By David R. Katzman
Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes find it their responsibility to uplift the disenfranchised through their literature. These poets aim to demonstrate to those that are marginalized and viewed as outsiders that they are an important aspect of their respective communities. In Whitman’s “Mannahatta”, he includes the working class in his description of his city and, in fact, focuses a large part of the poem to this group. In “If We Must Die”, McKay similarly builds black people into a nation in his rallying cry to arms to defeat a common enemy by calling them brethren. The sonnet form elevates McKay’s “If We Must Die” and uses traditional poetry to bring the disenfranchised into the greater literary community. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” parallels the history of the African people and the nature of a day by demonstrating that black people will emerge from their dark past as does each new day. These authors use of different poetic forms allows each poet to represent their marginalized community and bring them into mainstream culture.
Whitman, in his poem, “Mannahatta”, emphasises working class individuals in his description of New York City. This is noteworthy as painting a picture of the working class within the structure of New York City was a new concept; generally most art work focused on the upper class. “The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you\ straight in the eyes;” (Whitman, 17-18) “the jobbers’ houses of business—the houses of business of the ship-merchants, and money-brokers—the river-streets;” (12-13). In placing both the merchant class and the working class together within his poetry, Whitman equates the people within both segments of society in describing his city. Further, he moves the working man to the forefront of his poetry, thus incorporating a previously neglected class of individuals in literature. Whitman even describes these “mechanics” as “the masters” of the city, which essentially transforms them into leaders. Whitman describes them in terms that shows them to be approachable and an important part of society, not the marginalized group that was previously stigmatized. Whitman explains that they are “A million people– manners free and superb– open voices— hospitality– the most courageous and friendly young men;” (18-19). The dashes visually separate approachable qualities that the all working class men poses and force the reader to pause and think over all of these traits. Whitman aims to force the reader to rethink his idea of what the working class man looks and acts like and include them in the fabric of society.
Whitman not only recreates the image of the working man in his poetry, he also alters the strict adherence to the technical rules of poetry itself, introducing the concept of free verse. This divergence from the technical rhyme and meter previously enforced by all poetry gives him freedom to describe the common man. In essence, Whitman is identifying the previous form of poetry with the ideals of upper class literature, leaving the new concept of free verse for the inclusion of the working man in society and in the annals of literature. Richard Chase discusses the reaction of the literary community to his poetry: “The true qualities of Emily Dickinson’s poetry … can be more readily defined than can the true qualities of Whitman’s. And we can more readily state the quality of our pleasure in these poets than we can in the case of Whitman” (Chase 5). Chase describes this new departure by comparing him to the poetry of “Dickinson”, “Wordsworth’s or T. S. Eliot’s or Donne’s” poetry that emphasizes a return to form and an allegiance to upper class society (5). Dickinson wrote in small stanzas, Wordsworth was the poet laureate of England, and Donne’s classic poem, “The Waste Land”, uses mainly blank verse. Further, Chase’s description reinforces this as he states that “we can more readily state the quality of our pleasure in these poets”. This quality of pleasure derives from the conventions that Dickinson, Wordsworth, and Eliot employ in their poems. Creating this distinction and using the word “pleasure” to refer to poetical conventions, shows the literary community’s reluctance to accept Whitman’s style and ideas despite their canonization of his work. However, literary society’s reluctance to canonize Whitman’s poetry draws in a new reader, one that rejects typical meter, rhyme, and subject matter as well as the arrogance brought by intellectuals. This opens the world of poetry to an entirely different type of reader and makes poetry accessible to the general public.
Claude McKay and Langston Hughes similarly aim to incorporate marginalized communities in their poetry. Throughout the sonnet “If We Must Die”, McKay transforms the race of black people and incorporates them into society. The first lines of the poem describe the situation of McKay’s community as a fight for survival: “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned…. /Making their mock at our accursed lot” (McKay, 1-4). This creates imagery that represents the black community as a group of people barely fighting for survival in a hopeless situation. McKay uses the words “hogs”, “hunted”, and “penned” in his initial description of black people in the poem. This, at first, identifies them as trapped animals, merely awaiting slaughter. McKay creates this allegory of helpless animals in order to underscore their change. Through using the form of the sonnet, he is able to turn the poem and make the “hunted and penned” people into a family that is fighting against a suppressive entity. In the third stanza of the poem, Mckay makes use of the sonnet form to turn the poem; “O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe” (9). Calling his community “kinsmen” elevates their position as now they are part of a nation that is centered around a common culture. Further, McKay changes his request for his community to a command from placing the first line of the stanza in the subjunctive, “let”, to the imperative, “must”. This change in mood transforms the entire feeling of the poem as now the black community is called into action. The speaker becomes a general leading his troops into battle against “the common foe”. Writing in a style of poetry that makes use of a volta allows for McKay to transform the black community from a poor huddled herd of animals into an army. Further, McKay’s use of the sonnet is significant. McKay choses to use a sonnet, an old and respected form of poetry, to elevate his subject matter and present his rallying cry through the same medium that Shakespeare used to write poetry. This shows that the black community is no longer a marginalized group of people, but rather a society that can adapt and become part of established forms of poetry.
