the rich can afford to have the very stars in heaven clanging from their rattlers.

The speaker, however, was not born among the individuals who can afford silver spoons and star-studded rattles; he was to “cut his teeth as the black raccoon” for battle gear.

His poor bred situation, however, turned out to be great boon. Instead of riches in material value, he has gained the riches of independence and became self-reliant, not depending on parents who could offer but little materially.

Second Stanza: Luxury and Disadvantage

Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.

The speaker reports that some people are born into comfortable even opulent circumstances. They experience the luxury of silk and down.

Then he refers to Jesus Christ’s birth, a birth renowned for its poverty, even less well appointed than the speaker’s situation.

The speaker at birth was enshrouded in a “sackcloth gown” instead of silk. Although the speaker’s allusion to Christ is not yet clear, it does evoke negative vibrations as he states, he was born “On a night that was black as tar.”

The black as tar reference also alerts the reader to the speaker’s being a black man, but the merely associative likeness restricts the usual narrative from foisting victimhood on readers/listeners.

Black symbolically is negative while white is positive—having nothing to do with the illogical metaphors of black and white skin, but those misguided metaphors emotionally carry the weight of oppression that sinks into the psyche of postmodern humanity.

Third Stanza: Godchild of Poverty

For some, godfather and goddame
The opulent fairies be;
Dame Poverty gave me my name,
And Pain godfathered me.

Godparents are a bulwark against the possibility that the parents of the child will die before the children have reached adulthood and thereby able to fend for themselves.

Instead of the “opulent fairies” who attend the godchild of wealth, the speaker is attended only by “poverty” and “pain.”

Fourth Stanza: Saturday’s Complaint

For I was born on Saturday—
“Bad time for planting a seed,”
Was all my father had to say,
And, “One mouth more to feed.”

Being born on Saturday, according to the Mother Goose nursery rime dictates that that child will “work[ ] hard for a living.”

The speaker has remained painfully aware that he has not been born into a family of opulence. His own father lamented that his child’s birth signaled, “Bad time for planting a seed,” and that now there was, “One mouth more to feed.”

Fifth Stanza: Contributing to Reality

Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.

“Death” becomes the midwife who “cut the strings that gave [the speaker] life.” The speaker suggests that instead of a trusting “middle wife” or physician, all this speaker’s parents could afford was “[d]eath,” a natural phenomenon.

The speaker is furthermore aware that death at birth would have been an ordinary occurrence; thus, because he continued to live, he has to contribute that reality to some reason.

Because there is purpose for everything under the sun, the speaker wisely concludes that his circumstance of being born of a low-class birth has made him the strong warrior that he has become in the battles that continue on the earth.

“ . . . POET and not NEGRO POET”

About his own ventures into poetry, Countée Cullen has stated,

If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and not NEGRO POET.

Cullen determined to write genuine poetry, not political drivel; thus, he averred, “I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda.” Fortunately for all lovers of genuine poetry, which simply gives the reader back his own heart-felt experience, Cullen confirmed this attitude in his poetry.

Propagandizing about race, gender, and class has all but vanquished the arts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. If Cullen’s attitude had become the norm, undoubtedly, the situation would not have become so widespread and viciously entrenched, and poetry would have remained richer and more relevant than it has.

Note on Usage

In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." The terms, "Negro," "colored," and "black" remained widely accepted in American English parlance at the time Countée Cullen was writing.

Painting of Countée Cullen by Warren Goodson

Painting of Countée Cullen by Warren Goodson

Mother Goose’s “Monday's child is fair of face”

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

Reading of Mother Goose “Monday's Child”

Vernon Scannell's "Makers and Creatures"

Vernon Scannell's speaker muses on the bizarre feeling of seeing his poems in magazines long after their publication, which leads him to wonder how God views His creations.

Introduction and Text of "Makers And Creatures"

Vernon Scannell's "Makers and Creatures" demonstrates a predictable progression of musing from his own poems to how others look on their art to how God looks on His creations.

The speaker muses on the bizarre feeling of seeing his poems in magazines long after their publication, which leads him to wonder how God views His creations.

Unfortunately, for the poem's ultimate truth-telling value the speaker overlooks a very important point in his musing and analyzing of what God thinks.

Makers And Creatures

It is a curious experience
And one you’re bound to know, though probably
In other realms than that of literature,
Though I speak of poems now, assuming
That you are interested, otherwise,
Of course, you wouldn’t be reading this.
It is strange to come across a poem
In an old magazine, perhaps, and fail
At first to see that it’s your own.
Sometimes you think, grateful and surprised,
"That"s really not too bad", or gloomily:
"Many have done as well and far, far better".
Or, in despair, "My God that’s terrible.
What was I thinking of to publish it".
And then you start to wonder how the great
Poets felt, seeing, surprised, their poems
As strangers, beautiful. And how do all the
Makers feel to see their creatures live:
The carpenter, the architect, the man who
Crochets intricate embroideries
Of steel across the sky. And how does God
Feel, looking at his poems, his creatures?
The swelling inhalation of plump hills,
Plumage of poplars on the pale horizon,
Fishleap flashing in pools cool as silver,
Great horses haunched with glossy muscles
And birds who spray their song like apple juice
And the soft shock of snow. He must feel good
Surprised again by these. But what happens
When He takes a look at Man? Does He say,
"That’s really not too bad", Or does He, as I fear,
Wince ruefully and mutter to Himself:
"What was I thinking of publishing that one"?

Commentary on Vernon Scannell’s "Makers And Creatures"

Vernon Scannell's speaker is musing on "a curious experience" after seeing his poems in magazines long after their publication—leading him to begin a musing on God.

First Movement: Reading and Interest

It is a curious experience
And one you’re bound to know, though probably
In other realms than that of literature,
Though I speak of poems now, assuming
That you are interested, otherwise,
Of course, you wouldn’t be reading this.

The speaker first labels his experience curious, as he addresses his readers, bestowing on them the same knowledge of experience in other areas besides literature.

In his chatty discourse, he says that readers would not be reading this, of course, if they were not interested.

Second Movement: From Curiosity to Strangeness

It is strange to come across a poem
In an old magazine, perhaps, and fail
At first to see that it’s your own.
Sometimes you think, grateful and surprised,
"That’s really not too bad", or gloomily:
"Many have done as well and far, far better".
Or, in despair, "My God that’s terrible.
What was I thinking of to publish it".

Then the speaker moves his feelings from mere curiosity to strangeness. He admits that he finds it "strange to come across a poem / In an old magazine" and not recognize it as his own, at first.

Then the speaker says such a finding leads him to feel grateful yet surprised. Next, he proffers his various reactions to the work from thinking it was not too bad to wondering why he even bothered to publish it.

Third Movement: How Creators Feel About Their Creations

And then you start to wonder how the great
Poets felt, seeing, surprised, their poems
As strangers, beautiful. And how do all the
Makers feel to see their creatures live:
The carpenter, the architect, the man who
Crochets intricate embroideries
Of steel across the sky.

Soon the speaker's musing has led him to wonder how the great poets and other artists feel about their creations; for example, he wonders how carpenters, architects, and skyscraper construction workers feel about their products.

Fourth Movement: Speculating Divinely

And how does God
Feel, looking at his poems, his creatures?
The swelling inhalation of plump hills,
Plumage of poplars on the pale horizon,
Fishleap flashing in pools cool as silver,
Great horses haunched with glossy muscles
And birds who spray their song like apple juice
And the soft shock of snow. He must feel good
Surprised again by these. But what happens
When He takes a look at Man? Does He say,
"That’s really not too bad", Or does He, as I fear,
Wince ruefully and mutter to Himself:
"What was I thinking of publishing that one"?

Finally, as might be predicted, unless the poet were an avowed atheist or political-correctness enthusiast, the speaker muses on "how God feels, looking at his poems, his creatures?"

Though God's feelings remain a mystery, the speaker's feelings are clearly unveiled in his beautiful, and sumptuous descriptions such as "[t]he swelling inhalation of plump hills, / Plumage of poplars on the pale horizon," and "birds who spray their song like apple juice."

Lest the speaker's ebullient descriptions had failed to open his heart fully, the speaker literally evaluates God's probable feelings by exclaiming, "He must feel good / Surprised again by these."

A twinge of misanthropy enters the speaker's summation when he turns his attention to what God might think of mankind: "But what happens / When He takes a look at Man? Does He say, / 'That's really not too bad,' Or does He, as I fear, / Wince ruefully and mutter to Himself: / 'What was I thinking of publishing that one?'"

The speaker's feeling is again clearly asserted by his insertion of the phrase, "I fear," before declaring the negative feelings of wincing ruefully and wondering why He bothered to create that one.

But God made Man in His own image. It seems that such an exceptional circumstance would preclude those negative feelings that the speaker ascribes to God.

The speaker, however, is only speculating, wondering about possibilities. For that, the reader may overlook that final lapse and recall the beauty of his earlier descriptions.

Vernon Scannell's singular obsession with becoming a poet

Rime vs Rhyme

Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 29, 2017:

Thank you, Shyron. Yes, Cullen was quite a craftsman. He had a strong personality that did not fall for propagandizing a postmodern victimhood. He contributed to poetry not to the politics of race-baiting as so many modernists and postmodernists have done. Have a blessed day! And thanks again for the comment and kind words.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on May 29, 2017:

Beautiful poetry Linda, I love how you described it.

Blessings my friend.