Claude McKay: Poems

Claude McKay, perhaps most known for his novel Banjo, was also a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Jamaican by birth, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1940. He saw capitalism and racism as inextricably linked, and devoted much of his work to overturning conventional belief via conventional forms (the sonnet, the novel, etc.). He was a devout believer in the potential of the Soviet Union, but did not seem to experience the disillusionment that Hughes and others did.

“THE HARLEM DANCER,” 1917/1922

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Interesting to compare the dancer's dislocation from physical space with the stripper in Ellison's Invisible Man and with the dancers in Hughes' poetry.

“HARLEM SHADOWS,” 1918

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
      In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
      To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
      Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
      Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
      Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
      The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
A poem about the senses and the exhaustion of the urban flaneur in three stanzas of six lines with the rhyme scheme ababcc dedecc efefcc.

“THE LYNCHING,” 1919

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abba cddc effe gg. The horror of the subject in the rather prosaic form of the sonnet is striking here. The speaker shifts from the family of the victim to the body itself, ending on the women and children – “lynchers that were to be” thronging around the “thing” made of the victim’s body.

“IF WE MUST DIE,” 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first 8 lines are in a subjunctive tone of prevention, while the last 6 represent a turn that is a rallying cry to leftist political action.

“AMERICA,” 1921

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The poem is remarkable for enacting in its form (an English sonnet by a Jamaican-born black immigrant in America) the conflict of its content (a man torn between violent political resistance and cultural infatuation).

“MOSCOW,” 1953

Another sonnet, but in a Petrarchan octet/sestet structure (with the unusual rhyme scheme abcd bcda / efg fge). The octet describes Moscow as McKay saw it; after the volta, the sestet turns to how the memory preserves him and gives him hope (almost like Wordsworth’s daffodils). The poem transforms Moscow into Byzantium, perhaps a comment on a Yeatsian ideal of aesthetic and political union, as in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

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