Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York”

Claude McKay, a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the poem “The Tropics in New York,” which describes a Jamaican emigrant’s life in New York. The poem, which alludes to a Psalm of David, likens the twentieth-century Jamaican diaspora to the Jewish Exodus. McKay uses specific formal poetic techniques and the quatrain, a classical form, to evoke sorrow and longing for one’s homeland. McKay’s poem is part of a long lineage of poems, and other art, of exile in ‘Babylon’ stretching from the Psalms of David, through the Harlem Renaissance, and including Jamaican Rastafarian song lyrics.

In the 1920s, there was a migration of black Jamaicans to the United States, and, in particular, to Harlem. This wave of immigrants as part of a broader migration, called the Great Migration, was of black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North, such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, and black Jamaicans to the United States and England. The reasons for this migration were economic, but one of the results was a renaissance of the arts, including literature, music, and painting. Because of racism, particularly in Britain, and, perhaps, less so in the northern US, these new black communities were insular, but, yet, could not help being influenced by their new surroundings. There was a tension within these black communities between assimilation and remaining faithful to their native homeland and customs. The immigrants brought their culture with them, and this culture intermixed, to some extent, with the surrounding culture. Also, the more progressive and hip members of the surrounding white communities helped to spread the work of black artists. However, none of this art would have succeeded if the immigrant artists did not first master their craft at the technical level.

The “Tropics in New York” consists of three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of ABAB, and the lines are in iambic pentameter for the most part. It is nearly a sonnet but lacks a concluding couplet. In the first and third stanzas, McKay uses different parts of speech for poetic effect. Consider the parts of speech in the first stanza.

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,

This stanza is mostly a list of nouns. There are a few adjectives, such as “ripe” and “green,” and the last line of the stanza is an adjectival phrase. Despite the paucity of adjectives in this stanza—only one color is explicitly mentioned—a colorful picture emerges. The reader sees an array of colorful fruit in his mind’s eye. Interestingly, there are no verbs in this stanza. The poet paints a still life.

Now consider the parts of speech in the last stanza.

My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.

This stanza is full of verbs, “grew,” “gaze,” “swept,” “turned,” “bowed,” and “wept.” Throughout the stanza are personal pronouns, “I” and “my.” The first stanza contains no personal pronouns.

The poem moves from static to dynamic, the impersonal to the personal, and the objective to the subjective. The change in the last stanza is not quite the volta or turn of the classical sonnet. Nevertheless, the change in diction does emphasize the move from the gay to the sorrowful. The use of the word “hungry” is perplexing. The straightforward interpretation could be that this relates to the fruit. Physical hunger is not consistent with the ethereal quality of the poem, however. Perhaps it refers to a spiritual hunger or hunger of the heart. Emotions such as this are universal and in earlier times, were expressed in forms such as psalms and sonnets.

“The Tropics in New York” uses a classical rhyming scheme and meter, and the language of this poem is that of the Psalms of the King James Version (KJV) of the Old Testament. King David’s Psalm 137 describes the Exile in Babylon of the Jewish people of the Old Testament.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
—Psalm 137:1 King James Version (KJV)

McKay’s poem is in the tradition of the writing of the Israelites—the language of exodus and exile. The elevated diction and structure allow McKay to express his personal feelings without the danger of sounding trite and maudlin as might happen if he were to use more colloquial language. The second stanza links the past and the present of this poem.

The second stanza consists mainly of nouns that are, this time, decorated by adjectives.

Set in the window, bringing memories
Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies
In benediction over nun-like hills.

There is a sacred, formal, cathedral-like sound to this stanza with words and phrases such as “mystical,” “benediction,” and “nun-like.” The phrase “bringing memories” neatly ties together the first and third stanza. The word “rills” hearkens back to the “streams” of Psalm 137, while the “fruit-trees” are reminiscent of the “harps upon the willows” in the second verse of Psalm 137.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
—Psalm 137:2 KJV

Of course, colonialists first imposed Christianity on black slaves in the Americas. Is a black American furthering colonialism by using poetic forms originating in England, such as the sonnet and the King James translation of the original Hebrew Bible?

