Melvin B. Tolson | Critical Essay by William H. Hansell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Melvin B. Tolson.
This section contains 4,923 words
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Critical Essay by William H. Hansell

SOURCE: "Three Artists in Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 122-27.

In the following essay, Hansell analyzes the roles of the three artists in Tolson's Harlem Gallery.

The first and final chapters of Melvin B. Tolson's Harlem Gallery, "Alpha" and "Omega," serve many purposes, the most important of which is to introduce or recapitulate aesthetic principles exemplified and developed throughout the poem. My summary here of the crucial chapters is designed to serve as the introduction to a study of three characters, John Laugart, Hideho Heights, and Mister Starks, each of whom is an artist and contributes substantially to the dramatic embodiment of the aesthetic principles underlying the volume.

Beginning my study of three major characters with the discursive, ode-like chapters seems appropriate also because Tolson's poem opens with several chapters that focus on subjects, race and art in particular, which later become the subjects of dramatic exchanges among a number of characters. The three artists portrayed in the poem itself create the kinds of works which illustrate the new art announced in "Alpha": Laugart in painting; Starks in music, classical and popular; and Heights in poetry. There is, however, some overlapping. Mister Starks, for example, is also a poet, and his "Harlem Vignettes" is made up of short poems given in their entirety in Harlem Gallery; Starks sketches several characters and provides a self-portrait as well. But his greatest creations are musical compositions.

"Alpha," which opens with the optimistic announcement of a new art, contains, in Ronald Walcott's words, "a statement of the poet's intention to invigorate modern poetry with the Black Americans' idioms and sense of life." Fully aware that bourgeois attitudes and tastes—"the Great White World"—will be alarmed, the narrator remains confident a new age, "a people's dusk of dawn," is being born:

                In Africa, in Asia, on the Day
      of Barricades, alarm birds bedevil the Great White
                          World,
      a Buridan's ass—not Balaam's—between no oats
                         and hay.

Like the legendary ass that starved because of an inability to choose between "oats and hay," the Great White World is helpless in the confrontation with the forces bringing about political and aesthetic revolutions.

That the narrator has searched widely for an aesthetic which includes tragic and comic components is revealed in the short second stanza:

              Sometimes a Roscius as tragedian,
                sometimes a Kean as clown,
          without Sir Henry's flap to shield my neck,
      I travel, from oasis to oasis, man's Saharic up-and-
                         down.

In reversing the typical roles of the great comic actor Roscius and of Edmund Kean, the great Shakespearean tragedian, Tolson complicates the role of the artist who must often draw upon comedy for serious ends. There is the implication, too, that traditional forms and labels must not restrict the new art forms. Or to put it another way, the narrator believes that the artist, although influenced by traditional genres, must adapt them to his own ends, creating new forms in the process.

The new art will absorb existing forms and cultural influences in the creation of a truly universal and eclectic aesthetic. From the image of himself as a nomad, wandering from "oasis to oasis," the narrator presents himself returning with "a full/rich Indies cargo." Nonetheless, the single doubt nagging at him, as a black man, is whether the search has been worth it:

                 "Black Boy, O Black Boy,
               is the port worth the cruise?"

That is, he knows that the myth which alleges that Afro-Americans have no enduring cultural heritage has convinced many that they are inferior: "Sometimes the spirit wears away / in the dust bowl of abuse." He, however, is confident of his personal, universal, and racial identity: his "Iness … humanness and Negroness." Although conceding there are differences among races, Tolson affirms that humanity, like art, is universal.

In "Omega," complex and esoteric art forms, even if they require expounders, intermediaries between the work of art and most audiences, are emphatically defended. In fact, it seems almost the duty of those who understand to convey it to others:

          Those in the upper drawer give a child
              the open sesame to the unknown
                 What and How and Why;
        that's that which curators, as Pelagians, try
                         to do[.]

