poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, on September 15, 1889. He was educated by his older brother, who possessed a library of English novels, poetry, and scientific texts.

At the age of twenty, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. In 1912, he travelled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.

In 1917, he published two sonnets, "The Harlem Dancer" and "Invocation," and later used the form in writing about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States. McKay also wrote on a variety of subjects, from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love, with a use of passionate language.

During the twenties, McKay developed an interest in Communism and travelled to Russia and then to France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Lewis Sinclair. In 1934, McKay moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism.

McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. He died on May 22, 1948.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Constab Ballads (1912)
Harlem Shadows (1922)
Selected Poems (1953)
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
The Dialect Poetry of Claude McKay (1972)
The Passion of Claude McKay (1973)

Prose

A Long Way from Home (1937)
Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940)
The Negroes in America (1979)

Letters

Banana Bottom (1933)
Banjo: A Story Without a Plot (1929)
Gingertown (1932)
Home to Harlem (1928)
My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979)
Trial By Lynching (1977)

The Tropics of New York

Claude McKay, 1889 - 1948
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
     Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
     Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
     of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
     In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
     A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
     I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

Used by permission of The Archives of Claude McKay, Carl Cowl, Administrator.

Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica in 1889, wrote about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States, as well as a variety of subjects ranging from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love.

by this poet

poem
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a
poem
For one brief golden moment rare like wine, 
The gracious city swept across the line; 
Oblivious of the color of my skin, 
Forgetting that I was an alien guest, 
She bent to me, my hostile heart to win, 
Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast; 
The great, proud city, seized with a strange love, 
Bowed down
poem
I must not gaze at them although 
  Your eyes are dawning day; 
I must not watch you as you go 
  Your sun-illumined way; 

I hear but I must never heed 
  The fascinating note, 
Which, fluting like a river reed, 
  Comes from your trembing throat; 

I must not see upon your face 
  Love's softly glowing spark