The Weekly Verse: I Know My Soul by Claude McKay
You know what I learned this week? I learned that I love me some Claude McKay.
Claude McKay was born and raised in Jamaica and began writing poetry at the age of 10. His first book, Song of Jamaica, was published in 1912 and contained the first poems ever published in Jamaican dialect. Shortly thereafter, he came to the United States to study at the Tuskegee Institute and was shocked by the racism he found in the American south, which inspired a lot of his later writing. He continued writing poetry and several novels and was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement of the 1920s. Here’s my favorite of his poems so far:
I Know My Soul
by Claude McKay
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
So many nice phrases in this pretty little poem – I love the description of the soul as “this awful key to my infinity.” I think he’s got a bit of a troubled soul here, and is looking deep into it to find out why. He realizes that although he can’t always control it or what he feels, he at least understands the parts of his soul that he can see, and he takes comfort in that. In a confusing, sometimes upsetting world, there’s security in at least understanding yourself.
An alternative interpretation is that maybe he doesn’t understand all the parts of of himself all of the time (his mind, his heart, etc.) but he is comforted in knowing that he at least understands his soul. People are complicated beings, and self-discovery can be both a struggle and a joy.
What do you think? Have you read Claude McKay before?