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...
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