Carlo Parcelli

Workingman's Tolson

It was one of those 96 degree, 100 percent humidity days that confirms that Washington DC is built on a swamp. The year was 1977. I was working at Kramer’s Book Warehouse on a narrow side street off of Bladensburg Road across from the Metro Bus repair depot two blocks north of New York Avenue after you go under the train trestle.

Ray and I were scurrying about in the blinding heat helping direct a driver with a forty foot trailer into Kramer’s single bay warehouse. With cars parked on both sides of the street, he had only inches to spare and had missed on his first pass.

“Hit it this time and there’s a beer in it for ya,” Ray called out to the driver. The driver, sweating profusely adjusted his cap, and tried again. The second time he shot the narrow gap, turned hard right and near perfectly plugged the rear of the trailer into the bay.

Backing up a forty foot trailer is an art in itself and deserving of our admiration and praise and a chilly National Bo when done well. The driver dropped the latch and yanked up the rear trailer door as Ray popped him a cold one.

We were his last stop of the day and our eight skids were tightly wedged in at the front of the trailer directly behind the cab. I dropped a ‘lip’ to bridge the gap between the warehouse and the rear of the trailer. Then I got our manual hydraulic lift, the downward angle of the trailer being too steep for the forklift.

I rolled the lift down into the dark, suffocating heat in the bowels of the trailer. Then I deftly slid the arms of the lift under a skid, pressed the hydraulic foot, and began pumping the skid off the floor. Once a few inches up, I began pulling the skid up a slope just enough that my co-workers Ray, Allen and Michael could get behind it and push.

One skid down. In a matter of minutes, all eight skids were unloaded. Beers all around.

I took a couple of gulps of Baltimore ambrosia aka National Bohemian, and began hauling the first skid into the cool inner sanctum of the warehouse. Once again, the entire shipment was inventoried and stacked in a just a few minutes. After a second Bo, the driver was on his way to an early weekend of crabbing on the Chesapeake with his sons.

Me. I was curious to see what was on the new skids. As it turned out it was 8 skids of the Twayne author series. Twayne is a house famous for its dissertation length studies of literary figures -- some now obscure like Israel Zangwill, Elmer Rice or Marie Grubbe. Some remain in the public imagination like Whitman, Dickens and Richard Wright. Ashbery has a Twayne, as does L. Sprague de Camp. There are literally thousands of titles under their imprint.

Of course Tolson was also familiar with the working man's experience.  As a young man he was a trucker.  In a Caviar and Cabbage column, as cited in Robert Farnsworth's biography of Tolson, he described in precise and colorful detail his initiation to the meaning of class: 

Every morning I crossed the river into Kansas, with men of all nationalities and races.  Wage salary makes men hard; so I lost some of the softness of the poet.

First I was a trucker. I pulled five times my weight.  The 200-pounders laughed at me on the loading dock.  But in three weeks I was leading the gang.  I learned the physics of trucking...

Some Twaynes present primary material as on this day. I found two boxes of the second printing of a poet named Melvin B. Tolson. The volume contained what appeared to be a single long poem called Harlem Gallery with sections named after the Greek alphabet. Karl Shapiro had written the introduction.

I sat on a skid of books with my cold Bo and began to read. The initial section of Harlem Gallery, Alpha, challenged me in the way I was when I first discovered Pound’s Cantos under the tutelage of the incomparable Rudd Fleming. I got past Tolson’s intent behind the reference to Goya’s painting The Second of May and the reference to Murat, both politically charged revolutionary statements. But what the Hell was ‘the Day of Barricades’.

Well, the Day of Barricades according to the current Wikipedia entry is:

“In the French Wars of Religion, the Day of the Barricades (Journée des barricades), 12 May 1588, was an apparently spontaneous public uprising in staunchly Catholic Paris against the moderate, hesitant, temporalizing policies of Henry III. It was called forth by the "Council of Sixteen", representing the sixteen quartiers of Paris, led by Henri, duc de Guise, head of the Catholic League, and coordinated in detail by Philip II of Spain's ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza.”

I was accustomed to reading and studying highly referential poets like Pound, Joyce, Olson and Zukofsky. And I loved being challenged by poetry. I immediately took a copy and poured over it. Tolson stepped beyond them all. For the first time in my literary experience, the white man, the white poet was wearing the shackles vis a vis his material and that materials exegeses. I was later to learn this was Tolson’s intent. It was his goal. It was admirably achieved. To paraphrase Tolson, he ‘would out Eliot Eliot’ and create a Pan-Cultural poetry, something that had occurred to Picasso and the art world but was still anathema to the Euro-locked world of poetry.

My then nine year old daughter, Carmen, took part in a number of after school activities including play rehearsals which often ran late. I would go directly from work to the school to pick her up because that would give an hour or so to use the school’s Britannica to look up Tolson’s references. Now, I can do that right at my computer which further emphasizes that intellectual laziness and an addiction to sentimentality is no longer an excuse for not understanding, appreciating and learning from the modernists.

Cold Dog Soup

Over the years, Tolson has presented me with a whole new challenge. Harlem Gallery was the first Tolson I believe I had encountered and this after gaining a Master’s in English Literature in the 1960’s and 1970’s! I blame myself, mired in a curriculum that was energized by either the supercilious, sentimental, psychotropic or psychotic with a largely worthy and tried canon under attack. I resisted the easy trade between popular culture and literature and studied Pound, Olson, Joyce, Tolson, Zukofsky et al instead.

