Poetry Assignment: PART ONE

‘If We Must Die’ – Poem by Claude McKay

I have chosen this poem because of the magnificent aspiration for honor, valor, and bravery, which fulfills the whole text of it. Death is obligatory for all of us, no matter whether we think of it or not. However how to die is a very different point. Claude McKay answers this question with all possible categoricalness: “let it not be like hogs”, but let it be “like men”. It means a lot as your death is often a criterion for, evaluating your life. Moreover, death is a final act of human life, so it is evident that everybody remembers death of a person better than his/her deeds, which were done while living. It can sometimes even change people’s opinion of a person: dying bravely always leaves some kind of respect, which is independent from the person’s actions during life. Some say death can expiate sins. Therefore, as all of us must die anyway, one day or another; that is why, “let us show us brave”.

‘My Papa’s Waltz’ – Poem by Theodore Roethke

In this poem, there is a gorgeous description of routine childhood of a person who lives in a family of a worker. A huge amount of talent is needed to bring so much romance into the depiction of everyday dirt and tiredness of hard-working people. It is childish love to father, described so vividly, which does not border in any way with “the whiskey on … breath”, “the hand … battered on one knuckle”, or “a palm caked hard by dirt”. Childish love is pure and innocent, and all that the little boy needs is that his father loves him back. In this poem, Waltz mirrors the rhythmic and pointed life of this child together with the most shiny and pleasant moments, which have remained in his memory since then. To my mind, tiny but meticulous details make the stardust of the lyrics especially rich. There are almost no complete pictures, yet the details like the father’s knuckle, the child’s right ear and so on work to create a slight feeling of presence in the poem’s world.

‘A Man Said to the Universe’ – Poem by  Stephen Crane

These two dialogic lines are short and simple, but they clearly demonstrate the attitude of the author towards the problem of humans’ influence on what is happening in the universe. I mean that nobody knows what really is occurring there. Nevertheless, it feels like Stephen Crane says in his poem that the fact of human existence does not influence the universe’s dynamics, rules of its movement, and laws in any way. The poem takes form of a conversation between the man and the universe in a somewhat formal and cold tone. The universe seems indifferent, and after the poem there stays a feeling of loneliness in this vast great world since it actually does not care whether we live or not. However, if it was the author’s only point of view, he might feel very depressed. As for me, this is just one of his viewpoints. There should be many of them. There are simple words in the poem; it is of a “question – answer” type. At the end, the reader can perceive a dry and clear conclusion with a little irony between the lines.

‘Richard Cory’ – Poem by Paul Simon

This is a poem that amazed me because of its two-side viewpoint. “Richard Cory” is a song with three couplets and a chorus. The chorus and the couplets differ from each other: each couplet describes some goodness and pleasantness of Richard Cory’s life, and the chorus, on the contrary, expresses grief of a man who is working on Richard Cory’s factory, living in poverty and dreaming “that I could be / Richard Cory”. When Richard Cory is killed with a bullet, the worker says: “my mind was filled with wonder”. However, nobody can be particularly surprised by Richard Cory’s death because his style of life must have made many such poor people hate him. The moral to this story is that external surface of a person’s life does not always express his/her internal motives. Public behavior of the rich does not often correspond to their attitude to their family or workers.

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‘Those Winter Sundays’ – Robert Hayden

This poem reminds me of “My Papa’s Waltz”. I have chosen it because of the same reason: here, among the grayness and tiredness of everyday routine, grows and blossoms the flower of love. However, if in “My Papa’s Waltz” it is childish love, here we can notice the father’s love most. Cracked hands do the same very important but very ungrateful job from Sunday to Sunday… The parallel to this job is polishing shoes of a child. There is painful indifference of a child and of everybody else… What do we know about those people who do services and remain unnoticeable at the same time? Sometimes we do not even pay attention to those who are near. This moment of repentance appears in the last line of the poem “Those Winter Sundays”: “What did I know / Of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Poetry Assignment: PART TWO

Among the five poems of the previous assignment, I have chosen “If We Must Die” of Claude McKay. I like all lyrics I have picked, but this poem is the most motivating and life affirming. This writing gives the push that, I feel, is the most necessary for me at the concrete stage of my life. On the one hand, poems like “Those Winter Sundays” or “My Papa’s Waltz”, are full of such feelings like love, sympathy, and implication, and, on the other hand, “Richard Cory” is very sad and demotivating. This one is different. Although it addresses the topic of death, it persuades to live. These verses are the ode for bravery and honor, and something more meaningful than life itself. Claude McKay sings about the major virtues that make people human, not “hogs” as it is said in the text .

