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Critical Essay by Melvin B. Tolson Jr.
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898–1966)," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 395-400.
In the following essay, Tolson discusses his father's career and major works.
"Black Crispus Attucks taught / Us how to die / Before white Patrick Henry's bugle breath / Uttered the vertical / Transmitting cry: / 'Yea give me liberty or give me death.'" These words still reverberate in this sixty-sixth year of the celebration by African Americans of "Black History Month." They express the importance that the struggle against socioeconomic and cultural racism held for Melvin B. Tolson in his lifetime and in the work he left to what he called "the vertical audience," that of the ages. This poet, orator, teacher of English and American literatures, grammarian, small-town mayor, theater founder and director, debate coach was born on 6 February 1898 in Moberly, Missouri, the son and nephew of Methodist preachers. The family moved frequently in Missouri and Iowa to the different churches his studiously intellectual but autodidact father pastored.
Tolson often said that in his earliest youth he was dedicated to the palette. However, he was permanently deterred from this path by his mother's encounter with a bohemianly attired painter who, attracted by the boy's ability, spoke of taking him to Paris! Thomas Whitbread refers to this encounter in his poetic tribute "In Praise of M. B. Tolson," written after Tolson's death in 1966. Subsequently turning to literature, Tolson said that his first poem, "The Wreck of the Titanic," was published about 1912, when the family lived in Oskaloosa, Iowa. A favorite teacher encouraged him as early as 1915 or 1916, when the family resided in Mason City, Iowa. The earliest copies of the poet's work were discovered by Robert Farnsworth, who has done the most extensive research on Tolson's life, having published a definitive biography in 1984. He discovered two short stories and two poems written by the then class poet for the Lincolnian, the yearbook of Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri. Tolson was attending high school there while the family lived near his father's church in Independence. These short stories and poems appear in the 1917 and 1918 editions of the yearbook, in which his future career is predicted to be that of "Poet and Playwriter" (sic). The feature poem dedicated to his graduating class of 1918 is grandiloquently entitled "The Past, Present and Future" and is already distinctively "Tolsonian" in imaginative thrust and language.
Fair muses, from Olympia's wind-kissed height,
Inspire our souls with (thy) eternal flame
That we may sing of this sad hour aright,
A song full worthy of our Mater's name.
In sooth, it pains our hearts to break the ties
That grip us to our friends in warm embrace.
However Time, who like a meteor flies,
Has hurled us hence, this tearful time to face.
Later lines, such as "Our hearts beat fast, our eyes flame with desire! / Our souls long for the battlesmoke of strife!" are also typical of the action-filled language and oratorical tone of the later poetry. Although heralded as "the Dunbar to be" of the class and claíming to have tried poems in Negro dialect, Tolson here reminds us of the Dunbar of "The Unsung Heroes" and "Misapprehension" rather than the more familiar creator of delightful poetry like "Soliloquy of a Turkey" or "A Negro Love Song."
The five stanzas of eight iambic-pentameter lines in the Lincolnian show a relative ease in the manipulation of a b a b rhymes and may be said to substantiate Tolson's own oft-repeated opinion that "poets are made though technique must be taught." It is obvious, despite the clichés and infelicities of form, that the poet of Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator of 1965 is already present almost fifty years earlier. The poetic direction is already set toward the rich imagery and allusive language of the later period.
In his junior year at Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia, Tolson married Ruth Southall of Charlottesville, Virginia. After graduation in 1923, a son was born and the family moved to Marshall, Texas, on the edge of the oilfield district, where Tolson had a job as English teacher at Wiley College, a small Methodist Episcopal school. Two more sons and a daughter were born during these years. Coincidentally, about a mile away in the same town was a second small black college, Bishop, supported by the Baptist Church. The total student population of the two colleges might occasionally have reached one thousand, though rarely.
