The precise meaning of the life and career of Melvin B. Tolson has vexed the literary establishment ever since his shift from the populist poetry of his first two books to the difficult, allusion-ridden poetry of his last work, Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator, published just before his death. Was Tolson so enthralled by the call to “make it new,” articulated and demonstrated in the essays and poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, that he “sold out” the populist poetics of the Harlem Renaissance? Or did Tolson try to find a new poetics, navigating his poetic enterprise between the Scylla and Charybdis of Anglo-American modernism and African American populism?
Insofar as the debate around Tolson’s work still rages, there is still no consensus within the African American literary community, much less the literary community at large, about the value of his poetry. Still, excepting Joy Flasch’s book-length appreciation, Melvin B. Tolson (1972), it was not until the 1990’s that critical commentators—Michael Bérubé, Hermine Dolerez, Craig Werner, and Aldon Nielsen among them—started to reread and argue for the revolutionary, if incomplete, modernism of Tolson’s poetic output.
In their introductory remarks to Tolson’s second and third published books, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery, both Allen Tate and Karl Shapiro focus on the extent to which Tolson’s convoluted, experimental poems constitute black poetry. Both answer in the affirmative but for different reasons. For Tate, writing about Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, Tolson is “more” black than, for example, the Harlem Renaissance poets because, unlike them, he focuses on poetry as an art first and as an opportunity for the dissemination of political ideas second. Shapiro dismisses the issue of Tolson’s relationship to high modernism. For him, Tolson “writes and thinks in Negro, which is to say, a possible American language.” Both critics were taken to task by black and white commentators, Tate for his self-serving racism (Tolson is a poet because he writes like Eliot and Crane), Shapiro for his ignorance (Tolson’s poetry could not be any less black). Tolson’s work is, in toto, a contribution to this “debate,” one that embraces the complications of what it means to be an artist in America even as it undermines presumptions about what it means to be a black artist in America.
A Gallery of Harlem Portraits
Although it was published posthumously in 1979, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits represents Tolson’s earliest poetic style, largely influenced by the populism of Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes. Simplicity of language and characterization is the prevailing attribute of this kind of poetry. The concept of the “portrait” was taken from Masters’s...
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