The attitudes described here were extremely important at the times of the Middle Ages, and now they are often forgotten. However, we still feel the necessity of these virtues as we develop and change behavior, reading with delight all the literature devoted to knights and ladies, to the topics of nobility, honor, and valor. Therefore, this poem reminds me of the things I should never forget. We may die anytime, and this means that at every moment of our life we must be noble, brave, and ready to fight. There is no time for depression, no time for losses in our life. That is how I understand the message of this poem. Even if there are lots of others, even if we are outnumbered, we must stay courageous, not cowardly. Such qualities make us humans more than work or social connections do.

In “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay, the author, talks about death, what it likes if it is going to come anyway. The first line of the poem speaks of it quite eloquently: “if we must die…” means “as we already have no choice but to die…” However, later, the author goes up in his speech, comes from low tones to high ones. In his eyes, death has the only beauty in itself, and this beauty lies in its nobility, bravery, and something more deep. “Let it not be like hogs”– this metaphor means, I think, that death of a human being must be somewhat different from the death of an animal. He compares his own death (the meaning is hidden under the pronoun “we”) with others’, he makes the world around himself play the role of “the mad and hungry dogs”, barking while he and someone else, who is like him, are dying.

At the same time, the author hopes to see himself among those who die nobly. According to the poet, it means to earn the honor even among his enemies. I am very interested in the person who is hidden under the words “dogs” and “monsters”. The author should have meant some people who were chasing him, making him feel wild, “hunted” down, which must have incited him to write this poem. It is pathetic, full of passion and heroism, but… what if these are only words?

Claude McKay thinks about what would happen if his death was inevitable. After all, he might mean not his physical death. Maybe, “If we must die” means death of the artistic potential of the author, his death as a poet, or his death as an influencing person… It is worth noticing how much meaning he gives to every drop of his blood. No, the poet does not lower his cost in any way. “Our precious blood”, which “may not be shed in vain”, is showy, talking about the way the poet presents himself. The whole pathos of this poem is about the meaning in his eyes. The mirror tells him he is a warrior. This is more than just clear complaisance. This is also a positive push, a strong and pathetic speech, inspiring readers to behave nobly and bravely in any condition. No matter whether “round us bark the mad and hungry dogs” or we are “far outnumbered”, or there exist other reasons for death, there may be various epithets that prove its closeness, we must be noble and resolute, and take “for their thousand blows … one death-blow”. If death is close, face it nobly and courageously. Then this death would not be “in vain”. Using the word “kinsmen”, the author defines those he joins in his fight against monsters. However, by kinsmen he means relatives by what? By blood? I doubt it. It looks like he suggests people who relate to him by spirit. This could be anyone, any reader, who enjoys his poetry. In such a way, Claude McKay tries to join his readers in one foggy and mysterious, but clean and noble target.

“They” (enemies) are “far outnumbered”. The author feels that he is unique, one in the minority, fighting for truth. Such a conclusion comes from his pathetic and high-spirited speech. Here, it is a sound not of fear, not of sickness, but of a strong and super spirit, which is going to be higher than monsters who surround and fight him.
Sometimes, I think that this poem, with its Alcaic rhythm, is a pre-death message. It sounds like a person who says his last farewell to the world, waiting for death. However, we can see that the hero faces it with understanding and perception. He knows what he is doing and agrees to pay by life for his ideals. It is understood from the phrase “accursed lot”, which explains that the poet does not see any other way except for doing what he does, having the payment that he earns from the eternity, the fate, the Lord… Here, his major purpose becomes not to avoid death, but to have it with all the honor, valor, and nobility, which he can find at the moment. Also, it is felt that he does not want to stay alone. Maybe, he does not feel alone at all. The hero feels kinsmen near him. I do not believe he sees them physically, but he might perceive that they exist, and hope that they all fight for the same purpose against “the common foe”.

At least, facing the “murderous, cowardly pack” of enemies, he wants to be a man and calls his nearest to be such too. He sees himself almost broken, “pressed to the wall”, but the general motive of the poem seems to be positive to the very end. “Fighting back!” – that is how it is finished Besides, we can see that nobody is going to surrender. On the contrary, death is a possibility, not a choice. In addition, this possibility is met with courage and smile. Feeling like dying, but still fighting back – that is what suits a real man, who the poet wants so much to be.In these verses, we can see two sides of war. The one that wins, but which is described like monsters, “far outnumbered”, and yet killing, as I understand it, not merciful, generous, or what should noble men be. The other, which is represented by a minority, fights for their ideals, paying no attention to their wounds, to the fact they are already dying, which is said in the last line of the poem. As readers, we have the ability to get into the spirit of the poet’s speech… I could not withstand it. Therefore, I fell in love with this author’s poetry and in particular with this concrete example of pathetic lyrics of the beginning of XX century. After what I have described, I think everybody must understand Claude McKay better.

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