In the pantheon of black colleges of this pre-civil-rights era Wiley College was regarded with something like envy and awe by the Negro population of the South. Its prestige was unrivaled west of the Mississippi, and Tolson quickly grew to be one of the intellectual stars of this environment. For the next few years he expended the enormous store of energy in his five-foot-six-inch, 130-pound frame in several directions. He coached the junior-varsity football team, expounding for many years afterward on the strategies he devised to defeat the larger, better-fed varsity players. He played hard, competitive tennis with faculty and students, again proclaiming the advantages of strategy. He trained competitive orators and coached championship debate teams, among whose opponents were the University of Oklahoma (an interracial "first"), Oxford University, and the University of Southern California. He directed the college theater group and helped found the black intercollegiate Southern Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts, for whose festival contests he and his students wrote and presented plays. His students called him "the Little Master" and told and retold (sometimes apocryphal) stories, admiring his debater thrusts of intelligence in discussions—often on the open campus—with students and other professors and his disregard for the clothing amenities associated with being a college professor in those more formal days. Among his finest debaters was James Leonard Farmer, founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose photograph while being carried bodily out of the courthouse of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana by policemen remains one of the most memorable of the civil-rights movement. Farmer speaks glowingly of Tolson in his autobiography Lay Bare the Heart and in the television documentary "Marshall, Texas; Marshall, Texas," in which he is interviewed by the correspondent and commentator Bill Moyers, a native of the town.
Debate remained a vital part of Tolson's teaching life until falling into swift discontinuance just before World War II, about the time the subjects that had furnished the substance of its adversarial roles became too immediately relevant to be "debated." In the midst of this and other activities, Tolson had worked on his Master of Arts degree at Columbia University but finished his thesis only on the eve of Hitler's invasion of France. The subject of his thesis was "The Harlem Group of Negro Writers," and the degree was awarded in 1940. He knew personally some of the Harlem Renaissance figures and, while at Columbia, was inspired to write a sonnet about Harlem. A roommate, according to Tolson, ridiculed the idea of fitting Harlem into a sonnet, and this comment made him think of composing a longer work in the years that followed.
He was back teaching at Wiley College in the early thirties and busy at work on his poetry about Harlem. To encompass the vastness of the community, he finally decided on a framework inspired by Spoon River Anthology. Edgar Lee Masters had used the device of a stroll through a graveyard and the epitaphs on headstones to introduce his poetic population. Tolson combined his own early interest in painting and the prominence of this art during the Harlem Renaissance to create another device that would allow a similar scope of poetic presentation. The resulting collection of some 340 poems, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, unsuccessfully made the rounds of publishing houses for several years, after which time Tolson abandoned further attempts, putting the manuscript in a trunk. Some forty years later, in 1979, the publication of approximately half of the "portraits" was finally brought about by Robert Farnsworth. Because of a similarity in titles when Tolson took up the theme again (in Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator of 1965), there is often confusion of the two on the part of readers and oral commentators of Tolson's work.
The poet himself speaks of the influence of Masters, Browning, and Whitman on A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Another, more obvious influence, which is perhaps taken for granted in African American poetry of the period, is the blues.
Troubled waters, troubled waters,
Done begin to roll.
Troubled waters, troubled waters,
Gittin' deep an' col'.
Lawd, don't let dem troubled waters
Drown ma weary soul.
The New Year comes, the Old Year goes.
What's down the road nobody knows.
I play my suit with a poker face,
But Father Time he holds the ace.
Most of the "portraits" contain blues inserts, both original and traditional. Tolson recalled several times sitting up late at night with Sterling Brown, the poet, the two drinking and delightedly competing at the invention of blues lyrics—never, unfortunately for us, written down or otherwise recorded.
In the same vein, Tolson was renowned as a raconteur, the veracity of whose minutest details sometimes took second place to dramatic effect. Although a few instances of his speaking or being interviewed exist, he would not allow his sons to record the oral history which he recounted so enthusiastically and entertainingly (the body tape recorder was still a thing of the future). These accounts were a gold mine of experiences on debate tours and travels to dramatic festivals in the segregated South and North, as well as encounters with famous, infamous, and ordinary people. We meet many of these events and people, however, in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits and in subsequent works published during his lifetime: Rendezvous with America, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, and Harlem Gallery.
The "portraits" range through all the classes, colors, and past and present careers imaginable in the Harlem of the twenties and thirties.