The Curator is probably the volume's most important character, and he often serves as the narrator; but he is not an artist. "Curators, as Pelagians," would seem to emphasize the belief in the basic freedom of the will and perhaps, too, the natural goodness of men, both of which are implied in Pelagius's rejection of the doctrine of original sin and in his affirmation of the capacity for goodness in the unaided human will. Art, therefore, if carefully studied, can bring men to truth. Since the labor may be great and the truth painful, the narrator recommends suitably measured doses:

          Sometimes a work of art is bitter crystalline
                         alkaloid
                         to be doled out
            at intervals, between the laugh and flout
        of an Admirable Doctor; but, if taken too much
           at a time, it delivers the cocainizing punch
                 of a Jack Dempsey nonesuch.

The artist's sensibility and aesthetic standards, moreover, must not be compromised because of ignorance, illiteracy, or the stultified sensibilities of an audience habituated to certain art forms:

                              Should he
                     (to increase digestibility)
                              break up
        the fat globules and vitamins and casein shreds?

More important to the artist than simplicity and popularity is the need to reflect the varied materials on which he may draw. The eclectic nature of art is likened to a river fed by many streams, a source of vital renewal in even the most sterile of circumstances to all who bathe in it:

                Many mouths empty their waters
                  into the Godavari of Art—
                       a river that flows
                across the Decan trap of the age
                 with its lava-scarred plateaux;
                and, in the selfheal of the river,
        pilgrims lave the bruises of the Rain of woes.

A "dream" of another character (Dr. Nkomo) declares the need to create a "dusky Everyman," someone, like Monet or Matisse, who can convey the mystery and beauty of Harlem and, in effect, be a true heir of the Harlem Renaissance. In any event, a new black art is taking shape and will profoundly influence America's destiny. Whatever else, there is more of vitality and optimism in Harlem than elsewhere:

                       In the black ghetto
                        the white heather
                and the white almond grow,
                        but the hyacinth
                       an asphodel blow
                  in the white metropolis!

Tolson himself has interpreted the symbolism: "I say that the flowers representing decay and death are found in the white metropolis, but the flowers of hope grow in the black belt. I speak here of the masses of poor people. They are on the move. Most American writers are cynical. But even in the violence of a Richard Wright there is something that lifts you. There is no despair." Both in the poem and in the note, Tolson intends white to symbolize bourgeois values and attitudes; throughout the poem, parochialism, racism, and elitism, considered at great length, are rejected by each of the major characters.

The new art, finally, will triumph—and these are the final lines of Harlem Gallery—because it embodies the entire history of Afro-Americans:

               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!

The three artists portrayed in Harlem Gallery are discussed in the approximate order in which they are introduced in the poem, because that order is climactic; that is, the final artist, Hideho Heights is presented last and developed more fully in the poem. Heights most clearly dramatizes that art is universal. His audience is largely the common man. But the Curator, in his seemingly random movement through Harlem, first encounters a painter.

John Laugart immediately impresses the Curator as an artist with the qualities of greatness, a neglected genius with unshakeable integrity, preferring poverty to popularity. His masterpiece, Black Bourgeoisie, enthrals and delights the Curator. Laugart, a "half-blind painter," has an almost regal air, but in a melodramatic outburst, he cries that he feels neglected and misunderstood, that "No man cares for [his] soul!"

The Curator, who is on a search for items to exhibit in the Harlem Gallery, after briefly glimpsing the painting, speculates grandiosely that Laugart's room might be the modern counterpart of Patmos, where St. John is supposed to have written the Apocalypse, thereby evoking associations with a profoundly symbolic religious work at the beginning of the Christian era. (Possibly the era whose demise is declared in "Alpha"?) In the Curator's eyes, Laugart's painting marks the beginning of a new aesthetic and combines the artistry of the greatest painters of our century. Equally important, Laugart has combined aesthetic excellence with social protest, something the Curator previously believed impossible, which is the reason that his astonishment at the masterpiece created by Laugart is likened to several moments in ancient and modern times, which were also marked by shock and delight at the moment of discovery, an experience both rending and curative:

                      colors detonating
                fog signals on a railroad track,
                lights and shadows rhythming
                fog images in a negative pack:
                  this, somehow, a synthesis
                    (savage—sanative)
            of Daumier and Gropper and Picasso.
             As a Californian, I thought Eureka;
        but as Ulfilas to the dusky Philistines I said,
                         "Oh!"

