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!
My American Lit prof adored the Harlem Renaissance and she positively worshipped Claude McKay. I don’t blame her—his poetry is raw and powerful and never holds back.
Born in Jamaica in 1889, Mr. McKay was horrified at the racism he found when he moved to the United States to attend college in 1912.
Already well-educated* and a published poet,** he turned his formidable talents to protest the restrictions on and abuse of non-whites in pointed, caustic, and sometimes brutal*** verse—and unlike most minority poets^ of the time, who based their examinations of inequality on laments and spirituals, Mr. McKay uses rage and anger as a revolutionary call to arms:
If We 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 accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, 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!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
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!
This is powerful stuff.
That semester, I read a lot of his political and sociological poetry and short stories and learned about Mr. McKay’s influences on Langston Hughes and other younger poets of the Harlem Renaissance. And by the end it would have been impossible to deny—not that any of us tried—that his words helped set the tone for the forthcoming battle for Civil Rights.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain how important this all is and how amazing it is that poetry did its part in encouraging the powerless to demand the rights that all human beings on this earth deserve.^^
But what this particular professor did not mention—not once—is that Claude McKay can give my man John Donne a run for his money in the seduction sweepstakes.
I kid you not.
About a week ago, I went looking for a few of the poems I remembered from the class, and found this:
To clasp you now and feel your head close-pressed,
Scented and warm against my beating breast;
To whisper soft and quivering your name,
And drink the passion burning in your frame;
To lie at full length, taut, with cheek to cheek,
And tease your mouth with kisses till you speak
Love words, mad words, dream words, sweet senseless words,
Melodious like notes of mating birds;
To hear you ask if I shall love always,
And myself answer: Till the end of days;
To feel your easeful sigh of happiness
When on your trembling lips I murmur: Yes;
It is so sweet. We know it is not true.
What matters it? The night must shed her dew.
We know it is not true, but it is sweet —
The poem with this music is complete.
And he doesn’t bother with Donne’s trademark misogyny, either. He’s not conning his partners—they’re complicit.
And no wonder:
Flower of Love
The perfume of your body dulls my sense.
I want nor wine nor weed; your breath alone
Suffices. In this moment rare and tense
I worship at your breast. The flower is blown,
The saffron petals tempt my amorous mouth,
The yellow heart is radiant now with dew
Soft-scented, redolent of my loved South;
O flower of love! I give myself to you.
Uncovered on your couch of figured green,
Here let us linger indivisible.
The portals of your sanctuary unseen
Receive my offering, yielding unto me.
Oh, with our love the night is warm and deep!
The air is sweet, my flower, and sweet the flute
Whose music lulls our burning brain to sleep,
While we lie loving, passionate and mute.
I would argue that there are few poems more sensual that this one—Rumi’s work included, and you know how I feel about Rumi.
And lest you think Mr. McKay saved all his raw-edged pain for politics:
Oh, I have tried to laugh the pain away,
Let new flames brush my love-springs like a feather.
But the old fever seizes me to-day,
As sickness grips a soul in wretched weather.
I have given up myself to every urge,
With not a care of precious powers spent,
Have bared my body to the strangest scourge,
To soothe and deaden my heart’s unhealing rent.
But you have torn a nerve out of my frame,
A gut that no physician can replace,
And reft my life of happiness and aim.
Oh what new purpose shall I now embrace?
What substance hold, what lovely form pursue,
When my thought burns through everything to you?
There are all kinds of battlefields, and Mr. McKay is an expert on every single terrain.
It’s difficult to choose, but if I had to, this last one is probably my favorite—it’s a blend of tenderness and encouragement and challenge.
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.
I dare you not to read more of Claude McKay’s poetry.
How can you not?
*When he was seven, his parents sent him to be raised by his brother, a schoolteacher, in order to provide him with the best education. This appears to have worked—the young Claude was introduced to classical British literature, philosophy, science and theology and loved it all. And he started writing poetry at the age of ten.
**Songs of Jamaica, written in dialect and describing black life on the island, was released in 1909.
***Some of his final lines hit you like a sledgehammer:
O Word I Love to Sing
O word I love to sing! thou art too tender
For all the passions agitating me;
For all my bitterness thou art too tender,
I cannot pour my red soul into thee.
O haunting melody! thou art too slender,
Too fragile like a globe of crystal glass;
For all my stormy thoughts thou art too slender,
The burden from my bosom will not pass.
O tender word! O melody so slender!
O tears of passion saturate with brine,
O words, unwilling words, ye cannot render
My hatred for the foe of me and mine.
^As my professor stated several times, Mr. McKay was not an African-American. He was born in the Caribbean and didn’t become an American citizen until 1940. There is, as she said, a difference.
^^I usually don’t touch politics here, but holy cow, y’all, this should be basic by now.