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Critical Essay by Mariann B. Russell
SOURCE: "Evolution of Style in the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 1-18.
In the following essay, Russell analyzes the progression of Tolson's thought and style throughout his career.
The consideration of Melvin Tolson's evolving style concerns the maturation of his thought. Here I concentrate on his epic form and his developing perspective. I shall first generalize about his worldview and then trace the development of the hero figure, for both processes set into relief the stylistic growth. The examination includes less the discussion of metrics and figurative language than the concern for poetics in the deepest sense.
Tolson writes: "A great preacher is a great artist. Words are his tubes of paint. Verse, his brush." These sentences go far to explain the poetics of the speaker. He does not belong to that stream of Anglo-American poetry which is purely lyric, expressing directly and mellifluously the poet's own emotions. He concerns himself, on the contrary, with social issues as the barebones of life. His style comes closer to oratorical rhetoric than to song, and his poem is generally public rather than confessional.
The son of a "fighting preacher"—"I used to watch my Dad in the pulpit and feel proud …"—Tolson was himself a great speaker and debate coach as well as a director of theater. Concerned with the underdog in general and with the Black underdog in particular, he saw words as weapons in the war against social ills. Closely linked to the Afro-American oral tradition and the personal commitment to fighting injustice, he shaped a Christo-Marxist worldview. As in the poetry of others during the thirties, his lyric encompassed a social, metaphysical, and communal burden.
Over the years he had four books of poetry published. The first, written about 1934, was brought out posthumously. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, as it was called, contained verses about Harlemites. His next book was Rendezvous with America, a collection somewhat influenced by World War II; his third volume, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, was written after he had been chosen the poet-laureate of the country so named. In "academic" style the booklength ode celebrates the African nation. His final volume, Harlem Gallery, was another booklength ode, intended as the beginning of an epic about the American Black.
Before undertaking any discussion of the first book, it would be helpful to outline Tolson's cultural theory. His poetry begins with his life experience, which he mulls over, talks over, and subsumes into his phenomenally eclectic reading. Then he transmutes the whole into verse. For the talented and intellectually probing college professor in the Southwest and West from 1923 to 1965, racial discrimination and prejudice were abiding concerns. A Jim Crow existence provoked direct protest and probing into human nature. The Marxist interpretation became a focal point of his thought.
Tolson's epic intention persists in varying forms. In a world that is class-divided and economically determined, the exploited masses become crucial. The underdog, the despised, the poor appear heroic now and foreshadow even greater heroism after the establishment of a new society. Tolson, sometimes ironically, celebrates the human potential embodied in the voiceless majority of the underprivileged.
The masses, in their human potential, become an abstract ideal, a generic hero. But Tolson finds individual nations such as America and Liberia heroic in the present promise and in the future apocalypse. Individual characters who are heroic include persons like Crispus Attucks and Paul Bunyan as well as the poet-prophet, the "ape of God." In one way or another, such various heroes inform his epics.
But Tolson is not merely an epic poet looking for an epic hero. His perspective encourages the epic search, since he proposes the great man theory of history. In his newspaper columns he asserts that geniuses improve humanity's lot. He cites poets, prophets, and scholars as specific types through whose efforts humankind comes to understand and ultimately reform its condition. His early books portray many political and social reformers as well as folk heroes as appropriate instruments. In the last book, he shifts to the poet-prophet, the true artist in any mode, as the necessary means to social equality.
The first book, Portraits, responds to the remark by a fellow student, himself German-American: "Say, we've never had a Negro epic." Tolson finds precedent for the genre in the Anglo-American literary heritage. His models are, among others, Longfellow, Whittier, Milton, Tennyson, and Poe. His Tennyson is not the melancholy lyricist, but the poet who envisages "the Parliament of man." Tolson emphasizes the Donne of "no man is an island" rather than the metaphysical poet. Edwin Markham and Langston Hughes, mentors and friends, embody the American populist tradition in white and Black. Literature as well as life fostered his epic intention.
