"HARLEM SHADOWS" By Claude McKay, published by Harcourt Brace and Co., Price $1.35. Postage 10c Extra.
Claude McKay was born in the West Indies and had attained to some distinction there before he came to the United States. He had written exquisite songs in the Jamaican dialect, songs full of a love for the simple peasant folk and a longing for their full liberty, he had helped the street car men on strike, he had received the medal of the institute of Arts and Sciences. And then he came to New York. And though he sings of New York as a city which he hates; we, who love it, can rest content that he stays with us. Hate is next to love and far better than indifference.
"Harlem Shadows" centres about New York, but to the poet's heart again and again comes the call of the Tropics. It is Easter Sunday and he thinks: Far from this foreign Easter damp and chilly My soul steals to a pear-shaped plot of ground, Where gleamed the lilac-tinted Easter lily Soft-scented in the air for yards around. [source]
He stops at a shop window and Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root, Cocoa in pods and alligator pears. And tangerines and mangoes and grape-fruit— [source] recall the laden fruit-trees of home and the mystical blue skies. He goes into the subway, the city's "great, gaunt gut" where "the gray train rushing bears the weary wind" and to him the wind is captive, moaning for fields and seas: Seas cooling warm where native schooners drift Through sleepy waters, while gulls wheel and sweep, Waiting for windy waves the keels to lift Lightly among the islands of the deep. [source]
The swallows fly North up from the Spanish main and he questions them. They have seen the children scampering out of school: Do they still stop beneath the giant tree To gather locusts in their childish greed, And chuckle when they break the pods to see The golden powder clustered round the seed? [source]
Weary, he turns to the South as the land of waking dreams. There by the banks of the blue and silver streams Grass-sheltered crickets chirp incessant song. Gay-colored lizards loll all through the day Their tongues outstretched for careless little flies, Look upward laughing at the smiling skies. [source]
When night comes he thinks of the "dainty Spanish needle" the yellow and white flower "shadowed by the spreading mango." And in the New York dawn of groaning cars and rumbling milks carts, of dark figures shuffling sadly to work, he calls up his island of the sea. Where the cocks are crowing, And the hens are crackling in the rose-apple tree. [source]
But America has a grip upon Claude McKay. He tells us so in a wonderful sonnet. Although she feed me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's took[SIC], Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth. [source]
He has written two great sonnets upon lynching and two unforgetable[SIC] pictures of women, Harlem Shadows and The Harlem Dancer. As he explains in his preface, America has greatly affected his poetry at times, but it has not yet taught him to use free verse.
Max Eastman, himself a poet as well as a rare critic of poetry, has written an Introduction to Mr. McKay's poems. I quote the end:
The quality is here in all these songs, the pure, arrowlike tranference[SIC] of his emotion into our heart, without any but the inevitable words, the quality that reminds us of Burns and Villon and Catallus[SIC], and all the poets that we call lyric because we love them so much. It is the quality that Keats sought to cherish when he said that 'Poetry should be great and unobstrusive[SIC], a thing which enters into the soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself but with its subject.' * * * It is the poetry that looks upon a thing and sings.
It is possessed by a feeling and sings. May it find its way a little quietly and softly in this age of roar and advertising, to the hearts that love a true and unaffected song.