So much in ten brief years. I have forgot
What time the purple apples come to juice,
And what month brings the shy forget-me-not.
I have forgot the special startling season
Of the pimento’s flowering and fruiting;
What time of year the ground doves brown the fields
And fill the noonday with their curious fluting.
I have forgotten much, but still remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood-red, in warm December.
I still recall the honey-fever grass,
But cannot recollect the high days when
We rooted them out of the ping-wing path
To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen.
I often try to think in what sweet month
The languid painted ladies used to dapple
The yellow by-road mazing from the main,
Sweet with the golden threads of the rose apple.
I have forgotten – but strange – but quite remember
The poinsettia’s red, blood red, in warm December.
How typical or how representative is this poem of Claude McKay? It might not be his most accomplished; there are others more highly and widely acclaimed than this one. But what statement does it make about the poet himself, or about West Indian poetry at the time when it was written? Why is it important or worth revisiting?
There are very famous poems acclaimed worldwide by Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay (1890 – 1948), who has also been claimed and anthologised as an American writer. Poems like the foremost sonnet “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching”, as well as one or two of his novels, propelled him into world renown, while some of his work has been included in American literature.
It is difficult to pin him down to anything typical, since throughout his career, he was many things and produced work important in various spheres. By some critical accounts, he was more prominent as a novelist. In 1966, Gabriel Coulthard, in compiling Caribbean Literature, published by the University of London, to reflect the state of the still developing writing at that time, described McKay as “the first Caribbean poet and novelist writing in English to gain an international reputation. He left Jamaica in 1912 and spent the rest of his life in the United States and Europe.
While in the United States he identified himself with the sufferings of the American Negroes, and many of his poems at this period reflect the sorrow, bitterness and, at times, the anger he felt when confronted with racial discrimination and persecution. “If We Must Die” and “Lynching” belong to this phase of his writing.”
While “Flame-heart” is significant as a poem of the 1930s – 1940s, typical of landscape verse and imitation of English poetry, McKay was already ahead of his time and thinking during the literature of that period. He was a policeman in Jamaica in his youth and his first adventure into poetry was distinctly revolutionary. It was he, and not Louise Bennett, who pioneered Creole poetry in the Caribbean. He published Constab Ballads (1911) and Songs of Jamaica (1912), collections of poems written in Jamaican Creole patois.
The orthography is difficult, the language and rhythms awkward, since at that time the poet, like just about anyone trying to write in that language, had little control over the task because of the radical newness of the art and the oral and non-standardised nature of the language. Una Marson had similar difficulties in the 1930s, before “Miss Lou” (Bennett) conquered it thereafter.
So already McKay was making an impact on the literature. “Flame-heart” is significant because of its place within the mainstream poetry of its time. The poetry was characterised by imitation of English verse, with a passion for landscape poetry following Romantic and Victorian verse. “Flame-heart” is in the landscape trend, but McKay stops short of the imitation. There is extensive description of Jamaican plants, trees and flowers, but the poem’s main preoccupation is something else. It is above all a poem of nostalgia and exile.
The poet seemed to have developed a very pronounced sense of exile from his native land, expressing dreams of returning and memories of a childhood immersed in the countryside in Romantic fashion.
The poem is also pastoral in the poet’s relationship with refreshing, life-giving, unspoiled natural surroundings and a haven from the stress of wherever he was. Another outstanding example of this is the poem “I Shall Return”.
The slight post-colonial element is his emphasis on local vegetation to the exclusion of any colonial reference to the temperate climates. Added to that is the symbolist refrain concerning the flame-heart tree and the vivid, almost saddening image of the flaming red of the poinsettia.
Another significant departure for McKay was in his fiction. His novel Banana Bottom in 1929 is a clear advancement of the social realism developed by the likes of Hubert G Delisser in the first quarter of the century.
(A similar advancement was taking place in Trinidad in the 1930s). Banana Bottom betrayed the Marxist tendencies in McKay who visited Moscow and somehow embraced communism.
At the same time, the novel reflected severe contradictions in socialization, education and class consciousness while maintaining a value for the folk, the countryside and the proletariat (also hinted at in the poem “I Shall Return”).
His classification as American would have arisen from his residence in the USA and his active participation in the Harlem Renaissance.
That is when he was moved by the racial atrocities and the struggles of Blacks in that country. A poem like “The Lynching” definitely comes out of that experience and is an example of why McKay came to be included in American literature.
His Harlem experience also coincided with his association with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the USA. There was a strong literary movement involved with Garveyism and the Africanist leader himself. (See Tony Martin’s Literary Garveyism.)
That was another part of McKay very consistent with his social and proletarian consciousness that produced his Creole poetry and kept him above imitation in his other works.
The sonnet “If We Must Die” is probably his best-known poem, acclaimed in the UK and around the world because of the inspiration it provided for the World War. It has a rallying universal ring to it and is largely seen in that context.
But more likely it was written for the struggling Blacks in the USA. Rather than the World War, it might well have been addressing itself to the fight against racial oppression in America.
Yet McKay’s experience was much wider, and indeed quite universal. He also lived in Europe and has novels set there – in Paris, for example. These works include novels Banjo (1929), Home to Harlem (1928) and A Long Way from Home (1937). There were reports of works of his that were only more recently discovered and published in America.
He is therefore a writer of profound and varying interests and preoccupations.
While the poem “Flame-heart” illustrates his relationships with the West Indian poetry of the 1930s and 1940s, it is by no means restricted to that brand. There are suggestions in the poem of a number of other important characteristics of McKay.