In celebration of Black History Month and Poetry Thursday, we will be highlighting some of the poetic works of Claude Mckay.
Festus Claudius “Claude” McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican-American writer and poet, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote four novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem which remained unpublished until 2017. McKay also authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, in 1953.
- Songs of Jamaica (1912)
- Constab Ballads (1912)
- Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems (1920)
- Harlem Shadows (1922)
- The Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953)
Once again I have the privilege of featuring a brilliant writer and to be honest it was a bit difficult to choose five but I did choose five. Here they are:
If I must die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
A Red Flower
Your lips are like a southern lily red,
Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night,
In which the brown bee buries deep its head,
When still the dawn’s a silver sea of light.
Your lips betray the secret of your soul,
The dark delicious essence that is you,
A mystery of life, the flaming goal
I seek through mazy pathways strange and new.
Your lips are the red symbol of a dream,
What visions of warm lilies they impart,
That line the green bank of a fair blue stream,
With butterflies and bees close to each heart!
Brown bees that murmur sounds of music rare,
That softly fall upon the langourous breeze,
Wafting them gently on the quiet air
Among untended avenues of trees.
O were I hovering, a bee, to probe
Deep down within your scented heart, fair flower,
Enfolded by your soft vermilion robe,
Amorous of sweets, for but one perfect hour!
O lonely heart so timid of approach,
Like the shy tropic flower that shuts its lips
To the faint touch of tender finger tips:
What is your word? What question would you broach?
Your lustrous-warm eyes are too sadly kind
To mask the meaning of your dreamy tale,
Your guarded life too exquisitely frail
Against the daggers of my warring mind.
There is no part of the unyielding earth,
Even bare rocks where the eagles build their nest,
Will give us undisturbed and friendly rest.
No dewfall softens this vast belt of dearth.
But in the socket-chiseled teeth of strife,
That gleam in serried files in all the lands,
We may join hungry, understanding hands,
And drink our share of ardent love and life.Claude McKay
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up–
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth–
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
And I believe this one was my favorite. Maybe because I had to learn it at school, but I must admit it was a good one:
So much have I forgotten in ten years,
So much in ten brief years! I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special, startling season
Of the pimento’s flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.
I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But cannot recollect the high days when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow by-road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple.
I have forgotten–strange–but quite remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.
What weeks, what months, what time of the mild year
We cheated school to have our fling at tops?
What days our wine-thrilled bodies pulsed with joy
Feasting upon blackberries in the copse?
Oh some I know! I have embalmed the days,
Even the sacred moments when we played,
All innocent of passion, uncorrupt,
At noon and evening in the flame-heart’s shade.
We were so happy, happy, I remember,
Beneath the poinsettia’s red in warm December.
In 1977, the government of Jamaica named Claude McKay the national poet and posthumously awarded him the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Claude McKay on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. He is regarded as the “foremost left-wing black intellectual of his age” and his work heavily influenced a generation of black authors including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.
You can read more about Claude Mckay at any of the sources above and read some of his poems. You may find others that you also like.