When Claude McKay was writing his poetry, free verse was seen as new and exciting, and many of his peers were writing their poems in this form. However, McKay purposely chose to do the opposite and return to older, more traditional forms for his poetry. The rigid sonnet forms that McKay was utilizing were almost the exact opposite of what his peers and neighbors were producing. He was self-aware in his writing, poems like “Poetry” show us this, so we know McKay was choosing his poetic forms deliberately. But why would he choose to write almost exclusively in a form that would set him apart from others who were writing for a similar cause?
It could be a result of his education. As a child, McKay spent some time living with his oldest brother who was a teacher, and this could have exposed him to some classical writers who influenced his poetry (he began writing at age 10). While in Jamaica, he was mentored by an Englishman named Walter Jekyll, who encouraged him to write poems that characterized Jamaica, using words that Jamaicans know and use every day, but that other people might not know. Later in his life, McKay also Tuskegee Institute and later, Kansas State University, both reputable schools who with access to expansive libraries where he could have easily studied the works of the poets who developed and mastered the sonnet forms he uses.
In his essay, “Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows”, Terence Hoagwood explains that McKay liked traditional sonnet form because he felt it was the best way to express his feelings. Instead of seeing the guidelines of the sonnet form as something that would restrict him, McKay saw them as a way to “set his poetry free”. We know words can be much more powerful when rhymed, and the best way for McKay to emphasize the strong feelings he had about his life experiences was to place those poems in a form where the emphasis could be directed. The musicality of sonnet form made his poems absolutely sing with meaning.
It’s important that we pay attention to form as well as meaning when we read McKay’s poetry because the two are very closely related. When McKay chose to write his poetry, he chose the form of his poems just like he chose the words and the subject. Every choice he made has meaning and looking at those choices are what lets us understand who he was and why he wrote as well as what he was writing about.
Certain words are essential to understanding how McKay and other poets use the poetic tradition to express themselves. Below are a few collected glossary terms with definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary which are used on this page and may appear again throughout the site.
couplet – A pair of successive lines of verse, esp. when rhyming together and of the same length.
octave – A group or stanza of eight lines of verse, (now) esp. the octet of a sonnet.
sestet – The last six lines of a sonnet.
sonnet – A piece of verse (properly expressive of one main idea) consisting of fourteen decasyllabic lines, with rhymes arranged according to one or other of certain definite schemes.
quatrain – A stanza of four lines, esp. one having alternate rhymes; four lines of verse.
The English (Shakespearean) Sonnet
This sonnet form is perhaps the most widely recognized. It consists of three alternating quatrains and ends with a couplet. Usually the sonnet tells of the poet’s love for a woman with the third quatrain introducing a “volta” or a turn where the theme and imagery of the poem change. The ending couplet usually summarizes the poem or gives a reflection on the subject. Although introduced by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century, English sonnets have retained their popularity and were used well into the 20th century by poets such as Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats.
The rhyme scheme for English Sonnets is as follows:
a b a b
c d c d
e f e f
Below is an example of one of McKay’s poems which has been written in the English Sonnet form. Bolded and highlighted in different colors are the end rhymes which show us the poem’s rhyme scheme. See if you can spot the volta.
Altea mentions in her tender letters,
Among a chain of quaint and touching things,
That you are feeble, weighted down with fetters,
And given to strange deeds and mutterings.
No longer without trace or thought of fear,
Do you leap to and ride the rebel roan;
But have become the victim of grim care,
With three brown beauties to support alone.
But none the less will you be in my mind,
Wild May that cantered by the risky ways,
With showy head-cloth flirting in the wind,
From market in the glad December days;
Wild May of whom even other girls could rave
Before sex tamed your spirit, made you slave.
Some other poems by McKay that exhibit the English Sonnet form:
America, Africa, Dawn in New York, Enslaved, Futility, If We Must Die, In Bondage, I Shall Return, La Paloma in London, On a Primitive Canoe, On the Road, Outcast, The Castaways, The Harlem Dancer, The Night Fire, The Tired Worker, Thirst
These poems exhibit a double English Sonnet, where he repeats the form to make two separate stanzas. Compare them to his single sonnets to see how this affects their pacing and volta: My Mother, The Snow Fairy
The Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet
This sonnet form is made up of an octave and sestet. However, unlike other sonnet forms, the rhyme scheme of the sestet is fairly flexible and can rhyme many different ways, for example c d e c e d instead of McKay’s usual c d c d c d. Just like English Sonnets, Italian Sonnets contain a volta, and it usually occurs where the rhyme scheme changes (between the octave and sestet). The rhyme scheme is as follows:
a b b a a b b a
c d c d c d
Below is an example of one of McKay’s poems which has been written in the Italian Sonnet form. Bolded and highlighted in different colors are the end rhymes which show us the poem’s rhyme scheme. See if you can spot the volta.
I Know My Soul
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
These poems exhibit a double Italian Sonnet, where he repeats the form to make two separate stanzas. Compare them to his single sonnets to see how this affects their pacing and volta: One Year After, Through Agony
Some of McKay’s poems still take the sonnet form but do not explicitly follow a sonnet tradition. He has adapted to rhyme scheme and changed the pacing of his poems in order to better emphasize the stories they tell. This is perhaps one of the best ways for us to see how McKay’s mind works when it’s not completely bound to the rules of the sonnet form he’s chosen. Take notice of the changes he makes. Why would he decide to make those changes?
Below is an example of a variation on the sonnet form. Compare it to the English and Italian sonnets and see how alike it is, but also how different. Notice where McKay decided to deviate from the traditional form.
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 mighty 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!
“Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows” by Terance Hoagwood
Information about the sonnet forms from sonnets.org