“A Thing Apart”: Sonnet Poetics and Radical Politics in Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows

Abstract: In this paper, I read Claude McKay’s partaking in the English sonnet tradition in Harlem Shadows as being a fundamental part of—and not, as many commentators have suggested, counter to—the poet’s and book’s radical politics. Upon contextualizing my readings alongside critics including Houston A. Baker, Jr., Kamau Brathwaite, and Winston James, I perform close readings of McKay’s poems “Subway Wind” and “Outcast.” I specifically analyze how these poems imagine climatic ‘currents’ through images and metaphors of racially marked colonial spaces, which the poems, I suggest, also poetically perform through the actualization of the sonnet form as discursive currents redirected toward liberatory politics.

In the chapter “The Poetry: Form versus Content” of his book Claude McKay, James R. Giles reproduces a common line of argument among critics: that Claude McKay’s poetry is limited by a battle between traditional English poetic form on the one hand, and radical politics on the other. He suggests the author never could properly negotiate between the two, leading to a supposed tendency of weak verse. “Unquestionably,” writes Giles, “the main artistic failing of this verse is its frequent triteness of form and language.” Giles suggests that a formal English education led McKay to “imitate sometimes the worst of the British poetic tradition” rather than having “attempted some of the innovations in black form and language that dominate [Langston] Hughes’ poetry” (54).

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