The Poems

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

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.

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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 equal number: those about nature (many of which are nostalgic reminiscences of Jamaica); those about love, affection, and attachment to persons; and those that deal in some way with race. Seriousness—even despondency—is a pervasive mood. After such titles as Songs of Jamaica and Spring in New Hampshire, which exude a bright, happy spirit or tone, Harlem Shadows intimates an almost binary polarity; the connotations of the two words are (for both black and white readers) generally negative, bringing to mind overcrowded and dilapidated tenements, unemployed or underemployed menials, and pervasive social problems (including prostitution, gangsterism, illegitimacy, gambling, and drug addiction) existing in the shadow of New York, with its consumerism, wealth, and bright lights.

There is nothing comparable to the optimism and positive outlook implied by the songs and spring of his earlier titles, even though some of the poems are about red flowers, jasmines, and homing swallows. “Wild May” is “weighted down with fetters” and “the victim of grim care”; “A Memory of June” recalls that love is fugitive; even “The Easter Flower” bemoans “this foreign Easter damp and chilly.” Other poems that indicate the prevailing tone and attitude of the collection are “In Bondage,” “Futility,” “Through Agony,” “Enslaved,” and “Polarity.” The poems that have retained their interest for readers, critics, and anthologists are the obviously polemical poems, those that concern race: “Harlem Shadows,” “The White City,” “If We Must Die,” “The Lynching,” “America,” and “The Harlem Dancer,” which remarkably combines lyricism and social protest within the confines of the sonnet form.

While “Harlem Shadows” is affecting in its condemnation of a society that obliges “little dark girlsin slippered feet” to engage in prostitution and thus to live lives “Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,” its concluding couplet is almost anticlimactic in moving the focus from the “dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet” to the poet himself (“Ah, heart of me”). The mixture of language registers, exclamations, and changing metonymies diffuses the focus. In “The White City” the passion is forceful, unmuted, pellucid: “I muse my life-long hatred,” “this dark Passionfills my every mood,” “I hate,” yet “I bear it nobly as I live my part.” Though readers might be offended by the poet’s confession, nonetheless they must admire his candor and forthrightness.

“If We Must Die,” indubitably McKay’s most popular poem among some radical groups, is commendable for its “transference of his emotion into our breast,” as Eastman observed. Yet it is not without its weaknesses: Would any black orator of the period have used the exhortation “O kinsmen” or “let us show us brave”? Nonetheless, the poem is an exceptionally powerful rallying cry.

“The Lynching,” which depicts one of the most deplorable practices of southern racism, has exceptional power, which derives from the juxtaposition of “a bright and solitary star” and “the swinging char” and from the representative community crowd of women and children watching “the ghastly body swaying in the sun.” None of the women shows sorrow in her steely eyes, “And little lads, lynchers that were to be,/ Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.” This concluding couplet is moving in its simplicity: The black man has been reduced to a thing, and the racial, communal hate will become a social norm. Yet in spite of the terrors and torments of life in the United States, McKay says, in “America,” “I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

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 couplets; however, “A Prayer” is composed in the form of five couplets of seven-beat lines, and “Harlem Shadows” itself is in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameters in which almost all the lines are run-on.

One of McKay’s strengths as a poet is his use of a wide range of imagery. Visual imagery predominates, though appeals to the other senses are also common. The very titles of the poems are at times forcefully visual: “The Easter Flower,” “Flame-Heart,” “The Night Fire,” “Birds of Prey,” and “A Red Flower.” In some poems, olfactory imagery is primary, as in “Jasmines,” “Subway Wind,” and “The Easter Flower.” Kinesthetic imagery is also encountered: “Homing Swallows,” “The Tired Worker,” and “The Harlem Dancer” employ this device effectively.

While a few of the poems in Harlem Shadows can be considered love lyrics (“La Paloma in London,” “Tormented,” “One Year After,” and “A Memory of June,” for example), most are poems of place or of protest. In the former category are those that are purely celebratory (“Spring in New Hampshire” and “Summer Morn in New Hampshire” as well as “Winter in the Country” and “Flame-Heart”) and those that are reminiscent, such as “The Tropics in New York,” in which the sight of Caribbean produce in a New York store window makes the poet “hungry for the old, familiar ways.”

The propaganda or protest poems indicate a sea change in the poet’s social and political thinking following his emigration from Jamaica a decade earlier. Gone are the flippant, cordial protestations about discriminations; they have been replaced by penetrating analyses of inequalities, injustices, and humiliations, which are laid bare in “The Barrier,” in which McKay states without equivocation:

I must not see upon your faceLove’s softly glowing spark;For there’s the barrier of race,You’re fair and I am dark.

The opening poem in Harlem Shadows celebrates Easter, with its “lilac-tinted Easter lily/ Soft-scented in the air” and “its perfumed power.” The second one contrasts the “cheerless frozen spots” of New York with the “birds’ glad song,” the “flowering lanes,” and the “vivid, silver-flecked blue sky” of the West Indies. The third poem, “America,” introduces the McKay of the Left, of social awareness, of political proclivities. He is no longer the youthful singer of tropical beauties or personal attachments: He is now a fully committed critic of racial discrimination and social injustice. But a certain ambivalence can be discerned beginning with the fourth line:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,Stealing my breath of life, I will confessI love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

This ambivalence is also to be found in “The White City,” wherein he acknowledges the “life-long hate” that he bears “nobly as I live my part”; he has to make his “heaven in the white world’s hell”—“because I hate.”

The other deeply passionate poems of protest are equally affective: The reader cannot but be moved by the repetition of such words as “hate,” “lynching,” “fiery,” “fighting,” “tears,” “dead,” and “dying” that permeate them like punctuation marks. Some readers do not respond positively to McKay’s lines in “If We Must Die” that propose that, “Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,/ And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!” However, their power is attested by the fact that Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, quoted them to incite his countrymen to rally to defeat Hitlerite Germany.

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Themes