Poetry Friday: May Day with Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The incomparable Claude McKay

The combination of May Day (with its many undertones of justice for the downtrodden—whether the moderate justice of the eight hour working day, which May 1 was intended to celebrate, or the more radical justice called for by socialists on this day for most of the last century and all of this present one) with the events in Baltimore (which, thankfully, are tending toward justice, now that we know that there will be serious judicial inquiry into the death of Freddie Gray) make it impossible not to post a poem.  Whether 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 that was the incomparable Claude McKay, one of the most beautifully and unapologetically honest of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance, and he’s coming right at you (and me) with “If We Must Die”, which was written in 1919 and published in the also great James Weldon Johnson‘s anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  Here it is:

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 accursèd lot.
If we must die, O 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!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us 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!

McKay pulls no punches in this sonnet, nor should he have to.  The injustices he addresses, while diminished meaningfully by the hard-won victories of the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are with us still—no fair reading of the treatment of minorities in our nation’s major cities can deny that completely (however much some may want to argue about how and to whom blame is to be apportioned).  McKay bolts out of the gate like a thoroughbred—“if we must die” is a brutal attention-getter, and to have the iambic bounce us right from that thought into “let it not be like hogs” is both genius and horrifying.  In the universe envisioned by McKay, death is inevitable, and unless we are careful, it will be an ignominious and panicked death, the death of beasts who have been cornered for the slaughter.  So, he commands, we must choose instead to go down swinging—not in some hip, casual, Tom Petty sense, but in the blood-and-bone sense of a man who knows the grave is in front of him and refuses to be the only one battered at day’s end.

This is unlike many of the sonnets I’ve spotlighted—McKay executes no unexpected turn at the end of the octet, no surprising connection blazing out of a final couplet.  The theme and the tone are sustained throughout.  He is too angry for artifice here—or rather I should say that he limits the sonnet’s grip on him to the mere boundaries of the form.  Inside it, rather than the artful musings and playful rhetoric of a poet in love with words, we see instead the passion of a wounded heart and the determination that words will mean something real.

It may seem odd that I, a literary blogger who doesn’t drift into politics all that often, should offer up McKay and this particular poem of his today.  It might also seem unsettling (even unpleasant) to some of you that I’ve shared a poem that pretty explicitly calls for violence and death—this might even surprise those of you who remember how sensitively and positively I’ve explored pacifism in a beautiful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  To all of you, I’ll just say this: poetry addresses every aspect of our human condition.  It must speak to our anger as much as to our love; to our moments of violence as much as to our moments of mercy.  In sharing Millay or McKay with you, in neither case am I asking for unquestioning acceptance of what they say—to the contrary, I think poetry is valuable in part because it usually demands that we question what we’re reading.  What I do ask for, though, is that we consistently ask those questions—that we don’t shut out McKay but instead try to hear what he might be saying, and what kind of lived experience might bring him to this sonnet.  That we extend the same courtesy to Millay, and to Frost and Whitman and all the other poets who come our way over the years.

Today, though, let’s concentrate especially on McKay.  Let’s ask ourselves how much violence black Americans a century ago lived through to give this particular black man—an artist and (so far as I know) a man who never in his life struck another man in anger—this poem and these deeply felt passions.  Let’s ask ourselves what about our nation might still inspire that kind of passion: even as we deplore the use of violence by citizens in the streets, we must ask ourselves what kinds of violence (physical and otherwise) exerted by the institutions and authorities in this country might provoke such a response.  I personally want no one to die in the street as McKay envisions, but that desire demands of me not merely that I ask the riots to end, but that I reach behind my nation’s facade of equality and opportunity to wrestle to the ground also that side of America that oppresses the lives of the least fortunate so forcefully that a riot can seem to them like the only way out.

Poetry Friday: Sherman Alexie

It’s time to explore the poetry of my new home—much as I went to Carl Sandburg to see Chicago through a poet’s eyes, I must find some Inland Northwest poets to help me understand this land.  And so, where else to start but with a son of the people whose land this is, who have possessed and been possessed by it for many centuries, long before my great-grandfather homesteaded here or my car rolled up with boxes in the back to make a home.  If you know Sherman Alexie, you know what we’re probably about to dive into.  And if you don’t know Sherman, a native man from the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit, well, buckle up.  Whatever else it may be, ahead of us we can certainly expect to be confronted by truth.  From his collection, The Summer of Black Widows, this is “The Powwow at the End of the World”:

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sweet, terrible fire.  And words I need to hear.  There is something reminiscent here of many great poems I’ve read, including some I’ve discussed here—Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” occurs to me, and Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again“—but of course it is also entirely its own, hot with the passion that has boiled in him all his years.  As challenging as it can be to confront, it’s also important to face his relentless demands that forgiveness not be cheap, that injustice be met not with platitudes but with redress and righteousness, that the only way to do good is to undo evil.  The imagery is powerful for me because it pairs the very tangible and real—the solidity of the dam at Grand Coulee, the shattered reactors at a broken Hanford—with the fantastic and the mythical—an Indian woman (and there is something deeply powerful, I think, in his insisting that it be a woman) titanic enough that the weight of her shoulder can shatter acres of concrete, a salmon charged with lightning who calls the tribes home for the dance that ends time.  I find that I encounter these juxtapositions often in the work of Native American writers—I think culturally (at least in many tribes) they are better able to see the unreal through the lens of the real, especially seeing something numinous and immanent in the natural world around them.