There was controversy in the black artistic community as to whether black poets and writers should adopt the poetic structures of the Anglo-American tradition as their own or whether they should use their native dialect. Langston Hughes, in particular, was critical of Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet (and its variants). However, there was much more going on in McKay’s work than merely its formal structure. The subject matter of McKay’s poems was particular to his community. Also, as we have seen, McKay has identified himself and his fellow Jamaican émigrés with the Jewish people in exile. This identification with another exiled community distances his work from, say, the love sonnets of Shakespeare. Writing strictly in the Jamaican dialect would be to ignore his experiences and revelations in his new land. The identification of exiled Africans in Jamaica with the exiled Jews of the Old Testament would continue through the decades in both painting and music.

Aaron Douglas, a painter, was a fellow artist of the Harlem Renaissance. As McKay would contrast colorful Jamaican fruit with the dreariness of a day in New York, Douglas’s paintings combined urban scenes within scenes of Africa. Moreover, the colors he used were vibrant, like the colors of a verdant jungle, but he would use a limited palette within each painting like the duotone shades of a city.

Rastafarian reggae musicians, in the 1960s and 1970s, carried on with the theme of Exile in Babylon in their song lyrics. Consider the first verse of the song “Rivers of Babylon,” written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton and recorded by the Melodians.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

Dowe and McNaughton were Rastafarian Jamaicans. They more or less directly quote from Psalm 137. Rastafarians considered themselves exiles from Africa (in particular, Ethiopia), while McKay considered himself an exile from Jamaica. Some Rastafarians considered themselves a Lost Tribe of Israel. There are many parallels between these cultures and societies, the Harlem Renaissance, Rastafarianism, and the Jewish Exile (and are interesting to explore). The Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey also moved to Harlem around the same time McKay did and figured prominently in both Rastafarianism and the Harlem Renaissance. The parallels between the Harlem Renaissance and Rastafarianism reverberate in both art and culture. McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” matches the rebelliousness of Rastafarianism and its war against ‘Babylon.’

“The Tropics in New York” is a poem in a long tradition of songs/poems/psalms (and paintings) of exile and suffering, or “sufferation,” as the Jamaican reggae world calls it. McKay consciously places his poem in this tradition by alluding to Biblical text and using a traditional, formal structure. However, “The Tropics in New York” rises above a generic sonnet of love or loss. With McKay’s choice of colorful diction in the first stanza, the poem occurs at a particular time and place. With the third and final stanza, McKay expresses universal and timeless feelings of exile and disconnectedness with one’s community. “The Tropics of New York,” like the paintings of Aaron Douglas, contrasts the vibrancy of one’s homeland, or Zion, with the dreary and often degrading life of an immigrant in Babylon, the modern American city.

References

To avoid influence, I didn’t read any books on Claude McKay or his poetry before writing this essay. However, I did decide to approach the subject of McKay obliquely by listening to and reading about Jamaican reggae.

  • For background knowledge on Rastafarianism, I read The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae, by Mike Alleyne.  I learned a little more about the song “Rivers of Babylon” in this book, too.
  • The BBC Four television documentary, Windrush, was helpful for general knowledge on Jamaican emigration to Britain.  Windrush, in particular, shows how isolated Jamaicans felt in Britain and how they created their own dance clubs, which helped slowly spread Jamaican music to white Britons.  Reggae has been much more integrated into British society than it ever was in US society, but that’s a whole interesting subject on its own.
  • Reading Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, by Lloyd Bradley, probably did not influence this paper directly, but is tangentially related to the subject and is very fun to read for learning the diverse attitudes and beliefs of Jamaicans.
  • Also, after I had nearly finished this essay, I started reading Ronald Segal’s book, The Black Diaspora. Seeing the jacket art, “Building More Stately Mansions,” by Aaron Douglas, made me realize similarities in the themes of Douglas’s paintings and McKay’s poem.

This essay was originally written for ENGL E-300.

Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York”

The Clash FAQ by Gary J. Jucha

ClashFAQ

The Clash FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Clash City Rockers is one of the best books on the Clash, and I’ve read a lot of them. The book delineates the relationships within the band and with their manager, Bernard “Bernie” Rhodes, quite well. It also describes in detail the difficulties they ran into with their record company, Epic. I am a long-time Clash listener (I bought Give ‘Em Enough Rope the week it came out). So, I know their music quite well and am more interested in band dynamics. Nevertheless, the book alerted me to some of the Clash’s musical highlights that either I hadn’t noticed or had forgotten.

