One of the most useful powers of the sonnet is its ability to keep a moment, to hold a feeling or experience and turn it around in the light of our awareness until many facets are evident. The quality of exploring all facets of a subject does not mean sonnets are always calm; it also means they are able to carry the full force of a lyric outburst with complete conviction. This authority gave Claude McKay's sonnet "If We Must Die," written in prison in 1919, an urgency so powerful that eventually it became a talisman in the civil rights struggle:
“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!
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 or volta at the beginning of line 9, with the phrase “Oh, Kinsmen!,” the sonnet seems to stop, take a deep breath, and regather its energies for a big push to the finish.
Many factors, including syntax, meter, trope, word-music, and connotation as well as meaning, conspire to make the turn as effective as it is. Take the word “must,” for example. If you read aloud the lines containing this word at the beginnings of the first two quatrains, 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 in this change, 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.
Reading the poem aloud, I find a noticeable rise in energy level and pulse-rate rise after line 9. I think the most significant reason for this change is metrical. With the word “kinsmen,” the 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 confined 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 Cullen’s “Heritage” and Brooks’ “The Anniad.”
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 the sonnet seems so well suited to convey human feeling that it can feel almost like a throat, a hand, a voice—and yes, also like a stanza or room that is especially well-proportioned to suit the human form.
Annie Finch’s books of poetry include Eve, Calendars, and The Encyclopedia of Scotland (Salt Publishing). Her other works include the definitive translation of the Complete Poems of Louise Labé, five anthologies of poetics, and the essay collection The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (in the Poets on Poetry Series from University of Michigan Press). Her collaborations with theater, art, and dance include the libretto for the opera Marina. She is Director of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine.