Original Criticism

Christian Reed: On "The Fish"

 “The Fish” refuses to be caught. This poem seems, on some fundamental level, irreducible to any one interpretation, “high-sounding” or otherwise. It functions as an embodiment of the poetic that cannot be collapsed into the conceptual, the philosophical, the arguable. “The Fish,” as such, functions as an exemplary poetic utterance. Attempts to reduce this utterance to the easily comprehensible always produce some remainder, always admit some error that allows “The Fish” to swim away with the bait.

Formally, as many critics have noticed, Moore’s “Fish” is very striking. The poem is composed of eight stanzas, each of which (1) has five lines, and (2) follows the rhyme scheme a a b b c and (3) the syllable count 1, 3, 9, 6, 8. This triple-mark of order is not immediately apparent; the reader’s first glance at the text suggests the disorder of lines at radically different lengths and pervasive enjambment. However, while reading, the sense of the pattern nonetheless gradually suggests itself – an experience that, as many critics, beginning with Wallace Stevens, have noticed, mimics the sensible apprehension of waves on the sea. Each stanza, like a wave, builds (in the first two lines) and breaks (in the second two), giving way for the one that follows (and repeats the same cycle). In this way, we get a poetry in which the structure of the lines, their inherent rhythm, lines up their descriptive content perfectly. The force of this utterance, under this kind of reading, derives from the special conjunction between the poem’s formal structure and the substance of its descriptions.

Although this reading of the poem does account for a measure of the poem’s power, and is important to understanding how the poem works (read, in the terms of “Poetry”: makes itself useful), “The Fish” cannot simply be reduced to this gloss. The attempt to apply this interpretive scheme to the poem inevitably produces some significant remainder, some inassimilable poetic material. For instance, the c is a recurrent remainder: if the stanza derives its structure from the wave, building (a a) and breaking (b b), the presence of the last line (c) is systematically ignored, discarded, thrown back. If the wave-like rhythm of “The Fish” marks its poetry, then the c is excluded from this poeticism. The c, of course, is a homophone for “the sea” – the very name of the image the c is being excluded from. The site of exclusion, of the remainder, then, covertly names that from which it is barred, and hence names this act of exclusion as such. The formalist reading of the poem also has no place for the title, which (as in William Carlos Williams’ “The Yachts”) is made to function as a semantic unit within this poem: “The Fish” “wade / through black jade,” (1-2). The title, then, also is a manifest remainder, an element of the poem reduced or excluded in the act of explaining the poem.

Another provocative reading of “The Fish” finds it to be “a poem about injury of wholeness, resentful but resigned deprivation,” a poem saturated with “a sense of infringement, violation, and injury,” (Hadas, MAPS). This reading embraces the poem as “the work of a thirty year old woman whose rather unnervingly cool sympathies lie with a battered and violated nature.” However, this pessimistic reading also produces a significant remainder. The critic propels herself into pessimism by reading the image of “the / turquoise sea / of bodies” (16-18) as a phantasmal image of the water an overfull grave (also as in Williams’ “The Yachts”), so that the sea is “not deliberate, not playful; not an expansive sea…” This reading captures some of the power of this image, but at the expensive of its true richness. The “sea / of bodies” seems not only to be an image of death, but also an image of flourishing, thriving, healthy life – an image supported by the emphasis on light and the play of illumination in the preceding lines:

The barnacles which encrust the side 

of the wave, cannot hide 

there for the submerged shafts of the


split like spun

            glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness

            into the crevices – 

in and out, illuminating


turquoise sea 

of bodies. …                        8-18

The “sea / of bodies” is not only a collection of physical remnants forsaken by death, but also a profusion of living, moving, embodied creatures. And so, once again, the poetic language of “The Fish” is compromised, reduced, exploited, by explanation.

This, of course, is not to say that no attempt at explanation should be made. It is more to say that many attempts should be made, that no one attempt to render - in conceptual, philosophical, arguable, language - the power of the poem can function perfectly, can avoid leaving behind some significant remainder, can avoid performing some uneasy motion by which “The Fish” manages to slip away.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

Elaine Oswald and Robert L. Gale: On "Marianne Moore's Life and Career"

She was born Marianne Craig Moore in Kirkwood, Missouri, the daughter of John Milton Moore, a construction engineer and inventor, and Mary Warner. Moore had an older brother, John Warner Moore. She never met her father; before her birth his invention of a smokeless furnace failed, and he had a nervous and mental breakdown and was hospitalized in Massachusetts. Moore's mother became a housekeeper for John Riddle Warner, her father, an, affectionate, well-read Presbyterian pastor in Kirkwood, until his death in 1894.

Heather Zadra: On "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria"

If "The Bitter River," written at a time of disillusionment for Hughes in the early '40s, suggests no lasting vision of mass revolution, "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" demonstrates a point in Hughes' career when such possibilities seemed not only feasible, but likely. I'd like to add to Shulman's observations about the poem's last "Christmas Card" section which, as he points out, takes on similar subject matter and tone as the later "Goodbye Christ"--the section that fully acknowledges his hope for an emerging revolutionary "salvation" which, Shulman also notes, presents communism as a new "religion" in itself. Let me start by talking about how Hughes tries to draw a revolutionary response from the oppressed subjects he writes about.

