Author’s Word

Author’s Word

In putting ideas and feelings into poetry, I have tried in each case to use the medium most adaptable to the specific purpose. I own allegiance to no master. I have never found it possible to accept in entirety any one poet. But I have loved and joyed in what I consider the finest in the poets of all ages.

The speech of my childhood and early youth was the Jamaica Negro dialect, the native variant of English, which still preserves a few words of African origin, and which is more difficult of understanding than the American Negro dialect. But the language we wrote and read in school was England’s English. Our text books then, before the advent of the American and Jamaican readers and our teachers, too, were all English-made. The native teachers of the elementary schools were tutored by men and women of British import. I quite remember making up verses in the dialect and in English for our moonlight ring dances and for our school parties. Of our purely native song the jammas (field and road), shay-shays (yard and booth), wakes (post-mortem), Anancy tales (transplanted African folk lore), and revivals (religious) are all singularly punctuated by meter and rhyme. And nearly all my own poetic thought has always run naturally into these regular forms.

Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school.

I have never studied poetics; but the forms I have used I am convinced are the ones I can work in with the highest degree of spontaneity and freedom.

I have chosen my melodies and rhythms by instinct, and I have favored words and figures which flow smoothly and harmoniously into my compositions. And in all my moods I have striven to achieve directness, truthfulness and naturalness of expression instead of an enameled originality. I have not hesitated to use words which are old, and in some circles considered poetically overworked and dead, when I thought I could make them glow alive by new manipulation. Nor have I stinted my senses of the pleasure of using the decorative metaphor where it is more truly and vividly beautiful than the exact phrase. But for me there is more quiet delight in “The golden moon of heaven” than in “The terra-cotta disc of cloud-land.”

Finally, while I have welcomed criticism, friendly and unfriendly, and listened with willing attention to many varying opinions concerning other poems and my own, I have always, in the summing up, fallen back on my own ear and taste as the arbiter.

Claude McKay.

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La Paloma in London

About Soho we went before the light;
We went, unresting six, craving new fun,
New scenes, new raptures for the fevered night
Of rollicking laughter, drink and song, was done.
The vault was void, but for the dawn’s great star
That shed upon our path its silver flame,
When La Paloma on a low guitar
Abruptly from a darkened casement came—
Harlem! All else shut out, I saw the hall,
And you in your red shoulder sash come dancing
With Val against me languid by the wall,
Your burning coffee-colored eyes keen glancing
Aslant at mine, proud in your golden glory!
I loved you, Cuban girl, fond sweet Diory.

The Spanish Needle

Lovely dainty Spanish needle
With your yellow flower and white,
Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,
Do you think of me to-night?

Shadowed by the spreading mango,
Nodding o’er the rippling stream,
Tell me, dear plant of my childhood,
Do you of the exile dream?

Do you see me by the brook’s side
Catching crayfish ‘neath the stone,
As you did the day you whispered:
Leave the harmless dears alone?

Do you see me in the meadow
Coming from the woodland spring
With a bamboo on my shoulder
And a pail sling from a string?

Do you see me all expectant
Lying in an orange grove,
While the swee-swees sing above me,
Waiting for my elf-eyed love?

Lovely dainty Spanish needle,
Source to me of sweet delight,
In your far-off sunny southland
Do you dream of me to-night?

The Castaways

The vivid grass with visible delight
Springing triumphant from the pregnant earth,
The butterflies, and sparrows in brief flight
Chirping and dancing for the season’s birth,
The dandelions and rare daffodils
That touch the deep-stirred heart with hands of
gold,
The thrushes sending forth their joyous trills,—
Not these, not these did I at first behold!
But seated on the benches daubed with green,
The castaways of life, a few asleep,
Some withered women desolate and mean,
And over all, life’s shadows dark and deep.
Moaning I turned away, for misery
I have the strength to bear but not to see.

Rest in Peace

No more for you the city’s thorny ways,
The ugly corners of the Negro belt;
The miseries and pains of these harsh days
By you will never, never again be felt.

No more, if still you wander, will you meet
With nights of unabating bitterness;
They cannot reach you in your safe retreat,
The city’s hate, the city’s prejudice!

‘Twas sudden—but your menial task is done,
The dawn now breaks on you, the dark is over,
The sea is crossed, the longed-for port is won;
Farewell, oh, fare you well! my friend and
lover.

Poetry

Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy might breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up—
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth—
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!

On the Road

Roar of the rushing train fearfully rocking,
Impatient people jammed in line for food,
The rasping noise of cars together knocking,
And worried waiters, some in ugly mood,
Crowding into the choking pantry hole
To call out dishes for each angry glutton
Exasperated grown beyond control,
From waiting for his soup or fish or mutton.
At last the station’s reached, the engine stops;
For bags and wraps the red-caps circle round;
From off the step the passenger lightly hops,
And seeks his cab or tram-car homeward bound;
The waiters pass out weary, listless, glum,
To spend their tips on harlots, cards and rum.

North and South

O sweet are tropic lands for waking dreams!
There time and life move lazily along.
There by the banks of 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,
And swarthy children in the fields at play,
Look upward laughing at the smiling skies.
A breath of idleness is in the air
That casts a subtle spell upon all things,
And love and mating-time are everywhere,
And wonder to life’s commonplaces clings.
The fluttering humming-bird darts through the
trees
And dips his long beak in the big bell-flowers,
The leisured buzzard floats upon the breeze,
Riding a crescent cloud for endless hours,
The sea beats softly on the emerald strands—
O sweet for quiet dreams are tropic lands!

Jasmines

Your scent is in the room.
Swiftly it overwhelms and conquers me!
Jasmines, night jasmines, perfect of perfume,
Heavy with dew before the dawn of day!
Your face was in the mirror, I could see
You smile and vanish suddenly away,
Leaving behind the vestige of a tear.
Sad suffering face, from parting grown so dear!
Night jasmines cannot bloom in this cold place;
Without the street is wet and weird with snow;
The cold nude trees are tossing to and fro;
Too stormy is the night for your fond face;
For your low voice too loud the wind’s mad roar.
But oh, your scent is here—jasmines that grow
Luxuriant, clustered round your cottage door!

I Shall Return

I shall return again; I shall return
To laugh and love and watch with wonder-eyes
At golden noon the forest fires burn,
Wafting their blue-black smoke to sapphire skies.
I shall return to loiter by the streams
That bathe the brown blades of the bending
grasses,
And realize once more my thousand dreams
Of waters rushing down the mountain passes.
I shall return to hear the fiddle and fife
Of village dances, dear delicious tunes
That stir the hidden depths of native life,
Stray melodies of dim remembered runes.
I shall return, I shall return again,
To ease my mind of long, long years of pain.