Within Harlem Shadows there are two poems that seem to acknowledge the power and emotionally evocative capabilities of poetry. Both “Poetry” and “To a Poet” (appearing next to each other in the original text) serve as McKay’s own textual wrestling with pressures of the literary form in which he wrote. For my purposes in this brief post, I want to look at “Poetry” closely. Within this sonnet, McKay seems to struggle underneath not only his position as a poet, but also worries that the art may work to destroy him. Here he empowers poetry, deifies it, and places his speaker in a supplicant position, displaying the almighty power of poetry and, ultimately, the often powerlessness of its devotees.
I highlight this poem because it seems to initially run contrary to McKay’s own authorial statement. McKay declares in the “Author’s Word” that he is the master of his chosen craft: “I have tried in each case to use the medium most adaptable to the specific purpose” (xix) and later though welcoming of criticism both inside and outside of the field, he assures his readership that he has “always in the summing up, fallen back on my own ear and taste as the arbiter” (xxi). Here McKay privileges his own command over such a “medium”, using it as he sees fit to compose his text. Ultimately, it is up to his own trained ear and taste to determine how, specifically, he will compose a specific poem. Poetry then is an artistic tool at the command of the one who wields it.
Contrast this to the religious overtones that the speaker in “Poetry” crafts around the literary form. For the speaker, poetry is a “blazing light” (5) with “mighty breath” that can sweep one away (7-8). As such, the speaker must approach his deity with trepidation, “bowing [their] head in deep humility / Before the silent thunder of thy [poetry’s] power” (3-4). For the speaker, they must be able to both fear and respect poetry’s ability to create and destroy. Poetry for the speaker becomes the beginning and end of all things. It can not only create and amplify the speaker’s loves, earthly passion and pleasures, but also swallow them completely (9-12). The poem then becomes a devotional piece, a supplication to the “altar-stone of art!” where the speaker must test his passions and pleasures in a literary form of transubstantiation (14). The speaker’s earthly loves, it seems, may either be swept away, judged inferior by the deity, or made holy by its intervention. For the speaker, the agency lies in the mystical medium, not in his own experiences or talent. Here poetry as a creative force is potentially a hazard, a consumptive god that either redeems or destroys
Such an intervention, however, does not seem completely voluntary for the devotee. The speaker trembles, linking their position as a flower helpless before nature’s destructive might: “Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower, / And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee” (1-2). At other moments, the speaker tries to flee, remaining outside of the purview of the blazing and cleansing light of the form (5). The ending couplet of the sonnet places the speaker in a limbo where their very “human heart” will be overtaken upon the altar—sacrificed before the spectacular power that stands in judgment. The speaker’s fear in the couplet is one that stems from not only poetry’s intervention into those elements of the speaker’s life that are deemed “vital worth” (10), but also the devotee’s own lack of autonomy. For the speaker, poetry is as unforgiving as “the specter of pursuing death” (6). Poetry is then a force that creates only when it deems fitting to do so, when the burnt offering at the altar is accepted—it does not care about the intersession of the speaker, their cares or desires. It comes swiftly and leaves the speaker with verse, or it consumes him entirely.
Striking here is contrast between the trepidation that this speaker has as they sit in awe of Poetry and McKay’s insistence of command and control that begins the text. What may help reconcile this difference is the repeated “sometimes” in the poem. Both in the first and fifth lines, the speaker asserts that, even if the process of bowing humbly before the medium may complicate the notion of the speaker’s autonomy, this is a devotion that only happens on occasion. In this light, perhaps McKay’s insistence of control bleeds through into this particular poem. Perhaps sometimes such a “medium” is indifferent, willing to allow the poet to not wait in artistic limbo in some instances allowing itself to work through the poet, while other times it can utterly destroy and consume them. The question then becomes: in what instances does such supplication need to occur and why only sometimes does the medium consume and judge? I think the solution may hide in the following poem, “To a Poet” where the speaker is left not gazing upon a destroyed and heartless devotee to Poetry, but rather left enraptured by their control and power over the medium. For McKay, then, poetry both evokes an emotional response from the readers and also has the ability to consume and distort the poet’s experiences, or works to glorify them completely by relinquishing its godly control over those that pray before the altar for inspiration.