Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Essay by Roy P. Basler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
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Critical Essay by Roy P. Basler

SOURCE: "The Heart of Blackness—M. B. Tolson's Poetry," in New Letters, Vol. 39, No. 3, March, 1973, pp. 63-76.

In the following essay, Basler recommends Tolson's poetry for a general readership as opposed to an exclusively African-American audience.

What American poet will symbolize and represent our milieu to readers in the future, as Shakespeare represents the Elizabethan, Milton the Puritan, or, to come closer, Whitman the Civil War era? Will it be Eliot? Pound? Sandburg? Frost? William Carlos Williams? Time may tell, perhaps is already telling, that although they spoke to us in a special voice, none knew us in our latitudinal-longitudinal complexity, or used quite our whole language with the love and imagination of a master. Will it be one of the younger generation of Roberts—Lowell, Duncan, Creeley, or—? I think not.

Even in our current concern with ecology, Eliot's The Waste Land seems something less than symbolic or representative of our age, though better than any other poem it suggests the spiritual vacuum of what has seemed to some the fading of the Christian era. Pound's Cantos, while brilliantly projecting the intellectual disillusion and aesthetic discord of a civilization gone rationally mad, are at best a schizoid satire, to be read obliquely. Sandburg's The People, Yes, like all his poetic work, so subtly musical and complex in the pagan mysticism with which it conveys the fluidity of hard "reality," to me appears an inadequate reflection of the spirit of the age. And so on.

In thus dropping, one by one, these great contemporaries, I must admit that to some extent I am conditioned by a view of American tradition and history which may be held by the cynical to be merely a vestige of our eighteenth century origins—what the historian Henry Commager has characterized as Thomas Jefferson's "prospective," as opposed to John Adams' "retrospective," concept of history and culture. With this confessed bias in mind, the reader may consider what follows, and its implications for literary study.

I suppose even those who read a great deal of modern poetry are inadequately prepared for reading a truly great poem for the first time. One's first reaction must be put off. Let's be careful, nil admirari as Cicero said, even when the poem comes most highly "introduced" by a scholar-poet-critic whom one respects, Allen Tate. Such was my reaction to M. B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia in 1953. Since then, things have been happening on the literary scene which make appreciation of poetry even more of a self-conscious quiddity. Remembering how M. Carl Holman's autobiographical, "The Afternoon of a Young Poet" recorded his suspicion that the white audience gave "the dancing bear … higher marks than a man might get for the same performance," my WASP appreciation of Tolson has had to survive some peculiar inner resistances to its own convictions, which a black critic may find it difficult to comprehend. Yet one must face the fact that literary study today is affected willy-nilly by the racial febricity in our sick society, whose antibodies seem hopefully to be overcoming the toxins, even those infecting the literary establishment.

My "appreciation," however, refuses to be squelched by the possibilities of either exaggeration or mitigation, in the view that Tolson is perhaps the poet of our era who best represents, or comes nearest to representing, in his comprehensive humanity, the broadest expanse of the American character, phrased in the richest poetic idiom of our time. Better than his contemporary peers, he knew the span from low-brow to high-brow in both life and literature, and he loved the American English language, from gutter to ivory tower, better than any of them. His poetic diction is a natural blend of home words and hall words, where hearth and bema sing side by side. He is the natural poet who cultivated his nature, both root and branch, for the flower and the seed, for it was the seed even more than the flower, Ruskin to the contrary, that Tolson the poet believed art grew for—yes, the "yellow wasps of the sun swarm down," but when Tolson's "New Negro" speaks for "his America," the word is more American perhaps than any of his great contemporaries have spoken.

In his first book, Rendezvous with America Tolson established his lyric strength and a relatively simple but frequently incisive diction. Most simply put his message reads:

     A man
     Is what
     He saves
     From rot.

The success of Tolson's metaphor is its appropriateness to the poem in which it grows. In a simple poem about a great teacher whose community "struck him down" it is "the gallows of ignorance that hanged the little town." One of his best early poems, "The Ballad of the Rattlesnake," apparently the only ballad he ever wrote, epitomizes with simplicity the brutal tragedy of the sharecropper's lot, whether black or white, in the image of an Apache Indian mode of torturing a prisoner:

      The desert holds
      In its frying pan
      The bones of a snake
      And the bones of a man.
      And many a thing
      With a rock on its tail
      Kills the nearest thing
      And dies by the trail.

