Claude McKay’s America

As we enter into the weekend celebrating American Independence Day on July 4th, I thought I’d put together some poetry about the American experiment. While not unprecedented, this is a complex time to be doing that. We are clearly in troubled times, and while I myself am as troubled as the times, I can still try to grasp what some others in their troubles and troubled times have chosen to say about America.

Let me start off with what a particular immigrant had to say almost exactly 100 years ago. The immigrant was Claude McKay, a Black man who came from Jamaica in 1912. Now of course, the presence in the then English colony of Jamaica of a man of African descent can be traced to the violent and involuntary diaspora of the slave trade before McKay’s time, but in his own lifetime, as an immigrant, McKay chose to come to America.

By the time he wrote this poem, first published in 1920, a number of then current events would have been impressed upon his thoughts. He first landed at the Tuskegee Institute in the de jure segregated American south, as close to the time of American slavery and the Civil War as we are to Martin Luther King and Woodstock today. He eventually traveled to the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well has visiting London and Russia. The life of a Black man was complicated by racism in all these places. Furthermore, if we are to apply the 21st century term “intersectionality,” McKay was working class, gay, and a committed Leftist.

Troubled times? The Palmer Raids and the original “Red Scare” imprisoned or deported many. The now better-known* and understood series of race riots and other acts of terrorism in the service of racial oppression were raging. Even in black and leftist circles, issues of black sexuality were a third rail, and McKay touched that rail.

And, as we now all know, 1918-1919 was also the time of the last great worldwide epidemic.

Given this background, as you listen to or read McKay’s sonnet “America”  you may be surprised that this cri de cœur is as nuanced as it is. In the three quatrains before the closing couplet McKay is essentially making the case that he’s energized by being at a time and place when these evils are present and unmasked to confront. I’ll personally extend his statement: The American Experiment is this. It’s not the absence of evil, our country was never an Eden. That we are still fighting for our ideals of openness, opportunity, and equality under the law is evidence of our frailty—and our stubbornness.

McKay America

Tragic persistence of metaphor: in 1920 McKay would paraphrase “I can’t breathe.”

 

Now what to make of McKay’s closing couplet, the turn the poem takes there as many a sonnet does? My first reading was that this is just the judgment of history: Babylon will always fall. Ozymandias leaves so fast he forgot to pack his trunk. That’s the clear reading of the 13th line.

A final line follows though. I think McKay the prophet here might have meant this too in his warning: we must change to extend our republic’s life, that all is at risk—even if every human, and every civilization, like every artist, will fail. Did we change from his time to extend our experiment? I believe we did. Are we called, are we in need of, more, further, change today? Well, what I think is less important that what you think, particularly if you are younger.

The player to hear my performance of McKay’s sonnet as a song with acoustic guitar is below. Is this the only statement for the 4th of July? No, I’ll be back soon with a reading from another American prophet.

 

 

 

*I was a history and civics nerd as a young person. I can tell you there was next to nothing to read about the racially charged riots of the WWI period until this century unless one knew to dig into primary sources from that time. The more distributed evil of lynching was acknowledged to some degree, but even when urban unrest returned less than 50 years later in the United States during The Sixties, I can’t recall a single pundit or think piece that referenced these events of the post WWI era.

The Easter Flower

I could have chosen another poem for Easter, but besides this one’s song-setable qualities, “The Easter Flower”  is a poem about a Christian holiday written by a non-believer.

No, let me strike that casual term, “non-believer,” which doesn’t seem to fit McKay. He was a life-long radical, an unwavering believer in workers rights and social justice, always stalwart against colonialism and racism. As a radical, black, gay, immigrant man these beliefs were no simple balm to his soul, and by that I judge his beliefs to be strong and tested. McKay was also a confirmed skeptic, analyzing situations and sometimes changing his views on how these goals may be achieved, but that doesn’t alter those beliefs.

Now some of that may or may not resonate with you. Believers who do not share your beliefs can be rough companions to your reading or listening. Rest easy, this poem isn’t like that.

Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

First off, like Wordsworth’s famous “Daffodils,”  this is a poem about a past-tense experience, something that exists for the poem’s singer only as a limerent memory as he sings of the flower. McKay who grew up in rural tropical Jamaica spent much of his life in more northern climes. The weather forecast for Minnesota calls for a few inches of wet snow for this Easter, and if non-tropical Minnesotans find this disappointing, all the more so for McKay.