Hard-core Clash fans tend to be either “Joe guys” or “Mick guys”. I’m a Mick guy, so I was pleased that the author, Gary J. Jucha, throughout the book was fair to Mick. He was so perceptive of Mick’s personality that I was surprised to read halfway through that he was actually a “Joe” guy. At any rate, the band breakup is well-documented, as is everyone’s post-Clash career. After reading the sections on B.A.D., I want to go back and listen to all of their records again. I also want to hear Carbon/Silicon, who I didn’t listen to at the time.

This book isn’t a memoir, but the author does describe some of the Clash concerts he attended. These descriptions are quite exciting and, even, correct some historical inaccuracies that have been passed down through the years. Finally, Jucha points the reader to some concert recordings of The Clash, Round Two that show what Cut the Crap might have been.

I highly recommend this book to both new Clash fans and hard-core Clash fans.

The Clash FAQ by Gary J. Jucha

Squeeze at Minneapolis’s State Theater

3 September 2019

“A lot of people compared songwriters Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook to Lennon and McCartney, but they were much younger.”
—Bob Dylan

Not quite true anymore. Lennon and McCartney split up in their late twenties and will remain young forever crossing Abbey Road. That left Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook, and the rest of us still aging.

Difford and Tilbrook, both in their early sixties, have aged well, though, as have their songs. Difford looks like an eccentric, Oxbridge don, while Tilbrook looks like he could play an Inspector on a BBC crime series.

In preparation for this concert, I went to the Squeeze website to catch up. Unless you’re really dedicated, it’s hard to keep up with Squeeze. Squeeze break up, and Difford and Tilbrook make a duo album; Squeeze form again; Squeeze break up again; Difford and Tilbrook make solo albums; Squeeze band together yet again. (There are even variations on this, such as speaking tours and VH1 specials where it looks like there will be a reunion, but there isn’t.) I was surprised to see that Gilson Lavis, a former drummer, and Keith Wilkinson, a former bassist, were no longer in the band. They were favorites of mine.  Gilson Lavis was an original member of the band and Wilkinson, while not an original member, had been with the group for some time. The new musicians are Yolanda Charles, bassist; Simon Hanson, drummer; Steven Large, keyboardist; and Steve Smith, percussionist. It took two people to replace Gilson Lavis. It seems a long time ago now that Difford and Tilbrook first broke up Squeeze because they didn’t have the heart to fire Lavis who had been drinking a bit too much. (They rehired him later. I don’t know why he left the second time.)

The new rhythm section of Charles, Hanson, and Smith seem younger than Difford and Tilbrook. Maybe this is the secret to staying young. Get a new, young rhythm section every ten years or so. (Although the Clash tried something like this and it didn’t work so well.) At any rate, Squeeze was on fire tonight at the State Theater. It was a far cry from when I saw a solo Tilbrook in a small bar in San Francisco without an adequate sound system, which was beautiful in its own way since he ended up performing unmiked.

Squeeze tend to stick pretty closely to their original arrangements when they play live, which makes their live shows a bit hard to review. So I’ll end with some unrelated, stray observations.

Stray observations

  • Tilbrook tends to stretch out a bit in his guitar solos when playing live. He is probably the best hard rock, lead guitarist playing in a melodic, pure pop band.
  • On the last song performed, “Black Coffee in Bed,” Tilbrook started out playing the song solo on an acoustic guitar. He also had a singalong with the audience. Later the full band came in.
  • I guess I can probably forget my dream of seeing Jools Holland or Paul Carrack live in Squeeze. Stephen Large did a pretty good job of playing Jools’ wild solo on “Pulling Mussels from the Shell,” though.
  • Silent films were played on a backdrop behind the players. Because of my location, I couldn’t see them all that well, but they looked good. It was more fun watching the band members.
  • I can live without Keith Wilkinson (as much as I like his playing) if they keep Yolanda Charles on bass. Maybe she’s the fire under this reinvigorated version of Squeeze. Her and Simon Hanson at any rate. I loved the deep bass sound Charles used. From where I was sitting, it looked like she was playing a Fender, either a Precision or a Jazz.

Set List

Release years are given in parentheses.

