This section contains 4,817 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Patricia R. Schroeder
SOURCE: "Point and Counterpoint in Harlem Gallery," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, December, 1983, pp. 152-68.
In the following essay, Schroeder discusses Tolson's Harlem Gallery and asserts that "the character of the Curator and the central dilemma in which he is placed provide a perfect vehicle for an examination of social divisions and conflicting roles."
Although first published in 1965, Melvin B. Tolson's highly allusive poem Harlem Gallery has yet to attract much critical recognition. With the exception of an unpublished dissertation, a rather general critical biography, a handful of reviews, and some widely scattered articles, the poem has been virtually ignored; as Robert M. Farnsworth has recently expressed it, "Critics and scholars have been ducking the challenge of his [Tolson's] work for years." The reasons for this neglect of a modern masterpiece undoubtedly stem from the difficulties of the poem itself; the density of its allusions and the erudite perplexities of its language. Until a much-needed annotated edition of the poem is published, however, we can begin to penetrate its ornate facade by isolating important clusters of imagery and significant movements in its narrative structure, thereby locating the focal points for subsequent critical investigations of its provocative thematic complexities.
In a brief note on T. S. Eliot, Tolson himself has given us a clue to one such focal point in Harlem Gallery. He says, "Eliot antithesizes in order to synthesize—that is the root of thinking—which is establishing a definite relation between ideas and groups of ideas." This movement from thesis to antithesis, from point to counterpoint in a dialectic interplay, produces a central impulse in Harlem Gallery, directing the flow of its narrative and informing much of its imagery. Midway through the poem this issue is explicitly invoked, as Dr. Obi Nkomo says to the troubled Curator of the Harlem Gallery:
The midwife of reality.
The cream separator of life.
The sieve, Curator, of wheat and chaff.
Such images of bifurcation, clearly recognized as significant by the wise and flexible Nkomo, recur constantly throughout the poem and explain much of its action and language. Through the controlling consciousness of the Curator, himself suffering from a number of social and emotional ruptures and lacking Nkomo's cheerful equilibrium, the poet explores some seemingly irreconcilable points and counter-points of life in Harlem and the world of the modern artist, including the oppositions inherent in all structures founded on democratic compromise, and the confusion about personality which often accompanies a split in social roles. But as we follow the Curator's wanderings (both mental and physical) through the twenty-four sections of the poem, from alpha to omega, through blackness and whiteness, through highbrow and lowbrow, from the public functions of art to the private ones, and from lofty philosophical abstractions to dismal ghetto reality, we come to share his growing acceptance of the constant interplay of opposites which defines life. With the Curator, we learn that an awareness of the disparate elements of existence and a conscious personal attempt to maintain equanimity can be in itself a balance between polarities.
The character of the Curator and the central dilemma in which he is placed provide a perfect vehicle for an examination of social divisions and conflicting roles. Both raceless (his "Afroirishjewish" heritage has left him with a fair skin which belies his sense of belonging to the Negro community) and classless (he exists in a sort of limbo between the opulence of the gallery Regents and the poverty of his Lenox Avenue familiars), the Curator furnishes us with an educated, bipolar intelligence with which to view the different worlds he inhabits.
In the theoretical treatise "Alpha" through "Epsilon" which begins (or perhaps introduces) the poem, the Curator attempts to define his function as caretaker of the fine arts and to establish in his own mind the nature and functions of art, both in the gallery and in the Harlem community. Mister Starks' characterization of the Harlem Gallery as "the creek that connects the island and the mainland" is painfully, if ironically, apt; the Curator's task is to bridge that creek which in reality separates the lives of the Harlemites from the world of art. For the Curator, art should be essentially wedded to life; it is "not barrel copper easily separated / from the matrix"; it is part of a creative process as human and as necessary as the sexual instinct. In order that art remain a living organism, however, each generation of artists must reshape in its own idiom the materials it inherits; unfortunately, the stratification of society has paralyzed this creative process and arrested intercultural advancement. The artist's need to choose between God and Caesar for patronage has torn art away from the people who most need its succor, and at the same time denied the enrichment of popular culture to the fine arts themselves. The Curator deplores the academic, the commercial, and the political uses of art. He seeks to present a kind of art in the Harlem Gallery which will speak to all men on all sides of social barricades and which will connect the island with the mainland; he believes and hopes to demonstrate that art is the medium which can integrate opposites. The Curator's immediate, agonizing dilemma, then—and a large problem for one who "in the drama Art, / with eye and tongue, / … play[s] a minor vocative part"—is to reconcile the best of the active, personal world of popular tastes to the financial interests of the gallery Regents. In effect, he must harmonize the demands of God with those of Caesar.
