This simple appreciation of Claude McKay's poems is done in obedience to an appreciative urge which is too strong and insistent to be ignored entirely. I trust that my readers will try and study it in the spirit in which it is offered. It is not a boost. Indeed, I can lay no claim to this particular virtue, if it is really such.
I remember first reading of Claude McKay in Pearson's Magazine. I think it was in the summer of 1918. I was then living out of this city. It was an autobiographical sketch with a few of his poems appended. I took no particular interest in the writer or his poems at this time. In fact, I mislaid the magazine before I had the opportunity of rereading the article. Then at a later date I came across a poem entitled "Soul and Body" in Pearson's written by McKay. This poem made a profound impression upon me. From then up to this time I have entertained a profound interest and admiration for the writings of Mr. McKay.
In Harlem Shadows Claude McKay appears at good advantage. He exhibits ability and talent of no mean merit. I was suspicious of the soundness of Mr. Eric Walrond, of the Negro World review when he said that there was not a mediocre poem in the entire lot. But I now fully endorse his opinion with added emphasis. In every poem there is exhibited a remarkable and subtle balancing of thought and emotion of a nature that is rare indeed. Nothing really essential to goody poetry is over-emphasized or sacrificed. A wonderful sense of harmony and completeness prevails throughout the entire volume. There is nowhere any attempt at being clever, big or showy. There is a complete absence of affectation. His power lies in his simplicity. He does not choose "big" themes. He absolutely refuses to be imposed upon by himself with shallow and hollow pretenses. He follows with an unpretentious docility, his natural inclinations in the selection of themes. He seems to write under no other urge than that of natural impulse, and what seems strangely interesting is that his knowledge and impulse seem so trained towards perfection that no subject is being ill-treated by lack of treatment of overtreatment.
It is to Mr. McKay's credit that he does not specialize in any sort of propaganda themes, whether they be racial or otherwise. The big soul is universal. There are very few of his poems that would not make a universal human appeal regardless of time, place or circumstance. The spirit and thoughts expressed in his work are fundamental life experiences in some form or other in all human beings.
In order of arrangement the poem, "America," makes a very powerful appeal to me. I quote the first four lines:Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! [source]
The last line truly expresses in a most satisfactory manner what I have always felt and thought to be the main redeeming feature of America. And I daresay many other aliens like myself have felt and thought in like manner without ever giving them expression.
McKay penetrates and probes to a depth not to be easily surpassed the spiritual isolation and loneliness which many of us—rich and poor, white and black—have felt quite often in the heart of the noise and bustle of this great city in the poem "On Broadway." He speaks for the many lonely, struggling, straggling souls that are stranded in awful loneliness amidst the great crowds.
An outstanding feature of McKay is his poetical fancy for things that appear even to the observant and responsive, meaningless and commonplace. At his hands they live and throb with life. They are humanized. As a typical example I take the "Subway Wind." I select the following lines, for they vividly portray the theme:Far down, down through the city's great, gaunt gut, The gray train rushing bears the weary wind; In the packed cars the fans the crowd's breath cut, Leaving the sick and heavy air behind. And pale-cheeked children seek the upper door To give their summer jackets to the breeze; Their laugh is swallowed in the deafening roar Of captive wind that moans for fields and seas. [source]
Another pertinent feature of this volume of poems is that one really cannot be but conscious of the "genuine breath of the tropics," to use Mr. Hubert Harrison's words. A certain mildness and serenity pervades and permeates nearly every poem. McKay is a lover of nature. Of that there is no doubt. There are several poems dealing with one or the other aspect of nature. There are "The Easter Flower," "Winter in the Country," "To Winter," "Spring in New Hampshire," "North and South," and others. The last named is of excellent quality, and, in my humble estimation, can stand comparison with some of the best of William Cullen Bryant and the great English singer of nature, William Wordsworth.
But these are not all by any means. McKay touches philosophical themes. He contemplates upon matters metaphysical. In "I Know My Soul" he shows a poetical philosophical bent that was so strongly characteristic of Omar and Goethe.
In conclusion, I wish to say that I am convinced that Mr. Claude McKay possesses an exceptional poetical talent. He is an esthetician in the best sense of the word. He is true to himself. At least, I feel that I am justified in making this statement. An honest work which is expressive of one's individuality is art in the creative sense. Imitation is always superficial at best when not made subordinate to the individual personality. Esthetic beauty is greater and beyond objective beauty. And this McKay seems to know. He records his own deepest soul experience in his most intense moods and, in so doing, he holds before his readers a true picture of their inner life; and in this recognition of self lies the possibility of spiritual growth. To understand and appreciate Claude McKay's poems, one must be capable of studying and understanding life through the emotions; for a sympathetic and appreciative understanding is possible only through the feelings.
Text of this review taken from microfilm held by Michigan State University Library, made available through the magic and generosity of interlibrary loan.
The text of this review is also collected in Tony Martin's African Fundamentalism: A Literary and Cultural Anthology of Garvey's Harlem Renaissance (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 1991): 69-70. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1987): 400:n83 misdates this review to May 25, 1922.