Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Constab Ballads (1912) -- Digital Edition







Claude McKay's second book of poetry, Constab Ballads, appeared in Kingston in November 1912; the version used here bears exclusively a London publisher's imprint. As with his first book, Songs of Jamaica, it consists of poems written using the lexicon and voice of Jamaican patois. Unlike that earlier book, however, Constab Ballads appeared with only a preface by the author himself, and the footnotes to unusual grammatical formulations are considerably fewer in number than in the earlier book (in place of copious footnotes, here McKay includes an extensive glossary). On the whole, Constab Ballads seems to bear less of Jekyll's imprint, and be more clearly the product of McKay's own inspiration and vision. (Another influence on the text might be Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads.)

Claude McKay served as a constable in the colonial Jamaican police force for six months in 1911. He was trained and largely stationed on clerical duty in Spanish Town, west of Kingston, though for some of his duty he was posted in a place called Half-Way Tree. Through the intercession of Walter Jekyll he was relieved of his duty only a few months into his five-year term. Shortly after the publication of Constab Ballads and the death of his mother, McKay would leave Jamaica for college-level study in the United States. That move would lead to major changes in the style and voice of his poetry and prose; among other things, his poetry after 1912 rarely, if ever, used Jamaican patois with anything like the density of this earlier work. (Dialect speech would be important in much of McKay's later prose, especially in novels set in Jamaica such as Banana Bottom.) 

In his Author's Preface to Constab Ballads, McKay indicates that he was not temperamentally well-suited to serve as a constable: 
 
LET me confess it at once. I had not in me the stuff that goes to the making of a good constable; for I am so constituted that imagination outruns discretion, and it is my misfortune to have a most improper sympathy with wrong-doers. I therefore never "made cases," but turning, like Nelson, a blind eye to what it was my manifest duty to see, tried to make peace, which seemed to me better.
Moreover, I am, by temperament, unadaptive; by which I mean that it is not in me to conform cheerfully to uncongenial usages. We blacks are all somewhat impatient of discipline, and to the natural impatience of my race there was added, in my particular case, a peculiar sensitiveness which made certain forms of discipline irksome, and a fierce hatred of injustice. Not that I ever openly rebelled; but the rebellion was in my heart, and it was fomented by the inevitable rubs of daily life trifles to most of my comrades, but to me calamities and tragedies. To relieve my feelings, I wrote poems, and into them I poured my heart in its various moods. This volume consists of a selection from these poems.
While the majority of the poems in Constab Ballads are direct accounts of life as a working police officer, some of the later poems appear to have been written after McKay obtained his release from service (see "Free"). 

Several of the themes of McKay's later poetry can be seen in Constab Ballads. A sentimental poem like "Bennie's Departure" reflect hints of homoeroticism that will also recur in Harlem Shadows, in poems like "The Barrier," and "Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table." Poems like "A Labourer's Life Give Me" have a strong sense of the dignity of clean labor that one also sees in McKay's later communist-themed poetry. The poem "Pay-Day" has references to prostitution that will also be an important part of Harlem Shadows (the same poem hints at a critique of the corrosive effects of capitalism on the lives of working people that will also be a hallmark of McKay's "Workers Dreadnought" poems written a decade later). 

Race-consciousness is not especially pronounced in Constab Ballads, though we do see references to the diverse population of colonial Jamaica in a poem like "Knutsford Park Races" ("Faces of all types an' kinds / Faces showin' diffran' minds, / Faces from de udder seas / Right from de antipodes"). 

It is particularly illustrative to compare the poem titled "Sukee River" that appears in this collection (1912) against a poem with the same title that appears in Cambridge Magazine (1920) and Spring in New Hampshire (1921), after McKay has made the move to the U.S. and has spent time in England with influential Cambridge editors like Ogden Nash. The Constab Ballads version of "Sukee River" is joyous, Romantic, and sensuously embodied, with verses like the following being especially notable for their innocence and eroticism: 

 Kiss my naked breast
   In its black skin drest:
Let your dainty silver bubbles
Ease it of its lifelong troubles,
   Dis my naked breast
   In its black skin drest.


In 1920 in Cambridge Magazine, and then again in 1921, in Spring and New Hampshire, McKay printed a very different poem with the same title, which appears to be almost a lament for the loss of the world represented by the earlier poem: 

Thou sweet-voiced stream that first gavest me drink,
Watched o'er me when I floated on thy breast,
What black-faced boy now gambols on thy brink,
Or finds beneath thy rocks a place of rest?
What naked lad doth linger long by thee,
And run and tumble in the sun-scorched sand,
Or heed the pea-dove in the wild fig tree,
While I am roaming in an alien land?
No wonder that my heart is happy never,
I have been faithless to thee, Sukee River.

In addition to the strong sense of displacement one sees in the 1920 "Sukee River," one can't help but notice substantial changes in diction and voice, even as the poet covers some of the same themes and images from the earlier poem ("What naked lad doth linger long by thee..."). 
 

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  1. "Constab Ballads" Front Piece