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

Songs of Jamaica (1912): Digital Edition (in progress)

Claude McKay published his first book of poems, Songs of Jamaica, in January of 1912. The book marks the emergence of a formidable and new poetic voice. The title page indicates joint publication in Kingston, Jamaica and London, England. 

Songs of Jamaica is heavily marked by the influence of McKay's mentor, a white Englishman named Walter Jekyll, who some years earlier had published a book of folk stories and dialect poems called Jamaican Song and Story (a nice version of this text can be accessed at Project Gutenberg). Jekyll seems to have had an anthropological fascination with Jamaican patois, and the verses in Jamaican Song and Story use it extensively. According to Wayne Cooper, it was Jekyll who encouraged McKay to use patois in his first books of poems (see Cooper, 27). Cooper also indicates that Songs of Jamaica was likely the first book-length publication of dialect poetry by a black Jamaican writer: "No black West Indian educated in the British imperial tradition had ever before attempted to use a local island dialect as his primary poetic medium" (Cooper, 35). 

One of the peculiarities of Songs of Jamaica is its extensive use of footnoting. Admittedly, it's not entirely clear whether these footnotes were authored by McKay or Jekyll -- or whether they might have been produced collaboratively. Jekyll's preface to Songs of Jamaica is heavy on commentary on Jamaican patois phonology, and Jekyll's earlier Jamaican Song and Story collection has an extensive ethnographic and linguistics-oriented preface by Alice Werner, and the individual "Anansi" stories in that collection have extensive footnoting that bears some similarities to the pattern of footnoting found in Songs of Jamaica. (For example, in Jamaican Song and Story, Jekyll has a footnote for "gully" at the end of "King Daniel" that reads simply as "precipice"; in the poem "Beneath the Yampy Shade" in McKay's Songs of Jamaica, the footnote for "gully" is: "Brook. The word is more generally used in the sense of precipice.") Jekyll's involvement in inspiring McKay's use of dialect and his dominance in the publication history of Songs of Jamaica suggest that the footnotes may have been authored by Jekyll. 

For today's readers, by and large the footnotes might be superfluous, especially to readers with a basic familiarity with the sound and rhythm of Jamaican patois. That said, there are some terms that might be more obscure (i.e., "quattiewut"). Here we have attempted to reproduce all of the original footnotes from the 1912 edition of the text. 

Another intriguing feature of Songs of Jamaica is the dedication page. Songs of Jamaica is dedicated to Sir Sydney Olivier, the Governor General of Jamaica in from 1907 to 1913. Here, McKay alludes to Olivier's support for greater racial parity in the British Empire (Olivier was a well-known Fabian socialist and veteran colonial administrator who had earlier been involved in debates about the role of the British Empire in spreading democracy around the world.) According to Cooper, McKay had actually met the Governor in person in 1911 when the latter visited Walter Jekyll at home.

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