Heirs of eons of Comedy and Tragedy.
Pass along the streets and alleys of Harlem
Singing ballads of the Dark World: …
Radicals, prizefighters, actors and deacons,
Beggars, politicians, professors and redcaps,
Bulldikers, Babbitts, racketeers and jig-chasers,
Harlots, crapshooters, workers and pink-chasers
Artists, dicties, Pullman porters and messiahs …
The Curator has hung the likenesses of all
In "A Gallery of Harlem Portraits."
Between these two stanzas from the introductory poem "Harlem" are eight assorted stanzas of blues lyrics which comment on the relations between men and women, blacks and whites, the powerful and the powerless. Although he espoused the antibourgeois attitude of the artist that has pervaded Western civilization since the late nineteenth century in France, Tolson had not yet done the extensive study or held the hours-long discussions he was to have with his friend and colleague Oliver W. Cox, who came to Wiley in 1938, or the author-editor V. F. Calverton. Nevertheless, in a book-length study of the 1965 Harlem Gallery Mariann Russell shows that the earlier "portraits" attribute poverty to the same socio-economic conditions as does the later work, and they too call on the "underdogs of the world to unite."
While he was composing Portraits, Tolson was also writing prose. By the summer of 1937 he had written two plays. One, a musical comedy-drama titled The Moses of Beale Street, was done in collaboration with Edward Boatner, the famous arranger of spirituals, who also taught at Wiley. The two were partly inspired by the continued success of the miracle play The Green Pastures, though they placed many of their scenes in Hell rather than Heaven. An agent agreed to represent them, and Tolson left the manuscript, later lost, with his collaborator while he returned to begin the school year in Marshall.
In May 1938 he began contributing a weekly column to the Washington Tribune, an African American newspaper in the District of Columbia. Farnsworth selected one hundred from the seven years' worth of columns and secured their publication in a 1982 volume whose title, Caviar and Cabbage, echoed that of the column. There are also records of one-act and three-act plays, one of which was a dramatization of Black No More, a novel by Walter White of the NAACP, which was finally performed at a 1952 convention of the Association.
After beginning the newspaper column, Tolson started work on a novel called Dark Symphony, of which some ninety-six pages remain. However, at the suggestion of poet Frank Marshall Davis, he entered a 126-line poem in the poetry contest sponsored by the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. He gave the title "Dark Symphony" to the poem, which was awarded first prize by the jury composed of Davis, Arna Bontemps, and Langston Hughes. The opening lines of my essay quote the opening lines of the poem, which is Tolson's most popular work. The first seventeen lines were even used as the frontispiece for the 1976 Schlitz Brewing Company's "Famous Black Americans Historical Calendar." I am sure the poet would have been delighted!
"Dark Symphony" is divided into sections bearing the names of musical notations.
Black Crispus Attucks taught
Us how to die….
The centuries-old pathos in our voices
Saddens the great white world….
They tell us to forget
The Golgotha we tread….
The New Negro strides upon the continent
In seven-league boots….
None in the Land can say
To us black men Today….
Tempo di Marcia
Out of abysses of Illiteracy,
Through labyrinths of Lies,
Across waste lands of Disease …
The musical notations characterize in varying degrees the tone of each of the sections of the poem. In "Dark Symphony" Tolson also returns to the cultivation of patterns of rhyme, a practice he had abandoned in Gallery except in the blues lyrics. He alternates rhyme with blank-verse sections. This poem is the longest that he had written to this time and is an example of the increasing lengthiness of the major poems he will write hereafter.