The entire piece, of course, works as a stinging social commentary on the "fruits" of capitalism--the satiric descriptions of the "swell board," the "Apartments in the Towers," the "undercover driveways," all of which are paid for by "the men and women who get rich off of [the poor's] labor." Hughes intends every bit of the poem's inflammatory tone. His representation of an utterly hypocritical yet heretofore unaccountable "upper crust" targets as its audience not only the rich and privileged within the capitalist system, but also those whose indignation is most warranted: the potentially powerful, dynamic "mob," those hit hardest by the Depression or other circumstances who have the potential to effect real change. Though Hughes divides this "advertisement to action" into distinct sections, addressing the "Hungry Ones," "Roomers," "Evicted Families," and "Negroes" alike, the penultimate heading, "Everybody," unites them in a common cause. The implicit threat--the possibility for strength in numbers--that exists in organizing those who should be able to "draw" their *own* "dividends," rather than reliquish them to the ones "who clip coupons with clean white fingers," can be seen in the class juxtapositions satirically offered throughout the poem.

The unseen observer-speaker presents a stark realism in conjunction with the absurdity of "Tak[ing] a room at the new Waldorf," "choos[ing] the Waldorf as a background for your rags," and inviting black Harlem to "Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea." Certainly the most invasive image for the privileged readers against whom the poem is directed would be that of "Mary, Mother of God . . . turned whore because her belly was too hungry to stand it any more" birthing her child in a "nice clean bed" at the Waldorf (though, as Shulman notes, critics of the later "Goodbye Christ" overlooked this seemingly volatile image). What does Hughes intend with these improbable juxtapositions? The image of an oppressed poor enjoying the luxuries of the rich they support, perhaps even spoiling or remaking those goods, "de-sophisticating" them (as the Harlem mob "shak[ing] hips" at the Waldorf would change the tenor of the dance, and the soiled bedclothes of the new Conception would literally and spiritually dim all surrounding grandeur), works as an intentionally threatening vision of unified change, one which foresees a *new* "background for society." Class lines are simultaneously blurred and reinforced through this technique; the reality of a capitalist nation sharpens those lines (imagine what would happen if black Harlem really *did* come to the Waldorf to dance), while the potential for a Communist future erases them, bringing the destitute within reach of what has long been their due.

The conversational, yet bitingly sarcastic, tone of the speaker's voice--juxtaposed with black vernacular under the section entitled "Negroes"--comes to its peak in "Christmas Card," the final stanza of the poem. Here the speaker of "Goodbye Christ" is, in some sense, born, rejecting the "old" Christ and offering himself as the new secular Messiah ("Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-- / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME--"). The "new born babe" wrapped "in the red flag of Revolution" will start anew for a better cause, minus the capitalist "baggage" associated with the former Savior: "nobody's gonna sell ME / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire." This child, too, must be born in "the best manger we've got" right now, the finely wrought arches of capitalism--but arches, the speaker hopes, that the child will one day perhaps demolish or appropriate for different uses.

The speakers sees a new day dawning, and the "Christmas Card" attempts to send a powerful message of potential redemption and rebirth to those who would receive it--the decision must be to "follow him" or, more broadly, to follow the revolutionary impulse.

Copyright ©  2001 by Heather Zadra

Yi-ling Lin: On "The Yachts"

In this poem, Williams utilizes a yacht race to indicate the lack of class mobility in American society and the wide gulf that exists between upper and lower classes. He presents a picture in which the yachts survive stormy waves and keep on entering races without taking note of the large number of people who fall into the sea and struggle to clutch at the prows of the yachts. The “well made” smooth indestructibility of the yachts suggests how difficult it is to redistribute the social resources between the rich and the poor. The drowning scene further suggests that any attempts at social equality would be futile.

Luxurious yachts are symbolic of the rich at leisure. Williams describes how the yachts are surrounded and followed by both larger and smaller craft, each sycophantic and clumsy by comparison. The rich occupy a similarly sheltered and enviable position in society, their power and wealth insulating them against bad weather.

In contrast to the leisure that the rich enjoy, the crew—representatives of the working class—takes care of these toys of the rich, crawling over them “ant-like, solicitously grooming them” (line 10). In fact, the dockworkers found in any marina and the crew of these yachts are only two representatives of many groups of people in the working class that is referred to as “the biggest hulls” (4). That these people’s lack of wealth and privilege leads to insecurity is suggested by the scene in which the sea that devours even the biggest hulls is unable to harm the yachts. The sea “tortures the biggest hulls,” sinking them “pitilessly / Mothlike in mists” (5-6). But when the waves strike at the yachts, “they are too / well made, [and] they slip through” (23-24). Even if the poor were to seek to seize some resources from the rich, they are doomed to failure: the yachts would relentlessly “cut aside” their bodies (26). Finally, the corporeal fragmentation of the poor in the last three stanzas merely highlights their weakness and their failure to protect themselves or to survive.