The immediate model for Portraits is the Spoon River Anthology volume, which attempts to tell "the story of an American country town so as to make it the story of the world." Tolson wants to fashion the story of Harlem into a metaphor for the Afro-American. The technique, an extended synecdoche, "gives … Negro America its comedy and tragedy in prismatic epitome" ("Notebooks"). His Harlem becomes metonymically the "mecca," "city of refuse," "Nigger-Heaven," "City of Refuge," and "Capital of the Negro world."
When Tolson presents in Portraits approximately two hundred characters significant of the Black community, his worldview becomes clear. The tragicomic tone emanates from the assumption that "the basis of racial prejudice in the United States is economic." He sees the Harlem community, with its great variety of types, classes, and colors, not as the exotic area of "jungle-bunny" fame but as the subject of an "earthy, unromantic and sociological literature." Throughout the book, indirectly and sometimes directly, Tolson advocates the union of the masses, poor white and poor Black, as the solution to racial and class discrimination. The final goal of proletarian unity is an apocalyptic democracy—classless, multiracial, multicultural—an attainable utopia.
The hero of Portraits is the "underdog," who might some day understand and assume his own destiny. Those Harlemites who already have such knowledge are more directly heroic. The group includes Big Jim Casey and Zip Lightner, proletarian heroes who live for the union of Black and white workers. But the particularly flawed hero is Vergil Ragsdale who, as his name suggests, is the poet of the people. He shares their exploited condition. Though there are more effective artists, he appears at greatest length. His perspective may most approximate Tolson's view then:
"Harlem, O Harlem,
City of the Big Niggers,
Graveyard of the Dark Masses,
Soapbox of the Red Apocalypse…."
Sustained by gin and cocaine, Vergil, the dishwasher at Manto's cafe, dreams of completing his epic poem to Harlem. Although he truly foresees his own pathetic death from tuberculosis, he does not predict the real tragedy: an ignorant landlady will burn the poem, his raison d'être, as trash. Still, this character articulates and represents his people's condition as well as imagines their retribution. His life is ambiguous, as is his heroism.
The style of these poems suits Tolson's epic intention. Characters, presented in short vignettes of about a page, represent the great variety of Harlem humanity, from Peg Leg Snelson to Mrs. Alpha Devine to the Black Moses. As with the poems in Spoon River, each of these short ones ends with a climax, a dramatic event, a revelation, a statement, or, in many instances, a blues verse. Tolson, influenced by the imagists, relies on presentation more than on commentary. The larger poetic structure of the entire book, however, lacks variety as poem after poem is introduced mechanically. The diction characterizes occasionally the people in dialect and blues, but the larger voice is the narrator's. The latter speaks of the "little man" as victim but assumes an appreciative tone. The poem presents nobly the techniques of survival in a blues style.
Tolson's next book, Rendezvous with America, continues the epic intention in a different vein. As the author broadens his thematic concerns from Harlem to various places in America and to the world at large, the social concerns deepen. The subject here is man—Black and white—as revealed through economics, sociology, and psychology. But the heroes are still political and artistic. Such poets as Sandburg and Whitman set precedents for Tolson's celebration of human potential, despite the actual corruption, inequality, and injustice in still flawed America. Democracy, true justice, and multiculture continue to engage him: "These States breed freedom in and in my bone: / I hymn their virtues and their sins atone."
The epic strain here is less obvious than in Portraits. Under the impetus of World Ward II, Tolson sees good and evil written large in human affairs. Celebration of American promise and human potential go hand in hand with the praise of such historical figures as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. The book is replete with heroic figures (and some villains) who become symbolic in the literary context—Daniel Boone, Joe Dimaggio, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and many more.
How then do these hymns to America and humanity differ from the art in Rockefeller Center during the 1930s or from Fourth of July oratory? Although the poetry emphasizes American ideals, it escapes from being merely patriotic encomia. The poetry is skillfully grounded in realistic observation. In many poems from "Ex-Judge at the Bar" to "Vesuvius," Tolson illustrates the "idols of the tribe"—those deliberately fostered myths of race, caste, and class that separate mankind. His optimism takes root in the faith that the masses will eventually see through the snares, shams, and hypocrisies to a republican ideal. His ironic—sometimes satiric—tone works against any blind faith in the American dream; he reveals frequently through incident, character, or animal imagery the gulf between the dream and reality.