On the other hand, in one of his most complex and allusive later poems—more allusive even than Eliot or Pound or Hart Crane—he begins in sarcastic good humor at the expense of learning and poetry, with a metaphor that only a great poet with a great sense of humor could devise to laugh off the pomp of his proud occasion as Poet Laureate of Liberia, and follows it immediately and miraculously with magical reversal of image to exalt the living truth which escapes not only his occasion, but all occasions, and all words.

        No Micro-footnote in a bunioned book
           Homed by a pedant
           With a gelded look:
             You are
           The ladder of survival dawn men saw
           In the quicksilver sparrow that slips
             The eagle's claw!

Reading the author's footnotes to such a marvelously complex poetic tapestry as the Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is almost as much of a literary adventure as reading the poem, and the impulse to add notes of one's own for their own sake is all but irresistible, in spite of the poet's serio-comic warning in the opening lines just quoted. How humorously serious in poetics this heroic ode waxes in its flamboyance seems to have escaped even the admiration in which Allen Tate wrote his introduction. Perhaps Tate did not approve Tolson's laughing about a technique Tate's masters, Eliot and Pound, had created all too seriously as the hallmark of modern poetry. To appreciate fully Tolson's aesthetic one must abandon the humorless restraints of the "new criticism" and revel in the sheer delight of a superbly scholarly Negro artist at work with words, on a rostrum and with a message, more exalted than any ever afforded even James Weldon Johnson's preacher. No other American—one almost said no other poet—has ever blended the comic and heroic as well as the comic and tragic in a flight so high. Perhaps only a scholar-poet of a downtrodden race could have dared it. In any event, the only "creation" I have ever heard or read that even suggests viable comparison was the sermon of a well-educated Negro "holiness" preacher, many years ago, delivered to a black congregation, black except for two white college students who had slipped in and whose presence in no way inhibited, but I am inclined to think may even have further inspired, the improvisation of extempore poetry distilled by an American Negro's imagination from Hebrew sources that were our common cultural heritage. Who's afraid of big words, arcane words, low-down words, any words of any kind that are possible to poetry? Not M. B. Tolson, when he sings the meaning of Liberia and the hope of humanity.

The Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is not only one of the great odes in the English language, it is in many respects one of the finest poems of any kind published in the English language during the twentieth century, so far as my acquaintance goes. Allen Tate's minor caveats are meaningless to me in the presence of Tolson's afflatus and Jovian humor. I get carried away. And the "irony," which Tate comments on, that an American government has never, could never have, commissioned such an official poem to be read in Washington, only reminds me that I agree with Tolson that "these truths," of which Jefferson wrote, are bearing and will bear fruits for which white Americans must yet acquire the taste. Imagine if you can the humor of this black Pindar of a Mark Twain celebrating the dignity of the small African republic founded by American ex-slaves with a poem at once so everyday American and yet so arcane, abstruse, and allusive that even with the author's notes it flies largely over the highbrow heads, not merely in his Liberian audience but of his fellow countrymen, white or black, literati suckled on Eliot and Pound for a quarter century! To imagine one of the less difficult but enormously pregnant passages marching across the years with heavy tread is to appreciate what Tolson will be when his black and white kinfolk come up to him:

       Like some gray ghoul from Alcatraz,
    old Profit, the bald rake paseq, wipes the bar,
          polishes the goblet vanity,
          leers at the tigress Avarice
          she harlots roués from afar:
       swallowtails unsaved by loincloths,
       famed enterprises prophesying war,
    hearts of rags (Hanorish tharah sharinas) souls of
       laureates with sugary grace in zinc buckets of
          myths rattled by the blue print's talk,
           ists potted and pitted by a feast,
             Red Ruin's skeleton horsemen, four
               … galloping …
            Marx, the exalter, would not know his
               … galloping …
           Nor Christ, the Leveler, His West.

For one who cut his literary eyeteeth explicating the civilized soul of T. S. Eliot's eunuch Prufrock, not to mention assorted passages depicting psychotic brunettes fiddling "whisper music" on their long black hair, et cetera, et cetera, this kind of poetry is "a fun thing," as the "mod" collegians like to describe their own "bag" today. Half a page of poetry with half a page of notes to explain it, notes which themselves frequently challenge the reader no less than does the poetry. And all for the fun of it. For example, here is Tolson's note on the line "old Profit, the bald rake paseq, wipes the bar."