Vivienne Koch, who interprets the yachts in this poem as a symbol of beauty or the ideal, believes that the treatment of the yachts and the biggest hulls as representing the rich and the poor respectively would be “misleading” (76). She suggests that reading literary texts produced in the 1930s as having social consciousness may be an overgeneralization; although the economic depressions in the 1930s that widen the financial gap between the rich and the poor make many writers devoted to social issues, it does not necessarily follow that Williams’ “The Yachts” is one of these literary endeavors. However, in his 1981 biography entitled William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, Paul Mariani bases his exploration on Williams’ correspondence with Ezra Pound and indicates that the problem of class distinction in American society was indeed Williams’ concern when he wrote “The Yachts.” According to Mariani, when Williams saw America’s Cup yacht races in 1935, he was reminded that the privileged class of yacht owners is actually small and that they are supported by a large group of poor people (370). While such historicizing may not be essential when reading literary texts, I contend that in this case it is useful: Mariani’s historical analysis presents solid evidence that counters Koch’s reading. Indeed it is Mariani’s reading which best accounts for the paradoxes in the poem. For instance, the paradox that the sea that destroys even the biggest hulls yet fails to shatter the yachts suggests that the signifiers of the biggest hulls and the yachts have other signifieds than the crafts per se. Interpreting the biggest hulls and the yachts as representing the poor and the rich respectively is, I believe, a valid reading based on the main source of inspiration of the poem: Williams’ reaction to the America’s Cup race in 1935.

Works Cited

Koch, Vivienne. William Carlos Williams. The Makers of Modern Literature. Norfolk: New Directions, 1950.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Yachts.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 192-93.

Copyright © 2006 Yi-ling Lin

Christian Reed: On "The Yachts"

In 1955, Williams folded into a file a set of notes containing the following gloss of “The Yachts”: “It is a false situation which the yachts typify with the beauty of their movements while the real situation (of the poor) is desperate while ‘the skillful yachts pass over.’” On one hand, this information helps readers tremendously; it supplies them with a rubric for understanding the relationship between the two very different scenes depicted in this poem (one is “false,” one is “real”). This is useful: the problem presented by these two seemingly irreconcilable scenes is an obsession in the criticism surrounding this poem – it is “the problem with interpreting ‘The Yachts,’” “a tactical difficulty” that produces “intense confusion for the reader” (MAPS: Schneider and Sullivan, respectively).

On the other hand, however, if Williams’ gloss solves one problem, it raises (at least) two new ones. First, Williams’ use of the words “false” and “real” is very puzzling; it seems much easier to attach the signifier “real” to Williams’ description of the yachts and the race (a description, Mariani maintains [MAPS], that derives from Williams’ first-hand witnessing of a “real” yacht race in 1935), and similarly easier to consider the scene of the dismembered and entangled mass of “watery bodies” to be “fantastic” - that is, to be “false” in some sense of the word. Williams’ explanation, then, leaves us with the difficulty of sorting out what he means by its two most important words. Secondly, the explanation itself takes on a rather odd form, as a sentence; the oddity of this convoluted statement is amplified by the fact that Williams is a poet who often achieves poetic effects through the economy of his language (as in “The Great Figure” or “The Red Wheelbarrow”). This too, I think, presents an interesting problem for the critic responding to “The Yachts.”\

I want to begin with the second of these problems, which I believe will in relatively short order lead us to the consideration of first. The oddity of Williams’ explanation lies in its apparently needless repetition: he describes the “false situation” embodied in the spectacle of yacht race, then the “real situation (of the poor)” registered by the “Broken / beaten, desolate” bodies in the water (30-31), and then the spectacle of the yacht race again. Williams’ explanation is structured as if three things were happening simultaneously (X “while” Y “while” Z), though in fact, he is describing two simultaneous events in a redundant way (X “while” Y “while” X). Although this strategy makes little sense on the level of meaning, it is comprehensible as a kind of performance; this sentence, we might say, stages the drama of containment (or perhaps, more literally, of circumscription, of writing that produces a boundary around something). Y – “the real situation (of the poor)” – is concealed within, contained on both ends by X – the “false,” though thoroughly distracting, vision of the “skillful yachts.”

“The Yachts” itself enacts a similar circumscription in its opening stanzas: “an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses / tortures the biggest hulls, the best man knows / to pit against its beatings, and sinks them [that is, the yachts] pitilessly” (3-5). The phrase about what “the best man knows” is confusingly interpolated into the middle of a set of words about the savage (“ungoverned,” “pitiless[]”) power of nature. As such, these lines seem to call attention to the fact that even “the best man” is contained (like William’s notes in a folder); the poem enacts this sense in the literal circumscription of the phrase “the best man knows…” by the descriptions of the overwhelming power of the sea, of nature.

Besides these two instances of what I have been calling “circumscription,” Williams employs the more general motif of containment frequently in “The Yachts”: the sea is contained by land (“a sea which the land partly encloses,” 1), the sea is also contained by watchful guardians (“a well guarded arena of open water surrounded by / lesser and greater craft,” 13-14, this phrase is almost another instance of circumscription with “well guarded arena” and “lesser and greater craft” paradoxically enclosing “open water”). The middle part of the poem works hard to cast the yacht race as playing out the victory of man over the brutal force of nature (“the waves strike at them but they [the yachts] are too / well made, they slip through,” 23-24); however, by noticing these multiple layers of containment, the elaborate construction that goes into staging this dramatic triumph, we can see that victory is only possible if man picks his battles very carefully. How then does this small and very expensive victory acquire its significance, it sublimity, for the watcher? This significance arises by way of another instance of containment – that is, because the spectacle takes place “in the mind” of the spectator.

In this poem, Williams demonstrates the power of the mind to produce (through acts of repression, forgetting) some cultural object as pure or natural; the yachts are described as “live with the grace / of all that in the mind is fleckless, free and / naturally to be desired,” (16-18). This majestic vision of the yachts, however, is available only by rather large acts of mental repression; the suffering that permeates much of the social field must be ignored. Roland Barthes, in his discussion of “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies, finds that wine can become an “unalloyedly blissful substance” for the French public only if they “wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation,” an issue of violent colonial oppression in Algeria (60-61). In very much the same way, the perception of the “skillful yachts” is available only through the “wrongful forgetting” of the capitalist exploitation that underwrites it.