By now he has worked out for himself a poetic ideal. He refers to the "'3 S's of Parnassus'—Sight, Sound, and Sense." Sight concerns the look of a poem on a page. He experiments frequently with centered placement, especially of short lines, to emphasize his point. At other times he works a short line against a longer one for visual effect. His second "S" refers to sound. Sensitive to the ear, he writes poetry to be read aloud—he seldom uses an eye-rhyme. His frequent use of parallelism encompasses both sound and sight. The last "S" means "sense," meaning and imagination—chiefly the use of figurative language. Tolson's tropes depend on often startling associations or similarities, frequently using personifications and synechdoche to link seemingly opposed realities in a kind of imaginative dialectic.
Some examples of Tolson's figurative language appear in the long title poem, "Rendezvous with America": "his bat cuts a vacuum," "surfed in white acclaim," "scaling the Alpine ranges of drama with the staff of song," "blue-printing the cabala of the airways," "imprisoning the magic of symphonies with a baton," "enwombing the multiple soul of the New World." Although some of these metaphors are not entirely satisfactory, they do illustrate the quality and kind of Tolson's imagery.
To see the effect of this aesthetic ideal—the sight, sound, meaning, and language of a poem beautifully meshed—I shall consider another of Rendezvous' long poems, "Dark Symphony," in detail. On the surface, Tolson's theme merely transforms the cliché of the melting pot into the onomatopoeia of symphonic movement. Called an ode by Joy Flasch, the poem has six sections, each with a different musical direction. The first part, three quatrains long, Allegro Moderato, moves visually down the page like a series of "s's." The long line, the short line to the left, and the long line, short line to the right, play against each other. While the metric scheme has the long lines in each stanza and the short lines rhyming, the initial line of each stanza does not do so. There is some alliteration.
In such a poem the names Crispus Attucks and Patrick Henry are expected but not so the lines, "the vertical / Transmitting cry," and "No Banquo's ghost can rise / Against us now." Such obvious metaphors as "the juggernauts of despotism" and "hobnailed Man" and "thorns of greed / On Labor's brow" are offset by "dust is purged to create brotherhood." The stanzas are controlled through their parallel structure and by the musical movement.
The next section, "Lento Grave," details the pathos of those who perform spirituals emblematic of their condition:
Black slaves singing One More River to Cross
In the torture tombs of slave-ships,
Black slaves singing Steal Away to Jesus
In jungle swamps.
Here again Tolson controls rhythm through the musical direction and the parallel structure, as one line of each couplet, the "Black slaves," ends with the title of a spiritual; the following line indicates the symbolic place where it is sung.
The third section, "Andante Sostenuto," counterpoints the previous stanza's slave songs to Psalm 136 (137 in Protestant bibles), which calls to mind the Jewish Babylonian captivity. Each of the three stanzas opens and closes with a repetend, the first two with "They tell us to forget," and the third with "Oh, how can we forget?" Here the expected indictment of racial discrimination in America occurs, but the effective Biblical echo and analogue transcend mere cliché; "They who have shackled us / Require of us a song" recalls Psalm 136. The climactic, "Oh, how can we forget" recalls the Psalmist's "How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?"
The fourth part, with the direction "Tempo Primo," turns to the New Negro, "Hard-muscled, Fascist-hating, Democracy ensouled," who becomes an ideal of Democracy through his identification with Afro-American heroes. This generic Black signifies his race's contribution by referring to the work done by the slave and free Black masses throughout American history. Their contributions appear in the parallel structure which controls the Whitmanesque categories of Black labor. The section ends with the inevitable stanza showing the New Negro's striding toward the Promised Land of Tomorrow.
"Larghetto," the fifth section, returns to the first section's satire on white lip service to Democracy. The repetend in each of the four sestets exempts Blacks from particular hypocrisies: "None in the Land can say / To us black men Today."
The final section's March Tempo works well through the stanzas of iambic tetrameter and the oft-repeated short line, "We advance!" recalling "The Underdog" in the call to unite. In "Dark Symphony," with the irregular rhyme schemes, varied meters, repetitions, and word placements on the page, Tolson illuminates the stock subjects, at least for Black poets during the twenties and thirties. For him, such topics shape themselves into the art epic.
Throughout Rendezvous, with few exceptions (there are very few private poems), Tolson practices oratorical rhetoric and evinces social concern. Here the reader encounters a variety of styles in the four long poems, "Rendezvous with America," "Dark Symphony," "Of Men and Cities," and "Tapestries of Time." There is still greater experimentation in the short poems grouped in sections including free verse, Shakespearean sonnet, ballad, and ballade. One poem in iambic monometer, "Song for Myself," is a poetic tour de force, as the diversity in poetic forms increases.
Even where there may be a dramatic incident, or a striking character in the short poems, it has a parabolic effect in building to a climax. The effective "Ballad of the Rattlesnake" is framed by another poem which portrays Black and white sharecroppers. Although they extend now beyond the specific Harlem community, Tolson's concerns remain now in the deeper structure, the same as those in Portraits earlier, but they take shape in both conventional and unconventional metrics. In the long and more complex poems, he uses devices that are both poetic and oratorical, including repetition with variation, striking metaphors, and wide-ranging allusions. He subsumes the Black sermon into the artistic voice, and it readdresses the cultural concern. The rhetorical triangle which binds the folk source, the independent imagination, and the appreciative audience continues unbroken.
Besides the American promise and the proletarian expectation, there is another heroic element. Here appears the figure of the bard. "The Poet" portrays a generalized figure who, though largely disregarded in his time, looks uncaringly into the nature of things:
He breaks the icons of the Old and New
The poet's lien exempts the Many nor the Few
A champion of the People versus Kings—
His only martyrdom is poetry:
A hater of the hierarchy of things—
Freedom's need is his necessity.
The proud "Ishmaelite" and "anchoret" intuits a "bright new world." Heroic in insight, he dedicates himself to the communication of his vision, which penetrates custom. He reincarnates the Vergil Ragsdale figure, but without the same locale and pathetic circumstances. In Rendezvous the Ethiopian Bard of Addis Ababa is equally a kind of prophet. From insight into contemporaneity, he foresees the "bright new world." Lyric vision and social celebration merge.
His name is an emblem of justice
Greater than lumot of priest
The seven league boots of his images
Stir the palace and marketplace.
These two, poet and prophet, fuse in Tolson's great man or genius. Tolson saw heroes and villains as representative of human potential for greatness and evil. To serve this social vision, his style evolved with many of the characteristics of oratorical rhetoric.
During his time spent at Columbia University (1931–32) and Greenwich Village (1930s), Tolson became acquainted with the first wave of the moderns represented by Sandburg, Hughes, and Masters. On his own he discovered Eliot's The Waste Land and later Crane's The Bridge which, according to Mrs. Tolson, "showed her husband that he was 'on the wrong road.'" He therefore set out, still on his own, to come to terms with this academic style:
Imitation must be in technique only. We have a rich heritage of folklore and history. We are a part of America. We are a part of the world. Our native symbols must be lifted into the universal. Yes, we must study the techniques of Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Karl Shapiro, W. H. Auden. The greatest revolution has not been in science but in poetry. We must study such magazines as Partisan Review, the Sewanee Review, Accent, the Virginia Quarterly. We must read such critics as Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Stephen Spender, George Dillon and Kenneth Burke.
In the period between the publication of Rendezvous and the writing of Libretto, Tolson included in his eclectic reading the moderns who set the tone of the two decades between the world wars. The reading and the public occasion of Liberia's centenary resulted in the style and content of Libretto. In the poem packed with Eliotic notes, we have Tolson's venture in a style aimed at the literary caviar.
Here his view extends from Liberia and Africa to the world. The hero is, symbolically, Liberia, one of only two uncolonized nations in Africa then. Tolson reflects on this historical fact, on Liberia's contribution to Allied efforts in World War II, and on the history of this republic founded by American Blacks freed from slavery; he therefore celebrates its national identity. The epic qualities from Portraits and Rendezvous reappear here in a different context. Liberia, historically exploited by France and England, aids these two countries by supplying rubber and providing airports during the war. The campaign against "fascists" becomes almost a holy war. Liberia, the name and motto signifying freedom, emerges as both real and symbolic. Transcending racial and economic biases, it foreshadows Africa's triumph in the world. Tolson thus fuses epic material and "academic" style.
The poem is either an ode or a series of eight odes. The titles of metrically varying sections range the diatonic scale from "Do" to "Do." The sections are thematically and symbolically interconnected in the ode form:
Metrically, the term ode usually implies considerable freedom in the introduction of varied rhythmic movements and irregularities of verse-length and rhyme-distribution. There is something "oratorical" about a true ode; and its irregularities may be conceived of as produced by its adaptation to choric rendition or to public declamation, either actual or imagined…. Primarily, it [ode] refers to the content and spirit of a poem, implying a certain largeness of thought, continuity of theme, and exalted feeling.
Tolson, faced with the problem of writing an occasional poem about a little-known nation, turns deliberately to the ancient form.
Besides the real and symbolic Liberia, there is a lesser heroic image in the poet-visionary. Because for Tolson man complexly fuses the biological, the sociological, and the psychological, only the Ishmaelite poet knows him deeply. Knowing humanity, historical and contemporary, the poet-prophet discerns the future. Tolson embodies human history in the ferris wheel symbol, which subsumes empires and nations. They rise and fall, alternating decadence and "bright new beginnings." To escape the cyclic nature of power, Tolson asserts through the protagonist that humankind must advance teleologically to a classless utopia. Liberia therefore marks the vanguard, the poet-prophet being instrumental to the movement.
The style reveals a formal polish and philosophical weight in a broad reference which requires pages of notes. Some elements descend directly from earlier techniques, such as Tolson's love of word play, his use of neologism, and his extensive allusions. Once more he uses parallel structure to control the verse. Such elements, all subject to the "3 S's," mark the Tolsonian style.
The first and final "Do" illuminate the manner. The first sets out the principal themes in the attempt to define the meaning of Liberia. A centered question, "Liberia?" highlights the dominant image. In each eight-line stanza, there follows a negation of some cliché: "microfootnote," "barker's bioaccident," "pimple on the chin of Africa," "caricature with a mimic flag," and "wasteland" (Europe) or "destooled elite" (Africa). After a denial, the fifth line in each stanza recenters the definition around the repetend "You are." In regular rhyme-schemes the metrically irregular verses relate Liberia to Europe as lightning rod and Canaan's key and "The rope across the abyss…." Images abound as definition proceeds; Liberia is a metonym spatially to "The Orient of Colors everywhere," philosophically to "Liberatas flayed and naked by the road," mythically to "Black Lazarus risen from the White Man's grave," and nationally to "American genius uncrowned in Europe's charnel-house." The final two lines indicate how the nation eludes logical definition: "Liberia and not Liberia, / A moment of the conscience of mankind!"
The poem, unlike earlier ones, minimizes direct, hortatory rhetoric. Allusions help structure and codify meanings. Here the tagends of quotation as well as infusions from different languages including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew, complicate a line already abstruse. So do the African languages. Symbols like the Hohere, the ferris wheel, the merry-go-round, and the tiny republic enrich the verse.
The first section reveals the tone and many of the poetic devices which recur throughout the verse. Liberia has survived the exploitation of Western colonizers. Although its freedom is "flayed and naked," the ideal lives on in promise. "Liberia and not Liberia," the dialectic, the tension of opposites plays throughout the ode. It leads from the initial poem of definition through those which describe the nation's founding ("Mi," "Sol," "La,") to the relationship to France, Britain, and the United States ("Fa," "Ti"). Finally, it widens to classic African civilization ("Re") and the masses everywhere ("Ti" and passim). Tolson resolves the tension in "Africa-To-Be" (second "Do" and passim).
In the long last section ("Do"), Tolson crafts languages and symbols into a vision of Africa's bright future. Through the metaphors of the automobile, train, and ship, as well as the airplane, he aesthetically transports Liberia, Africa, and the world to an apocalyptic Pluralism. Africa saves itself as well as Europe, America, and Australia. Africa achieves the cosmopolis, Hohere, through the United African Nations' cooperation in "polygenetic metropolises polychromatic." The Parliament of African Peoples redeems both the elite and the masses.
The final "Do" sums up the significance of the Liberian experience. It evokes the future in verse that changes from sestet through staggered unrhymed couplets, to centered patterns and finally to prose poetry. The final "Do" thickens with fragments in different languages, references to African as well as European and American thought. Why does the ode, despite the chillingly simple poem, "Fa" (ominous in its simplicity), end in prose paragraphs? Possibly, oratory and Tolson's notion of climax coincide here.
The entire ode moves to a climax as each of the eight sections achieves a minor affirmation. While the first "Do" climaxes in the symbolic definition ("A moment of the conscience of mankind"), the final "Do" declares a new beginning ("the Rosh Hashana of the Africa calends"). And it silences doubters: "'Honi soit qui mal y pense!'" Yet Tolson does not deny the corruption in society and the individual. While "profit" and "avarice" continue, the masses are on a merry-go-round of the "unparadised" who have nowhere to go. The gorged snake, the bird of prey, and the tiger wait in a false peace to strike again. And African nations still wear "Nessus shirts from Europe on their backs."
Tolson's last book of poetry, Harlem Gallery, fuses the early subject matter of Portraits with his later techniques. Although he presents mechanically more than two hundred Harlemites in Portraits, he abandons the strategy here in favor of a much more dynamic one. A number of poems are thematically integrated into the one irregular ode. A different letter of the Greek alphabet labels each of the twenty-four poems in order, just as the names of notes mark Libretto. Both poems work toward a signed and structured climax.
The ode incorporates Tolson's epic principle. He has viewed Harlem Gallery: Book I, the Curator as the first of five works that would delineate Afro-American history from the African origins to the contemporary world. He has intended to "analogize the history of the Hebrew people in the episodes of the Old Testament as regards persons, places, and events. The dominant idea of the Harlem Gallery will be manifest." According to the plan, Book II, Egypt Land, is to be an analogue for the Slave Trade and Southern Bondage; Book III, the Red Sea, an analogue for the Civil War; Book IV, The Wilderness, an analogue for Reconstruction, and Book V, The Promised Land, an analogue for the race's present existence: "a gallery of highbrows and middlebrows and lowbrows against the ethnological panorama of contemporary America."
In Portraits the once-mentioned Curator places the book's characters on his gallery walls. His voice is unheard throughout the book. The protagonist in Libretto speaks in the two "Do's" and possibly throughout the entire ode, but the primary text does not develop him. In Harlem Gallery the Curator is continually present. Here, too, he has his gallery, though his paintings do not represent the characters in the ode.
While the protagonist in Libretto is undramatized throughout the ode, the Curator is a real persona, appearing in significant places like the Zulu Club, meditating on art and life, and interacting with various others. His gallery, though symbolic, is real with regents, gallery-goers, pictures on the four walls, and real curators. The last ones include himself and his alter-ego, Dr. Obi Nkomo. Tolson combines the Curator in Portraits, a speaker who is scarcely even a framing device, and the protagonist in Libretto, possibly the consciousness through which the poem is played. This evolution marks the current curator.
The Harlem Gallery is a firmer and more centralized metaphor than was Liberia. Harlem appears less now through representation than through evocation. As with Liberia and America in the earlier books, the area is both place and symbol. It maintains historicity but assumes a larger meaning. Although the numbers of characters are fewer, major figures are more deeply probed. Harlem the social place becomes Harlem the human type.
