"Book Notes."

by Eric  Walrond

HARLEM SHADOWS, by Claude McKay (Harcourt, Brace, & Co, New York).

After swallowing these poems (as I did), one is able to appreciate why Claude McKay is idolized by lovers of the beautiful in poetry. Every poem is a gem—not a mediocre one is in the entire batch. Yes, we risk saying that, despite our limited knowledge of the fundamentals of poetry. As George Santayana says, Claude McKay "paints in again into the landscape the tints which the intellect has allowed to fade from it."

Like white moths trembling on the tropic air. Or waters of the hills that softly flow Gracefully falling down a shining stair. [source]

We have been hearing quite a deal recently about the virtues (?) of the women in Claude McKay's poems. Essentially an artist, it is not always easy to feel the pulse of the master poet. It is not condescending to say that the Negro, educated though he may be, is devoid of the true artistic outlook. Experience is what counts in an artist's life. Lafcadio Hearn used to advise his Japanese students not to bother with books, but to go out in the large arena of life and there get ideas. Super-artist that he is, Claude McKay has done the very thing. Experience has been the mother of his poetry. And this, understand, is foreign—entirely so—to the life and character of the artist. One may be with the mob and yet not be of it!

Into the furnace let me go alone: Stay you without in terror of the heat. I will go naked in—for thus 'tis sweet— Into the weird depths of the hottest zone. I will not quiver in the frailest bone, You will not note a flicker of defeat: My heart shall tremble not its fate to meet. My mouth give utterance to any moan. The yawning over spits forth fiery spears: Red aspish tongues shout wordlessly my name. Desire destroys, consumes my mortal fears, Transforming me into a shape of flame. I will come out, back to your world of tears. A stronger soul within a finer frame. [source]

There, in so many lines, is the poet-artist's philosophy. It would be well to bear it in mind in passing judgment on McKay, the man.

But the one, next to "If We Must Die," which will probably find a snug place in the enflamed breasts of the propagandists and the black proletariat, is "Enslaved."

Oh, when I think of my long-suffering race, For weary centuries despised, oppressed, Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place In the great life line of the Christian West, And in the Black Land disinherited, Robbed in the ancient country of its birth, My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead For this my race that has no home on earth. Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry To the avenging angel to consume The white man's world of wonders utterly: Let it be swallowed up in earth's vast womb, Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke To liberate my people from its yoke! [source]

Altogether it is a wondrous collection, and indispensable to any representative collection of Negro poetry.


Walrond, Eric. "Book Notes." The Negro World: (May 6, 1922).


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts