Although the term “sonnet” merely refers to a diminutive version of the Italian for “sound” (Oppenheimer 291), the poetic form has come to inhabit a highly contested space for writers and critics alike. In the case of Claude McKay and the Harlem Renaissance, the sonnet raises questions concerning the identity of modernist poetry, and, further, how colonized voices should interact with forms originating from the colonizer. Claude McKay, a Jamaican-born poet, was one of the first black writers to achieve recognition with his 1911 Jamaican-dialect poems in The Daily Gleaner (Hunter 566). Later in his career, however, McKay turned away from dialect poems in favor of sonnets in Standard English, for which he is now known. Often associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, McKay’s fourth, and perhaps most well-known, book of poetry was Harlem Shadows, published in 1922, and it is this association that sparks much of McKay’s criticism. McKay’s adherence to classic forms starkly contrasts other Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, like Langston Hughes, whose poetry followed fewer conventional forms and moved towards incorporating more everyday speech patterns in their writing. McKay, for his sonnets and Standard English, is accused of imitating the colonizer’s speech and forgoing his black and Jamaican roots to achieve “universality.” However, dialect, nation speak, and form are not the only means of reclaiming narrative and “writing back” to empire. These elements, rather than depicting a new narrative for a historically “othered” voice, end up acting as a means to exoticize the voice of a black “other,” especially during McKay’s time. Through a primary focus on the 1921 poem “Jasmines,” close reading reveals that Claude McKay’s Standard English sonnets shirk white expectation, respond to colonial discourse, and decentralize a standardized British narrative through conversation with the very form of the sonnet itself.
As a black Jamaican writer at the turn of the 20th century, it is common for criticism of Claude McKay’s poetry to focus on the group that the critic believes McKay should have written to represent. For example, in “History of the Voice,” Kamau Brathwaite, a Barbadian poet and academic, wrote on the importance of “nation language” as a means of representing and validating colonized, Caribbean voices. In the essay, Brathwaite uses McKay as an example of a Caribbean poet who “[i]n order to be ‘universal,’… forshook his nation language … and went to the sonnet … McKay allowed himself to be imprisoned in the pentameter; he did not let his language find its own parameters” (283). McKay’s adherence to the sonnet form, for Brathwaite, acts as a way to hide his Caribbean roots and thus fail to artistically give his colonized voice representation. Brathwaite mistakenly equates “universality” with a non-typed voice that does not imply specific place, despite referring to an English dialect and poetic form derived from Europe. Brathwaite assumes that McKay’s use of any “standard” is without intention and is unrelated to place since it is not related to Caribbean dialect specifically. Brathwaite, however, fails to recognize that McKay chose to “find his own parameters” in the sonnet after establishing himself as a dialect poet in The Daily Gleaner a decade before his Standard English sonnets.
With his first poems, McKay extensively utilized the “nation speak” that Brathwaite called for in the Jamaican journal The Daily Gleaner. McKay’s “nation speak” is expemplified in the 1911 poem “Agnes o’ de Village Lane,” which included such lines as “In de school-room worn an’ old/Fus’ I saw your pretty smile” (“Agnes o’ de Village Lane” lines 7-8) and “For dey t’umped an’ beat poor me/Tell me skin tu’n black an’ blue” (“Agnes o’ de Village Lane” lines 14-15). In these poems, it is clear that McKay attempts to show a more Caribbean manner of speech through leaving letters out of words like “an’,” “t’umped,” and “tu’n,” or by giving certain words alternative spellings completely like “fus’,” “dey,” and “tell.” Upon discovering McKay’s dialect poems in this style, Walter Jekyll, the first of several white patrons throughout McKay’s life, praised the Jamaican poet, claiming “this is the real thing” (qtd. in North 101). What, however, is the “real thing?” What was the real “Negro” being depicted for the journals’ mostly white readership?