The figures of Vergil Ragsdale (Portraits), the poet, Good Grey Bard (Rendezvous), and the Bard of Timbuktu (Libretto) become fused and enlarged here. The artists evoke both their personal and public lives. The division between private failure and public assurance in the aesthetic vocation, evident even in Ragsdale, appears uniquely human. Harlem, a nexus of Afro-American artist-heroes, shares the inhabitants' ambivalent and tragicomic blues. The inhabitants suit well the modern epic:
in this race, at this time, in this place,
to be a Negro artist is to be
a flower of the gods, whose growth
is dwarfed at an early stage—
a Brazilian owl moth,
a giant among his own in an acreage
dark with the darkman's designs,
where the milieu moves back downward like the sloth.
Tolson even maintains the abstract hero and symbolizes Art itself, but the hero no longer strides with the masses toward an apocalyptic new earth. Tolson has his concept of an economically determined world transmuted by true art. The true artist foreshadows the new world not as the "Futurafrique" (Libretto), but as the "dusk of dawn." The artistic subsumes the political. Art, like John Laugart's "Black Bourgeoisie," so long as authentic, becomes sanative.
The style of the ode is more dynamic than that in Libretto. The new mode, with allusiveness and complexity of metaphor, image and symbol, excludes verbiage. Here emerge greater mastery and flexibility. The poems project their themes through a flux of character, interaction, and talk. The peripatetic Curator goes to Laugart's apartment, Aunt Grindle's Chitterling Shop, the Harlem Gallery, and the Zulu Club. He hears or knows about the happenings at the police station, the Haha Club, and the Angelus Funeral Home. His wanderings focus the geography of Harlem. His thoughts about the characters, life, and art are projected in both discursive and narrative cantos. At once a dramatic persona and an undramatized prophet like Eliot's Tiresias, he represents the consciousness through which the ode is played. In a sense he "makes" the "autobio-fragment"—the ode itself—literally humanize intellect and oratory. The poem ends then with the achievement of the metonym:
The 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!
Some indication of how Tolson's poem works can be seen in the first canto. In "Alpha," one hears the voice of the Curator for the first time. The basic symbols appear in the first two lines:
The Harlem Gallery, an Afric pepper bird,
awakes me at a people's dusk of dawn.
The Harlem Gallery, like the pepper bird native to Africa, stirs the Curator to action. He must envision the ode, the "autobio-fragment," at a people's dusk of dawn, the transition between night and morning symbolically figuring a new socio-economic age. Here the Afro-American will attain his full stature. The ode itself will both prophetically and aesthetically help to usher this in.
Then the poem evokes some Third World challenges to the "Great White World," the former being the social equivalent to the Curator's craft. Introspectively, the Curator turns to himself, faces the task, and sees himself as flawed, being comic where seriousness is called for, being serious when comedy is required. He shares humankind's meandering approach to the necessary search for true freedom. He envisions the task again, now hearing "a dry husk-of-locust" blues asking "Black Boy, O Black Boy, / is the port worth the cruise?" Inhibitions based on self-doubt harden the task; to maintain the integrity of self, humanity, and race proves nearly too much. The "clockbird's jackass laughter" haunts his effort. Challenged by the pepper bird, but mocked by the clockbird, he reveals the spirit of transitional man in a transitional world.
As in "Alpha" the entire ode centers in irregular rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance. Major symbols in the ode, such as Harlem Gallery, African pepper bird, Dusk of Dawn, and clockbird, recur now. The Buridan's ass and "the gaffing To ti" have appeared earlier in different genres, but images of the Hambletonian gathering for a leap, the apples of Cain, and barrel cactus are fresh. Here closes the decade long evolution in his worldview as an Afro-American, for his craft subsumes and perfects his oratory.
But with an epic intention, why does he abandon the folk model for the academic one? Why, if so committed to the Black and white masses, does he write in the style of the literary elite?
Perhaps Harlem Gallery is not exclusively for the elite. Here one reads and enjoys with persistence more than with erudition. Or, maybe Tolson regards the style as a criterion of excellence. Perhaps he wants to master the technique but to maintain his Afro-American experience. A final answer comes from Tolson, himself one of the "crafty masters of social conscience":
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