  1. Footprints (1987)
  2. Big Beng (1985)
  3. Hourglass (1987)
  4. Pulling Mussels (From the Shell) (1980)
  5. Up the Junction (1979)
  6. King George Street (1985)
  7. Someone Else’s Heart (1981)
  8. Third Rail (1993)
  9. In Quintessence (1981)
  10. The Day I Get Home (1991)
  11. Please Be Upstanding (2017)
  12. Annie Get Your Gun (1982)
  13. Cradle to the Grave (2015)
  14. Cool for Cats (1979)
  15. Slap and Tickle (1979)
  16. Love’s Crashing Waves (1984)
  17. Tempted (1981)
  18. Another Nail in My Heart (1980)
  19. Goodbye Girl (1979)
  20. If I Didn’t Love You (1980)
  21. Take Me I’m Yours (1978)
  22. Is That Love (1981)
  23. Black Coffee in Bed (1982)
Squeeze at Minneapolis’s State Theater

First Beatle Cars

These were the first cars bought by the young Beatles although Ringo was still a Hurricane when he bought his.  Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were much more successful in 1959 and 1960 than the Beatles (or whatever they were calling themselves at that time).   Hence, Ringo had a “flash” car before John, Paul, or George did.

I haven’t necessarily found images of the exact year (although they’re close) or color.  I got my information from Mark Lewisohn’s All These Years: Tune In (Extended Special Edition).  Any mistakes are mine, not his.

Ringo

Standard Vanguard

ringo_1_Standard_Vanguard_Vignale_1959_2080cc
Standard Vanguard

Purchased in 1959.  See page 559 of Lewisohn.

Ford Zephyr Zodiac

ringo_2_280px-Ford_Zephyr_111_Zodiac_1956
Ford Zephyr Zodiac

Purchased in 1960.  See page 708 of Lewisohn.

Neil Aspinall/Mona Best

Ford van

I have no idea whether this is the right model, but it is the right make, Ford.

neil_1_Ford_Thames_Van_1961_F_Rick_Feibusch_2009
British Ford van

Purchased in 1961.  This wasn’t the Beatles’ first mode of transport.  See page 942 of Lewisohn.

George

Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe

george_1_anglia
Anglia

Purchased in 1962.  See page 1145 of Lewisohn.  See page 1145 of Lewisohn for information on the race of “Ford Anglia against Ford Zodiac, Beatle vs Hurricane.”

Paul

Ford Consul Classic

paul_1_FordConsulClassic
Ford Consul Classic

Purchased in 1962.  See page 1307 of Lewisohn.

John

Driving test

John passed his driving test and had cars, but was probably one of the worst drivers in the world.

john_driving_test
John passes the driving test.
First Beatle Cars

“Young Hunting”: Child Ballad 68

YoungHunting

Young Hunting

“Get down, get down, Love Henry,” she cried.
“And stay all night with me.
I have gold chains, and the finest I have
I’ll apply them all to thee.”

“I can’t get down and I shan’t get down,
Or stay all night with thee.
Some pretty little girl in Cornersville
I love far better than thee.”

He layed his head on a pillow of down.
Kisses she gave him three.
With a penny knife that she held in her hand
She murdered mortal he.

“Get well, get well, Love Henry, ” She cried,
“Get well, get well,” said she.
“Oh don’t you see my own heart’s blood
Come flowin’ down so free?”

She took him by his long yellow hair,
And also by his feet.
She plunged him into well water, where
It runs both cold and deep.

“Lie there, lie there, Love Henry,” she cried,
“Til the flesh rots off your bones.
Some pretty little girl in Cornersville
Will mourn for your return.”

“Hush up, hush up, my parrot,” she cried,
“And light on my right knee.
The doors to your cage shall be decked with gold
And hung on a willow tree.”

“I won’t fly down, I can’t fly down
And light on your right knee.
A girl who would murder her own true love
Would kill a little bird like me.”

See Mad Love, Murder & Mayhem, by Joshua Hampton, for more about this ballad.

“Young Hunting”: Child Ballad 68

“The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington”: Child Ballad 105

BailiffsDaughterIslington.jpg

From A Book of Old Ballads, designed by Alice Havers

The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington

There was a fair and fine young man and he was a squire’s son
He loved a Bailiff’s daughter dear She lived at Islington
But she was coy and never would on him her heart bestow
So they sent him down to London town because he loved her so
And she sang
Lu lie, Lu lie lo, and a Lu lie lay
Lu lie, Lu lie lo as he rode away

When seven long years had passed away she put on mean attire
And went straight down to London town about him to inquire
Well as she passed along the road through peril toil and pain
She rested on a distant place and her true love he came riding
And he sang
Lu lie, Lu lie lo, and a Lu lie lay
Lu lie, Lu lie lo as he rode away

Well kind young sir, tell unto me where did you learn that tune?
From a girl that I loved dear when I was a youth.
But, That was oh so long ago to think I loved in vain.
She died so many years ago. I never saw her again.
Then she sang
Lu lie, Lu lie lo, and a Lu lie lay
Lu lie, Lu lie lo as he rode away

Well she is not dead but alive dear man and standing by your side
She is not dead but alive dear man and ready to be thy bride
And they sang
Lu lie, Lu lie lo, and a Lu lie lay
Lu lie lu lie lo as they rode away.

