Dear Readers,

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday Morning Poem: The White House, by Claude McKay

This one's dedicated to the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

The White House

by Claude McKay

Your door is shut against my tightened face,
And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
A chafing savage, down the decent street;
And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
And find in it the superhuman power
To hold me to the letter of your law!
Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
Against the potent poison of your hate.
I love me a nice sonnet.

Claude McKay is one of the handful of awesome Harlem Renaissnce poets who don't get the same fame and fortune of others--the white male rule-makers (see my previous post) likely felt they only had room to "canonize" a few of these amazing writers, so people like McKay and the brilliant Nella Larsen get sidelined.

But this poem is an example of why McKay is so deserving of attention: he uses the tight, constricting sonnet form to mirror its content. The furious narrator trying to use courage and grace to stay within the letter of the white man's law is like his deep expressions trying to fit itself into the white man's form.

Some themes that McKay touches on that are relevant to the stunning Obama candidacy and the ugly side of America it has revealed: the idea of the black man having to contain his anger to stay respectable, the hate emanating from silent monuments like the White House that are meant to celebrate freedom, the white house both symboling the power of the presidency and the power of privilege in general.

I think it's a good point of comparison to both Langston Hughes' "I Too, Sing America" and Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus," the latter expressing Jewish immigrants' rose-tinted view of her new home and highlighting a bit of the difference between the black and Jewish experiences in America.

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