10 of the Best Claude McKay Poems

Below, readers can explore ten of the best poems written by Claude McKay. He is known today for his work written during the 1920s that expressed a unique perspective—that of a Black man in America, during that time. 

Best Claude McKay Poems Visual Representation

Claude McKay was one of the most influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance in America and in the broader literary world in the 1920s. He authored books including Songs of Jamaica, Harlem Shadows, and Selected Poems. 

Best Claude McKay Poems


To Winter

‘To Winter’ is a love letter to the cold winter months. The speaker mourns the arrival of spring and begs winter the stay. He grew up in a warm climate, something that makes him long for the cold. This poem can be compared to other pieces that take a different approach, like ‘The Tropics in New York.’ Here are the first lines: 

Stay, season of calm love and soulful snows!

There is a subtle sweetness in the sun,

The ripples on the stream’s breast gaily run,

The wind more boisterously by me blows,


If We Must Die 

If We Must Die’ by Claude McKay is a powerful poem advocating for courage and the will to fight back. It is addressed to the Black community. The poem begins with the speaker addressing Black Americans, telling them they need to avoid the fate of hogs. He, along with the rest of the Black community he’s speaking to, are not going to let themselves be torn down or slaughtered. They are going to protest the historical and contemporary racial and social injustices and fight for a better life for themselves. Here are a few lines: 

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,


America 

America’ explores the complicated relationship that the poet had with America. He balances the idea of loving and hating the United States. McKay explores the good parts of the country, the strength and vigor it contains, as well as the bad (the examples of racism). Here are a few lines: 

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.

Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,


The Tropics in New York 

This beautiful poem is about homesickness. The speaker begins by describing ripe and unripe bananas, avocados, and more that he saw being sold by a street vendor. They remind him of his homeland, Jamaica which is so very different from New York City. His body was starving for his home, the poem concludes, bringing him to tears. Here are a few lines: 

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,

      Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,

And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,

      Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,


Subway Wind 

Subway Wind’ is a lyrical poem about a personified wind’s longing to escape a subway tunnel. Its moaning drowns out the sounds of children laughing as it longs for an escape from the cityscape. It’s seeking a new world, one that’s filled with nature and freedom. Here are a few lines: 

Waiting for windy waves the keels to lift

      Lightly among the islands of the deep;

Islands of lofty palm trees blooming white

      That led their perfume to the tropic sea,


The Snow Fairy 

The Snow Fairy’ by Claude McKay contains two sonnets with similar imagery— that of a snowfall and a lover. In the first, he compares the snowfall to “snow-fairies.” They are fighting for supremacy in the sky and then resting peacefully on the ground. He imagines “you,” an unknown listener and the speaker’s lover, coming to him and bringing warmth and summer into his home. Here are a few lines from the second sonnet: 

And suddenly my thoughts then turned to you

Who came to me upon a winter’s night,

When snow-sprites round my attic window flew,

Your hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light.

My heart was like the weather when you came,

The wanton winds were blowing loud and long;


Harlem Shadows

Harlem Shadows’ by Claude McKay is a powerful poem that depicts sex workers in Harlem during the 1920s. The poem describes female prostitutes who work throughout the night. The poet paints a dark picture of this occupation and a sympathetic one of the women who are having to make money this way. Here are a few lines:

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass

In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall

Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass

To bend and barter at desire’s call.


After the Winter

This piece describes an idealized future that is going to occur when winter is over. The speaker is going to be able to turn toward a summer landscape and forget about the past. He’ll find peace there, with everything that one could hope to find in the natural world. Here are a few lines: 

Some day, when trees have shed their leaves

     And against the morning’s white

The shivering birds beneath the eaves

     Have sheltered for the night,


The Spanish Needle 

This is a nostalgic poem that looks back on a speaker’s childhood. In the stanzas, the speaker asks the Spanish needle, a type of plant, if it remembers him during his youth. This example of apostrophe leads the speaker to discuss other images from his youth. Here are the first lines: 

Lovely dainty Spanish needle

         With your yellow flower and white,

Dew bedecked and softly sleeping,

         Do you think of me to-night?


The Harlem Dancer 

This well-loved poem explores a dancer’s inner world and the dignity with which she carries herself. The poet uses a few examples of figurative language to describe her movements, comparing her to a palm tree during a storm. As the poem progresses, the poet spends time describing the audience and their red, drunk faces and then brings in his speaker’s opinion. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes

And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;

Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes

Blown by black players upon a picnic day.

She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,


FAQs 

What is Claude McKay known for?

Claude McKay was a Jamaican-born poet and novelist. During his lifetime, he wrote numerous important and groundbreaking works of literature that exposed readers to the struggles of Black Americans in the 1920s.

Why did Claude McKay go to Harlem?

Claude McKay moved to Harlem in order to be closer to the literary center of the United States during the 1920s. While there, he solidified his reputation as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Where was Claude McKay born? 

Claude McKay was born in Clarendon, Jamaica. After publishing his first book of poems, he moved to Harlem in New York City, New York. It is there that he wrote many of his most important literary works.

What are some of Claude McKay’s most famous poems?

Claude McKay was one of the most influential figures of Harlem Renaissance in America. Some of his most famous poems includes ‘America,’ ‘Enslaved,’ ‘Subway Wind,’ ‘Harlem Shadows,’ ‘If We Must Die,’ ‘To Winter,’ and ‘The Harlem Dancer.’

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Best Claude McKay Poems Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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