There are two striking qualities in Claude McKay’s poems. The first is, ironically, a lack of what is usually considered “poetry”, or at least the elements typically associated with poetry. McKay employs rhyme and iambic pentameter in his work, and this structure enforces the poetic aspect. Nonetheless, the content is very much like prose; there are no real subtleties of meaning, and the literary allusions he uses are direct and straightforward.
The second is his unvarying impact. McKay writes not only as an African American, but as an African American who is completely and irrevocably disgusted by how his people have been treated in the United States, and how this has translated to degradation beyond the country. The poems are nearly violent in their rage and despair, either calling for action or dreaming of the day when real justice levels the playing fields of this life and the oppressor, the white man, sees all his hateful civilization go up in smoke.
Given this emphasis, McKay’s work holds a unique place, even within African American verse. If these were not presented as poems, they could be easily interpreted as rallying cries, or even political speeches on the order of Malcolm X. This is what gives them real value, however. Because his intense and angry work, as in “Enslaved” and “Tiger”, are both written in classic, poetic form and offered as nothing but poetry, they exist as poetry. In another context, McKay’s verses would be inflammatory and outrageous intents to incite action; as put forth as poetry, they are instead the extreme frustration’s of one black man’s soul.
The poem “Enslaved” is very brief. It is, in fact, only fourteen lines, which is the classic sonnet length, and this gives it additional power. As the subject is a fierce raging at injustice, the sonnet structure serves to render it as a striking contrast from what is usually associated with a sonnet: love, romance, and gentleness.
It is also, and necessarily, a one-note song. This is essential; there is no room to develop a theme, but only to present a single cry, or expression of thought. McKay’s work here is interesting because he presents this expression almost as a literary “aside” in a drama; there is, in fact, a Shakespearean passion to the language which, in combination with the sonnet form, adds to the effect. He has one thing to reveal, or confess, and he does so because the thing demands expression.
The sentiment is simple: disgusted at the thought of how long African Americans have been maltreated, he wants his disgust to be known. This disgust is not limited to the history of any one place; it is “the great life line of the Christian West” that has forever demonstrated injustice and oppression. Moreover, he refers to how such universal maltreatment has even denied the African American the home he once knew: “And in the Black Land disinherited/ Robbed in the ancient country of its birth…”. It is hard to conceive of a more complete destruction of a race, than that which obliterates even its original home.
In a sense, McKay’s words do not call for any response. He is not out here to generate rebellion. As he presents the living scenario, it is too late for that. Only divine justice can set the scales right again, when the “white man’s world of wonders” is utterly crushed.
Interestingly, “Tiger” is as equally angry as “Enslaved”. The tiger, it is made clear from the start, is the white man, and the metaphor is unambiguous; he is eagerly drinking the blood of the black man from his throat. As short, also, as “Enslaved”, composed in only fourteen lines as well, “Tiger” delivers a similar, single-minded blow.
What renders it different is that there is no expectation of hope, even in the violent form of divine wrath settling the score. “Tiger” is more prosaic than that. It is also global; “New systems will be built on race and hate/ The Eagle and the Dollar will command…” In McKay’s vision, the economic power of America will encourage the world to continue in the profitable exploitation, and eventual destruction, of the black man. This will not change because, as the last line states, the tiger must always feed.
This poem, however, allows for some interpretation. That is to say, the anger of it notwithstanding, it is less a crying out against racial injustice than an acknowledgment of how power always rules, no matter the horrors involved. It could be argued, despite McKay’s evident pain, that he understands that the tiger is only doing what it must do. It is the nature of the beast, and this possibility of meaning defies judgment.
In these poems, it becomes evident how poetry can be both reflective of actual experience in a removed way, yet also express nearly political convictions. “Enslaved” and “Tiger” are extreme verses, but they are, first and foremost, poetry, and that is what must define them. In another context, McKay’s poems would be inflammatory and outrageous intents to incite action; as put forth as poetry, they are instead the extreme frustration’s of one black man’s soul.