So, the lily in the poem is likely a childhood Caribbean memory, and the plant the Trumpet Lily, the Easter Lily, is not native to these then English colonies. It was introduced there by a missionary who brought it from Japan in the 19th century. I don’t know if McKay knew that, but this flower he remembers at Easter time amidst thoughts of home is a colonial artifact as well as a Christian symbol.

Claude McKay and Easter Lily

Claude McKay and the flower of his complex memory

 

In the poem’s second stanza McKay modulates the flower memory, displacing the pale flowers in his mind by liking it to a formation of “rime,” the hoar-ice that forms along shapes when foggy water vapor freezes rapidly, uniting the poems present voice in a colder Easter with the warmer past. The end of this stanza and the beginning of the next form a vivid spring rebirth image, as devotional as any Christian mystic could have written.

And then the poem let’s us know that McKay isn’t a Christian. Indeed, at the time the poem was written he was an atheist.*  Therefore, the remembered image of the Easter flower is extraordinarily alienated from the singer. It’s in the past, in the ground of a country he no longer lives in, it’s a religious symbol not of his religion, it’s a non-native plant introduced by colonialists, growing in a climate of soft fragrant April nights, not a sleety cold northern city.

How easily we might skip through this poem, hearing but it’s lovely sounds and involuntarily resonating to the memories of a holiday with flashbacks of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans—or for devout Christians, one might hear only the inspiration of the image of the tomb earth giving way in resurrection. But that’s not this poem. McKay ends saying that he, “a pagan,” is overcome by this none-the-less, worshiping at another religion’s shrine. Why? From what? I think he chooses to make it undetermined. Homesickness even for a colonial homeland he felt he needed to leave is there. A certain ecumenical mystery too. The sensuousness of the flower is an undercurrent, the night smell of the flower has pheromonic power.

To hear my performance of Claude McKay’s “The Easter Flower”  use the player gadget below.

 

 

*In the last decade of his life, 20 years after this poem was written, McKay was attracted to the Catholic worker movement. After a period of self-searching he became a member of the Catholic Church.

Parlando Project Summer 2019 Top Ten part 2

Continuing the countdown of the audio pieces with the most listens and likes over the past summer, we’ve reached numbers 7, 6, and 5.

7. O My Darling Troubles Heaven by Kenneth Patchen. I do wish I had more pieces with Dave Moore in them this summer. My summer schedule, my studio re-org, and various unscheduled things have conspired against us, and Rudy Giuliani has either not had anything to do with this—or has of course been involved. *

Still, it’s nice to see this piece getting a good number of listens. Patchen helped found the mid-century school of poetry read to Jazz backing, something now considered quaint, but at the time it was being done it was considered impossibly pretentious or inconsequential or narcissistically individualist by many.

Well, either judgement means you shouldn’t be listening to this, but some of you are anyway.

Another good reason to be glad for Dave presenting this is that it’s a further corrective to the Modernist Gloomy Gus tendency. Patchen’s critique of mid-20th century culture was plenty down-beat, and his personal life had enough depressing challenges to reinforce that. But! But! But! His statements of love, the necessity of resistance, and of the joy of art superseding some dreary cultural cod-liver oil pitches for it were about overcoming that—or at least fighting it to a draw.

Musically, this is an older recording where the LYL Band plays in its almost-Jazz mode, which fits Dave’s vocal where he told us last June that he was intentionally trying to recall Patchen’s own phrasing from when Patchen read his work in the post WWII era.

 

Floating Man-Patchen

“If you see no hope at all, isn’t it sort of, well, a lie—all your talk about how human beings must love one another?” Painting by Kenneth Patchen

 

6. Grace Before Song by Ezra Pound. I presented three series this past summer where multiple posts presented different aspects of something. This charming poem was from the series I called “Before They Were Modernists” where I looked at work Modernists wrote before they found their place in the 20th century revolution in art.

Pound of course was the indispensable fomenter, editor, and promotor of literary Modernism in English, known for both his generosity and dismissive opinions.**  But this early poem of his is a prayer written in metrical and rhymed verse, and it’s soaked with poetic diction and antique words. Still sounds fine when sung, and if sincere, the poem’s sentiment is admirable however expressed.

If you haven’t listened to it, go ahead and see if you agree.

 

 

 

5. Memory of June by Claude McKay. Speaking of graceful rhymed and metrical lyrics, this one by Claude McKay is full-throated and sounds great. In my post on it in June I wondered if the tantalizing line “for one night only we were wed” might have been an encoded cry of a gay black man who knew full well that marriage was out of the question. In each of these countdown posts, I start the listing with a hyperlink to the original post if you would like to read more about what I said about my encounter with the text at the time.

