Claude McKay’s Lonely Planet
Claude McKay’s poetic sequence “Cities” (1934) is a peculiar kind of travel guide, written as a sonnet cycle and composed during the decade McKay spent in forced exile from the United States and Jamaica. From Fez to Cadiz, Barcelona’s Barrio Chino to Harlem’s Lenox Avenue, “Cities” charts the wayward course of McKay’s obligatory internationalism, as the itinerant sonneteer witnesses the “embattled workers’ day” in Saint Petersburg on May 1st, 1923 and the consolidation of Nazi power in Berlin in 1934. This paper proposes that “Cities” transforms the modernist “unreal city” of isolation, in which, as Eliot writes, “each man fixed his eyes before his feet,” into the space of a riotous commons, where McKay finds “man drawing near to man in close commune.” As a sequel to the American sonnets of Harlem Shadows (1922), “Cities” puts pressure on the sonnet sequence to chart an early anti-colonial poetics. The sonnet’s inherited figures and tropes, which emerge concomitantly with early modern capitalism, imperialism, and enclosure, become the vehicle for a global vision of revolution.
Walt Hunter is the author of Forms of a World: Contemporary Poetry and the Making of Globalization and the co-translator, with Lindsay Turner, of Frédéric Neyrat's Atopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism. He teaches at Clemson University.