#13 “The Tropics in New York” (Claude McKay)

Claude McKay was the great elder statesman of the literary movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Like most of the poets of that Renaissance, McKay was not from Harlem; in fact, he was not from the U.S. at all. Born in Jamaica in 1890, McKay first came to the U.S. to go to college, and stayed on in New York to live, work, and write during the great ferment of artistic innovation after the First World War.

His great lyric poem “The Tropics in New York” is all about not being from New York. McKay was venerated by younger writers like Langston Hughes, but they didn’t often imitate his style, which was deliberately classicist and old-fashioned. Sometimes, to our ears, McKay’s diction can seem stilted. But in “Tropics” I think it strikes exactly the right note. Even the old spelling “grape fruit” (for once, that’s not a typo!) evokes a world where something as homely (to McKay, and to us in 21st century Texas) as a grapefruit can look out of place and exotic.

It’s a poem, if you will, about the world being flat. Nowadays, the fruit that McKay saw piled up at corner stalls in his post-WWI city is available in every supermarket in America. Not so much in the 1920s, when mangoes and “alligator pears” (avocados!) were rare luxuries. But New York, then as now, is a place where luxuries from every corner of the world are everyday sights. It is a city of immigrants – from around the globe and around the U.S. And it is a city where nostalgia is a way of life: for homelands far away, and for the past.

Both homeland and past converge in “The Tropics in New York” in one of the most delicately-rendered evocations of displacement in American poetry.

9 responses to “#13 “The Tropics in New York” (Claude McKay)

  1. Even though this poem has little content, it’s powerful to me. I am forced to think that the speaker of this poem is also the poet, Claude McKay who is from Jamaica. The speaker moved away from his country to America, New York specifically, where he was reminded of his home; in one particular area of New York. It’s so hard to see a busy street–particularly New York–as a tropical place becaue the tropics is a really serene place which is the opposite of New York. However, I guess there was a particular place that the speaker went to that was just like his country. I got the feeling that the speaker was really attached to his country and loved it as well because in the last sentence he says “I turned aside and bowed my head and wept”. This shows how home-sick he is; I can relate to him because when I’m placed in an unknown place and then I come across something that reminds me of home, I become really sad and wish to be home.

  2. decarlocoleman

    In the beginning of the poem, he uses imagery and symbolism. “Set in the window, bringing memories, of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills, and dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies”, he vividly describes the surroundings that he makes it seem we were actually surrounded by fruit-trees under the bright blue skies. The next literary element he uses is symbolism, but he does not use it separately from the part where he uses imagery. He combines the two literary elements into one, as he creates vivid images in our minds.” Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root, Cocoa in pods and alligator pears, and tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit”, he use these images to symbolize his homeland that he misses so much. Another literary element he uses is tone and mood. He uses these elements to convey his feelings of sadness and longing for his homeland. As homesickness is defined as feelings of one missing home, there are many different types of people who are affected by it. From young children to college students, homesickness can impact people very negatively. If it is not dealt with effectively, homesickness can lead to other emotions that are much deeper and could ultimately psychologically damage some people. The second aspect of homesickness is the affective state or emotional state. This is more problematic because the emotions experienced with homesickness must be internally processed. Emotions like sadness, depression and withdrawal are experienced by homesick individuals and can’t be immediately relieved .

  3. It seems like the speaker becomes homesick from looking at the different fruit. Gazing at the fruit brings a longing to be back home to a point where he can no longer gaze upon the fruit anymore and becomes sadden. It’s obvious that he is not from New York by the reminiscing he’s doing. He explains his home by describing the fruit. No matter how far away you are from home you will never forget it. You’ll long for home but never forget it. And sometimes your current surroundings remind you of home and trigger memories. You get a little sad like the speaker did. I like the imagery and symbols that are used in the poem. It paints a great picture or idea of home. The tone and mood of the poem paints his emotions very well. I feel that he was sad but not as much depressed. Him thinking about the past and home was sad because he wanted to be there and experience those feelings again but I feel it was something that made him feel good at the same time. For me at least memories of home bring me great joy and sadness because I want to experience that feeling again. But not depressed. Great poem.