"Dark Symphony" appeared in the September 1941 issue of Atlantic Monthly and was read by Mary Lou Chamberlain, who later left Atlantic and became a member of the editorial board of Dodd, Mead. She suggested Tolson submit a manuscript for publication, the composition of which resulted in Rendezvous with America. Other shorter and longer poems were written for the book. One of the shortest is "My Soul and I," dedicated to Tolson's wife and containing only twelve lines. It is a quietly lyrical love poem, one of the very few he ever wrote, in a vein that is counter to his natural intellectual exuberance. The longest poem in the volume, "Tapestries of Time," in eight sections, contains 369 lines in strophes of varying lengths and rhyme schemes. Furthermore, the collection contains several experiments in form: rhyming lines of only two syllables ("A Song for Myself"); a pantoum, a Malay fixed-form poem adapted by Baudelaire ("The Furlough"); a section of twelve sonnets. There are vignettes based on his work with black and white sharecroppers who wanted to form a union in Harrison County, scenes of life in the pre-civil-rights South, materials from African history and folklore, references to contemporary events, and reflections on the role of the artist in society. All these are themes that recur throughout his prose and poetry.
In 1947 Tolson left Wiley College for Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, at the invitation of another of his fine debaters, Hobart Jarrett, then chairman of the English Department, and at the urging of his family. He was forty-nine years old and had just been named Poet Laureate of the Republic of Liberia, West Africa. The original sponsors of Liberia, the American Colonization Society, had also founded Lincoln University, of which his friend and school-mate Horace Mann Bond had recently become president. The Poet Laureate was to compose a celebratory poem for the centennial of the founding of Liberia. As the poem he originally planned grew in length and complexity, Tolson was obliged to compose another, shorter poem that arrived in time for the celebration.
No micro-footnote in a bunioned book
Homed by a pedant
With a gelded look:
The ladder of survival dawn men saw
In the quicksilver sparrow that slips
The eagle's claw!
Seven strophes at the beginning of this book-length ode of 770 lines ask the meaning of Liberia. In seven lines each of roughly similar appearance we are told what Liberia is not, then what it is. The irregularly metered lines rhyme a b a b and are centered on the page, a practice which comes to dominate completely the final work of Tolson's career, Harlem Gallery. In the Libretto this visual structure alternates with other, different patterns as well as with non-rhymed sections. The divisions of the ode bear the names of the diatonic musical scale.
Sometime before beginning the composition of the ode, Tolson had encountered modern poetry and the New Criticism of Eliot, Pound, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, et alia. His own natural bent toward the intellectual, toward the attempt—like Paul Valéry—to render poetic creation as willed an activity as possible, was instantly attracted by the new techniques, though not by the ethos of their practitioners. For him, as for other artists, inspiration was a "given" with whose materials the poet consciously and conscientiously labored to produce a work of art. Techniques could be adapted to the expression of any ideology. Tolson felt the artist as artist made the greatest contribution to his people by creating the finest art object to express their liberation. As he was to say years later during a 1966 writers' conference at Fisk University: "A man has his biology, his sociology, and his psychology—and then he becomes a poet!… I'm a black poet, an African-American poet, a Negro poet. I'm no accident."
By the time of his work on the Libretto Tolson had begun to limit his extracurricular activities. There were occasional dramatic productions, no athletic activities, fewer though still frequent public addresses (such as those traveling with Roscoe Dunjee, founder-publisher of the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, championing the cause of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher), and no regular news columns: the emphasis was now principally on the writing of poetry. His reading and study of modern verse and criticism had become even more voracious as he taught himself the newer techniques and adapted them to his own talents. Thus the Libretto, though obviously influenced by the modernism of the period, is unlike the poetry of any of his contemporaries. It has lost none of its exultant belief in the final triumph of the "little people" and the achievement of political and socio-economic justice. Like Aimé Césaire, whose Cahier d'un retour au pays natal masterfully utilizes the techniques of surrealism, Tolson remains a poet in blackness. He was fully aware of the difficulties this text presented and supplied pages of notes at the end of the book. In conversations with me he stated that he knew he was "dicing with Fate" in trying to force entrance into the "canon," but he was certain that, like Stendhal, he would be vindicated in time. He felt that he could do it and relished the challenge; so it had to be done!