This is sketchy and impressionistic, but it is the most detailed description of the painting in Harlem Gallery. Subsequently, only effects are described.

The visual imagery of fog and shadow combine with the sound imagery, a piercing train whistle in a fog. And there is the rhythm of the colors dynamically playing against one another, overlapping and interweaving, to give the impression of blurring. There seem to be no hard edges, no simple or pure colors. Laugart's social intention, given the context of the painting, would seem to be quite clear. Middle-class blacks lack definition and identity. Behaving and thinking like middle-class whites, they have become a composite of both races, succeeding only in obliterating their true identity. Of course an important assumption is that all middle-class people have corrupt values and attitudes. Elsewhere in Harlem Gallery, the Curator and Dr. Nkomo, for example, repeatedly comment on the necessity of rejecting bourgeois values. Similarly, the art and artists celebrated in the poem, the work of Laugart, Starks, and Heights, arouse the masses, but stir fear and trembling in the middle-class characters.

The aesthetic intention, just as important, seems also self-evident. Masterpieces are eclectic; great artists combine traditional styles from disparate sources in the effort to forge an original style. In a sense, Laugart accomplished in paint what Tolson did in words. Tolson consciously adapted the styles of many great poets, most notably Harte Crane, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound; he obviously drew on a great variety of traditions and cultures; and he wanted to improve the human condition.

The Curator is convinced immediately that most viewers of Laugart's work will not understand it, yet will howl with outrage at what they suspect they see; Black Bourgeoisie "will wring from their babbitted souls a Jeremian cry!" Laugart, too, anticipates hysterical resentment, but confidently observes,

                       "A work of art
                   is an everlasting flower
                  in kind or unkind hands;
                         dried out,
              it does not lose its form and color
                 in native or in alien lands."

For Laugart, the artist's dedication must be to excellence, even at the risk of failure: "'It matters not a tinker's dam / … how many rivers you cross / if you fail to cross the Rubicon!'"

Laugart and his painting are, in fact, vigorously rejected by "the Regents of the Harlem Gallery," which is to say everyone with middle-class values. For the Regents, Laugart is a "castaway talent." In a rather abstruse reflection on those ("the half-alive") who misunderstand and deride works like Black Bourgeoisie, the Curator stresses that successful irony often has a positive effect. That is, art can have a positive influence even when misinterpreted. Painting a fantastic picture of the ordeal of the Regents' attempting to understand the painting, the Curator pictures them in comic bafflement: They "confuse / the T-shape of the gibbet with the T-shape of the cross." They so completely misconstrue the painting that they see symbols of salvation instead of symbols of death. But again, the Curator reminds himself that great art may unconsciously penetrate the most insensitive psyches:

        —a Jacob that wrestles Tribus and sunders
                        bonds—
             discovers, in the art of the issues
          of Art, our prose, as well as our cons,
               fused like silver nitrate used
                  to destroy dead tissues.

The pain of the Regents may be a sign that some of their moribund attitudes are giving way; perhaps they are even beginning to understand that great art and social criticism are compatible. After we are told of his lonely death, the most important of subsequent references to Laugart appear in a series of poems, Harlem Vignettes, included in "Upsilon" and composed by another Harlem artist. The world's neglect of Laugart is likened to its neglect of another great artist; its betrayal is likened to the selling of Christ.

