Tolson's Turn

Aldon Nielsen

      In an oft-cited passage in John Brown's Body, Stephen Vincent Benét, though he had populated his 1928 Civil War epic with numerous representations of African American figures, confessed his heart too white to assume a role as singer of the "blackskinned epic" he believed American poetry still needed, predicting, much as Emerson before him had prophesied the coming of the true American poet, that one day a black poet would rise to sing that "epic with the black spears" with "truth and mellowness" (Benét 1954: 337). There is much to remark in this passage. Apparently Benét was unaware of already existing epics by black poets, and readers of Ralph Ellison may have found some amusement in the fact that the edition of John Brown's Body republished just two years after Invisible Man's appearance was issued by a press named "Rinehart." Still, there were many who read in Benét's declaration a confirmation of their own aspirations. While I suspect that Melvin B. Tolson knew of the nineteenth-century epic length poems of an Alberry Whitman, a poet born in slavery who had come to be known in some quarters as the "poet laureate to the Afro-American race," Tolson felt that the time had come for a truly modern "blackskinned epic" and that he was just the poet to produce it. Tolson's epic aspirations produced the two late volumes (1953 and 1965) with which contemporary readers have become at least somewhat familiar, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery, Book I: the Curator; but the many controversies produced by Tolson's late style, and by the dueling prefaces to those books contributed by Allen Tate and Karl Shapiro, have not only obscured from view the earlier epic penned by Tolson but also have sown confusion about Tolson's path to that late style.

     Tolson early on saw himself as the potential author of what he was to term the first modern Negro epic. Writing of Paul Laurence Dunbar, he had once remarked: "Dunbar himself wanted to write an e[p]ic, but the American public wanted only Negro stereotypes, so he took his unwritten epic to the grave. But not before he had written that terrible indictment of the pandemic psychosis that made him a falsely grinning comedian -- the poem called We Wear The Mask" (Tolson Papers. Container 5, "Miscellaneous Notes"). Tolson's first magnificent effort in this direction did not see the light of day till after his death. Titled A Gallery of Harlem Portraits and largely written in the 1930s, that volume encompassed more than two hundred pages of free verse portraiture adding up to a panoramic exploration of Black America in the twentieth century. What Tolson wrote about the later Harlem Gallery was clearly already part of his plan in composing this earlier epic. He noted that his gallery featured "shifts in the Jamesian sense from one reflector to another – one mirror to another to reveal the complex destinies of black folk in America" (Tolson Papers. Container 5. "Similes, Metaphors etc." 3). We know from the humorous essay Tolson wrote about his efforts to get A Gallery of Harlem Portraits published, titled "Odyssey of a Manuscript" and itself published posthumously, that he had written to H.L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg and Mark Van Doren hoping to interest them in his manuscript, though each in turn turned down the opportunity to read the poems. When the elderly Edwin Markham was scheduled to read in the chapel of Tolson's own college, the younger poet thought out loud to his patient wife, "if Edwin Markham could help the man with a hoe he could help the man with an epic!" But while Tolson summoned enough nerve to read to Markham an ode he had composed in honor of his visit (which Markham said he'd have inserted in his biography), Tolson somehow choked and couldn't bring himself to broach the subject of his epic. "I'm a damned fool" he said to his wife at dinner following the occasion. "Amen!" his wife "sanctioned fervently." Tolson was less reticent with Langston Hughes, whom he had met in Harlem in years previous, and so when the Governor of Texas dispatched Tolson to represent his state at the San Diego International Exposition in the mid-1930s, the unpublished bard stood by while his working manuscript was surveyed by Hughes, who sighed and chuckled and at one point said of a poem he'd just read, "That's a perfect picture." "You've got something there," Hughes finally pronounced, but he went on to observe, "It's so hard to get a publisher for poetry." Tolson didn't live to see his first epic work into print, but neither did he entirely put it behind him.