It is telling what McKay’s white readership wanted from his dialect poems from the criticism he faced upon turning toward Standard English sonnets a decade later. Robert Minor once told McKay, “You are ‘not a real Negro’ … when he [McKay] confessed to liking E.E. Cummings” (qtd. in North 103), and Roy Fuller, in a “Caribbean Voices” broadcast, insisted that Caribbean poets, like, one may assume, McKay, had to stop writing like Keats and “learn to write like themselves” (qtd. in Breiner 114). Just like Walter Jekyll’s praise for the “real thing,” Brathwaite, Minor, and Fuller’s beliefs concerning the correct “nation language” for Caribbean expression warrant examination. Phrases like “own parameters” and “like themselves” indicate a desire to let the poet speak for himself, but, in the end, merely stipulate that that self should reflect a very narrow manner of preconceived speech representing a carefully maintained “other” in an imagined dichotomy between Standard English and its received derivations.
Walt Hunter’s “Claude McKay’s Constabulary Aesthetics: The Social Poetics of the Jamaican Dialect Poems” begins to unpack many of these assumptions, but spends the article’s bulk examining McKay’s early dialect poems from The Daily Gleaner. Pointing to McKay’s use of dialect in order to manipulate and push standard forms, Hunter argues that McKay’s sonnets were not a misrepresentation of black voice. Instead, for McKay, “[i]t is the layering of vernacular and Standard English, not the choice between them, that we find…The formal intricacy of McKay’s poems depends on the use of dialect” (757). Hunter praises McKay for his manipulations for the sonnet with “modernist innovation” (583), but, through his criticism, continues to laud the dialect poem as the only valid means of expression for the Caribbean poet. Rather than further discussing McKay’s dialect poems—which were originally produced under the insistence of a white benefactor to fit narrow ideas of black voice—it is the Standard English poems that warrant a closer look. Although Hunter outlines McKay’s manipulation of standard form, he comes just short of fully engaging with everything McKay accomplishes through inhabiting the space between configuration and liberation in his Standard English sonnets.
Looking specifically at the poem “Jasmines,” the subject, in conjunction with the specific instances in which the form is adhered to and not, converses with the sonnet’s expectations in order to write back to imperial tradition from a uniquely Caribbean perspective that does not rely on dialect’s easy signifiers. The fifteen-line sonnet first published in 1921 goes:
Flora, like that in “Jasmines,” holds a long tradition in post-colonial writing, native species being a clearly distinctive feature between colonized and colonizer countries. Flowers, specifically, are commonly used in response to European literary traditions, often in relation to Wordsworth’s daffodils in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” which children across the British empire were required to memorize for school, despite having no daffodils in their own countries (Reiss 180-182). Claude McKay’s Jamaica would have been among the colonies under a standardized British educational system subject to memorizing Wordsworth. In an immediately post-slavery Jamaica (around 1834 to 1838), education was the intended mechanism for relieving fears about the sudden departure of slavery’s controls and the ensuing destabilization of Caribbean society; it was a way to maintain social control and preserve the plantation and plantocracy. In the 1860s, the British government reformed Caribbean education to include The System of Payment by Results, where schools only received funding if they passed standardized examinations, often characterized by rote memorization (King). Especially considering that standardized examinations are built around the notion of right and wrong, forcing school children to memorize European cultural norms for basic funding functioned to create a European center for what was correct and normal, in effect marginalizing colonies as spaces of difference and otherness.
This system of colonial education is the center piece to post-colonial arguments like those put forward by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin in their seminal work The Empire Writes Back. “[T]hrough the literary canon,” they argue, “the body of British texts which all too frequently still acts as a touchstone of taste and value, and through RS-English (Received Standard English), which asserts the English of south-east England as a universal norm, the weight of antiquity continues to dominate cultural production in much of the post-colonial world” (6). Kamau Brathwaite also points to a standardized British educational system as a form of everyday colonial life that requires literary “nation speak” to respond to England throughout his “History of the Voice.” The sonnet and its descriptions of British flora become the expected norm for poetry, art, and culture. Even in countries whose speech did not imitate iambic pentameter and whose landscape did not resemble rolling hills of daffodils, British colonies were placed in a cultural other, as taught in their own schools and internalized through mandatory memorization.