Tolson’s left perspective and revolutionary/workingman’s vigor are also to my liking. I found it intellectually and emotionally superior to the fascist Pound and the coy neutrality of Joyce. I can’t help but believe race and the sheer horror and necessary resolve of being black in America made Tolson’s a more mature, passionate and experienced voice than even our greatest High-Modernist hot house flowers like Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Zukofsky and Olson, not to mention the sentimental sissies that dominate today’s poetry canon. Tolson was a high modernist poet and writer one did not have to make excuses for, either in the quality of their work or the quality of their life.

Tolson worked with southern sharecroppers both black and white to help them improve their lot, risking lynching on more than one occasion. Pound is the only other High Modernist poet who engaged the world he lived in to the extent that he faced hanging albeit, at the end of the day, by the same forces that would have done in Tolson if chance warranted it. But even Karl Shapiro couldn’t sort that one out. Where Pound was fumbling around for his philosopher king, Tolson was working to help working men and women, Pound’s peasants, keep their bellies full and those of their children and aged charges.

So when I recently needed the name of the Roman comic actor from the first century BC, I remembered the first page of Tolson’s Harlem Gallery. In ‘Alpha’ Tolson writes:

“Sometimes a Roscius as tragedian

sometimes a Kean as clown.”

Mel Tolson, high modernist, educator, revolutionary and poet!

Why is Mel Tolson’s Poetry Largely Ignored?

The usual rap on Tolson is that his poetry is too Eurocentric. This is due to his highly referential style which is reminiscent of Eliot and Pound and High Modernism in general.

But Eurocentric? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, given the epistemology of sentiment as it operates in African-American poetry from its inception, Tolson is the least Eurocentric of all the black poets. The deep Christian sentiments held forth in much of African-American poetry is one example. Another is the seeming need to reconstruct a past as counterpoint to the present without regard to the depth at which the European ethos still operates within these supposedly newly discovered pre-colonial connections and sentiments.

Tolson’s intention is certainly not to confirm or ratify the European ethos. In fact, he’s out to not only condemn it but to place its colonial, imperial bent within a greater global context. To Tolson the ‘other’ is out there and it has its own power. So he throws it into the High Modernist mix and allows it to slay the colonial beast. His intent is to vanquish and gut the European/American behemoth and lay bare the stench of its content beside that of a greater global ethos.

I hasten to add that Tolson is not adverse to using the ‘better angels’ of the European ethos to aid in his task.

Superficially Tolson may resemble Pound or Eliot. Context wise there may be overlap. But Tolson’s project is to subsume Western hegemonic culture in a larger Pan-Culture which because of its diversity and strength will overcome the European genocidal bogey.

He accomplishes this by the indirect methods available to the High Modernist sensibility. That makes his poetry ‘difficult.’ However, with the advent of the internet and search engines, gaining an understanding of Tolson’s fine work is far easier than it was when I pulled the Twayne publication off of a skid one hot DC day in 1977.


Rosalie and I watched the film The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington on video. The film purported to be about Mel Tolson but not once did it mention that not only was Tolson a poet but handily one of the greatest of all American poets. That’s like doing a biopic of James Joyce without mentioning Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Or Pound sans the Cantos. Or Olson stripped of Maximus.

Frankly, I think the film makers did Tolson a great disservice. But one can also construe that Tolson’s life was so full of teaching, the theater and helping poor sharecroppers that the poetry was overlooked by the film makers because among all of these other achievements poetry in general has become a pointless, rote exercise in our culture. Not really knowing much about Tolson, the film makers may have just seen his poetry as irrelevant because, as far as they can see, all poetry has become such.

Fortunately, many reviews of the film set the record straight. Prominent among them was Laura Beil’s review which appeared in the New York Times for December 5, 2007 entitled "For Struggling Black College, Hopes of a Revival".

For more information on
the author - performance videos  -  and latest book

"Stand-up tragedy at its best!"

Additional work by Carlo Parcelli in FlashPoint includes:

The Canaanite Gospel:
A Meditation on Empire: The Easter Sequence

and several installments of

"Deconstructing the Demiurge"

"Crimes of Passion"
"Work in Regress"
"Onionrings: Adding machines_Crisco"
"Collateral Damage, or The Death of Classics in America"
"How Dead Industrialists Dance, or Swing Time"
"Tale of the Tribe"
"Millennium Mathematics: The Centos"
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower
Eschatology of Reason: The North Tower
Eschatology of Reason: De Rerum Natura
Eschatology of Reason: The South Tower (revised
De Rerum Natura: Hearing Voices
Eschatology of Reason: Shaping the Noise


Without Usura
a selection from:
Eschatology of Reason:
"The Gilded Index of Far-Reaching Ruin"
a poem in five parts
I.     A Brief Course in Secular Eschatology

II.    Congo Redux

III.   A Koan Operated Turing Tape:
       A Lost Found Poem and the Arrow of Time

IV.   Maxwell's Demonology

V.    About the Author

A.   At 64
B.   That's How I Remember Her

The poet comments on his growing poem:
"Is Everyday Language Sufficient to Embody Everyday Experience?"

The Schneidercentric Poetry World of
Dan Schneider: Cosmoetica vs. Planet Earth