Libretto underwent constant revision, and Allen Tate finally provided a very complimentary preface. At the same time, Tolson was busy writing other poetry, which appeared in print before the publication of Libretto in 1953. (Duke Ellington was the Composer Laureate of Liberia for the same centennial, for which he produced the provocative "Liberian Suite.") The last section of the final "DO" presents "The Futurafrique, the chef-d'oeuvre of Liberian Motors," "The United Nations Limited" (a train), "The Bula Matadi" (a luxurious ocean liner), "Le Premier des Noirs, of Pan-African Airways." The ode closes on this vision of Liberia:
The Parliament of African Peoples signets forever
the Recessional of Europe and
trumpets the abolition of itself:
and no nation uses Felis leo or
Aquila heliaca as the emblem of
blut und boden; and the hyenas
whine no more among the bar-
ren bones of the seventeen sun-
set sultans of Songhai; and the
deserts that gave up the ghost
to green pastures chant in the
ears and teeth of the Dog, in
Rosh Hoshana of the Afric
calends: "Honi soit qui mal y pense!"
Nine years passed between the publication of Rendezvous with America and Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Twelve years would elapse before the publication of Tolson's third and final collection of verse, Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator. Despite the time and labor required for the composition of the 340 poems of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, he had not, when he decided to come back to the idea, reexamined the original manuscript merely to rework it. In the earlier work there is only a one-line mention of the Curator, but he becomes the principal character of the 1965 Harlem Gallery. Furthermore, by the time of the composition of the latter work Tolson's original idea had expanded to include the whole history of the diaspora of African Americans. He now planned to write five volumes, with books 2-5 to be titled respectively Egypt Land, The Red Sea, The Wilderness and The Promised Land. However, operations for cancer and deteriorating health during and after the writing of The Curator prevented any further work. Progress on this volume was indeed facilitated by the refusal of his wife to consent to his running for a fifth term as mayor of Langston City!
The Harlem Gallery, an Afric pepper bird,
awakes me at a people's dusk of dawn,
The age alters its image, a dog's hind leg,
and hazards the moment of truth in pawn.
The Lord of the House of Flies,
jaundice-eyed, synapses purled,
wries before the tumultuous canvas,
'The Second of May'—
the dagger of Madrid
the scimitar of Murat.
In Africa, in Asia, on the Day
of Barricades, alarm birds bedevil the Great White
a Buridan's ass—not Balaam's—between no oats
Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator opens with these lines, which immediately allude to the Africa of the last line of Libretto and to W. E. B. DuBois, the premier African-American scholar. Tolson himself felt this work—with sections entitled "Alpha" through "Omega"—to be technically a finer artistic achievement than Libretto. He was always attempting to write a "great" line and to reduce to an absolute minimum the "stuffing" that writers (and musicians) must often use to get from one to another.
The preface was written by Karl Shapiro, purposely asked because he represented a "school" of poetry different from that of Allen Tate. Shapiro used a topic sentence "Tolson writes in Negro," which he went on to develop but which elicited often stormy comment in the years that followed. It is also a statement that Tate (in the Libretto preface) could never have made in admiration. A few years later Jan DeGaetani and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premiered T. J. Anderson's "Variations on a Theme by M. B. Tolson," which used materials from both Libretto and Harlem Gallery (a recording is available on Nonesuch Records).
The five projected volumes were to trace the odyssey of black Americans from Africa to the twentieth-century New World, "from chattel to Esquire," words which close the first volume. The point of view is not that of the artist, as in the original Portraits, but that of the Curator, who talks and meditates encyclopedically on race, art, artists, and the Gallery. We learn of the difficulties he has in dealing with "the bulls of Bashan," the moneyed Gallery supporters led by Mr. Guy Delaporte III, president of Bola Boa Enterprises, Inc.
There are conversations with artists and friends, many of them similar to characters and names in Gallery of Harlem Portraits or combinations of characters from that work and real life.
After five sections dedicated to the ideas and observations of the Curator, we meet John Laugart (in "Zeta"), a "half-blind painter, / spoon-shaped like an aged parrot-fish." He lives in "a catacomb Harlem flat / (grotesquely vivisected like microscoped maggots) / where the caricature of a rat / weathercocked in squeals / to be or not to be / and a snaggletoothed toilet / grumbled its obscenity." Laugart has painted a masterpiece, Black Bourgeoisie, "a synthesis / (savage-sanative) / of Daumier and Gropper and Picasso," which the Curator is certain "will wring from [the Regents'] babbitted souls a Jeremian cry!" The Curator hangs the work anyway, and "Before the bête noire of [the painting], Mr. Guy Delaporte III takes his stand / a wounded Cape buffalo defying everything and Everyman!" Later "[Laugart] was robbed and murdered in his flat, / and the only witness was a Hamletian rat."