Mister Starks, composer, pianist, conductor, and poet, is credited with a popular song, "Pot Belly Papa," which made a great deal of money; two major classical works, Black Orchid Suite and Rhapsody in Black and White; and the ten poems collected under the title Harlem Vignettes. These last have marked parallels to Tolson's A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, poems written by 1935, but not published until 1979. A dominant influence on Starks (and on Tolson's early work) is the Edgar Lee Masters of The Spoon River Anthology. The poems are character sketches, sometimes very brief, in free verse. Starks' style, in the Vignettes, on the other hand, reflects Tolson's mature style in its dense allusiveness and imagery.

In "Mister Starks: A Self-Portrait," the narrator initially disparages his own talents and behavior, feeling he has compromised his aesthetic principles for money, and he announces his intentions:

                 I etch, here and now, a few
      of the everybodies and somebodies and nobodies
              in Harlem's comédie larmoyante.

After quoting John Laugart on the immortality of art, Starks stresses that his career, if not a great success, was freely chosen. With a brief, harsh slant at those who have failed to appreciate his art, he adds,

         Am I not a Negro, a Harlemite, an artist—
           a trinity that stinks the ermine robes
              of the class-conscious seraphs?

He tells also of a time in Europe when he was influenced by the works of jazz musicians and by great composers of classical music. But his final revelation is of absolute confidence in the greatness of his composition Black Orchid Suite, even though it never received public acclaim. We are dramatically informed about the creation of the Suite, the first creation in his "new" style. This discovery immediately caused profound changes in Starks and another major character, convincing them that they had to abandon all ideas of absolute racial or aesthetic distinctions. That is, they continue to believe that individuals, societies, and nations in every age contribute distinctive and valuable elements to art, but they now believe that those diverse components can be brought harmoniously together.

In the final part of "Upsilon," Starks tells of a night on which he played the piano more or less with the intention of ignoring a self-pitying and maudlin white man, a petty criminal, whom Starks, to himself, calls a "Derby," possibly because he and his counterparts wear them. Somewhat absentmindedly, then, Starks let his fingers wander into "a corny polka style / reminiscent of Kid Ory's trombone in Sweet Little Papa." After some bitter reflections on the inattentive audience and racism, Starks suddenly discovered something original in the music he had been playing:

              As I explored the theme phrase,
        a new rhythm and melody vistaed before me:
               the tones feathered into chords
                  and leafed and interlaced
                in fluxing chromatic figures.

With his love of music and its revelations about the human condition, Starks cannot but believe that, if such intricate and new harmonies are possible in music, they may also be possible in life. His thoughts turn to Doctor Obi Nkomo, a character who speculates elsewhere in Harlem Gallery at great length on the subjects of art and race. Starks remembers Nkomo's image of the ideal world as being like the necessary black and white keys of a piano, "blended in the majestic tempo di marcia of Man." Tolson might very well have intended an illusion to Langston Hughes's "Daybreak in Alabama," in which a similar metaphor of man in a harmonious society appears. Asked what he is playing, Starks explains,

     Then I magicked an arpeggio of syncopated colors
     (my left hand, like Fats', suggesting a bass fiddle)
     and said with a flourish, "Rhapsody in Black and
                          White."

He is not certain of his success, but, as he expresses it, every artist must risk everything in choosing between "Caesar or God." He is not overly concerned that his immediate audience does not understand his new work. Obviously embittered by the neglect of his masterpiece, and even by the monetary success of his popular works, Starks does not believe himself an utter failure because he remains confident of the greatness of his classical compositions.

Hideho Heights, the third artist portrayed in Harlem Gallery, is a poet; he enters with a satirical jibe, in "a voice like a / ferry horn in a river of fog," at the expense of the bourgeois tastes of the others:

        "Hey, man, when you gonna close this dump?
        etch highbrow stuff for the middlebrows who
     don't give a damn and the lowbrows who ain't
     hip!
        Think you're a little high-yellow Jesus?"

Later, Heights is alluded to as "a crab louse / on the pubic region of Afroamerica." As if we needed to be told, we are informed that satire is one reason for his renown. After a brief glance at the art displayed in the Harlem Gallery, he observes, "'In the beginning was the Word … not the Brush!'"