There is something communal about his anger, the feeling that a whole community, a whole nation, must be restored by this amazing chain of events.  But there is also something so personal—the salmon must come to him, who waits alone in a secret place.  He alone will see the lightning bolt which falls at his feet and no one else’s—when the lost ones come home, they will come to him.  And for me that only enhances the power of the piece—this is a lament in broad strokes for what the Spokane people lost and deserve to have restored to them, but it is grounded in the very personal accounting Sherman feels of what the broken tribe costs him, and of what America owes him personally to make this right.  I enjoy, too, that the piece ultimately dwells on the elation of reunion, the exuberance of dance and ancient stories—ultimately what will satisfy this outcry is not the scent of burning towns or the vision of oppressors brought low.  It’s not about revenge in the end for him: it’s about what will be restored, not about what will be destroyed.

It would be easy to tune him out, I suppose—to say that this is all big talk but in the end not very realistic.  But I think we have to grapple with the enormity of what Sherman wants us to see, whether or not we really think we could do all he demands, breaking apart the structures of American society in his people’s valleys and plateaus and leaving them to dance.  He recognizes this is apocalypse—that the justice he is demanding can only be depicted in the context of a final day, of the judgment and conclusion of this living, standing at the threshold of what will follow.  It doesn’t mean his pain is imaginary, nor that we can pretend that justice is unimportant until some last call where we can hurriedly set things right before we are called to account.  The rhythms of his verse surge up against us again and again like waves, like salmon who will not be denied the river no matter how the falls rage them backwards.  They will swim until they are victorious or perish in the attempt.  I can feel that strain in his verse, and that determination.  I’m glad I’m having to wrestle with it, what it means and what it will mean in the future—and especially what I may have to do about it.  Poetry should unsettle us, and this poem certainly unsettles me, even as it introduces me to a home it is not ready to welcome me to.  I am grateful for that, and for Sherman, tonight.

“You got a God. Don’t make no difference if you don’ know what he looks like.”

Sairy Wilson’s final conversation with “Reverend” Jim Casy resonated with me, hence my grabbing a quote from Sairy as the post’s title.  What’s interesting to me is how much Grapes of Wrath, which is in many ways as physical and material a book as possible (so rich with details about the natural world, about people’s bodies and possessions, etc.), is about the immaterial, and ultimately about faith and hope in things we do not see, or (in some cases) even believe in (yes, that’s a contradiction in terms, and an intentional paradox).  I’ll set aside Sairy and Jim for a moment and extend these thoughts out to other characters—I’ve gotten all the way over the mountains with the Joads now, and have reached the point where they’re looking down on the beautiful valley that, in this instant, is the California they’ve dreamed of, all along Route 66.

Ma’s faith is in “the family unbroke”, a remarkable phrase given that, in so many ways, all of these people are broken—the old ones too far gone to reach the Promised Land, the parents breaking down physically and emotionally as they go, the younger members of the family all afraid or lost or fragile.  Right after she expresses her willingness to rely on that concept—the family unbroke—the family begins to shatter as a unit.  We lose one more Joad to death, and another to the lure of freedom.  It’s increasingly clear that Tom’s commitment to stand up for himself come hell or high water will land him in trouble…likely either a California grave or a long ride back to an Oklahoma jail.  Will what’s left of the Joads, in a hundred pages or two, be enough for Ma to live by?  At what point does the gravity lose hold, the disc fan outwards into particles flung on tangents by centrifugal force?

