And coming soon: we will present 24 of McKay's uncollected political poems from this period, using scans from various magazines in which they appeared.)
It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica. I was perhaps then at the most impressionable adult age and the warm contact with my workmates, boys and girls, their spontaneous ways of acting on and living for the moment, the physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised—all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally adrift from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart had never held. (Claude McKay, quoted in Cooper, 87)
Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school. (McKay, “Author’s Word,” Harlem Shadows. See the full Author's Word here.)
And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it—they are gentle, simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears—yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. (Max Eastman, Preface to Harlem Shadows, 1922)
Joy in the Woods (published in Workers Dreadnought in April 1920)There is joy in the woods just now,
The leaves are whispers of song,
And the birds make mirth on the bough
And music the whole day long.
And God! To dwell in the town
In these springlike summer days,
On my brow an unfading frown
And hate in my heart always—A machine out of gear, aye, tired,
Yet forced to go on—for I’m hired.Just forced to go on through fear,
For every day I must eat
And find ugly clothes to wear,
And bad shoes to hurt my feet
And a shelter for work-drugged sleep!
A mere drudge! but what can one do?
A man that’s a man cannot weep!
Suicide? A quitter? Oh, no!But a slave should never grow tired,
Whom the masters have kindly hired.But oh! For the woods, the flowersFor a man-machine toil-tired
Of natural, sweet perfume,
The heartening, summer shows
And the smiling shrubs in bloom,
Dust-free, dew-tinted at morn,
The fresh and life-giving air,
The billowing waves of corn
And the birds’ notes rich and clear: —
May crave beauty too—though he’s hired.