The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

With the publication of Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (both 1912), Claude McKay achieved immediate recognition in Jamaica as a poet of some consequence, especially in the use of dialect, and he was considered a local equivalent of Robert Burns, the Scottish Romantic poet. However, upon his migration to the United States he abandoned dialect, and in Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920) he showed his ability to experiment with rhythm, rhyme, meter, and even poetic structure.

The extent of his willingness and ability to explore new poetic techniques is revealed in Harlem Shadows: In the “Author’s Word” prefatory to the poems, McKay notes that he adhered to many older poetic traditions (such as the sonnet form) while trying to achieve “directness, truthfulness and naturalness of expression instead of an enameled originality.” In 1922 Harcourt, Brace issued both Harlem Shadows and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a combination suggesting that the prestigious New York publishing house perceived McKay as a significant and potentially major new voice in contemporary writing. The collection was well received by readers and critics. Harlem Shadows, a collection of seventy-four poems, brought together what were thought to be the best poems that McKay had written since his arrival in the United States, many of which had appeared in such periodicals as Seven Arts, Pearson’s, the Liberator, and the Cambridge Magazine. It had an introduction by Max Eastman, the left-wing mentor of many young writers, and consequently achieved some cachet in literary circles. Eastman observed that McKay’s poems had an obvious quality, “the pure, clear arrow-like transference of his emotion into our breast, without any but the inevitable words.” He continued by saying that this was what John Keats sought to cherish when he said that poetry should be “great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into the soul and does not startle or amaze with itself but with its subject.” This endorsement and comparison was extraordinary yet justified.

The poems can be divided into three groups of about...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Whereas McKay’s dialect poetry required copious annotations to explain to non-West Indians the meanings of words and the significance of allusions, the poems in Harlem Shadows did not. Whereas the earlier verses were mainly written in iambic trimeters and tetrameters, the New York volume is almost all in tetrameters and pentameters—though not exclusively in iambic or trochaic rhythms. So unconventional were some to Max Eastman that in his introductory essay he noted that “One or two of the rhythms I confess I am not able to apprehend at all.” He could have been alluding to these lines from “When Dawn Comes to the City”: “But I would be on the island of the sea,/ In the heart of the island of the sea.” Alternatively, he could have been referring to these from “Exhortation: Summer, 1919” (a year of American race riots): “In the East the clouds grow crimson with the new/ dawn that is breaking,/ And its golden glory fills the western skies.” These rhythmic variations were not even then unusual, however: Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others had already experimented with half-stresses and outriders in their attempts to capture the essence of speech rhythms.

In fact, in the earlier Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads McKay had taken numerous liberties with standard syllabic (or quantitative) verse and had incorporated numerous modifications of the rather static ballad meter of iambic tetrameters and trimeters in alternation. In Harlem Shadows he continued this independent approach to conventional form, even to the point of modifying the sonnet structure to suit his needs, so that in neither the ballad nor the lyric was he a slavish observer of traditions. Some of his sonnets are Elizabethan, some are Italian, some are Wordsworthian. However, it must be conceded that the Elizabethan sonnet form seemed most congenial to him and that most of his best and most memorable poems are in this style. Within the sonnet form McKay generally observed proper rhyme; nonetheless, he is not averse to rhyming “over” with “lover,” “souls” with “ghouls,” and “love” with “move,” a technique often referred to as a visual or eye rhyme.

Generally in the nonsonnet lyrics McKay favored the four-line stanza and most frequently employed closed...

(The entire section is 954 words.)