Monday, February 13, 2012

Poet highlight: Claude McKay

This week, the Academy of American Poets is highlighting Claude McKay.

My favorite poems of his is "If We Must Die," which informed a few of the poems from my book BARROW. But he has many others well worth seeking out.

As the Academy points out, "Claude McKay was born in Jamaica, West Indies, in 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."

This is one of the things I would hope younger poets remember and appreciate about McKay's work. Today it's relatively common to see it, but in the past it was a deeply controversial move. Even as I incorporate Laoglish into my work, or others use Spanglish, pidgin or other forms of non-standard English, poets like McKay and others did much to lay the groundwork for this technique, often to much early criticism. But through this technique, McKay and others broadened English and moved it away from being a self-constricting language and expanded the artful possibilities within it.

I'm not always enamored by his rhymes, but he was consistently working with some wonderful images and ideas. One of my favorite quotes of his is "If a man is not faithful to his own individuality, he cannot be loyal to anything."

Keep this in mind as you take on your own journeys as artists, as thinkers, as human beings.

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