From his birthplace in Jamaica, West Indies, to his later residence amid racial turmoil in the United States, Claude McKay is known as one of the most diverse poets of the Harlem Renaissance. His vivid portrayal of both countries, bold stance on equality and ability to bridge different structures and forms all create his unique, socially conscious voice. You can analyze McKay's poetry through his exploration of African-American social issues, images of Jamaican culture and dialect and use of formal structure and diction.
Like many Harlem Renaissance poets, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, McKay is known for his vivid, gritty portrayals of African-American life. According to Poets.org, upon McKay's arrival in the United States from Jamaica, he was appalled by the injustices of racism compared to life in his own country, and used his poetry as an outlet for spreading awareness about these issues. The poem "Harlem Shadows" presents a dark portrayal of a young girl forced into prostitution, while "The White House" is a scathing declaration of the United States' seeming insensitivity to racial divisions.
Many of McKay's poems celebrate the language, culture and atmosphere of his birthplace, Jamaica. In contrast to his poems about the United States, this work talks about the country's sensory delights and natural beauty. In "North and South," McKay uses vivid imagery such as the shining water, the hum of crickets and the sound of waves to depict Jamaica's slow-paced life. McKay's poetry also makes use of the region's dialect to showcase Jamaica's unique culture. "A Midnight Woman to the Bobby" is a persona poem in the voice of a prostitute as she verbally attacks a cop for trying to arrest her.
While dialect often appears in McKay's Jamaican poetry, it serves as a stark contrast to the highly formal tone found in most of his work. Although he wrote in the first decades of the 20th century, McKay's voice often seems to evoke the language of Robert Burns, John Keats and William Shakespeare. The militant tone of "If We Must Die" echoes the St. Crispin's Day battle speech in Shakespeare's "Henry V," while "A Red Flower" is a love poem in the style of Burns' "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose."
Another element of McKay's formal language is his reliance on the sonnet, a 14-line poem that contains 10 syllables in each line, alternating between stressed and unstressed. While the sonnet was originally used to portray religion and love in the 13th and 14th centuries, McKay adapted its form to constrain his rage against racial injustice. In "The Lynching," McKay uses the sonnet to give a brief, dirge-like portrayal of an African-American being hanged as onlookers celebrate.