Articles - October 2013

Constrained to honor (PoemTalk #71)

Claude McKay, 'If We Must Die'

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Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Kathy Lou Schultz joined PoemTalk producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Claude McKay’s widely anthologized sonnet, “If We Must Die” (1919).  Its content advocates counterviolence in response to racist violence; its form is the exquisitely constrained Shakespearean sonnet, aligned with English poetic mastery. Does pushing through this formal constraint bring McKay’s speaker toward freedom or fatedness? Does the sonnet as a formal choice befit a cultural inside or an outside? Is the Anglophone literary tradition itself at risk if the super-talented Afro-Jamaican sonneteer is killed while fighting back, and what might it mean if McKay put it too — the tradition — in harm’s way? And what of the poem’s lack of explicit racial marking? The political positioning of this poem (published first in the radical-left Liberator) seems clear enough as a matter of its semantic sense, but such a stance opens wide when one reads the poem as a formal intervention — broadens so much that our four-way conversation inevitably ranges across numerous interpretive options. There is defiance as well as constraint in the message of the poem about a heralded proud response to the awful Red Summer, but, so too, both defiance and constraint in the poem as a poem.

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Zach Carduner and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. PoemTalk is a collaboration of the Kelly Writers House, PennSound, and the Poetry Foundation.  It is published as a podcast series in Jacket2 and available for subscription and download in iTunes. In your iTunes store searchbox, type PoemTalk” and you'll easily find us.

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15250#sthash.3GxbpQyp.dpuf
If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15250#sthash.3GxbpQyp.dpuf
If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! - See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15250#sthash.3GxbpQyp.dpuf
If we must die—let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!