Paseq: "divider." This is the vertical line that occurs about 480 times in our Hebrew Bible. Although first mentioned in the Midrash Rabba in the eleventh century, it is still the most mysterious sign in the literature.

How abstrusely appropriate a "visual" word can a poet find to name his personification of the motive most extolled in the gospel of capitalism by Chamber of Commerce evangelists? Not merely as a "vertical" dispenser of intoxicants to the habitués of this whore house, but also, something Tolson's note does not tell us, the not-at-all mysterious use of the paseq in the Hebrew Bible, namely to call the tune, so that the reader will not read two words together that should properly stand apart.

What Tolson undertook, I think, with great success, was to liberate the allusive, scholarly poetry Eliot created from the service of Eliot's sterile tradition and philosophy, and, while embellishing it with large humor, to put it to use as a vehicle for his own "prospective" view of human history.

Such is the fantastic poem published in 1953 by the poet who in 1962, nearly a decade later, was not invited to participate in "the National Poetry Festival" held at the Library of Congress, along with some thirty established poets, because he was not well enough known among the literati who had adulated Eliot and Pound for a generation. One wonders, was it the music or the theme of Tolson's song that put them off?

Anecdote of a committee of poets. "What about Tolson?" "Who?" "M. B. Tolson, you know—Libretto for the Republic of Liberia." "Oh, well, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks are much better established."

That the committee was all white was not the trouble, for even if it had been a committee of all black poets the verdict would probably have been the same, for "'tis true 'tis pity / And pity 'tis 'tis true" that even yet black studies scholars seem not much better acquainted with Tolson's work than are the white scholars across the hall from them. One of our most distinguished black men of letters told me recently of reviewing for a leading publisher the manuscript of an anthology of the allegedly "best" Negro writers, which omitted M. B. Tolson but gave considerable space to Leroi Jones. It is indeed time, not only to begin revising the curricula of our schools so that the black man's contribution to American civilization may be honestly appreciated, but also to begin improving the literary judgment of the people who are revising the curricula.

It has been said by recent black writers that the black writer today must write primarily for black readers. It has also been said that the black writer must also write for white readers, or have few readers. Tolson recognized in his blood and bones as well as in his head that such statements are partial truths, and he set about writing for any reader who would take as much trouble to enjoy the reading as he took to enjoy the writing of poetry. Karl Shapiro has said that Tolson "writes Negro." True perhaps to some extent, but what does it mean when Tolson sounds to me more like Tolson (as Whitman sounds like Whitman) than he sounds like a Negro and more like a man than a member of any race? It happens he was Negro-Irish-Cherokee, with as much or little as any of us to be proud of in the matter of ancestry. And intellectually he was more a Jeffersonian of the basic Jeffersonian tradition than most white Americans have ever been since Jefferson himself. For he believed in equality of "the man inside," which is the title of his tribute to his friendship with a white writer, V. F. Calverton:

      They told me—the voices of hates in the land—
      They told me that White is White and Black is Black;
      That the children of Africa are scarred with a brand
      Ineradicable as the spots on the leopard's back.
      They told me that gulfs unbridgeable lie
      In the no man's seascapes of unlike hues,
      As wide as the vertical of earth and sky,
      As ancient as the grief in the seagull's news.
      They told me that Black is an isle with a ban
      Beyond the pilgrim's Continent of Man.
      I yearned for the mainland where my brothers live.
      The cancerous isolation behind, I swam
      Into the deeps, a naked fugitive,
      Defying tribal fetishes that maim and damn.
      And when the typhoon of jeers smote me and hope
      Died like a burnt-out world and on the shore
      The hates beat savage breasts, you threw the rope
      And drew me into the catholic Evermore.
      We stood on common ground, in transfiguring light,
      Where the man inside is neither Black nor White.

Typical of the young black intellectuals today espousing a "Black Aesthetic" is the critic Don Lee, who in a review of Robert Hayden's Kaleidescope, an anthology of Afro-American poetry, dismisses Tolson because of "his capacity to lose the people that may read him," namely, the black reader. It is Lee's belief that "Afro-Americans are better prepared to pass judgment" on black writers than are white critics. The shibboleth on which black aesthetes are choking is "relevance." If Tolson is not "relevant," it is because his reader, black or white, has not measured intelligence with him. Where black phrase-makers of the last instant are telling both black and white people that "violence is as American as cherry pie," Tolson would still remind us that

     … on the Courthouse Square
     A statue of the Lost Cause bayonets
     Contemporary air.