  4. It’s amazing how powerful the mind is and how it can take us from where we are to where we want to be in no time at all. I think of the many times when something will peak my interest and send me to a place that I remember so well. For me, most of the time it’s my grandfathers farm and the simplicity that it had when I was a kid. Remembering the way we used to gather up anything we could find to entertain ourselves during the summer. Creating cars out of old wagon wheels, making a basketball goal out of an old bicycle tire and hiking through the pasture while enjoying the summer air were ways that we kept ourselves busy.
    And so it is with this poem. The individual involved in the poem thinks back on the many memories that he took away from his time in New York and all of the things that made it special. In particular, he thinks about the fruit that existed there. I can imagine that this was at some type of farmers market and this person found it to be a special place for him. It’s easy to see why, I mean in the hustle and bustle of a big city like New York, it would be refreshing to smell the different fruit and see the many different colors that accompany them. It would take you away… if only for a little while. Now he/she revisits this place in his mind. Not for long, because the place no longer exists. He has a longing to be there, to see and smell the times of old. He has what he describes as a HUNGER to be there but he knows that it’s not possible so he bows his head and weeps. How sad it is to only have memories of things that made you happy, but how GREAT it is to also have those memories.

  5. This poem is very sad to me because, being a person from another country, I can relate to how the person in the poem feels. The character describes a very beautiful place filled with different fruits growing in a tropical setting. People who live in big cities would call a place like this Paradise. Now the character of the poem is in a big city and he has to adapt to a way of life that is more stressful and more rapid than the place he came from. In his hometown, life was probably slow-paced and very calm and almost stress-free. Usually people move to big cities from tropical places like this is because of financial reasons. Everyone needs money and that includes people who live in a naturally created paradise. It’s not surprising that a person would miss their home. If I had to leave a beautiful place like his, I would surely cry along with him.

  6. The poem is about a person who is homesick and is constantly being reminded of his home by the fruits he sees everyday. The fruit is almost like his security because it helps get him through when he thinks about being back at home. I can relate to being homesick becuase when I first went off to college I was really homesick. It took me a while to get use to living on campus and my new surroundings. It is a tough situation to deal with. Reading this poem makes me sad and think about the times when I was homesick. I also like how the author describes the tropical place and all the fruits.

  7. “The Tropics of New York” is a short yet powerful poem about being homesick. It’s amazing how the speakers mind works, just the simple of association of home with the fruit displayed in the window. The imagery that the author uses to describe his homeland is beautiful. It goes to show how he regards it, giving it an almost fantasy like quality using words like “mystical”. Describing his homeland that way also helps the reader to feel the extent of his loss and the sorrow he feels right now. The last stanza is the most powerful for me; I could really feel his emotions coming through, especially in the last line. I really don’t understand the concept of being homesick because I really haven’t been far for a long time from home, but I understand the comfort that someone feels being in their own house and own homeland, wherever that might be. To be away from that comfort for so long and to be reminded of it is a harsh experience, even bringing the speaker in the poem to tears.

  8. The speaker of the poem clearly has become tired of the city and just wishes to be back home. The memories make it even harder. I like many can relate to this poem. While I visited a lot of poor undeveloped countries I missed home. I also missed the luxury of having pretty much anything I want. In the U.S. we become addicted to having it all and when its not around us, we long for it. The speaker misses the simple things in life. He doesn’t mention anything extraordinary, just simple things, that you learn to appreciate and love when it becomes a part of your everyday life because it is all you have. I must say though, that as much as I miss home when I’m away, I miss being away when I am home.

  9. “The Tropics of New York” by Claude McKay is a very colorful, yet small poem. When I heard this poem it really made me feel the sorrow of going from a beautiful place to ugliness. It really shows a big contrast between the feeling of home and a foreign place. I love how he uses such bright words to describe his environment, and objects that help him define it. The poem might be only a handful of lines but the difference from the beginning and end are very apparent. The description of the tropics is so vivid it almost pulls you into Jamaica. But then it shoots you right back to the darkness brought upon by the city. I really like poems like this, so maybe my opinion is biased. I would put this up there with the best poems read this semester.

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