In Aunt Grindle's Elite Chitterling Shop ("Eta") we meet the Curator's alter ego, Dr. Obi Nkomo, native African Africanist versed in the knowledge and culture of the West, who uses irony to comment on and often challenge the Curator's opinions. It is obvious that the poet sympathizes with them both and uses Nkomo to gain a perspective different from that of the Curator. Often, as a skillful debater, Tolson places the reader in a dilemmatic position before contrasting ideas of the Curator and the "signifying" Nkomo. The latter is also the vehicle for Tolson to incorporate African materials like those he has previously used in prose and poetry.
The name Hideho Heights ("Lambda") combines the famous yell of Cab Calloway with the surname of one of the most cunningly effective of Tolson's debaters, Henry Heights, third member—with Farmer and Jarrett—of the team that defeated the national champions of the University of Southern California in 1935. Hideho was "the vagabond bard of Lenox Avenue, / whose satyric legends adhered like beggar's-lice," whose "voice like a / ferry horn in a river of fog" challenged the Curator: "In the beginning was the Word, /… not the Brush!" He comes to the Gallery from a jam session at the Daddy-O Club, "plays the dozens" with his friend, and reads him his poem on Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, written in a popular jazzy-blues vein. Later, at the Zulu Club (a name Tolson had given to his own basement playroom-bar adorned with African photographs), Hideho reads "The Birth of John Henry," another "racial ballad in the public domain": "The night John Henry is born an ax / of lightning splits the sky, / and a hammer of thunder pounds the earth, / and the eagles and panthers cry!" Hideho is unaware that one night when he woke up in his own bed after a drunken evening, it was the Curator who had put him to bed, discovering Hideho's secret, "the private poem in the modern vein." Tolson entitles this poem "E&O.E," the name of one he himself had written. It had appeared in Poetry Magazine in September 1951, winning the Bess Hokim Prize that year. Tolson uses the Curator's discovery to problematize the relationship of folk poetry and the more difficult variety.
The following are a few of the more important characters of Harlem Gallery: Snakehips Briskie ("MU"), dancer, who "Convulsively, unexampledly / … began to coil, to writhe / like a prismatic-hued python / in the throes of copulation"; Black Diamond, "heir presumptive to the Lenox Policy Racket"; Shadrach Martial Kilroy, "president of Afroamerican Freedom"; Hedda Starks, alias Black Orchid ("RHO"), "a striptease has-been / of the brassy-pit-band era," but who had possessed a "barbarian bump and sophisticated grind / (every bump butted by the growl of a horn)"; Mister Starks, "from Onward, Mississippi—/ via Paris, Texas, via Broken Bow, Oklahoma," whose mother named him "Mister" "Since every Negro male in Dixie was / either a boy or an uncle." (Starks was pianist-composer of the "Black Orchid Suite" and poet of the manuscript Harlem Vignettes.) There are also dozens of "walk-on" characters who people the Harlem of this volume, and space-time allusions are not limited to the Renaissance era.
After a brief, rare "writer's block," Tolson was able to "end" the volume. In "PSI" he has the Curator address first "Black Boy" and then "White Boy" on the subject of racial lies, myths, and stereotypes. "OMEGA" addresses them both at once, proclaiming the existence of flowers of hope that bloom in the ghetto despite the flowers of death in the white metropolis: "In the black ghetto / the white heather / and the white almond grow, / but the hyacinth / and the asphodel blow / in the white metropolis!" Then he calls on the Seven Sages of ancient Greece ("O Cleobulus, / O Thales, Solon, Periander, Bias, Chilo, / O Pittacus") to "unriddle the phoenix riddle of this." The poem closes on this tribute to the Gallery and to African Americans:
Our public may possess in Art
a Mantegna figure's arctic rigidity;
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!
This section contains 4,719 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)