And, he hoped, black or white may be wise and kind as well as beautiful:

               Speaks in pantomime
             In spite of mimic clocks
       And dirty voices on the soapless box.
        Saints the unity of blood and clime
       Martyred by Caesars of the Undersoul
     Who rape the freedoms and their crimes extoll.

It is such wisdom and kindness that Tolson, somewhat atypically among midcentury black intellectuals, recognized as the essence of Abraham Lincoln's humanity. His appreciation of Lincoln as a man, attested in a remarkable piece published in the column Caviar and Cabbage which Tolson contributed during 1938 to the Washington Tribune, was further evidenced in his long poem "Abraham Lincoln of Rock Spring Farm," published in Herbert Hill's anthology Soon, One Morning. In my judgment, this is one of the finest poems written about Lincoln since Whitman, and certainly the outstanding poem about Lincoln's genesis. It is, however, a deliberately plain, if heroic, poem, where the Libretto is a polyphonic and syncopated fugue. Perhaps his recognition of a certain kinship of spirit, as well as his respect for Lincoln's genius, ran close to the river bed of Tolson's frequently turbulent current of words.

Tolson's unfinished masterpiece, The Harlem Gallery, was planned to be a major epical work, of which only the prologue, "Book I: The Curator," was published in 1965, the year before his death, with a brilliant introduction by Karl Shapiro. Although one can only speculate about the overall plan, which called for four books—Egypt Land, The Red Sea, The Wilderness, and The Promised Land—to follow "Book I: The Curator;" the latter stands alone as a unique work for which traditional poetic terminology has no entirely adequate word. It is not an ode, as was the Libretto, though in some respects like it, but rather a kind of lyricdramatic narrative sermon in verse. In any event it is as carefully and often as intricately structured as a Tantric mandala, but swinging with Harlem rhythm and sublimely mingling the idiom of bedroom, street slang, scholarly diction, Shakespearean metaphor, and foreign tongues with a controlled abandon that only a poet who had observed all levels of life and touched all aspects of language could command.

Perhaps the one other fine poem with which The Harlem Gallery may be compared best is Langston Hughes' Montage of A Dream Deferred. Both poems are deeply moving and highly charged with emotion for any reader whose humanity spans more than one extreme of the color spectrum. Both poems are distillations of American English, but Hughes writes quite legitimately as a folk poet, with no particular obeisance to or love for either the matter or the manner of literary tradition, whereas Tolson employs very nearly the entire art and learning, not merely of the Hebraic-Christian-Classical tradition, but Oriental and African literary lore as well. Comparing Hughes and Tolson, however, is like comparing Robert Burns and John Milton, either useful or useless, depending on whether one really knows both—and the difference.

Consider as illustration the section "Theta," which states Tolson's aesthetic in richly allusive, but colloquial, fashion and clinches the bitter truth of art from Harlem to Paris, or Rome—that pleasure and happiness are not one and the same:

         No guinea pig of a spouse
       to be cuckolded in a mood indigo,
         no gilded in-and-out beau
       to crackle a jen de mots about the house—
       Art, the woman Pleasure, makes no blind dates,
         but keeps the end of the tryst with one:
         she is a distant cousin of aeried Happiness
       the love bird seeks against the eye-wrying sun,
              in spite of her fame;
             dubious as Galen's sight
           of a human body dissected,
         in spite of the hap in her name,
              ominous as a red light.
                   The claw-thrust
                 of a rutting tigress,
                     the must
                   of a rogue elephant—
              these con the bull of predictability,
                     like Happiness
              a capriccio bastard-daughter of Tyche.
              KKK, the beatnik guitarist, used to say
                     to High Yellah Baby
                   (before he decided to rub
                   out the light of his eyes
       in the alley of Hinnom behind the Haw-Haw Club):
       "The belle dame—Happiness—the goofy dream of
              is a bitch who plays with crooked dice
                     the game of love."

It is not The Waste Land or Four Quartets, I think, which limn the present or light the future with the past so well that scholars salvaging libraries of this era may someday guess what manner of men were we. Nor is it even Sandburg's The People, Yes, nor William Carlos Williams' Paterson, but Tolson's The Harlem Gallery, rather, where the heart of blackness with the heart of whiteness lies revealed. Man, what do you think you are is not the white man's question but the black man's rhetorical answer to the white man's question. No poet in the English language, I think, has brought larger scope of mind to greater depth of heart than Melvin Tolson in his unfinished song to the soul of humanity.

