After All These Decades, The Complete Poems of Claude McKay
Reviewed by Professor John Lowney
By Claude McKay
Edited and with an introduction by William J. Maxwell
Who was the first poet acclaimed
for his writing in Jamaican dialect and the first black writer to receive the
Medal of the Jamaica Institute of Arts and Sciences? Who wrote the first book of poetry identified
with the Harlem Renaissance, a book that expressed the righteous anger of the
New Negro? Who was the first well-known
black writer to tour the
From the publication of Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads in 1912 when he was in his early twenties, to his migration to the United States shortly thereafter and the acclaim for his 1922 Harlem Shadows, to his subsequent decade of travel in the Soviet Union, Europe, and North Africa, when he became famous as both a Communist activist and the popular author of such controversial novels as Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929), to his growing disillusionment with Communism and his conversion to Catholicism before he died in 1948, McKay’s journey as an artist and activist was as tumultuous as that of any poet of the twentieth century. With the publication of the first edition of his Complete Poems, readers can now experience the life’s work of this writer who characterized himself as a “troubadour wanderer” in his autobiography, A Long Way From Home (1937). The Complete Poems is superbly edited by William J. Maxwell, the author of New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars (Columbia University Press, 1999). In addition to the poetry he has assembled from periodical as well as book publications, Maxwell includes within his thorough explanatory endnotes the introductions to McKay’s books by such figures as Walter Jekyll, Max Eastman, I.A. Richards, and McKay himself. Given that much of the poetry included in this volume either has been out of print for a long while or has never been published, the publication of McKay’s Complete Poems is an event that will transform our understanding of African diaspora writing and international modernism.
McKay is best known in the United States as the writer of the New Negro anthem, “If We Must Die,” a poem whose measured but defiant appeal—“O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!”—has inspired readers worldwide since its 1919 publication in The Liberator. Indeed, McKay’s success in expressing the militant anger of revolutionary black resistance in elevated literary English and the sonnet form distinguished him as one of the foremost literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem Shadows, his first and only American book of poetry, preceded the publication of first books by such renowned poets as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes, and it earned McKay international acclaim as the proud voice of a new generation of African American writers. Only recently, however, have readers of McKay begun to question his reputation as the radical “black poet at war,” as Addison Gayle, Jr. characterized him in 1972, a poet whose representative voice was presumably compromised by his reliance on English poetic diction and European poetic forms.
The McKay who has emerged in recent years corresponds with the African diasporic, black Atlantic, and Marxist internationalist reconsiderations of African American modernism, evident most recently in Brent Hayes Edwards’ The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Nationalism (Harvard University Press, 2003), Kate A. Baldwin’s Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922-1963 (Duke University Press, 2002), and the collection of essays edited by Gevevičve Fabre and Michel Feith, Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 2001). As these studies have suggested, McKay’s impact on Anglophone Caribbean, African American, Francophone Caribbean and African, and Left literary cultures makes him a more important figure than literary historians have previously recognized.
introduction to the Complete Poems is
the most thorough overview of McKay’s poetic accomplishment to date. It also elaborates on previous biographical
studies of McKay, such as Wayne F. Cooper’s Claude
McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (Louisiana State
University Press, 1987) and Winston James’s A
Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and His Poetry of Rebellion
(Verso, 2000). Most importantly, Maxwell
reconsiders the myths that have shaped McKay’s literary reputation, including
those that were initiated by McKay himself.
McKay was born in the rural mountain village of
subsequent journey to the “black mecca” of
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
And passion rends my vitals as I
A chafing savage, down the decent street,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass. (148)
book also includes such introspective poems of urban alienation as “Tropics in
poetry that McKay wrote after returning to the
Europe and Asia,
A new Fascism, the American brand
And new worlds will be built upon race and hate
And the Eagle and the Dollar will command. (259)
This poem was initially published in the Catholic Worker, the pacifist-socialist newspaper edited by Dorothy Day that became the primary venue for McKay’s poetry in the 1940s. While McKay’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is often dismissed by his readers as a retreat from his radical convictions, the poetry he published in the Catholic Worker suggests otherwise. The Catholic vision embraced by his poetry focused on black suffering—“It is the Negro’s tragedy I feel / Binding me like a heavy iron chain” (260)—and as reverent as this poetry is, it is no less incisive in its exposure of social injustice.
Because McKay’s life as a writer was comprised of so many apparent contradictions, he remains a controversial figure. The publication of the Complete Poems will surely complicate and intensify debates about his significance, as it collects for the first time in one volume his Jamaican vernacular poetry, his revolutionary political poetry, his nostalgic pastoral poetry, his erotic love poetry, and his Catholic religious poetry. The fact that he chose to compose in conventional forms after publishing his pioneering vernacular verse contradicts basic assumptions about the development of modern poetry, as McKay’s most radical poetic statements are expressed through the presumably outmoded form of the sonnet. The fact that he appealed to a wide working-class and trans-Atlantic black readership through his renewal of the sonnet as a mode of public discourse suggests the inadequacy of models of modernism that would dismiss this accomplishment. As Maxwell writes in his introduction, “Taken together, the unexpected variety of McKay’s Complete Poems—rural and urban, Communist and Catholic, caustic and erotic—reveals that he is not simply the preeminent ‘poet of hate’ in black letters … Positive passion was rarely far from the surface of McKay’s verse, whether the subject was the black city, or the Clarendon hills, or sexual desire, or the Catholic Church, or the revolutionary future” (xxix-xxx). The “passion” of McKay’s poetry has already moved several generations of readers worldwide, but the scope of this passion has not been sufficiently recognized. Thanks to Maxwell’s dedication as a scholar and editor of the Complete Poems, readers now have the opportunity to experience the extraordinary course of McKay’s life as a poet.
Lowney is an Associate Professor of English at