However, Williams not only demonstrates the power of bourgeoise mythology, he also demonstrates the mind’s power to recover, through the action of the imagination, a sense of reality. This sense of reality is reinstated through powerful representations of what has been lost or rendered unavailable through these acts of primary repression. This is what is being performed through the intense language and imagery of the closing stanzas (“Arms with hands grasping seek to clutch at the prows…” 25). In this way, although a direct apprehension of reality is simply not possible because of a repressive filter that has been installed (through ideological apparatuses, etc.) in the individual subject, some approximation of the “real” (a “real” that discovers the apparently real to be “false”) is nonetheless shown to be salvageable through the work of the informed imagination.

Copyright © 2006 by Christian Reed

John Claborn: On "Mulatto"

A Comparison of Langston Hughes’s “The Mulatto” and Claude McKay’s “Mulatto”

Reading McKay’s traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes’s open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet’s formalizing force. Consider Hughes’s “Mulatto” (1927) and McKay’s earlier 1925 sonnet, “The Mulatto.” Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes’s “Mulatto” embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is “mulatto” in form as well as content. McKay’s raging sonnet could not be more different: in tapping the “white” tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet’s iambic pentameter, a b a b c d c d e f e f g g rhyme scheme, the poem at first seems constrained and less formally inventive than Hughes’s. Although McKay’s black voice singing in a borrowed white key is in a sense “mulatto,” its unambiguously raging tone and the sonnet’s overall worldview of warring, “unreconciled” binaries—love and hate, black and white, kill or be killed—follow a logic of synthesis that significantly differs from Hughes’s jazzier mix of poetic voice.

Initially, Hughes’s poem seems to break down into three voices (father, son, and an elusive third voice) that cut in and mutually interrupt each other, causing abrupt shifts in style and tone that, in the end, disarticulate voice from identity. In the opening lines, the son asserts his mulatto identity and pleads for recognition from his white father. The unnamed son’s address to a generic “white man” suggests that his voice oscillates between the particular and the general, between the son as individual and the son as representative of all mulattos:

I am your son, white man!


Georgia dusk

            And the turpentine woods.

            One of the pillars of the temple fell.


                        You are my son!

                        Like hell!                                    (1-6)

Instead of immediately giving us the father’s response to his son’s accusatory plea, the poem then shifts to an “objective,” racially unmarked voice that describes the natural setting of the “Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods” (2-3). While this three line interpolation give us terms—dusk and turpentine—that signify nature’s own color-mixing of night and day, it also folds back in on the father-son dialogue and naturalizes the supposed unnaturalness of racial mixing. Some of these more descriptive lines show nature as constantly commingling: the night is full of mulattoed “Great big yellow stars” (10) and mixed smells: “The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air” (18). The fourth line’s mysterious reference to a partially ruined temple—only “One of the pillars of the temple fell”—disrupts our expectations about the action’s geographical location in Georgia: where are there temples in Georgia? Given Hughes’s concern with ancient Africa/Egypt in “Negro” (1922) and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), the temple obliquely evokes these ancient ruins, thus interjecting into the poem a subtle yet trans-historical, trans-geographical twist: a collapsing of distance in space and time. This third, descriptive voice, seemingly transcendent, then hovers over the father-son dialogue throughout the rest of the poem. As the poem unfolds, it deconstructs itself. The father’s voice becomes more ambiguous, making it difficult to discern his from the son’s. His initial response to and denial of his son—“You are my son! / Like hell!”—inadvertently betrays some level of recognition that begins to destabilize the father’s identity. When the father asks, “What’s a body but a toy?” (11), the abrupt shift to a macabre jingle about bruised black bodies suggests that another unidentified voice answers the father’s question, though presumably in a way that would be satisfactory to the father:

Juicy bodies

Of nigger wenches

Blue black

Against black fences (12-15).

Perhaps as a surging up of the father’s and son’s mutual unconscious, a memory triggered by the “Sharp pine scent in the evening air” (22) mentioned later, these lines return the poem to the primal, traumatic rape scene of the son’s conception. Yet even as the father repeats his question, implying an association of the female black body with mere toys, this voice of the unconscious interpolates another song:

A nigger night, 

A nigger joy,

A little yellow

Bastard boy            (23-26).

The “joy” both folds back on the night of conception—the rape of the mother-toy—and plunges forward into the mulatto “Bastard boy,” thus forming a toy-joy-boy rhyming constellation. The playful tone of the songs and the toy-joy-boy rhyme suggest that the father’s feelings towards his son vacillate, thus defusing any straightforward rejection, even if lines like “Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white” imply such a rejection (36-37). Unlike the speaker in McKay’s poem, who sets out to murder his father, the problem for Hughes seems to involve mutual recognition, or rather a conscious recognition of an unconscious recognition—an overcoming of a repressed recognition that the white father must feel at some level. The poem’s unrecognizable form, too, demands recognition from readers more familiar with conventional forms like the sonnet. Although the poem ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the son to continue his pleading, its mix of mutually haunting voices at least implies that some kind of reconciliation is possible. In McKay’s “Mulatto,” the father-son forces cannot be reconciled or rescued by the identity-vertigo induced by the work of interpolation in Hughes’s poem. Hughes’s poem may sit more comfortably than McKay’s with those who value becoming and ambiguity, fluidity, and the interconnectedness of all things which, in turn, supposedly corresponds to a socialist-democratic politics of pluralism and openness. McKay’s poem, on the other hand, challenges us to rethink this melting pot ontology of becoming and its political efficacy, to think a world where reconciling might mean murdering. In its blunt acceptance of violence, the poem is Fanonian decades before Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to overthrow colonial regimes:

Because I am the white man’s son—his own,

Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,

I will dispute his title to his throne,

Forever fight him for my rightful place. 