That’s still an interesting question, but no answer to it is required to appreciate the poem. As with so many compositions this summer I was meshing acoustic guitar with bowed strings and some of my sparse naïve piano.

 

 

 

*I probably should refrain from introducing the impossible to determine quantum state of an American political figure to this cultural discussion, as many of the readers here won’t even know who I’m talking about.

**and eventually, his active participation in Italian Fascism. If one decodes their way through all the masks, certain ugly prejudices and nutball ideals are present in the man’s art—and also beautiful distillations and perceptions that I can sit behind his eyes and share with him. This sort of thing is why I’m sometimes glad that I’m constrained to present here the work of the long dead. If Pound was alive, you and I might well feel it our duty to oppose him in total. As best as I can tell, Pound seems of little use to current English-language Fascists.

In the arts, Pound’s early 20th century Modernist opinions made him the Marie Kondo of poetry. “If it doesn’t spark joy, throw it out” was not one of the famous Imagist rules, but it could have been.

Memory of June

As promised, here’s a love poem, one written by Claude McKay the Jamaican-born poet and writer who worked for many years in the United States. McKay sort of bridges the gap between Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance for Afro-American poets.

Like Dunbar, Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his poetry was written early enough to be included in James Weldon Johnson’s pioneering 1922 The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Like Dunbar, McKay could write a smooth metrical/rhymed poem in the 19th century style, but like Fenton Johnson he often set his poems in distinctly urban settings: the northern U. S. cities that were the terminus of the Great Migration of southern Afro-Americans during the 20th century. Alas, also like Fenton Johnson and Anne Spencer, his published poetic work seems to have fallen off by the late 20s, though McKay’s prose career continued throughout the 30s.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

 

One of the poems James Weldon Johnson included in his anthology continues to be one of McKay’s best known, his sonnet “If We Must Die,”   a passionate ode to desperate self-defense that doesn’t once specifically mention the white race-riots, lynching and other terrorism that was a cardinal problem for the civil rights movement between the abandonment of Reconstruction and the middle of the 20th century. I find this an interesting choice on McKay’s part. I’m certain many readers of “If We Must Die”  understood in McKay’s time exactly what he was writing about, even to the specifics of it down to names, places and horrific details. But that’s not in the poem itself, unless you count the “O kinsman” address in the 9th line and the external knowledge of who that might be defined via McKay’s skin color. Is McKay’s choice intentional? By omitting his race and context, which his readership largely knew anyway, he’s saying self-defense isn’t a thing to be granted to or earned for Afro-Americans somehow, but a fundamental human right to be self-asserted. McKay had many other poems in which race is mentioned after all—makes it seem all the more to be a choice.

By choosing to state this universally, “If We Must Die”  has even engendered an unverified factoid that Winston Churchill quoted this poem in a speech during the most desperate days of WWII—but all that is in war and ugly violence, and I promised you a love poem, and “Memory of June”  is that—though it has one somewhat ambiguous phrase that might make it part of a struggle.

Here’s the text of McKay’s “Memory of June:”

Memory of June

 

Did you spot it? You should know I’m not about testing you; you are to only score yourself here. I didn’t see it the first time I read it either. Do you think it’s the phrase “your brown burning body” celebrating mutual Afro-American love and desire? Well this is poetry, a pleasure, not bomb-defusal, feel free to hold for that. It is a pretty poem, a romantic one, isn’t it?

The subtle, ambiguous line I eventually noticed is earlier: “For one night only we were wed.” McKay is now widely assumed to have been gay, though he never “came out” and nothing I’ve read so far tells me why this is now assumed as known.*

Let’s assume this is so. It is also safe to assume that few readers of the poem when it was first published in 1920 knew this, other than those in McKay’s intimate circle. Now the course of love is complex. Many nights of love are singular for many reasons. And Afro-American couples accrue special challenges. But McKay chose “wed,” the thing that gay couples were officially denied until late in my lifetime.

McKay might well be using the same tactical move as he used in “If We Must Die”  in a different context, one where a then more secretive circle would read this poem differently from the common reader.

So here we are in June, a traditional month for weddings and also gay Pride month, and I present Claude McKay’s “Memory of June,”  a love poem, not another poem about war or violence. Except love isn’t simple, and good love poems aren’t.

The player to hear my performance is below.

 

 

 

 

*This sort of ex-post-facto outing without a diary, journal or other unpublished manuscript that would be easily cited if it existed often comes from gossip or oral history—two names for what is largely the same thing, but gay history has fewer paper records to rely on. So, evaluating that isn’t simple, and McKay isn’t notable enough for this to be something I can find quickly.