Claude Mckay still speaks today: Teaching new lessons to a new generation

I told myself that I wasn’t going to do another spoken word poem for class after my two week special. But I think there’s something important about how spoken word as a genre deals with social injustices. So as I read the amazing and powerful sonnets of Claude McKay, I found myself reminded of the poem “Sons” by Terisa Siagatonu and Rudy Francisco. Today, I’ll be discussing “Sons” and McKay’s “The Lynching.”

Both of these poems deal with issues plaguing the culture of the time and how it is passed on through generations. McKay deals with how lynching was both commonplace and a terrifying reality in his life. Francisco and Siagatonu take up the issues of rape culture and victim blaming present in many aspects of American culture today. Although they deal with similar issues of race and injustice in the world, the two poems are vastly different. McKay makes us of the traditional sonnet form, using a familiar style in contrast to the horrors he depicts to unsettle the reader. The poem “Sons” is spoken word, which is often used to deal with issues of social justice. As the poem goes on Francisco and Siagatonu grow louder and more impassioned, bringing the listener in emotionally.

The use of children and the idea that cultural injustice is passed on through teaching is present in both. McKay finishes his poem with the lines “And little lads, lynchers that were to be, / Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.” McKay contrasts the image of children dancing with the awful truth that lynching has already been ingrained into them as both acceptable and fun. Likewise Francisco and Siagatonu say that “Rape culture is the worst kind of teacher our children are learning the most from.” Broken ideologies are not passive. They are actively taught by authorities, parents, and news outlets. Francisco and Siagatonu mirror the idea McKay puts forth, that racism and injustice are not merely symptoms, but lessons taught and learned. Perhaps in reading and listening to these poems, we can learn that although injustice still remains in the world today, it is possible to correct the lessons being taught to the next generation, and instead teach them justice.

 

If you don’t read H.D. after a bad breakup, you’re doing it wrong.

Last spring, I got dumped. It was pretty bad. Last spring I also took a Survey of American Literature class. It was pretty rad. Although we never covered H.D. in class, my curiosity had me looking for awesome female poets in the anthology. I stumbled upon H.D. by chance (As it was intended, the acronym had me unsure about H.D.’s gender). I read her poem “Eurydice” and fell in love. Then I read as much of her poetry as I could get my hands on, finally writing a paper on her for the class. H.D.’s poetry is excellent, but it’s hard to articulate how much “Eurydice” echoed with me without remembering the bittersweet sorrow of a terrible breakup. So with that in mind, this week I want to talk about “Eurydice” and the song “Manhattan” by  Sara Bareilles. Take a listen, and stay with me. It’ll be worth it.

H.D. defined the imagist movement. She didn’t start it, but scholars agree that she embodied it. It is impossible to read “Eurydice” without imagining several of the intense images H.D. evoked in her writing. I especially enjoyed her use of the idea of both a breaking rock and a blooming flower near the final stanza:

hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

The contradictory images of breaking and blooming echoes the paradox of the entire poem: Life in death. H.D. gives a voice to Eurydice, and in doing so creates a speaker who once held out hope of returning to life, but when she is let down by her love, instead turns the situation around. Eurydice says she is more happen in Hades than she ever would have been if she returned to life with Orpheus. The images are striking. Eurydice is flourishing in the land of the dead, which is broken before her spirit. She turns the pain and torment of death into joy and growth.

The song Manhattan doesn’t mirror the mythic theme of Eurydice, but the emotions of the two works are similar. Eurydice begins in sorrow and eventually grows into self-empowerment. Manhattan remains sorrowful, but holds out hope towards the end of the song. One of the starting images of the song, reminds me of H.D.’s imagist style.

I’ll gather up the avenues
And leave them on your doorstep
And I’ll tip toe away
So you won’t have to say
You heard me leave.

Again, two close but different images dominate. The first, of the speaker physically gathering the streets, as if they were something to be held and moved, is beautiful in the depiction. Then the image of sneaking away echoes the secretive nature of the speaker’s leaving. She does not openly return the streets, or leave while saying goodbye. This is a private and lonely retreat, but obviously a heartbreaking one. The speaker of Manhattan, like H.D.’s Eurydice, does not want to leave the ideal land. But both eventually come to find that their new locations, the West Coast and Hades respectively, are better places for them. The “you” of each poem, the implied man who has hurt the speaker, is left in the place of origin, but despite sorrow, both women come out stronger for leaving and being satisfied.

The poem and the song are starkly different is many ways, but both use images to portray the loss of love and how it is possible to grow stronger through such loss.

I’m sorry T.S. Eliot, Humor Poetry wins today

This blog post is dedicated to my best friend Sara, who has spent a good portion of her life having emotions about T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland. (But I’m not talking about The Wasteland.)

One of my first interactions with T.S. Eliot outside of a classroom setting was in John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars. During the novel, the main character Hazel goes with her boyfriend, Augustus, to Amsterdam. On the airplane, she reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” much to the amusement of Augustus, who is not literarily minded at all. The poem plays a small part in the book, but it made me smile to see one of my favorite Eliot poems in popular young adult fiction. (Then I cried, because that book is sad.) The point is, despite Eliot’s high class writing, his poetry is still approachable today.

And then I discovered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Capslock” by Aaron Belz. And it is magnificent.

The way in which Belz writes both as a tribute to Eliot but still manages to poke fun at Eliot’s high strung style and content is masterful in a playful way. Where Eliot writes pages of precise craft with copious footnotes for the less educated reader, Belz jumps right into the current dialect of the internet and texting age, appropriating Eliot’s character as lost and confused in an afterlife for the present age. The complete contrast of language between the two poets leaves me wondering at first if they even should be compared. And then I chuckle again at Belz and know that the humor alone is worth the comparison.

Eliot is know for his complexity, verbosity, and the fact that no one can really figure out what exactly The Wasteland means. His knowledge and ability to make allusions to literally anything and everything is part of what sets him apart from other poets. Reading Eliot without footnotes is just a bad idea. So to read Belz portraying Eliot in such a simple manner, with language and content that a sixth grader would have a perfect grasp of, is a refreshing and humorous contrast. It feels a little rude to say that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Capslock” has won my affections for the day, but really, I’m still giggling at how excellently opposite of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” it is.