There is a searing hate within my soul,

A hate that only kin can feel for kin,

A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,

And spurs me on increasingly to win.

Because I am my cruel father’s child,

My love of justice stirs me up to hate,

A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,

When falls the hour I shall not hesitate

Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife

To gain the utmost freedom that is life.

While a number of words in Hughes’s text are “marked” as mulatto (dusk, turpentine, yellow), for McKay, the mulatto mark is a birth-mark owned by the white father, suggesting an irremovable blemish or stain on racial purity, the manifestation of the white man’s shame that the mulatto must “bear” for his entire life. At the same time, the physicality and undeniable there-ness of the “birth-mark” testifies against the white father’s absurd denial of his son, allowing McKay to bypass the problem of recognition altogether (a bypass also implied in the recognizable sonnet form). Instead of mutual recognition, there is mutually violent rejection: the speaker-son first fantasizes about regicide—“I will dispute his title to his throne” (3)—before turning in the final lines to a more detailed scene of patricide. The “searing hate” (3) that burns in the son’s soul also gives him a coherent identity and vitality that makes him “vigorous and whole” (5). The speaker again qualifies this hate that “spurs” by asserting its origin in a “love of justice” (8), suggesting that his acute awareness of the gap between justice and reality fuels his anger. “[L]ove of justice” also differentiates the son’s hatred from his father’s, an arbitrary hatred that makes him abandon and oppress his own son.

With the son’s reference to himself as a “child” in the first line of the final sestet, McKay sets up an oblique revision of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael drama that caps off the poem. “A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled” invokes not only the Biblical but also the Qu’ranic stories of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and his slave, Hagar. In the Biblical version of the story, God establishes his covenant with Abraham’s younger legitimate son, Isaac, and ostracizes Ishmael: “He shall be a wild man; / His hand shall be against every man, / And every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Ishmael plays a more positive role in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. Indeed, Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, are equally prophets (217), charged with the task of building the Ka’bah at Mecca: “We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves” (17). If we combine this positive appraisal of Ishmael with the biblical one, then my argument that McKay substitutes Ishmael for Isaac in the final lines becomes plausible. Unlike the passive Isaac, who unknowingly awaits his execution at the hands of his father, the rebellious Ishmaelite son “shall not hesitate / into [his] father’s heart to plunge the knife” (12-13). It is important to note that the moment of reversed sacrifice is suspended indefinitely: “When falls the hour,” the speaker says. The sonnet does not occur within the moment of violence, but rather in the anticipatory resolve or readiness for some future violence.

Obviously, if the solution to injustice that “The Mulatto” proposes (i.e. patricide) were carried out, such a gesture would be, in the grand scheme of white-dominated capitalism, useless. Given McKay’s involvement with Communism, both in his stint as assistant editor for the leftist journal The Liberator and in his grand tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, there must be some other way, some alternative to father-son quarreling or to-the-death knife-fights. One such answer is hinted at in the suspended act and implicit attitude towards futurity of the line “When falls the hour.” While the violence of “The Mulatto” is direct and uncompromising, such violence is also deferred and thus remains open to the coming future.

Copyright © 2007 John Claborn

Joshua Eckhardt: On "The Negro's Tragedy"

[Textual note: “The Negro’s tragedy” was first published without this title in the July-August issue of The Catholic Worker, where it is followed by “I turn to God for greater strength to fight” and “Around me roar and crash the pagan isms”.]

“The Negro’s Tragedy” is an identity politics poem par excellence—complicated by the Christology that McKay develops throughout The Catholic Worker sonnets. The speaker feels the “Negro’s tragedy” and wants to heal “his pain” in the first quatrain. In the second, such positive declarations give way to exclusionary ones: whites are excluded from the “Negro’s ken,” or point of view.

Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white

    Can penetrate into the Negro’s ken 

                        (“The Negro’s Tragedy” ll. 5-6)

A second qualifier in addition to race has slipped in here: “Only a thorn-crowned Negro”. This direct reference to the suffering Christ, mockingly crowned king of the Jews by Roman soldiers, draws from a later moment of Christ’s ministry than does “Look Within.” Indeed, Christ’s ministry is all but over, and his Passion well underway, by the time he is beaten before Pilate. And it is just such a suffering Christ whom the “Negro” must follow, for McKay, if he is going to “penetrate” his own “ken,” or understand and correct his own social position.

In the sestet, the “white man” is again excluded, here from writing McKay’s book, which is “shot out of my blood.”

So what I write is shot out of my blood.

    There is no white man who could write my book

Though many think the story can be told

    Of what the Negro people ought to brook.

Our statesmen roam the world to set things right.

    This Negro laughs, and prays to God for Light! 