All of Wordsworth’s poem follows a perfect iambic tetrameter consisting of eight syllables alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables. McKay’s poem, on the other hand, continuously interrupts his iambic pentameter of ten syllables alternating between unstressed and stressed. Notably, most of these interruptions occur with lines containing the word “jasmines,” which he positions in ways that encourage trochaic (stressed then unstressed), anapestic (unstressed, unstressed, stressed), and dactylic (stressed, unstressed, unstressed) patterns all in one phrase (lines 3, 9, 14).
The only quatrain, in fact, where McKay employs continuous, uninterrupted iambic pentameter is in the third. Beyond adhering to iambic pentameter, this quatrain also departs from the very subject of jasmines and instead delves into a description of cold climates uncharacteristic to the Caribbean. Walt Hunter, in his analysis of the poem, considers the English sonnet “the ‘cold place’ where McKay’s jasmines should not be able to bloom—and yet, paradoxically, the only place they can” (582). However, the quatrain in full iambic pentameter’s departure into England’s cold climate aligns the perfect sonnet form, and, by relation, England itself, with that which is not hospitable to Caribbean identity. The jasmine is not present in “the street … wet and weird with snow,” “weird” functioning to reverse colonialist discourse and to other the colonist’s climate. Instead, the poem finds its resolution “here,” where the jasmines grow, in the final couplet. McKay re-centers poetic discourse from England to the Caribbean and finds luxury not in the culture of the empire, but in the make-up of the colonies’ own defining attributes.
The poem, in turn, transforms the assumed story of a lover scented by jasmines into a recasting of finding one’s identity in a colonized space. Especially in the context of a colonialist education system which forced rote memorization of English poetry, the line crossing the first two quatrains, “Your face was in the mirror. I could see/You smile and vanish suddenly away” (“Jasmines”) comes to define the poem’s purpose. As with Homi Bhabha’s evaluation of colonialist discourse from the 1980s, mirrors have an important colonial distinction (29, 33) since the colonizer forces its cultural image onto its colonies and tries to recreate their mirror image overseas. In “Jasmines,” the mirrored face asserts questions of colonial identity caught between its native land and an invading foreign culture. “Your face” is what “I could see” in the mirror, skewing clear-cut definitions of the self. However, the you in the poem is also inextricably tied to the idea of jasmines and, by extension, the Caribbean. The speaker is overwhelmed by their scent before their face vanishes in the second and third quatrains to be replaced by a British storm, leaving the author’s own face “sad [and] suffering from parting grown so dear.” Despite speaking as a Caribbean writer, McKay projects the Caribbean as a lover, rather than the self, whose voice is drowned out by the colonist’s “mad roar,” emphasizing the struggle to perpetuate cultural identity in a colonized space encouraged to mirror far-off daffodils. While the lover’s physical face may be lost, their scent remains in the room, growing and luxuriant.
“Jasmines” may be a reflection of the colonialist poetic constraints found in the sonnet, but it rejects a full mirror image, and goes beyond an expected Caribbean voice by manipulating the sonnet form. Rather than writing Jamaican dialect or black dialect or following modernist trends, McKay engages with the sonnet just enough to highlight his minute deviations and thus give them added significance. The criticism that McKay faced both during his lifetime and concerning his legacy afterwards unfairly holds McKay up against narrow ideas of “nation speak” as the only means of conveying colonial subjecthood when, in practice, this often became means to goggle at the voice of an “other” contrasting a received European norm. Additionally, the Caribbean is a corner of the world whose islands changed European hands continuously throughout their histories and were, additionally, subject to African, indigenous, and North American influences. To say that McKay needed to speak for one, correct identity in his poetry would have been a misrepresentation of the Caribbean in and of itself by creating a generically “other,” unindividualized voice whose defining characteristic was merely opposing the European standards learned across the empire. McKay’s choice to speak through and manipulate the sonnet was thus a better illustration of a multicultural Caribbean identity than would have been possible through adhering to his dialect poems through the entirety of his oeuvre, despite the praise he received for this earlier style.