     We can see in that early volume that he was already working towards his own solution to the problems of structuring a modern epic, a problem he shared with Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Charles Olson and so many others. The idea of the gallery stayed with him and was his chosen device for his last great work, which he had planned to comprise five books, of which Book 1 and a few scattered drafts are all that he lived to write. Within that Gallery structure he sought further means of creating an architecture for his vast work, thus the published Harlem Gallery is built of cantos organized by the letters of the Greek alphabet, and the gallery itself is organized into four wings corresponding to the four directions of the compass. A similar structuring device is at work in the earlier Gallery of Harlem Portraits, in which the individual portraits appear in sections organized much as an actual gallery might be, with wings for chiaroscuro, silhouettes, etchings and pastels. That these sections mirror the four-fold structure of his later gallery is probably not incidental. Tolson was quite self-conscious about the significance of his recasting of his poetic forms and style. Not above writing notes about himself for others (such as his college president) to use when speaking of his work and accomplishments, Tolson frequently wrote of himself in the third person. Among his notes is one asserting that "as Yeats rewrote the prose version of 'Byzantium' Tolson rewrote the free verse version of Harlem Gallery "(Tolson Papers. Container 5. "Similes Metaphors etc." 3). In his own notes to his last book, Tolson is quite clear what he thinks he is about:

The autobiographical Book I, The Curator vivifies in myth and metaphor and symbol ideas and places, persons and things, which have given meaning to his life as a man and a collector of works of art. Here, for the first time in poetry, the Afroamerican artist discovers his identity in the complexities that have made him and his people (variegated heritage) what they are today.

One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a Balsacian gallery of lowbrows and middlebrows and highbrows emerges from that province of Color in the Great White World: Doctor Nkomo, the Bantu expatriate and Africanist; Hideho Heights, the folk poet of Lenox Avenue; Mr. Guy Delaporte III, the tycoon of Bola Boa Enterprises, Inc.; Snakehips Briskie, a forerunner of the Twist; John Laugart, the half-blind artist from the Harlem Catacombs; Martial Kilroy, president of Afroamerican Freedom; Igor Shears, the West Indian patron of the Harlem Symphony Orchestra; Black Diamond, the kingpin of the policy racket; the Zulu Club Wits, the Bohemian eggheads of the Twilight Zone of Afroamerican culture; Black Orchid, the blues-singing, striptease artist of the Bamboo Kraal. (Tolson Papers. Container 6. Poetry. Harlem Gallery Notes)

This could just as well be a description of the chromatic cast of characters encountered in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, and many of those earlier portraits clearly serve as drafts for the personalities who appear thirty years later in Tolson's final versioning of his materials.

     What happens across the span of those intervening decades is that Tolson continuously revises his poetics in the direction of ever greater complexity of structure, allusion and language, moving from a poetic language akin to that of Sandburg and Hughes towards something like an African American cousin of Hart Crane's diction, all in an attempt to produce an aesthetic equal to the myriad complexities of black American modernity. Like C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois, Tolson argued forcefully that, far from being mere subjects of modernism, New World African peoples were producers of the modern, as were their African progenitors. In his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia we read of Benin:

The lily lyricism of whose
ivory and gold figurines larked
space oneness on the shelf ice
of avant-garde Art . . .
                              (Tolson 1999:184)

