As I was reading Claude McKay’s poetry, I was struck by the contrast between content and form. McKay address rampant racism in America and protests the treatment of African Americans through the form of the sonnet. The sonnet to me is tied to old, fancy white people. It’s tied to themes of nature and love, not protest and lynching. Then as I was feeling smart for making this observation I realized I wasn’t the first, or even first 1000th probably. James Keller makes this same claim about McKay’s poetry saying, “The poet chose to contain his politically volatile subject matter within a verse form that signifies the aristocratic European literary tradition.” He goes to explain why when he says, “In order to ameliorate the social injustice experienced by African Americans in the early twentieth century, the poet has to appeal to the same group whose power he challenged in the poem’s content.” It was still hard for me to reconcile though. In his poem “If We Must Die,” McKay ends the poem saying “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” It seemed strange to me that McKay was choosing the sonnet to fight back rather than crafting a new form for a new world. It reminded my of A Small Place when Kincaid says, “For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” Kincaid longs for a new language, a new tongue, to discuss the horror and injustice done to her. But McKay chooses the sonnet as his form.
Yusef Komunyakaa also addresses race within a specific poetic form in his poem “Ghazal, After Ferguson.” Ghazal is a type of poetic form and one of its features is a repeating refrain throughout the poem. In Komunyakaa’s poem the refrain is “the streets.” He says, “Somebody go & ask Biggie to orate / what’s going dow in the streets. / No, an attitude is not a suicide note / written on walls around the streets.” Both Komunyakaa and McKay are using poetic forms that already have emotions tied to them to discuss contrasting content and emotions. Instead of creating new forms, they are reshaping the ones we already know and forcing us to see them in a new light.