Tolson's learning makes a mockery of the proud ignorance of a John C. Calhoun, who was quoted that "if he could find a Negro who knew Greek syntax, he would believe that the Negro was a human being." What it makes of the utterances of some of Calhoun's latter-day disciples is difficult to choose a word for. But more than his learning and intelligence, it is his art that makes a mockery of all racial pride or prejudice.

The message of The Harlem Gallery is that art, like humanity, knows no single race or peculiar color of its own. Art is human rather than Negro, Caucasian, or whatever, and the terms African art, or European art, or Afro-American art are named for the artist's immediate audience, not for his craft or his imagination, each of which is his and not his country's or his people's except by his largesse. So "English poetry" is a meaningless term except as it means "in English language," but "Shakespeare's poetry" or "Keats' poetry" means, as "Homer's poetry" or "Tolson's poetry," the unmistakable creation of its maker. This is a lesson that the study of any artist will teach, but that Tolson can teach with especial power, today and tomorrow.

And yet, granting the unique stamp of the creator on his matter, there is also the indubitable representation of his milieu, with which his culture has outfitted him, no less than the snake's or the fawn's, "nature" has outfitted him, so that he "belongs". Only the intellectually and culturally deprived, especially those unaware of their deprivation, can any longer fail to see that American culture, as Albert Murray has pointed out in The Omni-Americans, is neither white nor black, but mulatto. And what is true of American culture in general is particularly true of American language and is becoming more and more true of American literature. However Eliotic the retrospective tradition may seem to those who understand only what they have been taught, the Tolsonian prospect lies certainly, and I think clearly, ahead.

Poetry provided for M. B. Tolson what research, teaching, writing, and publication failed to provide for his black counterparts in the world of science, education, and learning—an opportunity to employ his intellect and project his identity as a man in a realm where skin color was nonsignificant. Classical scholarship of the highest order might not permit William S. Scarborough to move and mingle on the level of his peers in WASP universities or learned societies any more than historical scholarship would permit Carter G. Woodson, or scientific discovery and accomplishment would permit William A. Hinton, to receive the respect and rewards that would have been showered upon a white man with their respective accomplishments; but classical and historical scholarship of high order accompanied by anthropological knowledge of wide expanse could blend with the art of poetry to transcend the intellectual, scientific, and religious poverty of human relationships in a society and a culture still bound by a myth of white superiority. One might find himself forced to be a Negro historian, but not a Negro poet. One could be a man, and proudly a Negro, and especially a poet, without specializing in being primarily the Negro on the one hand, or apologizing for being one on the other. This M. B. Tolson felt, believed, declared, and demonstrated. To my mind, this is a supreme accomplishment of an individual human spirit in American in our day, to which moon-walking as the supreme collective accomplishment of our engineering know-how shines like a candle in broad daylight, Tolson refused the fate of what he termed

            the white and not-white dichotomy
          the Afroamerican dilemma in the Arts—
                     the dialectic of
      to be or not to be
                              a Negro

Art was the means by which he believed not only an individual poet but also mankind could transcend, in some measure, both the past and the present in the future, if mankind put art to its highest use in recreating human life. So his prospective view, like Jefferson's, saw the imagined passing into the real, rather than the reverse, as taught by a sterile school of letters, that art merely imitates. And he addressed his concluding question and answer in The Harlem Gallery thus:

                              White Boy
                              Black Boy,
          What if this Harlem Exhibition becomes
                    a cause célèbre?....
               Our public may possess in Art
            a Mantegna figure's arctic rigidity;
                    yet—I hazard—yet,
            this allegro of the Harlem Gallery
                    is not a chippy fire,
        for here, in focus, are paintings that chronicle
               a people's New World odyssey
                  from chattel to Esquire!

Tolson has written of American life as it is and will be. He has taken our white-black culture and imagined it into a new thing more representative of the modern human condition than any of his contemporary peers among poets has managed to create, and it is not "negritude," although he has plenty of that, but "humanitude" that enabled him to accomplish the feat. I do not expect anyone to accept this judgment until he has read and appreciated Tolson's poetry for himself, and I do not expect professors of American literature to accept it generally for perhaps a quarter century, but Tolson's recognition will come as surely as has Whitman's.

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This section contains 4,223 words
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Critical Essay by Roy P. Basler from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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