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Complete Poems

Complete Poems

by William Maxwell, Claude McKay

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Containing more than three hundred poems, including nearly a hundred previously unpublished works, this unique collection showcases the intellectual range of Claude McKay (1889-1948), the Jamaican-born poet and novelist whose life and work were marked by restless travel and steadfast social protest. McKay's first poems were composed in rural Jamaican creole and


Containing more than three hundred poems, including nearly a hundred previously unpublished works, this unique collection showcases the intellectual range of Claude McKay (1889-1948), the Jamaican-born poet and novelist whose life and work were marked by restless travel and steadfast social protest. McKay's first poems were composed in rural Jamaican creole and launched his lifelong commitment to representing everyday black culture from the bottom up. Migrating to New York, he reinvigorated the English sonnet and helped spark the Harlem Renaissance with poems such as "If We Must Die." After coming under scrutiny for his communism, he traveled throughout Europe and North Africa for twelve years and returned to Harlem in 1934, having denounced Stalin's Soviet Union. By then, McKay's pristine "violent sonnets" were giving way to confessional lyrics informed by his newfound Catholicism.

McKay's verse eludes easy definition, yet this complete anthology, vividly introduced and carefully annotated by William J. Maxwell, acquaints readers with the full transnational evolution of a major voice in twentieth-century poetry.

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
American Poetry Recovery Series Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Complete Poems

By Claude McKay, William J. Maxwell


Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-02882-3




    Agnes o' de Village Lane

    Fancy o' me childish will,
    Playin' now before me eyes,
    Sadly I remember still
    How much once your love I prize',
    As I think o' you again,
    Agnes o' de village lane.

    In de school-room worn an' old
    Fus' I saw your pretty smile,
    Heard your footsteps firm an' bold,
    Loved your face so free o' guile,
    An' your soul so clear of stain,
    Agnes, Agnes o' de lane.

    Oh, I suffered much for you,
    For dey t'umped an' beat poor me
    Tell me skin tu'n black an' blue,
    Tryin' ef day could part we;
    But we closer grew we twain,
    Heartful Agnes o' de lane.

    Little love t'oughts o' me breast
    I wrote by de tin lamp's light:
    P'raps dey were not of de best
    (Bunny showed me what to write),
    Yet you never would complain,
    Easy Agnes o' de lane.

    But dere came de partin' day,
    An' they took me from you, dear,
    An' de passion died away,
    But de memory was there:
    Long you've lingered in me brain,
    Plump-cheeked Agnes o' de lane.

    A'ter many a weary year,
    Sad, sad news o' you I heard,
    News dat brought a scaldin' tear
    At de sound o' every word;
    An' my mind, filled wid disdain,
    Grieved for Agnes o' de lane.

    Agens o' de lane no more,
    For you went away, my pet,
    Agnes once so sweet an' pure,
    To a miserable deat';
    Oh, de 'membrance brings me pain,
    Fallen Agnes o' de lane!


    Sweet Times

    Jes' do'n de track ya, me Partie, oh hush!
    Jes' right do'n deh under dat jackna-bush,
    Come, come, me Partie, widout eben fear,
    For not a def man caan' trouble we here.

    Here where de pimenta grass lak a mat
    Lay do'n so lebel an' bloomin' an' fat,
    We'll hab a sweet chat: dear, why hesitate?
    Dere's no one home, an' no reason to wait.

    Wha' mek you actin' so bashful te-day?
    Ma gone to meetin' an' pa is away;
    All de long evenin' is fe we alone,
    Let's mek de most o' it 'fo' it is done.

    Partie, you' kiss come to me somewhat cold,
    Favour you don't lub me now as of old;
    I wonder what you t'ink 'tis I've done strange
    Dat can now cause you de old ways fe change.

    Ef you don't lub me as fus' time again,
    Tell me de trut' eben though it gives pain;
    For, oh, my darlin', I'd reder it so,
    More than to think I am forcin' on you.

    Say dat, me Partie, you still hab a dread?
    How can you ever at all be afraid?
    Under dis bush we can never be seen.
    'Sides I'm a big gal now, over sixteen.

    Ah! now me feel dat you lub me, my Part!
    Press me jes' tight, tighter yet to you' heart!
    Oh! could you know all de lub, all de bliss,
    Dat come to me t'rough your hug, t'rough your kiss!

    While I sit here leanin' glad on your breast,
    Watchin' de grassy-bird fly to its nest,
    Look how de black shadows softly 'long creep,
    Silently passin' to deir well-earned sleep.