Heights next reveals he's been listening to Louis Armstrong and been so inspired as to improvise a tribute: "'I'm just one step from heaven / with the blues a-percolating in my head.'" Immediately, he produces the manuscript dedicated to "old Satchmo." It is of the nature of jazz, we learn from Heights' poem, "to syncopate the heart and mind"; and he ranks Armstrong with the greatest musicians, singers, and folk heroes: King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Papa Handy, Leadbelly, and John Henry. A calculated interracial point is made, moreover, with the further comparison of Armstrong's importance to "Wyatt Earp's legend."

The narrative continues to be dominated by Heights in the next chapter, "Mu," in which everything and everyone in the nightclub is at fever pitch. Like many poems by Langston Hughes, these scenes are accompanied by jazz, blues, and booze. In fact, that the roots of jazz—therefore of all art—lies in man's sensual nature is nowhere more emphatically portrayed in Harlem Gallery than in these scenes. Still, it is a very unlikely atmosphere for a form of discussion which clearly parallels the Socratic dialogues. (There is some value, I believe, in reminding ourselves that Socrates also asserted that everything of importance should be discussed twice, once when drunk, again when sober.)

After a brief flirtation with a woman whose provocative dress and movements are highly erotic, Heights reveals to the Curator:

                  "She's a willow,"
              "a willow by a cesspool."
                Hideho mused aloud,
       "Do I hear The Curator rattle Eliotic bones?"

With this allusion to Eliot, Heights begins to reveal his rejection of the belief that modern man is doomed because of the corruption of Christianity. But there is no reply from the Curator, whose attention turns to the jazz played in the Zulu Club:

                Out of the Indigo Combo
          flowed rich and complex polyrhythms.
                   Like surfacing bass,
               exotic swells and softenings
                   of the veld vibrato
                        emerged.

Heights describes the dancing which begins as "'the penis act in the Garden of Eden,'" and the Curator thinks of it as "a prismatic-hued python / in the throes of copulation." Further, the Curator sees in the dancing an epitome of jazz performers and styles:

                        In the ostinato
             of stamping feet and clapping hands,
       the Promethean bard of Lenox Avenue became a
                        lost loose-leaf
                     as memory vignetted
        Rabelaisian I's of the Boogie-Woogie dynasty
               in barrel houses, at rent parties,
                   on riverboats, at wakes:
        The Toothpick, Funky Five, and Tippling Tom!
       Ma Rainey, Countess Willie V., and Aunt Harriet!
        Speckled Red, Skinny Head Pete, and Stormy
                         Weather!

In complete agreement with the Curator, Heights extends the musical example of a rich and varied tradition into an argument that Gertrude Stein was wrong in saying "'The Negro suffers from nothingness.'" Heights' next observation seems at first glance to denounce jazz as nothing but escapism ("'Jazz is the marijuana of the Blacks'"), but Robert J. Huot argues correctly that Tolson almost certainly alludes to ancient rituals in which part of the initiation ceremony was a mind-expanding preparation for a visionary climax. In this sense, obviously, drugs, including alcohol, aren't escapist, but rather ceremonial agents. Jazz, then, for Heights, is important as the embodiment of a rich cultural heritage and as a form of vital communal ritual.

The Curator agrees with Heights and turns from the meaning of music for blacks to its meaning for whites: "'Jazz is the philosophers' egg of the Whites.'" I take this to be, in part, a humorous distortion of the frequently asked question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Whites who believe blacks have no history are confronted with the dilemma of explaining the African components in jazz.

The necessity of musical accompaniment for a wide range of activities—secular and religious—informs the third stanza from the last, while the Curator insists further that jazz is as natural a music for blacks as "Liszt in the court at Weimar." "Mu" closes on a muted note of anticlimax:

                 With a dissonance
              from the Weird Sisters,
                 the jazz diablerie
              boiled down and away
              in the vacuum pan….

