Friday, December 14, 2007

Guest Star!

I hope she doesn't mind my doing this, but I'm going to go ahead and post the illustrious Sonya Posmentier's long and fascinating reply to my earlier writing on Gwendolyn Brooks (and to Evan's back-in-the-day comments about Claude McKay) as its own post, since I don't want it to get buried in the responses from November. I'll have something to say in reply, to this and to the comments on my original analysis, and I'd like to keep these discussions of race and form on the table. Take it away SP:

"Okay, so I’m going to take Greg’s bait and reply to Evan’s earlier post about Claude McKay. As I understood it, Evan had two questions: one about McKay’s status as “modern” and the other having to do with McKay’s apparent nostalgia for Jamaica, his bitterness toward American racism but not the effects of British colonialism. I’ve been reading Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism, which offers a certain argument at least in response to the first question, but hopefully I can go beyond that. Greg has also already suggested much of what I want to say… first by pointing (through Goldsby’s reading of Brooks) to modern “uses” of form (important since McKay’s formalism is certainly the characteristic that most often labels him as Romantic or un-modern, and he often gets lumped with Countee Cullen in this regard), and second, by suggesting that if lynching is a modern phenomenon, so too are artistic expressions of/responses to that violence. What I see Greg starting to say is not that the subject of lynching alone would constitute “modern” poetry (more on that in a minute), but that McKay’s formal treatment of it might.

Michael North in The Dialect of Modernism notes that defenders of McKay’s modernism often pointed to his “racial” subject matter, as if the “racial” is inherently modern, regardless of style/formal strategy. North demonstrates how McKay must resist “the indiscriminate association of race and modernism,” because of the bind that modernist primitivism puts black writers in. According to North, “there is no real conflict between the defiant subject matter and the conventional form of McKay’s American poems , as is so often supposed” because the form itself is defiant (toward modernism’s “naturalizing” of blacks as “primitive”) (115). This would seem to underscore Evan’s sense that McKay is not so modern—it would seem to suggest that, in fact he can’t be. But North argues, quite convincingly, that in the course of McKay’s career he challenges the various dichotomies that place him in this trap in the first place. North’s focus is onMcKay’s history with dialect—from his first two books, written in Jamaican dialect with the encouragement of his English mentor Walter Jekyll, through the “American poems” written in standard English traditional forms, through the expatriate novels. Because white writers (including Eliot and Pound) use black dialect simultaneously to claim a rebellious aesthetic freedom, and to reinscribe dehumanizing cultural stereotypes of “the black”--that is, to delineate their own propriety—dialect and standard English are already implicated in one another. The tools that make white writers modern (including dialect, free verse), McKay fears, would make him “primitive.” However, having begun his poetic career writing in Jamaican dialect (more on this later), McKay is always in dialogue with dialect. Thus, to North what makes McKay modern is his thematization of this very problem, his bringing “to the surface the subterranean connections between dialect and the standard.” McKay is like Eliot and Pound and other expatriate modernists in his “realization of the malleability of language in general, and of the arbitrariness and relativity of particular languages” (123).

I’m pretty much convinced by North’s argument (although I’m not sure I’ve done it justice here), but he achieves it, finally, by recourse to the novels, which raises my hackles. North ultimately depicts poetry as a dead end for McKay, the bind I’ve tried to describe above, inescapable. While it’s true that McKay more or less stops writing poetry once he leaves America, I think North gives the sonnets short shrift. First of all, while I see the importance of challenging the equation between “racial” subject matter and modernity, the “racial” quality of McKay’s American lyrics takes many forms—not only the nostalgia of “Tropics in New York” (the one “American” poem North discusses in depth) but also, as Greg has already begun to suggest, the rage of the radical protest poems—“If We Must Die,” “The White House,” “The Lynching,” etc. A critic I read a long, long time ago (and thus, embarrassingly, can’t remember who it is), describes McKay’s couplets as enacting the “lynching.”

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

McKay forces together the suspended existence (of lynchers and lynched alike.) and “glee” in these two lines. The description of the corpse as a “dreadful thing” underscores the dehumanizing, indeed deadening, effects of this coupling (an end formally charged with the eros of the “thronging” women). The sonnet form—to me at least—starts to seem complicit in the dance (at least partially the effect of the circularity of the rhyme scheme in the quatrains). I could say a lot more about this, but this post is too long, so…. If McKay is using the sonnet to resist the reductive primitivism of white modernism, I think he’s also using the sonnet to resist the sonnet.

Which brings me, finally, to Evan’s second question, about McKay’s attitude toward Jamaica. Evan, I think you’re right that a lot of the poems in Harlem Shadows seem purely nostalgic toward Jamaica. One simple response re: McKay’s attitude toward colonialism is that there’s a LOT more bitterness/ambivalence in the Jamaican poems. North does a great reading of “Quashie to Buccra” (the first poem in “Jamaican Songs”) that captures both its potential for resistance and its ultimate capitulation to “nostalgic romanticism” (and herein, perhaps, lies the relationship BETWEEN the question of McKay’s modernism and the question of his relationship to colonialism). But another point I’d make (and I said something like this in my presentation for Jeremy’s class) is that McKay’s use of the sonnet (an English form) in “Harlem Shadows” inevitably defines a triangular relationship between American racism, British colonialism, and the black subject (a triangle further outlined by the treatment of commodity/trade in “Tropics of New York.”) The form “penned” (“If We Must Die”) McKay’s speakers in—at once giving them expression and binding them. Is it possible that to use that form against itself is not only to “fight back” in the context of American racism, but also to engage in an anti-colonial struggle (people like Fanon and Derek Walcott would pick up on this kind of practice later, though many, like Kamau Brathwaite, would suggest that this is a losing battle as long as McKay was writing in pentameter)? I’m not sure what I think about this, but I think at the very least it’s a question we need to consider in the case of a double-expatriate Black Jamaican writer (with a British passport) writing sonnets in the 1920s…."