The Curator must thus wear a variety of masks, and his awareness of the prescribed social roles he must play is underscored by his constant use of dramatic imagery and stage directions. His confusion as to the suitability of his masks is evident from the inversions with which he describes himself: "Sometimes a Roscius as tragedian, sometimes a Kean as clown." Perhaps the essential conflicts he feels between his two primary roles (Negro and Curator) as well as his inhibitions about his ability to play them allows him greater sensitivity to the plight of the artist who "endures / —like Everyman— / alone." Like the artist, the Curator is denied unequivocal acceptance in any of the social spheres in which he moves; his refusal to separate his world of art from the general tenor of ghetto life partially excludes him from both.
The Curator's constant efforts to incorporate diametric opposites into an integrated whole are manifest on every level of the poem, from basic setting and structure to character and language. Even his linguistic habits reflect his desperate attempts to seek out the similarities between things, to somehow make his life a work of art. The richly metaphoric texture of his rather baroque, conceited language displays both his interest in artistic form and the underlying pattern of his thoughts: the very structure of metaphor indicates a tension, an attempt to literalize abstraction by analogy and comparison. The selection and combination of two patently unlike objects based on some minor likeness between them (that is, the construction of a metaphor or simile) indicates the Curator's inability to appreciate the contexts which bind things and reflects his desire to establish internal points of connection. His continual battle to reconcile unlike worlds causes the Curator to discuss his situation in deliberately pretentious analogies; for him, the interplay of "Heart and Hand and Soul" renders man's experience "Like Caesar's Gaul, / like the papal tiara, tripartite," and the Zulu Club wits when drunk become
like the similes in the first book of the Iliad,
like the idiom the Nazarene spoke,
like ski pants at the ankle.
The Curator's extensive use of puns likewise exhibits his dilemma; based on a single structure with several sharply diverse meanings, a pun can express linguistically the Curator's awareness of his own multiplicity of roles. The very tone of his voice is divided, presenting us with a simultaneous sense of comic and tragic. As we shall see, however, the poem ends with a comic acceptance of the polarities of life and with an affirmation of the probable—that life will continue, that man and his art will both endure, and that the tension between the poles of the Curator's life is finally the element which gives it shape and meaning.
The entire movement of Harlem Gallery is paradoxical. The poem achieves a linear progression in that the Curator, through his ponderings, his experiences, and his relationships with the other characters, comes to a fuller understanding of himself and the roles he must play. The poem also proceeds dialectically, however, working in terms, characters, and events paired by their fluid and interacting distinctions rather than by strict and inviolable oppositions. The first five sections of general theory can stand alone (and have, in Prarie Schooner); they present the set of assumptions which motivate the Curator throughout the action which follows. As the drama ensues, we are presented (in "Zeta" through "Xi") with a variety of scenes counterpointing the inhabitants and the art of the Gallery coterie with those of the Zulu Club, and emphasizing the Curator's attempts to define his place in each world. In "Omicron" and "Pi" the Curator returns to the realm of abstract speculation, but now incorporates his new experiences into his philosophy. For example, Dr. Nkomo intrudes into the speaker's consciousness several times here, whereas the earlier theoretical sections included no characters. Like wise, the Curator's previous awareness that the age determines its art is buttressed (after his meeting with John Laugart) by his new, bitter understanding that the artist must bow to the predominating powers if he hopes for survival. In language deflated from the Latin "O Tempora / … O Mores" of the early "Beta" chapter which it echoes, he wonders how art can survive in an age motivated by political expediency:
O Time, O Customs,
how can an artist make merry
in the tenderloin's maw,
unless he add a head and a wing and a claw
to the salamander of Gerry?