                            (“The Negro’s Tragedy” ll. 9-14)

White men cannot do McKay’s writing for him. Nor can they rightly perceive the “Negro’s tragedy” and the way it needs to be answered. One wonders just how sweeping a critique this is: how many are the “many” who think they can tell the story of the “Negro’s tragedy”? There were of course many white antiracists on the left—and in the Catholic Worker movement; to how many of them does McKay’s critique apply? The second to last line may invite a sigh of relief after this uncertainty when it specifies the offending parties as “[o]ur statesmen.” If this can be taken as a specification of all of the whites earlier in the poem, then the target of this sonnet is no wider than that of “Look Within”—the U.S. government in its official ineffectiveness. But of course, there is no strictly linguistic reason why the subject of line 13 should modify the parties excluded from the “Negro’s tragedy” earlier in the poem. And there is even less historical/political reason why it should, given McKay’s regular boldness in critiquing those on the left who would be, and often were, his allies.

In the last line, the ineffective statesmen and the misunderstanding whites are laughed off as”[t]his” “thorn-crowned” “Negro” “prays to God for Light!” This “turn to God”—to take the words of the sonnet that follows this one in The Catholic Worker—participates in a move McKay made in a much earlier sonnet, the 1919 “To the White Fiends.” After turning racist associations of blackness and savagery against racists, "To the White Fiends" also asserts the unmistakably black speaker’s direct access to God. The result is that whether the "white fiends" subscribe to the confused notions of black savagery in the first half of the poem, and/or the vaguely Christian framework in the second, they are restricted from their own ideological apparatus. In the second half, the speaker claims that the "Almighty" has created the former’s soul out of "darkness" and set him on earth to be, paradoxically, a light.

But the Almighty from the darkness drew

My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light

Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,

Thy dusky face I set among the white

For thee to prove thyself of higher worth;

Before the world is swallowed up in night,

To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth! 

                            (“To the White Fiends, ll. 8-14)

But “To the White Fiends” is freeze-framed at creation: the originary moment in which the Almighty creates the speaker and bespeaks his special purpose to him. “The Negro’s Tragedy” is set later in such a speaker’s life: corresponding to the late point in Christ’s Passion when the speaker shares Christ’s crown of thorns but, knowingly and triumphantly, laughs and prays to God for light (cf. the “dark Passion” in the 1921 “The White City,” l. 6).

The combination of this crown of thorns and confidence in prayer does not only develop McKay’s earlier religious imagery; it heightens the distinction between his religious imagery and Langston Hughes’. One could say that Hughes’ “Christ in Alabama” wears the same crown of thorns that McKay’s 1945 Christ-figure does, since the “beaten and black” moment of Christ’s life was endured with a crown of thorns. In other words, like “The Negro’s Tragedy”, “Christ in Alabama” refers to a crucified Christ.

Christ is a nigger,

Beaten and black.

O bare your back! 

                (“Christ in Alabama,” ll. 1-3)

Both Hughes’ and McKay’s American Christ-figures are unmistakably black. The provocative implication Hughes makes by re-setting the holy family in the American south of the Scottsboro trial is that “in Alabama” only “a Nigger” can play Christ’s role, because only s/he participates in such suffering. In part, this is precisely what McKay says in this later sonnet: “Only a thorn-crowned Negro and no white / Can penetrate into the Negro’s ken.” But Hughes’ rendition of the black Christ is more exclusionary because it implies that only a “nigger” can follow Christ, at least “in Alabama.” McKay’s version says nothing about the ability of others to follow Christ, but he makes clear that, in order to “penetrate the Negro’s ken,” “[o]nly a thorn-crowned Negro” will do.

A more substantive difference between McKay’s and Hughes’ Christ-figures is forced by the third stanza of “Christ in Alabama.” After successfully appropriating the Christian imagery that too often was used to justify racism, Hughes goes on to identify Mary with the “Mammy of the South” and God the father with a “White Master.” In re-casting the holy family as the illegitimate family of the slave plantation, Hughes goes too far to unproblematically maintain his appropriation of Christianity. This is because in the first two stanzas, racists are confined to the italicized third lines, responsible for persecuting Christ and Mary and so cut off from them. In the third stanza though, the role of God the father is reserved for the “White Master”:

God’s His Father—

White Master above,

Grant us your love. 

                (“Christ in Alabama” ll. 7-9)

If the first stanza of the poem effectively steals Christianity away from racists, this third stanza would seem to give it right back, insisting that at least “in Alabama” mastery is synonymous with whiteness and that, as one of the master’s tools, Christianity always already serves the “White Master.” Colored in this way, the holy family does far more political harm than good. If both “Christ is a Nigger” “in Alabama” and God his father is a “White Master,” then not even God’s son can access him without reinscribing the illegitimate family structure of the slave plantation.

McKay’s “thorn-crowned Negro” “prays to God for Light,” on the other hand, without being troubled by Hughes’ pitfalls. This is as true of McKay’s early poems, such as “To the White Fiends” and “The Lynching,” as it is of the later ones. McKay never concedes Christianity or any other religion to racists, neither by coloring God nor by any other means. The difference between McKay’s early and late religious sentiments can be seen more clearly vis-à-vis “Christ in Alabama.” McKay’s early religious sonnets never achieve the specific shame and suffering of Christ, as Hughes so perfectly does in “Christ in Alabama.” In “The Negro’s Tragedy,” McKay approaches the force of “Christ in Alabama” much more closely: here McKay’s “Negro” is identified with the suffering, “thorn-crowned” Christ. The difference is that McKay’s Christ-figure can still laughingly pray to God. If Hughes’ Christ were to try to do that in Alabama, he would find himself quite forsaken, and probably starting the horrible poem over again with the white master cursing, “O, bare your back!"