Performed by Raymond Crooke.

“The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington”: Child Ballad 105

“The Elfin Knight”: Child Ballad 2

ChildBallads

The Elfin Knight

There stands three trumpeters on yon hill
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Blaw their trumpets sae loud and shrill
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Gin I’d his trumpet in my kist
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And were in the lad’s arms that I like best
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Gin ye would be wed wi’ me
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
There’s ae thing ye maun dae for me
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

I maun hae a fine linen sark
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Without a stitch o’ needlewark
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Ye maun wash it in yon draw-well
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Where water never sprang nor fell
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Ye maun drt’t on yon hawthorn
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
That hasna seen blossom since man was born
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Gin I mak’a sark for thee
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
There’s ae thing ye maun tae me dae
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

My faither has an acre o’ land
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Ye maun ploo it wi’ your ae hand
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Ye maun sow it wantin’ corn
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And roll it wi’ a sheep’s shank-bone
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Ye maun shear it wi’ a scythe o’ leather
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And bind it wi’ a peacock’s feather
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

Ye maun stook it in the sea
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
And bring the whaetsheaf dry tae me
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

And gin you wark noo all this wark
Blaw, blaw, blaw winds, blaw
Come to me and you’ll get your sark
And the wind blaws aye my plaid awa’

“The Elfin Knight”: Child Ballad 2

“Lord Randall”: Child Ballad 12

1280px-Lord_Randal

“Lord Randal”, by Arthur Rackham. This is an illustration from Some British ballads, published in about 1919.

“Lord Randall”

O, where have you been, Lord Randall, my son
O, where have you been, my handsome young man
I’ve been to the wildwoods, Mother make my bed soon
For I’m weary with hunting an’ I fain would lie down

Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randall, my son
Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man
I did eat with my true love, Mother make my bed soon
For I’m weary with hunting an’ I fain would lie down

What get ye to your dinner, Lord Randall, my son
What get ye to your dinner, my handsome young man
A yellow pied snake, Mother fix my bed soon
For I’m weary with hunting an’ I fain would lie down

What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randall, my son
What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man
O, they swelled an’ they died, Mother make my bed soon
For I’m weary with hunting an’ I fain would lie down

O, I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randall, my son
O, I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man
O, yes I am poisoned, Mother make my bed soon
For I’m sick at my heart an’ I fain would lie down

“Lord Randall”: Child Ballad 12

“Riddles Wisely Expounded”: Child Ballad 1

RiddlesWiselyExpounded

Riddles Wisely Expounded

There were three sisters in the north
Lay the bend to the bonny broom,
And they lived in their mother’s house
And you’ll beguile a lady soon

There came a man one evening late
Lay the bend to the bonny broom,
And he came knocking at the gate
And you’ll beguile a lady soon.

The eldest sister let him in
And locked the door with a silver pin

The second sister made his bed
And laid soft pillows ‘neath his head

The youngest sister, fair and bright
She lay beside him all through the night

And in the morning, come the day
She said, “Young man, will you marry me?”

And he said, “Yes, I’ll marry thee
If you can answer this to me”

“What is greener than the grass?
And what is smoother than the glass?”

“What is louder than a horn?
And what is sharper than a thorn?”

“What is deeper than the sea?
And what is longer than the way?”

“Envy’s greener than the grass
Flattery’s smoother than the glass”

“Rumor’s louder than a horn
Slander’s sharper than a thorn”

“Regret is deeper than the sea
But love is longer than the way”

The eldest sister rang the bell
She rang it from the highest hill

The second sister made the gown
She sewed it of the silk so fine

The youngest sister, true and wise
They’ve made of her a lovely bride

And now fair maids, I bid adieu
These parting words I’ll leave with you

May you always constant prove
Lay the bend to the bonny broom,
Unto the one that you do love
And you’ll beguile a lady soon

“Riddles Wisely Expounded”: Child Ballad 1