     The common take on Tolson is that he was a poet who revised himself from a fairly conventional versifier into a high modernist. This would only ring true if we chose as a starting point that school boy ballad on the sinking of the Titanic that made its way into his home town newspaper and became the subject of a Sunday sermon by a white Baptist minister, perhaps drawn by the poem's closing "climactic apostrophe to the deity" ("Odyssey"). It would be far more accurate to say that Tolson wrote his way from one mode of modernism to another. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits is much in the vein of the free verse revolution of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, though structurally it surpasses those models in complexity. In his interview with Herbert Hill, included in the landmark collection Anger and Beyond, Tolson spoke of his early admiration for Masters, of his appreciation of Robert Browning's psychological depths of characterization and his internalizing of a Whitmanian exuberance. As his biographer and early critic Robert Farnsworth points out in his afterword to A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, of equal weight in Tolson's variegated background was the blues, which, with its own psychological depths and powers of characterization and imagery, had worked powerfully in the modernizing experiments of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, poets Tolson had studied as a graduate student and had come to know as friends. The movement from the language and structure of Tolson's first book manuscript to the style that dominates his late works might be seen as a parallel to the evolution from blues and spirituals to jazz. But a parallel is not an equivalence; what Tolson undertakes, as musical as it turns out to be, is another order of similar invention. The ever increasing complexity of Tolson's verse is of a piece with what many critics have described as a New World neo-baroque. In her own first book, Vera Kutzinski brought the discussion of the neo-baroque from the world of Latin American literary studies into the realm of African Diasporic cultural studies, a work I see as drawing a strong connection to the concept of neo-African culture popularized earlier by Janheinz Jahn and reread to great effect by such poets as Nathaniel Mackey. Here, too, we see yet again a missed opportunity in the construction of genealogies of poststructuralism. In so much of the critical discussion of Gilles Deleuze's analysis of the fold in Leibniz and the Baroque, the African contributions to the Baroque, so immediately evident to Picasso and Lorca, are elided. So far as I have been able to determine, Tolson never knew of Deleuze, but he certainly knew of Leibniz and of the Baroque, and he certainly knew a great deal of Africa and of the Moorish conquests. Tolson's contemporary Robert Hayden, a poet who studied with W.H. Auden and was later to become the first African American Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, was traveling along a similar path during these years, and even referred to his "baroque period," during which, in the reading of Keith Leonard, "he pursued the complexity of metaphor and the interaction between the presumed objectivity of poetic form and the subjectivity of both the reader and the poetic speaker that made such poetic form a necessary expressive channel for the baffling and potentially alienating dynamics of the mind" (Leonard 2006: 169). While Tolson would have found nothing intrinsically alienating about the dynamics of the mind (in fact, he suggested more than once that the black poet might show the path away from the alienation the white world seemed to trumpet), in significant ways, Tolson's late poetry is an instance of the New World neo-Baroque, and his revisions are a fold within which modernism comes to differ from itself, something we can already see at work in the production of one of his earliest anthology pieces.

     At his reading in the Library of Congress not long before his death from cancer, M.B. Tolson, (having for that period adopted the Eliotic mode of self-identification), invited his audience into what he called the poet's workshop, a virtual visit to the Zulu club of his home's basement refuge. He spends quite a bit of time guiding his listeners through the decisions he made as he arrived at the final form of several lines involving the Bola Boa. Not only is the Bola Boa an African snake, but its appearance in his poem affords Tolson an opening to make several insistent comments on the role of Africa in the development of poetic elements that had come to be seen as characteristically modern. The Bola Boa reappears in his composition of Harlem Gallery as the name of a company headed by the black bourgeois Mr. Guy Delaporte III. Readers can construct a similar workshop experience by examining the revisions that produced the poem by Tolson known widely as "African China." The version of that piece that most of us read in anthologies over the years was the one that originally appeared in the journal Voices in the winter 1950 issue. What we could not have known then (in my case because I wouldn't be born for several more months, but for most because of the non-publication of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits) was that there was an earlier, quite different "African China" and that the 1950 poem had been unfolded from two predecessor poems. In A Gallery of Harlem Portraits we encounter two Chinese figures who operate businesses in Harlem: Wu Shang and Lou Sing, both of whom are in the laundry trade. The experiences of the two separate figures are recomposed into a singular Wu Shang in the later poem. The original "African China," featuring Lou Sing, opens with a premonitory quatrain, italicized to indicate that it represents the folk wisdom of the community:

East is East an' West is West,
You heahs de People say,
But when you mixes East an' South
De devil is to pay.

                                                     (Tolson 1999: 8)