Tom’s faith is, as far as I can tell, in himself—whatever he lived through in prison, it’s convinced him that there’s nothing he can’t handle.  He takes guff from nobody, not even men with authority and influence enough to put him back in jail.  He speaks with authority himself, now; Pa remarks to Ma about how Tom’s so “growed-up”, talking almost like a preacher now, and she agrees without hesitation.  He tells people like the one-eyed man at the wrecking yard what’s wrong with their lives and how to fix it—he sets Al straight and gets the family across the desert, insisting at one point that, if need be, they’d walk it.  Tom’s rule seems to be that if another man could do it, then by God Tom Joad is going to do it and there isn’t a soul on earth to tell him no.  I can’t tell yet what Steinbeck’s doing with this self-confidence….setting Tom up for a fall?  Revealing the inner dignity of the working man, no matter his background or circumstance?  Showing the false front so that later chapters can open up the wounded and vulnerable man underneath?  What is clear, anyway, is that Tom’s faith is in as hard-to-see a thing as Ma’s “family unbroke” or Jim Casy’s God.  He believes in a drifter, a parolee who broke parole the first chance he had, a man who murdered yet never seems to have learned caution from it.  He believes in the inherent worth of a man who will consistently be assessed as worthless by the people he meets, because of how he talks, how he looks, how he smells.  Time will alone tell if Tom’s put his faith in the right person.  Much as I admire him, I can’t rate his chances very high, given the environment he’s about to step into.

Jim Casy, then, to return to where I began.  That conversation with Sairy is so deeply moving—her quiet acceptance of her fate, her hopes for her husband, so piercing.  Ultimately Jim prays a prayer she cannot hear (does he pray?) to a God neither of them can see (is God there?) and then turns and walks “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light”.  What to do with J.C. is a challenge—as I alluded to in an earlier post (and as plenty of people have with this book, I expect….I really haven’t looked up critical essays about it), Casy’s initials obviously could be used to imply that he acts as a Christ-figure for Steinbeck’s novel.  There’s definitely material to work with—Casy as a man who takes on the suffering of others, Casy the one they all find they can depend on in a crisis, Casy who ultimately gives Sairy Wilson peace and then vanishes into the light (an ascension? a transfiguration?).  But I’m not sure I want to take him there.  More than anything else, Casy strikes me as Steinbeck’s alter ego.  He speaks rarely, but when he does, it’s usually a pronouncement of some kind—he asserts truths about who people are and why they move and what it all means.  For this reason, I find him alternately fascinating (he is the most philosophical character in a book full of wise but simple folk) and a bit irritating (his speeches sometimes feel forced on the narrative, especially since Casy rarely speaks on any other occasion….it’s easy to forget he’s still with the family some chapters).  Regardless, though, I have to deal with him, and this faith he does and does not seem to have.  He announces that he’s left God’s service, but no one else will let him.  His prayers for the dying and the dead are clearly significant moments to those around him, but he considers them of no real account.  What does Casy believe in?  Not himself—if nothing else is clear to me, that is.  He’s not like Tom in that way; he’s painfully conscious of having failed others in the past, and is wary of accepting responsibility for them now.  As the only person in the book right now who doesn’t have a family, it’s hard to see him agreeing with Ma that the unbroken family is the thing to trust in—he doesn’t exert any influence on the decisions where the family was about to split up (temporarily or permanently).  But is Casy, then, an argument for faith in God?  Who or what does he trust?

Shafter, Kern County, California. A view of th...

Whatever California looks like from a distance, this is what it will look like up close, for the Joads. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The book is getting intensely sad, and I’m uneasy about the arrival in California.  The struggles of keeping two old jalopies running down Route 66 will soon seem pretty minor in comparison with the squalor and the desperation of the picking fields.  The stories the Joads hear on the road are terrifying, especially the man whose children and wife starved to death (if we needed any evidence to understand what an impact the New Deal would have, and how desperately grateful the nation would have been to FDR for the idea of the “safety net”, this novel certainly makes a good case).  But as Tom says, the Joads have no other choice, no place to return to.  What do you do when you only have one choice?  You take it.  But what a terrible position to be in.  And even then, as people are suffering and dying because of the manipulations of the big growers and the landowners, you can hear the voices shouting down the slightest dissent—a man suggests for even a few moments that the workers are being taken advantage of, and suddenly he’s accused of being a “troublemaker”, a “labor faker”.  It’s announced loudly that these types stir up trouble and make people angry, and for the good of everybody they’ll all be rounded up and killed sooner or later.  It’s awful and true that most human societies run this way—it becomes strangely less unjust to cheat and starve the common people than it is to be the person pointing this out to the common people.  The more I read the novel (which is of course fiction, but which also of course strives to be true to that time in history, given when and for whom Steinbeck writes it), the more I realize how close we were in the 1930s to two different Americas—one America an oligarchy run by authoritarians protecting the moneyed interests and dragging the country into fascism to protect capital, and another America in a state of revolution, where workers throw their lot in with international communism for the furious and desperate reason that they cannot see another way to get bread for their children.  That we threaded the needle in that environment (to the extent that we did—obviously in some times and places both sentiments and scenarios prevailed to some extent) is a testament to something about America.  I haven’t yet figured out what.  We’re in California now, and maybe I’ll see clearer from this vantage point.  For now, it’s onward to the fields, and good luck to the Joads.