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Langston Hughes parallels the black community with the constancy and the beauty of rivers. Hughes refers to ancient rivers such as the “Euphrates” (Hughes 5) and “the Nile” (7) and equates their importance with that of the “Congo” (6) and “the Mississippi” (8). The Euphrates and the Nile were home to great civilizations that were important to the development of humanity. The Euphrates is also known as the fertile crescent and that is the place where western history is credited to have begun. In contrast, the Congo is the river which is important to the development of Africa. Placing these two rivers next to each other and having the speaker tell the reader that he has lived similarly on both demonstrates the importance of these rivers to both humanity as a whole and black people in particular. The speaker in the poem “bathed in the Euphrates” as he “built my hut near the Congo” (5-6). As a human, the poet and all his people bathed in the ancient river of the Euphrates, but equally importantly developed their culture as a community in the Congo.
Hughes continues with a discussion of rivers in relationship to slavery. In Egypt, the speaker “looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.” (7). Here, Hughes is identifying with the enslavement of the Israelites in ancient Egypt. Hughes is stating that the enslaved black people and the enslaved Jewish people share a common history. Yet, Hughes makes a distinction between the two. In The United States he focuses on the liberation of his people rather than their enslavement;“I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” (9-10). Talking about freedom connects his race to white people as they are both now free, and endured a similar Exodus story. When Hughes wrote this poem, he was traveling up the Mississippi River and leaving the Southern United States. Consequently, he writes that the turning bosom of the Mississippi is a sign of the changing times, as the sun is setting on the day and slavery itself. Hughes illustrates this point by placing the Mississippi River at the end of his description of rivers, but not at the end of the poem, thereby leaving room for his community to assign new and positive meanings to different rivers.
These rivers also have a political context as they are all sources of anti-colonial resistance by native people to Western Powers. The Congo River was “the subject of the most brutal extremes of European colonialism” (Dworkin, 632-633). Furthermore, the Congo became a cornerstone for massive international human rights groups during Hughes’s time (633). Framing his poem around this area allows for Hughes to posit that the start of colonial resistance comes from the place in which it was the most brutal. The Euphrates is also a site of colonial oppression. After World War I, the British and the French conquered and divided the Ottoman empire amongst themselves and promised freedom to the individual ethnic minorities living in the fallen empire. However, these powers placed these lands into a state of political ambiguity and never granted marginalized peoples freedom. In the summer of 1919 in Iraq “the Kurds rebelled and were crushed by the British” (635). This, and other rebellions like it, occurred during the same time as the race riots in the United States depicted by McKay in his aforementioned poem. Similar events were also occurring in Egypt at the same time: “The March 1919 exile of Saad Zaghloul, the Egyptian nationalist leader of the Wafd Party, resulted in mass resistance throughout much of Egypt” (637). Hughes is again unifying native people subject to colonial oppression in his poem by framing current events against antiquity. By placing these rivers with charged political instability next to each other, Hughes is able to make a larger statement about oppressed people and thus unify them as a whole.
Marginalized people that occupy the fringes of common society are included and celebrated in the poetry of Whitman, McKay, and Hughes. In the poems of all three, the subjects of the poems include the working man and black people –– those factions of society that were formerly neglected. By including new subjects in poetry and restructuring the form of the poem, the poets create an opportunity for inclusion for those that are disenfranchised from society. This creates a new dawn for poetry, which is accessible to everyone, regardless of their class position.
CHASE, RICHARD. “Walt Whitman.” Walt Whitman – American Writers 9: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, NED – New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, MINNEAPOLIS, 1961, pp. 5–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttzhm.2.
Dworkin, Ira. “‘Near the Congo’: Langston Hughes and the Geopolitics of Internationalist Poetry.” American Literary History, vol. 24, no. 4, 2012, pp. 631–657., http://www.jstor.org/stable/23358448.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. June 1921
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die”. July 1919
Whitman, Walt. “Mannahatta”. Leaves Of Grass. 1888