    But me I would sit 'douten one t'ought o' bed,
    Long as I hab you to fingle me head:
    Ah! de sweet trimblin' dat runs t'rough me frame
    When you jes' kiss me an' whisper me name!

    Partie, dear Partie, mumma wi' soon come,
    So then de last hug an' kiss gi' you' Jum:
    I wonder ef, when we're made one, we two
    Will to each udder for eber keep true.


    De Hailstorm

    We sheltered from de rain, one night,
    Beneat' a spreadin' mango-tree;
    De lighnin' cut shone clear an' bright
    Aroun' me an' me Idalee.

    De darkenin' shadows gathered roun',
    De raindrops fallin' from the sky
    Made patt'rin' music in deir soun',
    While howlin' breezes hurtle by.

    De night grew dark, de rain still poured,
    Our beatin' hearts were filled wid fears,
    An' down below de river roared,
    Her eyes were veiled with mist of tears.

    De lightnin' cut, de t'under rolled,
    She trembled at de dazzling spark;
    Although so wet, we were not cold,—
    Love warmed us, though de night was dark.

    Fiercer an' fiercer waxed the storm,
    I kissed de tears 'way from her face,
    I hugged de loved an' trimblin' form,
    She fluttered in me fond embrace.

    We slid along de sloppy pass,
    De fordin' place was still up high;
    We tried it, but we could not cross,
    I heard her give a smothered cry.

    I took her to some school-friends near,
    De mud-mud slidin' neat' our feet;
    She kissed me, smilin', an' said "Dear,
    We in de marnin' hope fe meet."

    Then to me home near by I ran,
    An' silently crept into bed;
    I slept,—a happy, happy man,
    Wid love-dreams twirlin' in my head.

    An' in de marnin' wakin' late,
    I wondered at de t'ings I saw;
    De place was in a woeful state,
    My mout' was hushed in silent awe.

    Banana trees lay on de groun',
    An' water covered off de plain;
    Whole fields o' yam could not be foun',
    It was a fearful hurricane.

    De mango-tree neat' which we'd stayed
    Was by de lightnin' rent an' torn;
    What might have been had we delayed!
    I shivered in de sultry morn.

    De brilliant sun rose to its height,
    An' looked do'n on de desolate scene
    Half changing in de golden light
    To different shades of blue an' green.

    Since then long years have slipped away,
    But still I look back on de past,
    An' t'ink upon de awful day
    We sheltered from de hail-storm's blast.

    At times I wish de lightnin's stroke
    Had slain us neat' de mango-tree;
    It would be long-time better luck
    For me an' my poor Idalee.


    The Daily Gleaner

    Year o' eighteen thirty-four,
    When the cullud folks be'n freed,
    In dis Island I appeared,
    Furnishin' a long-felt need.
    Jes' a tiny bit o' thing,
    Jes' a tiny bit o' sheet,
    But I'm in de forefront since,
    An' I neber can be beat:
    Read by white man, read by nigger,
    Every day I'm growin' bigger.

    T'rough all sort o' pestilence,
    T'rough de sweeping hurricane,
    T'rough de famine an' eart'quake,
    T'rough de sun an season rain,
    I am climbin' right along,
    O' me kinsmen far ahead,
    An' I mean to keep de front
    Tell our Islan'-wul' go dead:
    Never fearin', climbin' gaily,
    Me Jamaica's leadin' daily.

    I am free from petty strife,
    For de envious I don't care,
    An' I feel so high above,
    Dat I ha' no cause fe fear.
    Kinsmen dear have come and gone,
    I ha' gladly hailed dem all:—
    Climbin' wid unenvious eyes,
    I have watched dem rise an' fall.
    An' continue, each day greener,
    Leadin all—The Daily Gleaner.


    The Christmas Tree

    What a happy band are we,
    Dancin' roun' de Christmas tree!
    De old year is at its close
    An' we know nought 'bouten woes:
    We're as happy as could be,
    Playin' wid de red god-rose.
    Pass de basket over here,
    Pass it quickly, daddy dear,
    Let you' loved May try her chance
    While the udders ha' deir dance:—
    See! a carriage, gals, an' pair!
    I have drawn something for once.
    Bring some fee-fees an' a ball,
    An' some rockets from de hall,

    Bring some candy an' a cake,
    Fetch de toy-boat from de lake;
    From de nurs'ry bring he doll,
    But, mind, don't let baby wake.
    Oh, our hearts are light an' free,
    Dancin' roun' de Christmas tree!
    Such a merry little ban'
    When dere's Christmas time at han';
    Dere are none so glad as we
    In dis gay sunshiny lan'.


