Claude McKay’s sonnet “If We Must Die,” written in 1919 in response to a wave of European American attacks on African Americans, had such a powerful public impact that it was read decades later by Winston Churchill to exhort Britain to fight the Nazis, and entered into the U.S. Congressional Record:
“If We Must Die,” Claude McKay (1919)
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!
While the poem’s sentiments are powerful, the imagery strong, and the art skillful, I think the most credit for the impact that McKay’s sonnet had on so many people should go to how well McKay understood and worked with the sonnet form itself, especially the volta or turn. The first two quatrains have a somber tone, a heaviness emphasized by the repeating phrase “if we must die,” with its sonorous spondee. But at the turn, with the phrase “Oh, Kinsmen!,” McKay’s sonnet seems to stop, take a deep breath, and regather its energies for a big push to the finish.
Many factors, including tone, syntax, meter, trope, word-music and connotation, as well as meaning, conspire to make McKay’s turn so effective. The tonal change can easily be seen if you focus on a single word, “must.” Read aloud the lines containing this word at the beginnings of the first two quatrains, and you will hear something between resigned bitterness and sad determination conveyed by the spondaic stress on the first “must,” and a firmer, mounting determination in the second “must.” But after the volta, the same word has changed its intensity entirely, the spondee conveying an unstoppable force that floods over the expected unstressed syllable in irresistible exhortation.
Word-music plays a part as well, as the three “m”s in “men,” “must,” and “meet” gather together to surpass and overwhelm the previous “m”s in “making their mock” and “monsters.” It is also significant that one of these “m” sounds happens in the syllable “men,” contrasting “men” with the simile of “hogs” that opened the poem, and setting the stage for the transformation that will happen by the end of the poem, where the African American prisoners will have become “men” while their oppressors still remain a “pack” of dogs. The phrase “Oh, Kinsmen!” right at the volta is the heart of the sonnet not only because it brings in the word “men,” but also because it does so through the word “kinsmen,” emphasizing that it is only in their sense of brotherhood that the prisoners will find the strength they need to prevail.
When you read the poem aloud, you may notice that your energy level and pulse-rate rise after line 9. The most significant reason for this change is metrical. With the word “kinsmen,” this iambic poem begins to take on more trochaic feel. The caesura after “kinsmen” sets the stage for the rest of the line to sound strongly trochaic: “We must meet the common foe” sounds exactly like a footless trochaic line, and phrases such as “far outnumbered” continue the powerful rocking trochaic rhythm, in contrast to the doggedly iambic feeling of the octave, where the only trochaic words (“hunted” and “making”) are dutifully combined to their traditional and most impotent place in the first foot of the line. The trochaic undercurrent of this poem is no surprise in the context of African American poetics; the trochaic meter has been used by African American poets as a powerful alternative to iambic meter in such poems as Countee Cullen’s “Heritage” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Anniad.”
Just as the secret of success in poetry may be to make full use of what you find most unique and distinctive about poetry, the secret to success with any poetic form may be making full use of whatever is most unique and distinctive about the form. Skillful sonnets usually take good advantage of the volta, the most unique and distinctive aspect of a sonnet. It’s hard to imagine “If We Must Die” in another kind of poetic form—a ballad, or quatrains, or free verse. Who would have thought the sonnet, known so well as the vehicle for plaintive or poignant poems of love, would also prove the perfect vehicle for McKay’s revolutionary call: at once big and loose enough for the pacing and circling of authentic power, and small and structured enough for the channeling and building of directed force? How can a poetic form be so versatile? We might as well ask, though, how can a human voice be so versatile? Something in the shape of a sonnet, built around a “turn” as it is, seems so well suited to convey human feeling that it can feel almost like a throat, a hand, a voice—or like a stanza or room that is especially well-proportioned to suit the human form.
Poet, translator, editor, and playwright Annie Finch has published many books of poetry, including Calendars, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, Among the Goddesses, and Eve (recently reissued in Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporaries Poetry Series). Her selected poems, entitled Spells: New and Selected Poetry, Translations, and Performance Work 1970-2010, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Finch’s poetic collaborations with music, visual art, opera, and theater have been produced at Poets House, Chicago Art Institute, Carnegie Hall, American Opera Projects, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her books about poetry include The Body of Poetry, An Exaltation of Forms, and, most recently, the anthology Villanelles and the poetry-writing textbook A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. Educated at Yale University, University of Houston, and Stanford University, she is the recipient of the 2009 Robert Fitzgerald Award and fellowships from Black Earth Institute and the Stanford Humanities Center. She currently serves as Director of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Her website is www.anniefinch.com.
Adapted from “Chaos in Fourteen Lines: The Sonnet” from A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2012).