The Poetry of Claude McKay Analysis

A Rediscovered Poet (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the early 1900’s, two Jamaicans, almost exact contemporaries, arrived in New York and influenced the course of African American life: in 1916, Marcus Garvey, who organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association; and in 1914, Claude McKay, one of the main inspirers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920’s cultural development of the arts and literature that, though it lasted for only a decade, permanently influenced the course of black self-expression in the United States. Both men died in relative obscurity after their fame had diminished; Garvey’s reputation has since declined, so that he is now known to few except scholars, but McKay’s has steadily increased, so that he is considered one of the ornaments of African American literature. He has been posthumously proclaimed Jamaica’s national poet, and he has been the subject of an international conference of literary scholars. McKay has retained his stature as both poet and fictionist, even though he was attacked for his presentation of black life in Home to Harlem (1928) by the distinguished black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, for his left-wing political sympathies and activities by the Howard University philosopher Alain Locke (who is sometimes regarded as the mentor of the Harlem Renaissance), and for his ultimate conversion to Roman Catholicism. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countée Cullen, and Langston Hughes also helped in the development of modern African American poetry, but only Hughes...

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The Poetry of Claude McKay The Poet as Troubador (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Later in life, McKay described himself as a “troubador wanderer”; this is a most apt sobriquet, for it stresses his primary attachment to poetry and incidentally alludes to his constant search for the ideal life for the black poet in an essentially white culture. This eremetic existence commenced in 1912, a singularly important year in McKay’s life, for in that year his first volumes of poetry were published (Songs of Jamaica in Kingston and Constab Ballads in London); six of his poems, set to Jekyll’s music, were issued in London; and he won an international poetry contest sponsored by a London newspaper.

McKay’s winning poem was “George William Gordon to the Oppressed Natives,” which celebrated the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion that was supposedly encouraged by the Baptist mulatto politician Gordon. The final stanza of the poem offers a remarkable foreshadowing of what later became McKay’s most famous poem, “If We Must Die”:

Gordon’s heart here bleeds for you. He will lead to victory:We will conquer every foe, Or together gladly die.

The poem also contains lines that prefigure the exhortation of McKay’s great propagandistic poems: “Rise, O people of my kind!/ Struggle, struggle to be free.”

Unfortunately, the poem is marred by intrusive approximations of Jamaican dialect in lines that are generally in Standard English poetic idiom: “O, you sons of Afric’s soil” is followed by “Show dem dat you ha’ some brains.” It seems improbable that Gordon would have told Jamaicans that they should “Wake . . ./ De gorilla in your blood/ Though you may be coarse and rude.” Nevertheless, the poet’s enthusiasm, anger, and energy shine through.

In his preface to Songs of Jamaica, which is dedicated (rather judiciously) to Sir Sydney Olivier, the governor of the colony, Walter Jekyll describes Jamaican English as “a feminine version of masculine English; pre-eminently a language of love, as all will feel who, setting prejudice aside, will allow the charmingly naive love-songs of this volume to make their due impression upon them.” Of the fifty poems in the...

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The Poetry of Claude McKay Dialect and Standard English (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There is no doubt that McKay’s use of dialect in his poems was an advance on the use of dialect by such predecessors as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who used it largely for either comic or role-establishing purposes; McKay used dialect for social verisimilitude, to attempt to capture the Jamaican inflections and idiom, to differentiate the speech of the folk from that of the colonial classes. Upon quitting Jamaica for the United States, however, McKay discontinued his use of dialect, even when, in some of his American “protest” poems that make use of African American diction, dialect would be appropriate and even effective.

Few poets have had such success as McKay had achieved by the time that he was twenty-two. He was little less than a literary phenomenon at a time when A. B. Paterson in Australia and Stephen Leacock in Canada were helping to create the bases for their own colonies’ characteristic verse traditions. McKay explored new subjects, new themes, and new forms of speech and language in his poetry.

In 1914, McKay went to New York, where he quickly identified himself with the socialist confraternity—even though he was a black in an essentially white (and largely Jewish) community. Notwithstanding his differences (as a black, a West Indian, and a British subject), he identified with the writers whom he met, and he stressed that the blacks of the United States shared most of the deprivations of the blacks of the Caribbean and Africa. In fact, it has been noted that McKay was the true father of the concept of “negritude”—of pride in blackness—that became a hallmark of advanced literature from Africa and the Caribbean a generation after...

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The Poetry of Claude McKay Selected Poems (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Selected Poems of Claude McKay is organized into five sections: “Songs for Jamaica,” “Baptism,” “Americana,” “Different Places,” and “Amoroso” (titles invented by the compilers). The first section contains several poems of reminiscence, such as “To One Coming North,” “Home Thoughts,” “I Shall Return,” the beautiful and affecting “Flame Heart,” and “The Tropics in New York,” with its concluding lines, “And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,/ I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.” The second section, which might have been titled “Baptism by Fire,” since it contains those protest poems that McKay wrote after his introduction to the racism and segregation that he discovered in New York, includes such well-known poems as “The Lynching,” “The Desolate City,” and “If We Must Die,” a poem that Winston Churchill recited in a speech during World War II (without knowing or acknowledging its author) and that became famous once more when a copy of it was discovered in the possession of one of the inmates during the uprising in the Attica State Prison in New York in 1971.

All these poems are fierce in their sentiments and show that the lyrical poet was also the revolutionary poet. Consider, for example, the opening lines of “Tiger”: “The white man is a tiger at my throat,/ Drinking my blood as my life ebbs away.” McKay’s condemnation extends to all who have fallen to hate, disrespect, or discrimination; in “The Wise Men of the East,” he says, “From the high place where erstwhile they grew drunk/ With power, oh God, how gutter-low have black men sunk!” It is this condemnation of all who have fallen below expectations and generally approved standards of behavior that differentiates McKay’s opprobrium from that of other, lesser black poets. He is not ready to condemn whites alone; rather, in the interests of a higher morality than the prevailing one, he calls all to reckoning.

Some of the poems in the “Americana” section are famous; “The Harlem Dancer” is perhaps the best of the twenty-one poems,...

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The Poetry of Claude McKay Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Contains a long chapter, “The Jamaican Poetry as Autobiography: Claude McKay in 1912,” that offers an excellent introduction to the poet’s work.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. Claude McKay: The Black Poet at War. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. Proposes that McKay was the true warrior-poet of the black people in his era. Offers detailed analyses of four poems: “Flame-Heart,” “Harlem Shadows,” “To the White Fiends,” and “If We Must Die.”

Giles, James R....

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