At the conclusion of his essay “The Renaissance Re-examined,” which appears as the final chapter of Arna Bontemps’s 1972 book, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Warrington Hudlin insists that any true appreciation of the Harlem Renaissance hinges on the realization that this celebrated literary phenomenon “opened the door” for later black writing. The Harlem Renaissance will always be remembered for this reason. It will be valued for its merits. It will come again to importance because of its idea.” The poetry of Claude McKay must be read in much the same light. Though it is easy enough to find fault with much of his verse, he did help to “open the door” for those who would follow; as such, he deserves to be valued for his merits, judged by his strengths.
Though progressive enough in thought, McKay never felt compelled to experiment much with the form of his poetry. In content, he is a black man of the twentieth century; in form, he is more an English lyricist of the nineteenth century, with Miltonic echoes here and there. The effect is, at times, a little peculiar, as in “Invocation,” a sonnet in which the poet beseeches his muse to
Let fall the light upon my sable faceThat once gleamed upon the Ethiopian’s art;Lift me to thee out of this alien placeSo I may be, thine exiled counterpart,The worthy singer of my world and race.
Archaic trappings aside, there is a kind of majesty here, not bad work for a young man in his twenties. The Miltonic ring is probably no accident; McKay, it must be remembered, received something of an English gentleman’s education. As the work of a black man pursuing what had been to that time primarily a white man’s vocation, McKay’s “Invocation” bears comparison with John Milton’s “Hail native Language.” One of the young Milton’s ambitions was to vindicate English as poetic language, deserving of the same respect as Homer’s Greek, Vergil’s Latin, or Dante’s Italian. McKay found himself in the position of vindicating a black man’s experience of a white culture as a worthy subject for poetry.
“The Tropics in New York”
Not all of McKay’s verse concerns itself specifically with the theme of interracial tension. Among his poems are love lyrics, idyllic songs of country life, and harsher poems of the city, where “the old milk carts go rumbling by,/ Under the same old stars,” where “Out of the tenements, cold as stone,/ Dark figures start for work.” A recurring theme in McKay’s work is the yearning for the lost world of childhood, which for him meant memories of Jamaica. This sense of loss is the occasion for one of his finest poems, “The Tropics in New York”:
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs.
The diction here is simple; one can almost hear Ernest Hemingway in the loving list of fruits. The speaker’s memory stirs at the sight of a shop window. In the midst of the city his thoughts turn to images of “fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,/ And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies/ In benediction over nun-like hills.” Here, in three straightforward quatrains, is the mechanism of nostalgia. From a physical reality placed by chance before him, the observer turns his eyes inward, visualizing a happy scene of which he is no longer a part. In the final stanza, his eyes are still involved in the experience, only now they have grown dim, “and I could no more gaze;/ A wave of longing through my body swept.” All the narrator’s senses tune themselves to grief as the quickening of smell and taste turns to a poignant hunger for “the old, familiar ways.” Finally, the poem closes on a line as classically simple and tersely musical as anything in the poems of A. E. Housman: “I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”
Indeed, the poem is reminiscent of “Poem XL” in A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896):
Into my heart an air that killsFrom yon far country...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)