    Christmas in de Air

    Dere is Christmas in de air:—
    But de house is cold an' bare,
    An' me wife half paralize'
    Is a-dyin' wid bad eyes;
    Food too is so extra dear,
    An' dere's Christmas in de air.

    Oh! de time is 'tiff wid me!
    Coffee parch up 'pon de tree,
    All de yam-plants tek an' die
    'Counten o' de awful dry:
    Ah, I wonder how we'll fare,
    Although Christmas in de air.

    We no e'en hab mancha leaf
    T'rough de miserable t'ief,
    Not a money fe buy clo'es
    Fe Joanna or fe Rose;
    Dey're so awful short o' gear,
    An' dere's Christmas in de air.

    Dere's me poo' wife sick in bed
    An' de children to be fed,
    While de baby 'pon me knee
    Is as hungry as can be
    Ah tough life, so cold an' drear!
    Yet dere a Christmas in de air.

    Wuk is shet do'n 'pon de road,
    An' plantation pay no good.
    Whole day ninepence for a man!
    Wha' dah come to dis ya lan'?
    Lard, I trimble when I hear
    Dat dere's Christmas in de air.

    Gov'mint seem no hea' de cry
    Dat de price o' food is high,
    Not a single wud is said
    'Bouten taxes to be paid;
    Same old taxes ebery year,
    Though dere's hunger in de air.

    While we batter t'rough de tret,
    'Tis a reg'lar pay dem get;
    While we're sufferin' in pain
    Dem can talk 'bout surplus-gain;
    Oh me God! de sad do'n-care,
    An' dere's Hard Times in de air.

    But we'll batter on tell deat',
    Holdin' life in desp'rate fait',
    For we're foolish 'nough to know
    Life is but a poppy show;
    We feel glad de end is near,
    Though dere's Christmas in de air.

    O sweet life so sad, so gay,
    Oh why did you come my way,
    All your gaiety to vaunt
    An' yet torture me wid want?
    I'm a-dyin' o' despair
    While dere's Christmas in de air.


    Peasants' Ways o' Thinkin'

    Well, boys, I'm not a gwin' to preach,
    Nor neider mekin' a long speech;
    But only few short wuds fe say
    'Bout pressin' queshtons o' de day.

    I sort a be'n dah wan' fe try
    To put i' in prose cut an' dry,
    But a'ter all a caan' do worse
    Dan dish i' up in rhymin' verse:

    For 'cordin' as i' mighta run,
    It may gie you a little fun,
    An' mek i' nice, fur as nice goes,
    Mo' dan de bare unreadin' prose.

    A t'ink buccra ha' jawed enuff,
    'Bout tekin' duty off foodstuff;
    An as 'tis said de good's fe we,
    Time's come for our talk 'bouten i'.

    We who caan' buy a decent rug,
    But wearin' mostly osnabu'g
    An' caan' put gill by in a pu's',
    Mus' surely know wha' good fe us.

    Seems dat some folkses neber guess
    Dat if de duty is made less,
    On some o' our imported food,
    It would do we piles o' good.

    Dem see we batter t'rough de wul'
    But caan' dive deep do'n in we soul
    Fe read wha' we dah feelin' dere,
    An' all our pain an' all our care.

    Dat poo' gal wid de sickly smile,
    'Pon strugglin' wid her bastard chil',
    Can tell dem how she cut an' carve
    Each week fe mek a shillin' sarve.

    A little cornmeal, little rice,
    A little flour at lesser price,
    Though it be but a fardin' less,
    Wi' help we conquer grim distress.

    Perhaps dem heart would sort o' grow,
    Ef dem could bring demse'f fe know
    Say de young baby in we lap
    Raise 'pon not'in' but cornmeal pap.

    We wouldn' mind ef dem could try
    Mek calico cheaper fe buy;
    Tek duty off o' we blue shirt
    An also off o' we t'atch hut.

    Aldough we cheerful-like an' glad,
    Life well an' bitter, well an' sad;
    So eben when we're mute an' dumb,
    We prayin' hard dat change may come.

    An' yet, dough t'ings might cheaper be,
    Life caan' be much better fe we;
    Jamaica do'n de hill a go,
    An' neber shall be like befo'.

