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: Sharon Olds looks at 1937

I depart slightly from convention this weekend, to give you a poem about 1937 instead of a poem from 1937. I do this for two reasons: first, unlike 1936, 1937 is a year not very filled with great poetry to choose from (as far as I have yet seen), and second, I will be in 1937 for a long time (thanks to the length of Gone With the Wind) and I need to pace myself. Besides all that, this is a poem about May, about college students in springtime and graduation and all that entails, and given the time of year and where I work, it feels particularly appropriate. This is a poem by the brilliant Sharon Olds, entitled “I Go Back to May 1937”:

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Olds at her best captures the unstoppable motion of emotion, the rush of feelings that overcomes us when we feel really strongly about something, and it’s no different here. The poem builds from a very simple and slowly-paced depiction of an image—two college students in love in May, in love with May perhaps—into the restless, almost frantic tumble of words as Olds both reaches to tear them apart out of pity and to smash them together in order to create herself. It’s a remarkable poem, because it does so many things well. First, the deep immersion in the physical details of a scene—the tiny bricks, the open wrought-iron gate—but then more powerfully the descent into the abstract world of the psyche, where these two injured young people are going to damage each other brutally. The whole poem is suffused with that violence, from the way the tiles look like blood behind the young man’s head all the way to Olds’s penultimate act as she smashes them together to make fire. The echoes of Prometheus float through the poem, and it does seem in the final moments as though Olds is willing to consign her parents to Promethean levels of torment in order to be born from that crucible.

That’s the real power in the poem, I think—the moment that Olds can’t do it, can’t stop them, can’t avert disaster and pain for two people she loves, because she wants to live. It would be easy to dismiss this as fantasy because none of us can do this, walking backwards in time and having the choice to give ourselves life or non-existence. But there are powerful ways in which we face this choice throughout our lives: ways in which a future for us will only be real if we act for ourselves and not for others. Is Olds right to make the choice she does—is the tragedy of their marriage redeemed because it creates her, and because she is willing to tell their story? Or is it foolish to talk about redemption in this context? Olds’s world in this poem seems in some ways detached from that idea: it is a place of pain and of passion, but not of hope.

It’s a beautiful poem—the way she sees her parents as they must once have been, the way she holds them up with her words tenderly, compassionately, for a moment before she realizes there are lengths to which she cannot go. But it also depicts great pain—certainly the restraint in phrases like “you are going to do bad things to children” sucks out my breath. What will they do to you, Sharon? And what, for the sake of living, are you willing into being by letting them come together? It freezes my blood.

We can see in it, if we like, an acceptance of the free will, since Olds’s decision not to intervene seems like the act of a god who will not alter the courses chosen by mortals, however foolish. Although Olds’s action, then, in dashing them together seems to undercut that message, as though Olds is taking responsibility for their relationship now, and its outcomes, for her own sake. The truest thing I can say, I think, as a reader still finding all the corners of this poem, is that it is very large. Olds has given us, in a brief poem, an immense space in which to imagine: she does not make simple a marriage and a family that are clearly complicated. What that image does for me I can hardly say, and I’m curious what it does for you: I hope you’ll share thoughts and reactions if any arise.