Calling up images of witches, boiling cauldrons, and demons to describe the atmosphere created by the jazz, Tolson satirically exaggerates the accusations of its harshest critics, who often condemn the inducement to sensual indulgence.

Rufino Laughlin, master-of-ceremonies in the Zulu Club, believes absolutely in the immortality of Heights and declares this to the audience, when introducing the poet (in "Mu"). A prostitute, "a tipsy Lena," also seeking the immortality of poetry, offers herself free and forever if he will promise to write about her. Heights sends her off giggling with the observation, "'Sister, you and I belong to the people.'" Meanwhile, the Curator has been much impressed by the intimate relationship between Heights and habitués of the Club: "My thoughts wandered and wondered / … the poet is no Crusoe in the Zulu Club…." When Heights reads (in "Xi"), the attention of the audience is religious, and they respond enthusiastically, very much in the way some black congregations enter into call-and-response exchanges with ministers. Heights' opening words are

              "Only kings and fortunetellers,
                  poets and preachers,
                    are born to be."

The Curator underscores the priestly, even messianic, aura given off by Heights. In addition to the priestly function, the artist is said to have prophetic or mystical powers with which to "see and hear / when our own faculties fail." Heights' ballad, a source of intense delight for the audience, also owes much to the "tall-tale" tradition:

     John Henry—he says to his Ma and Pa:
        "Get a gallon of barleycorn.
     I want to start right, like a he-man child,
        the night that I am born!"

Also striking to the Curator in the performance is the mutual inspiration which occurs between poet and musicians, and the evidence that both draw on traditional European and folk forms:

          The creative impulse in the Zulu Club
      leaps from Hideho's lips to Frog Legs' fingers,
           like the electric fire from the clouds
              … that blued the gap between
             Franklin's key and his Leyden jar.

This "poet's feast" the Curator calls a "counterpoint / [of] protest and pride." His attention focuses, next, on the relationship among diverse musical forms, and he alludes to one French writer's intense study of black music:

        O spiritual, work song, ragtime, blues jazz—
                         consorts of
          the march, quadrille, polka, and waltz!
                  Witness to a miracle
                      —I muse—
                  the birth of a blues,
                        the flesh
                  made André Gide's
                   musique nègrel.

Heights' recital ends with John Henry's rueful discovery that racism and its effects exist everywhere in America: "'I came to Lenox Avenue, / but I find up here a Bitchville, too!" An elaborate exchange of views on racism and on some personal problems follows. Heights is made almost desperate by what he interprets as defeatism, or at the very least as an unhealthy preoccupation with the problems of being black. His final comment, "'My people, / my people— / they know not what they do,'" obviously echoes Christ's outcry just before his death. Clearly, they have not understood Heights in the sense he intended, desiring, almost certainly, that John Henry's story be an inspirational model of endurance and personal integrity.

Heights is the subject of a markedly eulogistic poem-within-a-poem ("Upsilon"), one of a series of character sketches called the Harlem Vignettes and attributed to Mister Starks. Countering Plato's exclusion of poets from the ideal state, Starks asserts that the poet, in particular Heights, is absolutely essential to any state:

                Plato's bias will not banish,
                    from his Republic,
          the post laureate of Lenox Avenue….

Starks admiringly quotes Heights' rejection of the idea that artists are absolutely alienated from society's values and attitudes:

              "A work of art is a two-way street,
                      not a dead end,
              where an artist and a hipster meet."

Heights is praised for believing in dynamic and communal art forms, for his "tragic-comic" range, his humor and pride, and his belief that form and content are inseparable:

     "The form and content in a picture or a song
     should blend like the vowels in a dipthong."

Heights, who later decides he has heard enough of cynicism and despair, intends to write a poem that will have powerful social consequences:

      "The Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation
                      Ye Muses!
                  As the People's Poet,
     I shall Homerize a theme that will rock the Nation!
       And every damned Un-American will know it!"