    De pay so lee, boys; an' de wus',
    De shopkeeper so cross 'pon us.
    An' wid dem little trick dem rob
    A fuppence out o' every bob.

    We might no lub de Chinaman,
    An' also de East Indian;
    But of strangers de wus-wus one
    A dat who dem call Syrian,

    Wha sell him goods to Kingston poor,
    Tekin' it quite up to dem door,
    At double too de price or more
    Dey'd get it in a city store,

    Because t'rough circumstances dem' mus'
    De fripp'ries an' de fin'ries trus',
    An' eber after live in fret
    Fe pay off de soul-grindin' debt.

* * *

    To hear in dese ya modern days
    Wha' foreigners think of our ways,
    Is in some fashion reder nice
    An' gie to life a bit o' spice.

    But fe we part we smile to see
    In newspapers wha's said o' we,
    An' things 'bout us in pen an' ink
    Don't show de sort o' way we think.

    For hardly can de buccra find
    What pasin' in de black man's mind;
    He tellin' us we ought to stay,
    But dis is wha' we got to say:

    "We hea' a callin' from Colon,
    We hea' a callin' from Limon,
    Let's quit de t'ankless toil an' fret
    Fe where a better pay we'll get."

    Though ober deh de law is bad,
    An' dey no know de name o' God,
    Yet dere is nuff work fe we han's,
    Reward in gol' fe beat de ban's.

    De freedom here we'll maybe miss,
    Our ol' rum an' our Joanie's kiss,
    De prattlin' of our little Nell,
    De chimin' o' de village bell,

    De John-t'-whits in de mammee tree,
    An' all de sights we lub fe see;
    All dis, I know, we must exchange
    For t'ings dat will seem bad an' strange.

    We'll have de beastly 'panish beer,
    De never-ceasin' wear an' tear,
    All Sundays wuk in cocoa-walk,
    An' tryin' fe larn de country's talk;

    A-meetin' mountain cow an' cat,
    An' Goffs wi' plunder awful fat,
    While, choppin' do'n de ru'nate wood,
    Malaria suckin' out we blood.

    But poo'ness deh could neber come,
    An dere'll be cash fe sen' back home
    Fe de old heads, de bastard babe,
    An' somet'ing ober still fe sabe.

    Now here dere's poo'ness eberywhere,
    But den it's home an' very dear,
    An' dough for years we stay away,
    We're boun' to come back here some day.

    We may n't be rich like buccra folk;
    For us de white, for dem de yolk,
    Da's de way dat the egg divide,
    An we content wi' de outside.

    Havin' we owna mancha-root,
    Havin' we dandy Sunday suit,
    We'll happy wi' our modest lot
    An' won't grudge buccra wha' dem got.

    A piece o' lan' fe raise two goat,
    A little rum fe ease we t'roat,
    A little cot fe res' we head—
    An' we're contented tell we dead.



Excerpted from Complete Poems by Claude McKay. Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

James Smethurst
This is a wonderful book. McKay is a hugely important figure in the development of Caribbean and African American poetry, and bringing his poems together in one place does an invaluable service to readers of all backgrounds. Maxwell's outstanding introduction is the most insightful and cogent critical assessment of McKay's poetry to date. (author of The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946)
Arnold Rampersad
Claude McKay's Complete Poems comes as an invaluable gift to all lovers of McKay, African-American literature, and literature in general. McKay's eminence among poets of the Harlem Renaissance is richly documented in this scrupulous collection. With a lively, always perceptive introduction and meticulous notes, the Complete Poems stands as the definitive gathering of the verse of a writer who saw early the beauty and humanity of the black world at home and abroad. (author of The Life of Langston Hughes and the Sara Hart Kimball Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University)
Mary Helen Washington
William Maxwell's impressive research and brilliant analysis show that McKay's poetry both defined and defied the boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance. A peripatetic poet, social radical, and self- conscious modernist, McKay explored all the ports of the Black Atlantic, repeatedly traveling on political, religious, literary, and sexual journeys. Maxwell's edition of the Complete Poems requires us to rethink not only McKay but all of twentieth-century black poetry. (editor of Invented Lives and Professor of English, University of Maryland, College Park)

Meet the Author

A pioneer of black modernism, Claude McKay's varied and influential books include the poetry collections Harlem Shadows and Songs of Jamaica, and the novels Banjo, Home to Harlem, and Banana Bottom.

William J. Maxwell is an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of the award-winning New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars.


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