     This poem from the depression era marks a rare instance of more traditional dialect in Tolson's poetry, but we should never see this quatrain's disappearance from the final poem as in any sense a rejection of the vernacular. For one thing, that final poem does still feature dialect, in the line that reads: "Good Gawd, / China and Africa gits wed" (Tolson 1999: 128). More to the point, Tolson has followed the practice of James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown and others, writing a poetry more interested in conveying the flavor and structures of actual Black American idioms rather than the sort of preconstituted and stereotypical dialect he had remarked in Dunbar (albeit with great respect for Dunbar's technical mastery of the form). The central material of the original "African China," in a pattern that will become familiar to scholars researching the Tolson papers, is reworked for the later poem and reassigned from Lou Sing to Wu Shang. That core material is the love story of Lou Sing and his employee, Mable, a love that endures the skepticism of their Harlem neighbors and eventually produces the child known along Eighth Avenue as "African China" who has the facial features of his Chinese father and the ebony skin of his African American mother. Mable's verse says it all: "Lou Sing is a restful oasis . . . Blessed by Allah . . . " (Tolson 1979: 8). This is precisely the variegation and complexity of black diasporic life that Tolson found so fascinating, seeing in the relation between this family and their neighbors a transnational race study living and breathing before him. In taking over the central role in the later "African China," Wu Shang brings with him a portion of his own story, the tale of a man who hates his work in the laundry as much as he loves "elegant phrases," the beauty of which come to serve as "a balm of Gilead" (Tolson 1979: 210) to his friends and customers. In arriving at the final form of "African China," Tolson moves to a six part structure composed in shorter, often rhyming lines. Further, the language moves increasingly towards the elegance that Wu Shang appreciates. For one example, in the final version Wu Shang is not simply a lover of elegant phrases. Now he resides among "bric-a-brac / metaphysical" and is described as "a connoisseur of pearl / necklace phrases" (Tolson 1999: 125). The newly introduced sections of the poem correspond to Wu Shang's interactions with his customers as they had been outlined in the earlier poem, but now instead of falling in love with Mabel, an employee, he falls for Dixie Dixon, who fell on Lenox Avenue, breaking her leg, which leads in turn to Wu Shang's helping her home and aiding her recovery, followed by, in Tolson's words, "old kismet" knotting the two "unraveled destinies" (Tolson 1999: 127). In this final rendering their child has a name, Wu Shang Junior, and while the neighbor children still assign the poem's title as Junior's nickname, here the final lines introduce an element not present in the original:

in accents Carolina
on the streets they never made,
the dusky children tease,
"African China!"
                         (Tolson 1999: 128)
Thus a poem that was already about, among so many other things, the constructedness of race, also underscores both the unconsciousness of that construction and the movements of history that lie behind it. All of this in a language that has become largely that of Tolson's final books of the 1950s and 1960s:
Later, late, Wu Shang remarks,
"Siroccos mar the toughest palm."
The bigger thing, as always, goes unsaid:
the look behind the door of big John's eyes,
awareness of the steps of Is,
the freedom of the wise.
                         (Tolson 1999: 127)

     These same modes of revision can be seen throughout Tolson's work. A memory of his visit to Liberia, in the course of which a paramount chief met during a reception at the home of President Tubman makes a bet with Tolson about which country produces the strongest liquor (a story, mind you, in which the actual signifying monkey puts in an appearance), is reworked through multiple versions into a virtuoso performance involving a paramount chief and a Greenwich Village poet, the poem "Dark Laughter" that was found among Tolson's papers. Lines interpolated into the "Ti" section of Libretto for the Republic of Liberia between the time of its appearance in Poetry magazine (an appearance which caught the eye of William Carlos Williams, who immediately saluted them in Paterson) and its final book form begin to meditate on color ( "melamin or melanin dies to the world and dies") then proceed through a litany of rivers and civilizations, recalling Langston Hughes's early poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," reminding readers of "the dusky peers of Roman, Greek, and Jew" (Tolson 1999: 170). The evolving story of "The Chitterling King" gives readers a glimpse of the rich directions Tolson's planned succession of books of the Harlem Gallery were meant to take. In each instance we see the same thing. Starting with a fold within the texture and text of black modernity, Tolson works to elaborate language and structures that fold back upon themselves in ever more generative loops of difference.

Benét, Stephen Vincent. 1954. John Brown's Body. New York: Rinehart. Print.
Leonard, Keith. 2006. Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet from Slavery to Civil Rights. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P,. Print.
Tolson, Melvin B. 1979. A Gallery of Harlem Portraits. Robert M. Farnsworth, Ed. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P. Print.
     —. 1999. "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson. Raymond Nelson, Ed. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P. Print.
     —. The Melvin B. Tolson Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.