America by Claude McKay balances ideas of loving and hating the United States of America. McKay explores the good parts of the country, the strength and vigor it contains. Yet, he also comments on the ‘bitterness’, violence, and corruption the country is known for. McKay also makes allusions to Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, furthering the idea that America may one day crumble into nothing.
Summary of America
Beginning with what is bad about the country, McKay quickly says that he loves it. The poet understands that it is a country that has a quality that inspires strength and passion, although there are certainly many bits that do the opposite. The poem is at once a critique and a love letter to the United States of America.
You can read the full poem here at Poetry Foundation.
Structure of America
America by Claude McKay is written in a sonnet form, measuring 14 lines with an ABABABABABABCC rhyme scheme. The poet is, according to the sonnet structure, split into three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet. Upon the 8th line, the poem has a Volta, with a slight change in direction appearing in the verse. This further divides the pome into one octave (8 lines) and one sestet (seven lines), denoting the change in direction.
Sonnets are historically associated with love, with McKay using the structure to suggest his love for the country. This comes out further in the poem, with the poet concluding that although brutal, ugly, and difficult, America is a powerful force that withstands time.
Poetic Techniques in America
One technique that McKay uses is oxymorons. He describes America as a ‘cultured hell’, the idea pairing two contrasting notions together. Indeed, although hellish, somewhere difficult to live with serious cultural and political problems, there are also elements of ‘culture’ and structure to the country, McKay insinuating his simultaneous love and hate of America.
Another technique within the poem is using pronouns to denote a change. At the beginning of the poem, McKay uses passive sentences that place ‘she’ as the active force, representing how the world is beating the poet down. Yet, as we progress through the poem, McKay gathers strength, eventually moving to use the ‘I’ pronoun, reversing the earlier notion and finding his feet within the world.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
The opening lines of America focus on the ‘bitterness’ which the country inspires. The daily moments which are horrible, the country being personified and feeding the poet ‘bread of bitterness’. The country is extended into an animal metaphor, ‘sinking into my throat her tiger tooth’, presenting the viciousness of America. McKay focuses on the horrors of the country, the violence, and ‘bitterness’ apparent being a key point of criticism.
The alliteration of ’t’ across ‘tiger’s tooth’ compounds his sense of distaste for America, with the harshness of the words focusing the reader to exhale due to the plosive nature of the sounds. This forceful exhalation is reflecting on the unpleasant side of the country, McKay using semantic choices as a means of reflecting his conceptual opinions.
America quite literally smothers him, being overbearing and unpleasant in ‘stealing my breath of life’. The caesura in the form of a comma after this statement inserts a metrical pause into the poem, McKay representing the loss of breath through this structural manipulation.
The personification of America as a woman is typical, conceptual ideas like countries, the moon, or nature often being depicted as women. The continuous ‘she’ and ‘her’ within these early lines compound this sense of femininity, allowing for a contrast with the poet’s own ‘I’ coming later in the poem.
The beginning of the froth line is incredibly clear, ‘I love’, flowing on due to enjambment from the line before. His abrupt statement is emphasized by the syntactic placement at the beginning of the line, and then is further focused upon due to the ending of the quatrain with a full stop.
The use of ‘cultured hell’, as I have mentioned above in the Poetic Techniques section, is an oxymoron. This relates to the simultaneous horror and brilliance that America encompasses.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
These lines in the poem focus on a more positive side of America, highlighting ‘her’ ‘vigor’ that gives ‘strength’ to her citizens. The interrelation of nature and human further emphasizes the brilliance of America, the semantics of ‘flows like tides’, and ‘like a flood’ relating the strength of America to the power of nature.
The collocation of opposing words, ‘Strength… hate’, suggests the paradoxical nature of America. While on one hand, McKay is arguing that it is a horrible place, dangerous and bitter, he is simultaneously highlighting the strange vigor one gets from living there. This seemingly counterintuitive argument is what McKay explores throughout the poem, both loving and hating the country.
I stand within her walls with not a shred
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Following the two quatrains which detail characteristics of America, McKay now moves to his personal perspective. This is instantly suggested through the use of ‘I’, the poet placing himself at the forefront of discussion and emphasizing his individuality. Although within the country, he can distance himself from its patriotism in order to critique it. The power the country exudes allows him too ‘stand with her walls’ without ‘terror, malice, not a word of jeer’. He presents the idea that living in America has given him courage, enough to look into the ‘days ahead’, understanding that they are going to be difficult, suggested by ‘darkly’. America simultaneously builds McKay up, and tears him down. Yet, no matter the emotion he feels towards America, angry or pleased, he understands that it is a brilliant place, the ‘might and granite wonders’ it holds representing the power and beauty of the country.
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
The final two lines of the poem bare possible allusions to Shelley’s Ozymandias. McKay is suggesting that perhaps these beautiful things that make America so powerful may be lost to time, ‘sinking in the sand’ like the fall of Ozymandias’ statue and kingdom. That poem explores the power of nature, and how it will continue to exist long after humans have crumbled. A similar idea is suggested here, with McKay insinuating that perhaps America’s reign will not last forever, eventually collapsing in a similar fashion to Ozymandias.
The poem is incredibly balanced, at once directly discussing what is terrible about America, while also applauding the strength of the country. Yet, this final image seems to tip the scale, McKay suggesting that what makes the country powerful could eventually fall, leaving nothing but ‘bitterness’.