The island of Jamaica has given us three Negroes who, along different lines, have risen into permanent prominence: Marcus Garvey, president of the Black Star Line and head of the most widely discussed movement in modern Negrodom; Joel A. Rogers, author of two books which stand without a peer in the output of Negro writing (From Superman to Man and As Nature Leads); and Claude McKay, whose proud title to distinction consists of two simple words: The Poet. Mr. McKay began to write poetry before he left Jamaica, where he published three volumes of verse. Unfortunately (for us) his interest in his own fame is so slim that he did not take the trouble to preserve any copies of these earlier volumes, and we are left to speculate as to their quality.
Since he came to America Mr. McKay has worked at various jobs, depending firstly on his hands to earn a living for himself. While on one of these jobs he was "discovered" by Pearson's Magazine and Max Eastman's Liberator of which he is at present associate editor. He has come to the fore by sheer virtue of the spiritual quality of poetic ability which no hardships could suppress. Without any aid from Negro editors or publications he made his way because white people who noted his gifts were eager to give him a chance while Negro editors, as usual, were either too blind to see or too mean-spirited to proclaim them to the world. His manly, stirring poem, "If We Must Die," first appeared in a white publication from which it was elevated to the dignity of a place in the Congressional Record. It was then that the Negro reading public discovered him for themselves without any aid from their top-lofty mentors who are always "ready to bring forward young writers"—after they have been proclaimed by white critics.
Mr. McKay's slim little volume, Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems, which was published last year in London, is now before us. It reveals the author as a poet with a fine delicate technique and a curiously cultivated restraint. It is equally free from jingling and splurging and from the flaring fan-folds of the free-verse comedians who now hold the centre of the stage in that garish masquerade entitled "The New Poetry." The genuine breath of the tropics is felt in most of these poems, yet it seldom blows tornado blasts. The fine artistic feeling of the poet controls and tempers it to fine effects. Take, for instance, the last ten lines of "North and South":A breadth of idleness is in the air That casts a subtle spell upon all things, And love and mating-time are every-where, And wonder to life's commonplaces clings. The fluttering humming-bird darts through the trees And dips his long break in the big bell-flowers, The leisured buzzard floats upon the breeze Riding a crescent cloud for endless hours; The sea beats softly on the emerald strands— O sweet for dainty dreams are tropic lands! [source]
It would have been very easy to vulgarize such a theme, to indulge in what Amy Lowell calls "lazy writing," and to tread the common ground of commonplace figures. Instead, we find that the words and the measure create an appropriate tone-color (or "atmosphere") in which the scene is set, and the nuances make a something that is finer than melody. The fourth line of the quoted portion is the golden touch of genius.
Sometimes the hidden melody of his verse is so fine that those who think that poetry is compounded of jingles and junk will fail to find it. But there it is just the same, like a theme of [Edward Alexander] McDowell's, waiting for the ear of beauty to find it, as in this half-stanza of his "Exhortation" (to Ethiopia):In the East the clouds grow crimson with the new dawn that is breaking, And its golden glory fills the western skies:— Oh my brothers and my sisters, wake! Arise! For the new birth rends the old earth, and the very dead are waking. Ghosts are turned flesh, throwing off the grave's disguise, And the foolish—even children—are made wise; For the big earth groans in travail for the strong, new world in making— Oh my brothers, dreaming for long centuries, Wake from sleeping: to the East turn, turn your eyes! [source]
This will stand the test of thinking and that quality of thought stands out in most of Mr. McKay's work. He means something. He doesn't let the rhyme rule the thought nor the ink guide the pen.
Perhaps the most arresting poem in this volume is the one entitled "A Memory of June." Its theme is too intimate for reproduction here; but it is the one in which our poet comes nearest to letting himself go. "The Lynching," "On Broadway," "Harlem Shadows," and "The Harlem Dancer" are noteworthy presentations of familiar themes.
We feel that the work of this poet should be better known. It is high in aim, in thought, in technique. And we gladly bespeak for this volume of genuine poetry a place in the affection of our folk.