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt

Nilay Gandhi: On "The Lynching"

"The Lynching" speaks to the cultural cancellation of the African-American race in the 1920s. Its form is a striking variation on the Italian sonnet. Much of the Italian sonnet's aesthetic appeal is its ability to go slowly, cruise the reader through a description and then a calm conclusion, in contrast to the quick abab rhymes and epiphany of  the final couplet (gg) in a Shakespearean (or the variant Spenserian) sonnet. Accordingly, the octave in this poem follows the traditional Italian form, rhyming abbacddc. The concluding sestet breaks form, rhyming effegg. The embedded third quatrain makes the poem mimic a Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet). Because of  this formal duality, it might be difficult to call "The Lynching" Italian or Shakespearean; the key is the poetic pace -- the reflective tone is more indicative of an Italian sonnet and so the poem can be primarily characterized as such. It largely follows the Italian rhyme scheme but has Shakespearean organization.

The Italian form rhetorically draws out both quatrains, forces the reader to mull over the event and not get caught up in verse. The octave's slow pace works well in describing the lynched man and his death. Line four, "The awful sin remained still unforgiven," is end-stopped with a period. Thus, we have the slight pause of the line's end together with  the full stop, a longer caesura. This technique is repeated in the second quatrain, and in the third with a semicolon. These "hypercaesurae," caused by combining natural rhythmic breaks and punctuation, allow us to read the quatrains independently. The reader is forced to consider each quatrain for a moment, and then move on with the poem. We are made to read and evaluate simultaneously.

The first eight lines offer a description of the lynched man's general oneness with the night, Heaven, and his own culture. In line one we see him ascend to Heaven. In the second quatrain, the "bright and solitary star" (5) may represent the North star which slaves were told to follow when running away from their masters, "Perchance  the one that ever guided him" (6). The use of "ever" would suggest a universal  struggle for the African-American, positing this early 20th century lynching as a remnant of slavery itself. While this content offers an interesting notion of the separation between the blacks' heritage and whites' continuous present (always existing in the domination of  a moment), it is all again intensified through form. The two-line space between the primary rhymes (aa and cc) adds pause to the hypercaesura, poignantly draws out each image, and heightens the despair.

The subject of the poem is hanged at night and related to the star that does not shine during the day. The relation between the man and night is emphasized at the poem's ninth line, the traditional turning point (volta) in an Italian sonnet. The sestet opens with "Day dawned" (9). The new day occurs simultaneously with the introduction of  "the mixed crowds [that] came to view" (9). We have, therefore, a juxtaposition of the unnatural and the natural: death/night against life/day. Whereas the octave describes logistically unreal events of a spirit's ascension, the sestet focuses on the tangible and earthly. The speaker creates a disparaging oneness between the racist and the  world. It is not only that these people are evil but that the world itself is evil. While the women's eyes in line 12 may very well be blue, the introduction of the day suggests an implicit parallel between the eyes and the color of the sky, between the racist and Nature. It is a hyperbole meant to demonstrate the power of the lynchers, that they could even control the uncontrollable. The body is "ghastly" (10) and later it is a "dreadful thing" (14). It loses any sense of human identification. Contrastingly, the crowds seem normal; the speaker offers no negative description through line 12. Lynching becomes not only  accepted but natural.

This is why McKay breaks the Italian form. The added quatrain and lengthened pauses have us pensively consider the descriptions. The couplet is a way of saying nothing that preceded it makes sense. In describing the children as "fiendish" dancers (14), the lynchers are at last presented as wholly evil and so Nature and Fate (7) are evil.  Through the dominance of a people, whites dominate the order of things. The redemption the man receives in the afterlife, a parallel drawn between the lynched and the Holy Spirit (1) and his dead father and God (2), combines with the rest of the poem to provide a political statement: the oppressor may own the world but the oppressed are the children of God. The final couplet negates the black race's societal worth. The children are born with evil spirits, "lynchers that were to be" (13). Unlike McKay's "The White City" which presents economic problems that can be fought, the link between the racist and the world in "The Lynching" demonstrates how ingrained racism is in the  American society. It leaves no hope outside of the afterlife. Racism is the greatest of all troubles, as natural as the day; one so rooted in the culture that the blacks cannot overcome it. They are the hopeless.

Copyright © 2003 by Nilay Gandhi

Joshua Eckhardt: On "The Lynching"

“The Lynching” opens with the ascension of the victim’s “Spirit” to his “father” in “high heaven.” It continues in this vein to offer what most readers (including McKay himself) would consider a patently inadequate explanation for the lynching:

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.

His father, by the cruelest way of pain,

Had bidden him to his bosom once again; 

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 1-3)

God the father himself has called the victim to heaven. While this religious account of lynching may explain the roles of the victim and his heavenly father in the event—and do so to the frustration of the lynchers—it does not explain away the lynching itself; it does not alleviate the guilt of the lynchers. Indeed, the poem continues to affirm their guilt and to deny them any means of forgiveness: “The awful sin remained unforgiven” (l. 4). This effectively refuses lynchers any access to the divine-human relationship highlighted in the opening lines. The force of this line draws on the conventional association of lynch victims with the crucified Christ, made explicit in Countee Cullen’s book jackets and Langston Hughes’ “Christ in Alabama.” This association is hinted at in the opening lines, which sound rather Christian with the father welcoming the son ascending, &c. But the association between the lynch victim and Christ is even more central when the analogy would seem to break down in line 4. If “[t]he awful sin remained still unforgiven,” this is not simply because, unlike the crucifixion, the lynching is not adequate to atone for sins. Line 4 is quite clear that the lynchers’ sin is not forgiven by any means, Christ’s crucifixion included. Neither the lynch victim’s nor Christ’s murder is capable of forgiving unrepentant lynchers, viewing the body without sorrow, dancing around it in glee. They remain unforgiven.

