Poetry Friday: 1922

It’s great to move forward a year, especially as some excellent things happened in poetry in 1922.  I don’t know how fast I’ll be through Alice Adams, so, in case this is my only Friday in 1922, I have to draw from James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry.  As great a poet as Johnson could be, in his collection he offers a number of poems by the fearless Claude McKay, who wrote about violence and prejudice and passion with intensity and power.  I love pretty much every poem of his I’ve read, and choosing one for today was hard, but here it is (and please do offer your thoughts/reactions/questions/comments—I want us to have a little dialogue on these poems!). “If We Must Die”, a sonnet by Claude McKay:

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 still be brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
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!

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5 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1922

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    This poem reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath, for some reason.

    I found it moving, and beautiful.

    I’m curious about the use of the word Kinsmen though. It makes me think that it is a battle call, and makes me curious to know more about the poet.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for sharing! I’ll admit, I’ve read Steinbeck, but only a little bit of Grapes of Wrath. I assume this connects to some of the anger/defiance Tom Joad eventually expresses?

      Kinsmen, I think, is an appeal to the African-American community, which is slowly increasing its vocal opposition to the entrenched racism in the country. This poem comes about 10-15 years after the Niagara Movement and the NAACP’s formation, and just at the start of the Harlem Renaissance. But I don’t know as much about McKay as I want to (he was an immigrant from Jamaica, I think?), and if you find anything about him that’s of interest, I hope you’ll share it here!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I looked into this a bit–apparently this poem was written in 1919 after the first “Red Scare” and the first real “race riots” in northern cities, following the war. Apparently “Kinsmen” was meant to apply, not only to African-Americans, but to the workers and laborers whose attempts to organize were being denounced as “socialist” and “communist”. Obviously there’s a lot more here, and McKay is sounding like a very interesting guy to me.

  2. Bonnie Hood says:

    Well, the quote from the Grapes of Wrath that came to mind was this: “At night frantic men walked boldly to hen roosts and carried off the squawking chickens. If they were shot at, they did not run, but splashed sullenly away; and if they were hit, they sank tiredly in the mud.”
    Which is actually a very different sentiment than the one expressed in the poem, so I’m not sure why it seemed connected to me.

    Also, thanks for researching McKay. He certainly seems like he was active in what was going on in the times. I love the idea of poem as protest and rally call. Almost an early beatnik, maybe.

  3. […] you like it or not, folks, it’s going to be a return to a poem I posted many years ago (with only a little commentary on my part and a response from one of you)—a return to the power and the uninimidated force of thought […]

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