These two sections occur roughly at the midpoint of the poem's action and divide it into two contrasting halves; the second part, however, moves in the same dialectic fashion. The Curator returns to street scenes in Harlem with his new experiences absorbed into his philosophic framework, but the discovery of Hideho Heights' secret poem, coupled with the objective view of his own actions afforded him by Mister Starks' Harlem Vignettes, causes the Curator a serious psychic shock; he must once again reevaluate himself and reassess his position. This constant oscillation between abstract theory and concrete reality produces a repetition that somehow progresses, and is understood best in the Curator's own metaphor: he has moved "across the dialectic Alps from Do to Do"; he has returned to the note on which he began, but with the improved vantage point of a higher octave and a clearer appreciation of the pattern.
The dramatic action of the poem revolves around three Harlem artists—each of whom is torn between his private reality and his publicly accepted art—and the effects of their works on the Curator. Immediately following the theoretical prologue to the drama, we meet John Laugart, a half-blind, half-dressed "castaway talent" who is more than half-afraid of the controversy his painting may engender. In a deliberate parody of the symbolic diction which characterized the five theoretical sections of the poem, "Zeta" opens with the alert squeakings of a "Hamletian" tenement rat (hardly the Afric pepper bird which awakened the Curator to his cause) and the grumblings of an ancient toilet. We have clearly deserted the spheres of aesthetic theory and entered the world of Harlem reality. Laugart, however, a physical manifestation of the Curator's theories, is unwilling to divorce his art from ghetto experiences. As its title implies, his Black Bourgeoisie apparently satirizes the black elite who have divorced themselves from their cultural heritage and have "accepted unconditionally the values of the white bourgeois world: its morals and its canons of respectability, its standards of beauty and consumption." The Curator sees the painting as a potential cross-cultural bridge, a vehicle for bringing the "babbitted souls" of the Regents back in touch with their folk backgrounds, and art back in touch with life. He says of the painting, "[T]his, somehow, [is] a synthesis / (savage—sensitive) / of Daumier and Gropper and Picasso"—all artists, like Laugart, noted for the social concerns of their work. After some prodding by the Curator, Laugart rises to the challenge of the tight-fisted Regents—"the doges in the Harlem manger"—and refuses to misrepresent or undervalue his work. His final heroic statement is undercut by his imminent death at the hands of a Harlem burglar, but his words linger on in the Curator's mind:
"It matters not a tinker's dam
on the hither or thither side of the Acheron
how many rivers you cross
if you fail to cross the Rubicon!"
All that remains for Laugart himself is "infamy, / the Siamese twin / of fame," but like his prophetic words, his Black Bourgeoisie remains alive and important in the mind of the Curator. As a central point of interest and contention in the gallery's latest exhibit, by the end of the poem Black Bourgeoisie has become a bête noire for the Regents and a test of the Curator's ability to cross his own Rubicon.
In contrast to John Laugart, whose defiance of the Regents emphasizes the hitherto private world of art he inhabited, is Mister Starks, whose death in the second half of the poem counterpoints that of Laugart in the first. Different from Laugart in his public success as a composer, Starks, too, bequeaths a painful legacy to the Curator in the penetrating candor of his private manuscript, Harlem Vignettes. Mister Starks is aware of the disjunction that has occurred in his life, allowing him to produce both barroom successes—Rhapsody in Black and White—and classical compositions—Black Orchid Suite; he says of himself, "My talent was an Uptown whore; my wit a Downtown pimp." He also recognizes the similarities between his predicament and that of the painter Laugart: in the first stanza of his Vignettes he mentions Laugart, then continues with a bitter question:
Am I not a Negro, a Harlemite, an artist—
a trinity that stinks the ermine robes
of the class-conscious seraphs?
Like Laugart's painting, Starks' manuscript becomes "the birth-after-the-father-is-buried / [which] will doubtless fetch no white laurel of joys, / no black crepe of regrets"; however, the poem helps the Curator acknowledge the possibilities of his position, and encourages him to defend Black Bourgeoisie in the face of his own Hamletian fears.
Despite the tremendous impact on the Curator of both Black Bourgeoisie and Harlem Vignettes, the artist-character who exerts the strongest influence on him is the complex Hideho Heights. A chameleon-like figure in all respects, in his bifurcated existence Hideho also reiterates the personal and aesthetic problems set forth by the Curator. Often described in images of American Indians, Hideho evidently comes from a mixed racial ancestry which emphasizes the internal division produced by
the bifacial nature of his poetry:
the racial ballad in the public domain
and the private poem in the modern vein.
