Wednesday, November 16, 2016

For Friday: Poems by Claude McKay (pp.289-298)

For Friday, read the following poems by Claude McKay:

* If We Must Die
* Baptism
* The White House
* The Negro's Friend
* On a Primitive Canoe
* The Tropics in New York
* When Dawn Comes to the City 
* The Desolate City 
* The Harlem Dancer

[The two post-Harlem poems, Saint Isaac's Church, and Barcelona, are optional] 

Claude McKay is an interesting character, since he emigrated from Jamaica, where he made his name as a dialect poet (writing in Jamaican English). Here is a few lines from one of his dialect poems (not included in this anthology, since most were written pre-Harlem or else because they were judged as insufficiently universal):


De mo' me wuk, de mo' time hard,
    I don't know what fe do;
I ben' me knee an' pray to Gahd,
     Yet t'ings same as befo.'

De taxes knocking' at me door,
     I hear de bailiff's v'ice;
Me wife is sick, can't get no cure,
     But gnawing' me like mice...

Since he was a true outsider, McKay remained very critical of both America and the Harlem Renaissance, though he was an important figure in the movement. However, his Marxism soon led him to reject the country for Communist Spain and Moscow, where he hoped to find a true Socialist utopia. An added factor which made his identity more complex was his homosexuality, which didn't sit well with the status quo either in America or Harlem. All of these identities--gay, Marxist, Jamaican--have to be considered when reading his poetry and considering his "perspectives" in writing. Other ideas to consider...

* How does he define 'America' in these poems? Is America synonymous with 'white?' Or does he see both black and white America as roughly the same? 

* How do these poems express a Marxist sympathy or sensibility throughout? Why might he agree that "the working man has no country"? 

* How does McKay contrast Jamaica with America? What does his homeland mean to him--and offer him--that the 'new world' cannot? 

* How does McKay personify the city, a place that must have been wildly alien and exciting to him? What kind of place is it? Also, does he find it a liberating, healthy force the way many in the Renaissance found it? Or is it, like the Romantic poets, opposed to Nature and the spirit of true mankind? 

* How does he view the element of performance which is tied up in the popularity of Harlem in his poems (esp. The Harlem Dancer)? Does he feel like this compromise is necessary and beneficial in the long run? 

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