Drolly prodding Heights on, the Curator, possibly echoing W. H. Auden, cautions him to "'remember / a tribal anthem / is the yankee-doodle diddle of a tittle.' Heights, contemptuous of further cynicism, prepares to recite "The Sea-Turtle and the Shark," a ballad describing the way a sea turtle, when swallowed alive, can claw and tear at the shark's stomach until he makes

                  "his way to freedom,
                beyond the vomiting dark,
                beyond the stomach walls
                    of the shark."

Such triumphant defiance reminds at least one man of Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," and the use Prime Minister Churchill made of it in his effort to harden British determination at a low point in World War II. The poem he recites and the reference to McKay's "If We Must Die" are Heights' way of asserting his belief that poetry is vital to mankind in all times; Heights thereby refutes the Curator's assertion. The Curator observes that Heights had never before allowed others to share in the creation of a poem, never before "left the cellar door / of his art ajar." Heights, moreover, in an attempt to explain the process and product of creation, compares them to

                    "… a whore giving birth
            to a pimp's son, Curator, on a filthy quilt.
          (In travail a woman shows no sign of guilt.)"

He insists that all art is basically the product of "élan vital," the sensibility's response to uncertainty and torment:

                      "Maybe, yes, maybe,
                    an artist's travail is like
                a woman's; and her baby is like
               a poem, a picture, a symphony—
          an issue of the élan vital in sweat and blood,
                         born on a brazen
                         sea and swaddled
        on a raft of life and shaped like a question mark."

The emphasis in the description on pain and a natural process which must run the full course probably refers to the demand that the artist master essential technical skills before attempting to create. The emphasis on illegitimacy and squalor affirms that beauty can come from the basest seeming things. And perhaps the originality of all true masterpieces makes them "bastards" in the sense that they combine existing traditions into a new object.

Artists who do not endure entirely the creative ordeal are harshly attacked by Heights. Those artists who resort to "'midwives'" produce "'abortions.'" The lines "'the new-born sun-gods snatched / from cradles on the sly'" seem to castigate young poets who write in free verse. With at least some self-satire, he launches out at poets who read to jazz accompaniment:

                  "consider the abortions
        of the howl-howl-with-the-combo quacks;
       the little Eddie Jests and Shortfellows…."

For so short a passage, Tolson has loaded it with allusions, some fairly obvious and serious, some almost certainly tongue-in-cheek. Allen Ginsberg, echoically associated with this group, may be the most well-known Beat poet, and, elsewhere in Harlem Gallery, Beat poets are praised for originality, independence, and most importantly, for their defiance of conventional ideas about art. Langston Hughes is famous for his experiments with jazz accompaniment for public readings throughout his career of over forty years. Tolson had the highest regard for Hughes and for his work. Finally, Heights scolds famous poets who renounce their early work,

                  "who abandon the little
                hybrid bastards of their youth
                         without
                         saying
                      'Good-by!'"

Tolson himself abandoned his early style very deliberately, on the urging of Allen Tate and under the influence of Harte Crane, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. And even if we weren't told so in the opening lines of "Chi," we would understand that Heights deeply loves all legitimate art and would not attack what he considered valid experimentation or innovation. After all, he has defended Black Bourgeoisie, scathingly criticized by the Regents, although a transcendent experience for the Curator.

Each of the artists in Harlem Gallery dramatically embodies the principles introduced in "Alpha" and recapitulated in "Omega." Whatever evils they identify, each is fundamentally optimistic. Their works, for the most part, are innovative, eclectic, and often esoteric. The artists derive their materials and forms in part from the immediate environment, but they also acknowledge a wide diversity of influences on their work. These artists, therefore, like Tolson himself, created original art forms to explore and portray the black experience in both its particular and its universal significance. As Nathan A. Scott, Jr., has recently argued, Tolson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and some others "belong not just to a special ethnic tradition but to the integrally American achievement in the literature of the present time."

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