A former expatriate "bistro habitué," Hideho moves comfortably in all realms of the poem, from the elegant gallery opening to the neighborhood dives; his existence, unlike that of Laugart or Starks, spans both halves of the work. Unfortunately, Hideho Heights makes no attempt to reconcile the worlds in which he lives. He maintains a private poetic existence apart from his public role as Poet Laureate of Lenox Avenue, and thereby violates his own understanding of the nature of art:
"A work of art is a two-way street,
not a dead end,
where an artist and a hipster meet."
Recapitulating the fates of both Laugart and Starks, Heights will eventually be destroyed by his bipolar existence. In him, we see the entire process of dislocation, which we glimpsed only briefly in Laugart and Starks, completed and personified.
We first meet Hideho Heights at the opening of the new gallery exhibit, against a background of "Blakean tigers and lambs on the wall"; we soon realize that his split psyche reflects The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and that both the tiger and the lamb reside, unassimilated, within him. It is here that we first sample Hideho's work, as he recites for the Curator his tribute to Satchmo. This poem provides many clues to the source of the rift in Hideho's talents and recalls the peculiar juxtapositions within Harlem Gallery itself. He delivers the poem in a public place, but to a limited audience of one; the poem itself, ostensibly a hymn of praise to Louis Armstrong, can also be interpreted as an ironic expression of disgust at the stereotypical Uncle Tom image Armstrong preserved. The work exudes the simple faith of a Negro spiritual (ending, as it does, with Gabriel's trumpet), but contains allusions to academic literature as well (Villon's "Ballad of Ladies of Times Gone By" is thematically and rhythmically echoed in the second stanza). Despite the popular appeal of Hideho's work, then, he is apparently an educated man, capable of describing the Curator in Shakespearean terms and recognizing the rattle of "Eliotic bones." The very subject of the poem at hand indicates the division within the poet; by celebrating the power of Satchmo's horn to "syncopate the heart and mind," Hideho emphasizes both the jazz rhythms which permeate his own poetry and his inability to integrate his talents or reconcile his roles.
We next encounter a truly public version of Hideho in performance at the Zulu Club, playing his part as the people's bard; he is now as much rhetorician as poet, gearing the themes and forms of his poetry to the audience at hand and painfully suppressing his personal poetic interests. In these Zulu Club performances art is indeed a two-way street, as the audience's lively response interrupts the recitation and reshapes the poem in the telling:
The Zulu Club patrons whoop and stomp,
clap thighs and backs and knees:
the poet and the audience one,
each gears itself to please.
Before the Club regulars, the "vagabond bard" loses all pretension to modernist art as he celebrates a mythic Negro hero in standard folk rhythms. "The Birth of John Henry" reverberates with a traditional comic affirmation of the strength of the individual and belies the pain of the poet as his art plays pander to his spiritual needs.
In "E.&O.E.," however, we discover a very different Hideho Heights. The fragments of the poem with which we are presented exhibit a profound sense of fatality; the poet speaks in a personal idiom about alienation and obscurity, about the frustration of a black artist who, in order to communicate with his own people, must allow his audience to dictate the forms his art will take:
Why place a dry pail
before a well
of dry bones?
The hopelessness evinced by the poem is a function of Hideho's Janus role. Riven by his desire to appeal to an audience that is unable to appreciate contemporary poetic forms, he feels that the tension between his conflicting identities has squeezed him into
the white and non-white dichotomy,
the Afroamerican dilemma in the Arts—
the dialectic of
to be or not to be
Hideho's belief that "a man's conscience is home-bred" is at odds with his modernist talent, and his failure to reconcile theory with reality causes his dissipation. Just as John Laugart was destroyed by his tenement situation and Mister Starks was a victim of the corrupt upper echelons into which he had moved, Hideho Heights gives us the fully realized portrait of a man who fails in his attempt to inhabit two distinct spheres, a man incapable of incorporating his many avatars into a single identity. As the Curator says:
These Lion Hearts (then) are unsynchronized
gentlemen and galoots
Hideho Heights' unwitting personal revelations, combined with the Curator's previous experiences with Laugart and Starks, have an immeasurable effect on the Curator's conscience; he becomes increasingly aware that the agony of the artist is augmented terribly by the added pain—and seeming contradiction—of also being black. He begins to understand that in his capacity as Curator, he may somehow be able to alleviate that pain and prove the contradiction false. Through Starks' Vignettes he attains an honest evaluation of his lack of courage; through Heights' "E.&O.E." he comes to understand that personal apathy and feelings of hopelessness only widen the gap and further the dilemma; and in Laugart's Black Bourgeoisie he finds a cause.
The split in personal identity manifest by the Curator and the artist characters of the poem is apparent on much broader levels as well; as we saw in the case of Laugart and Starks, many characters are presented contrapuntally. Mr. and Mrs. Guy Delaporte III are described as
with a frown like curd;
with a smile like whey.
Likewise, the activities of the impoverished would-be intellectuals—the Zulu Club Wits, "dusky vestiges of the University Wits"—are seen in bitter contrast to those of the "Cadillac Philistines" who patronize the gallery. Even within these seemingly cohesive groups contention exists and internal discord presides: the Regents' meetings are described as "bull rings of pros and cons," and the Zulu Club discussions revolve around picky literary debates.
A figure central to both these forums of debate (and necessary for a clear understanding of the Curator) is Dr. Obi Nkomo, "the alter-ego of the Harlem Gallery," and in many respects the alter-ego of the Curator: "Perhaps we are twin colors in a crystal," the Doctor says. Like a negative version of the fair-skinned Curator, Nkomo is an outsider—a Bantu expatriate and not a native Harlemite; both his background and inclinations equip the Doctor with a cynical philosophy which allows him to view Harlem activities with a detachment completely lacking in the Curator. Nkomo appreciates the emotional distance from life he has developed, and his guru-like tranquility renders him an apt foil for the troubled Curator. "Aeons separate my native veld / and your peaks of philosophy," he declares. But Nkomo, too, has confronted internal tensions and a variety of roles:
His psyche was a half-breed,
a bastard of Barbarus and Cultura;
and the twain shall never meet
on the D-Day dreaded by the Scholar-Gypsy.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the dialectic of his Afro/ American nature, Nkomo has learned to accept with equanimity the pluralities of existence; he is able to maintain the objectivity to understand the paradoxes and complexities which define life.
From the moment the gallery opens we see Nkomo and the Curator in "counter-poise beside / the ebony doors of the Harlem Gallery." The relationship between these two "oddest hipsters on the new horizon of Harlem" partially determines the shape and development of the poem, while personifying its theme of the necessity of conflict. Nkomo's covert advice and his direct verbal challenges to the Curator prove, in Blake's phrase, that "Opposition is true friendship," as his proverbial wisdom helps the Curator come to terms with his bipartite roles.
In Harlem Vignettes Mister Starks remarks:
I used to say that if I knew the difference between
The Curator and Doctor Nkomo,
I'd know the ebb and flow of tides of color.
This essential dissimilarity between the Curator and the Doctor is exemplified by their differing uses of language. Seen through the controlling consciousness of the Curator, Nkomo's speech necessarily partakes of that heavily allusive, metaphorical style which characterizes the Curator. Nkomo, however, as an objective observer of the goings-on around him, is more aware of the connections between things; therefore, he often speaks epigrammatically, spounting proverbs and aphorisms with commonsense morals that indicate a realistic turn of mind. For Obi Nkomo, a metaphorical discussion of the role of the Afroamerican results in a bold prose maxim: "The little python would not let go the ass of the frog—so the big python swallowed both." Furthermore, his quick retorts to the gibes of Hideho and the Club Wits reveal a calculating shrewdness that the Curator lacks; the Doctor immediately recognizes Hideho as "an Aristotelian metaphorist," indicating his suspicions about the true poetical talents of the Lenox Avenue bard.
Perhaps because of his poet's sensitivity to language, Mister Starks finally discovers for himself the difference between Nkomo and the Curator, and reports it in his Vignettes. The distinction becomes clear to him during a philosophical debate on the art of "cream-skimming," an image central to Harlem Gallery, Starks watches the interplay of character:
While the Curator sipped his cream
and Doctor Nkomo swigged his homogenized
I tried to gin the secret of
the mutuality of minds
that moved independently of each other—
like the eyeballs of a chameleon.
For Nkomo, the image of the cream rising up above the milk implies a belief in that "stinking skeleton," the theory of white racial superiority. The Curator's weak retort indicates his refusal, at this point, to accept responsibility for unequal social or artistic conditions, and in effect repudiates his role as caretaker of the arts: "Since cream rises to the top," he says, "blame Omniscience— / not me." Nkomo and Starks both see that the dialectic shuffle of the Curator's mind has not yet resolved itself and that his constant vacillation functions only to support the status quo and allow the cream of culture to be skimmed off the milk of the people. The Curator's failure to conciliate the Regents and the Harlem artists, and his inability to turn his idealistic theories into purposeful actions indicate his lack of personal courage. His continual meanderings have not yet resulted in that synthesis which is the aim of dialectics.
"Mens sibit conscia recti,"
said Doctor Nkomo
"is not a hollow man who dares not peddle
the homogenized milk of multiculture,
in dead ends and on boulevards,
in green pastures and across valleys of dry bones."
The Curator's indecisiveness has contributed nothing towards the intermingling of cultures necessary for a true, thoroughly human understanding between men, and he must now strive for the incorporation of the point and counterpoint of his otherwise futile dialectic.
Starks' perceptive rendering of the cream-skimming incident has a permanent effect on the Curator; the poet-pianist has discovered him
the failure of nerve
Harlem would never see—
the charact in the African
him the better man.
The Curator had imagined himself inexorably trapped, like the "pig in the boa's coils"; from his contacts with Nkomo, Starks, Heights, and Laugart he comes to believe instead that he and his kind must not "die like hogs."
In the two concluding sections of the poem, the Curator returns to the theoretical gropings with which the poem began. Now that he has become more intimately aware of the effects of artistic creation on the artist (he has witnessed two deaths and senses the imminence of yet another), his original dogmas about the function of art and his concept of his own role in its preservation are somewhat shaken. In these final sections, however, we see the hopes of the Curator beginning to supersede his fears; we see the butterfly slowly and carefully shedding the protective chrysalis which had until now insulated him. Despite the psychic shocks he has suffered, the Curator is starting to formulate an affirmative statement of continued existence for artists and men of every class and color.
In his final attempt at self-definition, the Curator strives to isolate "Negroness," which in his case is merely "a state of mind conjured up by Sterotypus." The dialectic struggle of the entire poem is here repeated in the Curator's language; his alternation of the phrase "White Boy" and "Black Boy" is in address to himself as well as to the world at large. Throughout his philosophical ramblings, the Curator has become aware that in him, as in all living things, bipolarities exist and must be somehow connected, despite the fact that
Just as the Chinese lack
an ideogram for "to be,"
our lexicon has no definition
for an ethnic amalgam like Black Boy and me.
For the Curator, finally, the problem of racial definition resolves itself into a forced, conscious acceptance of both his innate identities, and into the creation of a personal lexicon to define them.
The resolution of this dialectic of race allows the Curator a starting "point" with which to begin to solve his next dilemma—that of his role of Curator. This final mental process underlines a theme crucial to Harlem Gallery—that opposites will always exist and must be integrated before one can progress to the next dialectic. The Curator can now ask:
skim the milk of culture for the elite
and give the "lesser breeds"
a popular latex brand?
The speaker's newfound sense of personal integrity provides an answer to the question as he realizes that his latest Harlem Gallery exhibit—the potential cause célèbre—may prefigure "a people's New World odyssey / from chattel to Esquire." He comes to realize that the eternal "phoenix riddle" of the black/white controversy in art, as well as in life, can never be solved except by a balanced assimilation of elements from both cultures. The dialectic structure and the counterpoint of characters which pervade the poem now prove to be thematically profound as well: the Curator discovers that the controversy which the gallery exhibit provokes will begin a new process of synthesis, and that, to borrow from Blake once again, "Without Contraries is no progression." The war between contradictory truths is, finally, the truth which brings forth new life.
This section contains 4,817 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)