In so far as “The Lynching” refuses racists any access to God, it participates in the same move made in the second half of “To the White Fiends.” After turning racist associations of blackness and savagery against racists, “To the White Fiends” also asserts God’s particular love for the persecuted African American before his enemies. The result is that whether the “white fiends” subscribe to the confused notions of black savagery in the first half of the poem, and/or the vaguely Christian framework in the second, they are restricted from their own ideological apparatus. In the second half, the speaker claims that the “Almighty” has created the former’s soul out of “darkness” and set him on earth to be, paradoxically, a light.

But the Almighty from the darkness drew

My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light

Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,

Thy dusky face I set among the white

For thee to prove thyself of higher worth;

Before the world is swallowed up in night,

To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth! 

                            (“To the White Fiends” ll. 8-14)

The speaker only needs to answer this divine commission, and the savage fiends of the first half of the poem will have to run from his divine light. Understandably, this is a more optimistic ending than that of a poem about lynching. In “To the White Fiends,” whether the speaker emphasizes his African lineage or his divine favor, he promises to confront the white fiends with forces inaccessible to them. “The Lynching” cannot be so optimistic. The lynch victim has clearly not been kept from the savagery of the white fiends by either “Afric” or “the Almighty.” And so, to continue reading “The Lynching” in terms of “To the White Fiends,” God has lost another light, as the world is increasingly “swallowed up in night.” In other words, as the victim’s spirit departs from the world in “The Lynching,” it would seem that the divine light of “To the White Fiends” departs with him. Indeed, in the second quatrain of “The Lynching,” the only light is far above the earth.

All night a bright and solitary star

(Perchance the one that ever guided him,

Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)

Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char. 

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 5-8)

The rest of the poem is dominated by the unrepentant on-lookers who ensure the lineage of white fiends:

The women thronged to look, but never a one

Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue.


And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

                            (“The Lynching” ll. 11-14)

These generations of lynchers would seem to have defeated both the African and the religious forces brought against them in “To the White Fiends.” The divine light that God set aggressively upon the earth in “To the White Fiends” has given the lynch victim over “to Fate’s wild whim.” And God is reduced to a father welcoming his returning son far off.

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt

Joshua Eckhardt: On "Look Within"

The first sonnet McKay published in The Catholic Worker–"Look Within" (in the January 1945 issue)—is a prayer for strength to speak out against "the Fascist yoke / Of these United States" during its accordingly hypocritical war against European fascism (ll. 5-6). It offers an intriguing counterpoint to another poem on World War II (published four and a half years earlier) by Edna St. Vincent Millay, McKay’s partner in revamping and de-romanticizing the English sonnet tradition, whom he met in France after his trip to the Soviet Union. The occasion of "I Forgot for a Moment" is the speaker’s brief forgetfulness of the struggles in Europe, a lapse in political consciousness. "I forgot for a moment," her speaker admits, "France; I forgot England; I forgot my care:"

I lived for a moment in a world where I was free to be

With the things and people that I love, and I was happy there.

I forgot for a moment Holland, I forgot my heavy care. 

                                    ("I Forgot for a Moment" ll. 1-4)

The trouble for McKay’s speaker, on the other hand, is not being distracted from Europe by the fantasies possible in relatively peaceful U.S. conditions, but just the opposite: being distracted from U.S. fascism by the less immediate European variety.

The prayer performed in the opening five and a half lines of "Look Within" ends referencing fifteen million other prayers, those of the "fifteen million Negroes [who, like the speaker] on their knees / Pray for salvation from the Fascist yoke of these United States" (ll. 4-6). The speaker’s prayer then merges with these fifteen million others. This nation-wide chorus of praying voices gains strength when—in the next line and across "two thousand years"—Christ’s voice is added to it.

                                        Remove the beam

(Nearly two thousand years since Jesus spoke)

From your own eyes before the mote you deem

It proper from your neighbor’s to extract! 

                                    ("Look Within" ll. 6-9)

The critique leveled at the hypocritical, fascist U.S. is straight from the gospel (Matthew 7:4-5; Luke 6:41-2). While the poem’s last lines are freer interpretations of the New Testament (Matthew 23:27-8), they continue employing this method of denouncing U.S. foreign and domestic policy in the words of Christ.

    But Jesus said: You whited sepulchre,

Pretending to be uncorrupt of sin,

    While worm-infested, rotten through within! 

                                        ("Look Within" ll. 12-14)

Here again it is Christ’s voice, joined to the prayers of the sonneteer and fifteen million of his contemporaries, that most vehemently accuses the U.S. of large-scale, hypocritical, and downright sinful, racialized fascism. "Look Within" initiates a strategy that McKay develops throughout the twelve sonnets that he published in The Catholic Worker—the last published during his lifetime—of welcoming Christ as his political ally, indeed as his loudest and most subversive fellow agitator.

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt