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Harlem Gallery: An Advertisement and User’s Manual

ISSUE:  Summer 1999

When it appeared in 1965, Harlem Gallery was Melvin Tolson’s first book of poetry in 12 years. Tolson had always worked in that deliberate way: a few poems now and then in Poetry or some other sympathetic journal, then, suddenly, the publication of a major work, of aggressive ambition, in a highly inflected form. Because of his hibernations between books he was not well known, except among peers. Allen Tate had written an introduction for Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) that became more famous, or more infamous, certainly more widely read, than the poem itself. Karl Shapiro introduced Harlem Gallery; he said that it might be “the door to poetry that everyone has been looking for.” Initially, the poem was routinely applauded, even though a significant part of its African American audience rejected it on ideological grounds. It occasioned a few of the national reviews and recognitions that Tolson had long since earned many times over.

Born into a preacher’s family in Missouri in 1898, Tolson grew up in various Midwestem cities and was educated at Fisk and Lincoln Universities. Except for a year of graduate study at Columbia, after 1923 he earned his living almost exclusively in the service of small black schools, Wiley and Langston, in Texas and Oklahoma. Once, in an expansive mood, he described the curriculum of a life that had been self-reliant from the age of 12, “as shoeshine boy, stevedore, soldier, janitor, packinghouse worker, cook on a railroad, waiter in beach-front hotels, boxer, actor, football coach, director of drama, lecturer for the NAACP, organizer of sharecroppers’ unions, teacher, father of Ph.D.s, poet laureate of a foreign country, painter, newspaper columnist, four-time mayor of a town, facer of mobs.” Robert Farnsworth’s biography of 1984 confirms the hint of the generous and heroic that emerges from Tolson’s list, the purposefulness and sense of discipline too. Particularly after his residence at Columbia in 1931—32, when he caught the excitement of black New York in the last days of its literary renaissance, he dedicated himself in one way or another to the slow evolution of the poem about Harlem that would make his claim to greatness. It was published just a year before his death.

A hybridization of the pindaric ode, with all of the gaudiness and decorum of its classic parent, both tragic and comic, full of strange, moving, and powerful moments, Harlem Gallery is by any standard remarkable. Every reader who still has a pulse should feel it quicken at the prospect of opening its pages. But not many pulses stir. These days the poem barely clings to life among a few determined academics. The reasons for its neglect are not entirely mysterious. They involve race, institutional inertia, and a shift of literary taste from the dense formalism of the modernist old masters to a more direct, open, and informal poetical idiom. As these are matters of deep social division and the inevitable processes of change, they raise formidable barriers indeed.

There is one other problem. Harlem Galley can be difficult enough to make you rub your eyes. Everyone says so, and everyone who undertakes to write about the poem seems to feel constrained at least to attempt some comprehensive interpretation of the philosophies—of history, identity, race, art, social structure, personal action—underlying its teeming surface. It is a daunting task. Harlem Gallery is indeed a difficult poem, all 24 cantos (one for each letter of the Greek alphabet) and 155 pages of it. With its nearly impenetrable opening sections, its extensive and precise learnedness and uncompromising obscurities, its syncopations of puns, neologisms, double negatives, labyrinthian syntax, and acrobatic prosody, and, above all, its pandora’s box of allusions, it bids fair to give literary hermeticism a bad name. Consequently the best readers of Tolson’s unclassifiable poem in the high style spend most of their energies explicating its mysteries for other readers, and nobody very much is left truly to read it—at least not in the way that people used to read poems for what used to be called “the pleasures of poetry.” The situation is wasteful not only of Tolson’s genuine wisdom and learning, but also of a monument of poetry at its most genial, humane, and entertaining.

I don’t want to risk misunderstanding. Of course we should, all of us, read Harlem Gallery earnestly. We should read it for the often difficult things it has to say about the theory, history, and nourishments of art, for its analyses of such primary matters as the relationship of artist and audience, the social constraints on art, how art is related to nature, how it is related to desire, how it becomes restorative or destructive. We should consult the poem for its embattled meditations about the curse of choice in a world of unacceptable alternatives. We should certainly read it as a controversial treatise about race in the United States and for its robust anatomy of the roles, responsibilities, and enigmas of the African American artist. These are important issues of both the moment and the long haul. Not only did Tolson think them through; he lived them through.

But everyone knows, although almost everyone is too often prone to forget, that poets are not primarily or even importantly philosophers. Since Plato’s time they have been notorious for their refusals to stick to business or be wholly sober. Like any major artist, Tolson looks to ultimate issues and erects his structures against the power of death. Meanwhile, he is full of irony, puns, and sly jokes, He plants clever timing devices everywhere in his verse, and he is easily encouraged by the way thought can be made to follow form and sound:

            like the O
       of St. Bridget when it is rent
         by the basso profundo
          in the abysmal D
          of his fortissimo

We forget the wisdom of the senses and the primacy of playfulness only at the peril of reading the poem too solemnly. From the time of Harlem Gallery’s publication, commentary has bogged down in such questions as whether the Curator, the poem’s narrator and primary character, expresses the correct understanding about the relationship between race, class, and culture, or whether Dr. Obi Nkomo, his Bantu alter-ego, does, or whether perhaps Hideho Heights, the people’s raffish Poet Defender, may. Such questions can be urgent and they come naturally enough to mind, but they ignore the literary fact that all of these characters are both wrong and right at various times and that none of them, in fact, are consistent in their positions. Similar indeterminacies frustrate commentators who seek, as many have, the poem’s resolution of the issues it raises about racial loyalties. Harlem Gallery never achieves or seeks to achieve closure about such matters. The one resolution it offers is death, and that works only indifferently.

Despite the persistent comparisons that (frequently hostile) observers have made between Tolson and T.S.Eliot, whom he much admired, or Ezra Pound, whom he is said to have out-Pounded, or other important modernist poets, Harlem Gallery is not fundamentally like the extended modernist poem or poem sequence or personal epic that by mid-century had become familiar to two generations of readers. It has no comprehensive mythic or imagistic substructure; indeed, except for the imposition of the 64 letter Greek alphabet it might fairly be said to have no architectonic principle at all. Even chronology won’t order events. Details from characters’ biographies are isolated, often incompatible or apparently so, and sometimes require leaps of faith between dates and milieus. History is represented anachronistically, for whatever uses the moment may require, so that the poem is set in an enormous present of collective memory encompassing roughly the years 1925—1960.Human experience threatens to signify nothing more than the dance of dialectical oppositions in the void left by the failures of Christian and Marxist visions of history. Reality itself is not organized either hierarchically or horizontally; it cannot be represented by the literary shape of a pyramid, spiral, bell curve, or infinity sign. The world continually generates its own terms and improvises its new configurations. If the distinction is helpful: Harlem Gallery may indeed be modernist in temperament, but it is unabashedly romantic in its reverence for art, and often postmodern in method and texture.


So read Harlem Gallery for its great vision, like Melville’s, of the nihil that lies just on the other side of perception and for the imperatives, great and small, it articulates in defiance of nihilism, but as you read the majestic whole, or before you do, linger a while with the parts. The very absence of a single structural order makes it possible to reduce the poem, as a tactic tor approaching it, to an anthology of lyrics, local narratives, meditations, philosophical odes, and epigrams. Diehard traditionalists (and others) who mistrust even tactical reductions and insist on organizational concepts will be quick to observe that the idea of a gallery suggests a collection of discrete artifacts, separately framed. Whatever your metaphor, it is not strictly necessary to launch yourself into Harlem Gallery by taking a deep breath and pounding through the opening five cantos, which contain some of the damndest tough writing in the poem. I have a hunch, not entirely uninstructed by experience, that many of Tolson’s potential readers who have so launched themselves have quit forever, flushed and sputtering, somewhere in the middle of “Gamma.”

Tolson almost certainly would have been more readily received if he had not insisted on forging his god’s plenty into a single daunting monument, but, unlike his Curator, he was not a man of compromises. A reader’s strategy need not be so Olympian. Many of the narratives of Harlem Gallery are detachable from the main body of the poem—the extended narratives of Hideho Heights (“Lambda,” “Mu,” “Nu,” “Xi,” “Phi,” “Chi”), for example, or of Mister Starks (“Rho,” “Sigma,” “Tau,” “Upsilon”). Several important narratives are self-contained in single cantos: the story of the Curator and Dr. Nkomo at Aunt Grindle’s Elite Chitterling Shop in “Eta” is one: so are the accounts of Hideho Heights’ great performance at the Zulu Club in “Xi” and the uproar in the Angelus Funeral Home in “Sigma.” Most of the poem’s large issues and strategies inform these local fictions, which will remind you that the more difficult theoretical cantos, delivered by the Curator or Dr. Nkomo, are fictions too. and may be a little easier to access when explored as expressions of character.

Reading Harlem Gallery really can be a little like the strategic shortcuts and isolation of fortresses of the island-to-island campaign that won a hard war in the Pacific. Or, it can be like the strategy of a smart boxer, to attack the body to get to the head. If one approaches the poem according to the method that could be derived from such modernists as Pound, Eliot, or William Carlos Williams, one might notice the attention to nesting habits in two comparisons applied at different times to Dr. Nkomo—the similes of the Townsend’s solitaire, a shy thrush which makes its nest on the ground, and the eastern Australian megapode called the brush turkey, which lays its eggs in piles of vegetable garbage, also on the ground—and seek to discover the relationship between them. However, as it turns out, these images are not part of a motif; they do not modify each other and they have no cumulative function. It is rewarding to apply them, each in its way and time, to Nkomo, just as it is rewarding to determine why Shadrach Martial Kilroy compares his organization, Afroamerican Freedom Inc., to the African secretary bird. The figures give a moment’s glimpse into character and they are amusing; their symbolism remains local.

Harlem Gallery is aflutter with birds: horned screamers, mocking-birds, harpy eagles, kookaburras, barley birds, laughing geese, tree crows, true crows, mute swans. It is like a visit to the aviary at the Washington Zoo. Tolson’s command of ornithology is more than respectable. So is his botany. His sensibility is earthy and repeatedly inclined to floral emblems, which, again, can be adapted immediately for similitudes, but do not generate extended symbolic patterns. Did you know that in hot weather the flowers of the perennial herb fraxinella emit a flammable vapor? That curiosity of nature suggests a pungent joke when applied to an angry woman in a juke joint. Fortunately, it has no further implications for the lady’s moral qualities, nor does it imply anything about the nature of femininity.

Should you weary of ornithology and botany, Tolson will entertain you with a variety of other technical vocabularies, which frequently betray eccentricities as well as catholicity of interest. From time to time he bases figures of comparison upon precise knowledge of hand tools, nautical architecture, herpetology, scientific measurement, the chemistry of fermentation, veterinary therapy, and metallurgy, among many other subjects. Probably any reader can summon enough of a taste for etymology to enjoy Tolson’s austere or not-so-austere joking about the derivations of Catarrhine or crissum, but those who prefer ichthyology may also consider how appropriate it is that Guy Delaporte III, the poem’s chief capitalist and philistine, compares the Curator to a Greenland shark rather than to a different kind of shark or to the other species of fish that glide in and out of the poem. These incidental displays of learned wit help keep a reader alert and involved, but they are merely complementary to the main encyclopedic entries about painting, music, literature, and African and European history.

Perhaps this attention to its intellectual surface will make Harlem Gallery seem at the outset like a crazy quilt of data, allusion, and hard words. Well, at the outset it does seem that way, and at the outset, sure, it can be intimidating. But intimidation is beside Tolson’s point. His learning may be formidable, it is never ponderous. His outpourings of information are simply whoops of imaginative abundance. For example, in a book-length poem with only three Caucasian characters (one cop, two robbers, all of them minor), skin color has a distinct but subordinate and usually ironic function in characterization. Tolson makes heavy use of the conventional spectrum, comic or straight, of black, brown, dusky, tan, yellow, and high yellow, but he adds such fine calibrations as ebony, charcoal, “black as cypress lawn,” “the color of betel-stained teeth,” nut-brown, “tiger’s-eye yellow-brown,” bronze, giraffine yellow, “the yellow of Minyan pottery,” “yellowish-gray and hard as tala,” “the olive complexion of a Brahui,” and “whiter than Pliny’s white black.” In addition, the Curator is racially anomalous, and describes himself as “xanthein” and “white as a Roman’s toga when he bought an office on the sly.” Apart from the sheer fun of the thing such precision is intended to locate shadings on a subdued but rich continuum and thus call home the reader’s sensual imagination. It is also close to the poem’s heart as a playful celebration of the wonderful variety of the people who are variously called AfroAmerica, the Negro, or Homo Aethiopicus.

Similar high spirits shape Harlem Gallery’s visual architecture. In Playing the Changes Craig Werner shrewdly noticed how Tolson exploits the figure his poem makes on the page, particularly the visual pun in the manner of George Herbert at the conclusion of “Alpha,” whereby the final stanza, about challenges to “I-ness,” assumes the block form of the letter “I.” This reinvention of the concrete synchronization of sound, sense, and sight (the formulation is Tolson’s), which might also owe something to such visually oriented moderns as Guillaume Apollinaire or William Carlos Williams, frequently ends a canto or identifies other lands of conclusions. It is at work in the cruciform figure ending “Gamma,” with its “cruxing incandescence” and hints of redemption through art, or in the way that the cynical comment about racial treachery by Lionel Matheus, the Sea-Wolf of Harlem, provides the base for the pagoda-like shape assumed by Joshua Nitze’s anecdote of disintegrating integration in Nashville, which occurs midway through the action of “Xi.” An examination of the manuscript of Harlem Gallery on deposit at the Library of Congress leaves one repeatedly impressed with the meticulousness by which Tolson used his page as a canvas. May we live long enough, you and I, to enjoy the publication of the deluxe folio edition, wherein the poem can at last be fully seen.


We are beginning to get to the point. These often delightful blossoms of learning, wit, and vision are only subordinate. They create settings for a voice, which is what poetry must first and finally be, and they return me to my argument that in the immediate experience of the reader Melvin Tolson is a marvelous poet of line, phrase, sound, and image, whose capacity for entertainment and genial instruction is sometimes impeded by our difficulty in hacking our way through the luxuriant rain forest of his intellect. According to John Laugart, the Prometheus of Harlem Gallery, the essence of art lies in form, and it seems unexceptionable to observe that Tolson’s accomplishment relies heavily on the pliability of his improbable pindaric vehicle. He is, as well as a lyrical, a narrative and dramatic poet of many voices, who without violating the formal demands of his genre could use it to record such disparate idioms as the street talk of the disarmingly gamin-like thug of the policy rackets, Black Diamond (“Baby, I play any game that you can name/for any amount that you can count.”), the ultimately civilized ironic eloquence of Dr. Nkomo:

               He chuckles:
        a Bourbon should shake his family tree
            long enough . . . he
        —beyond a Diogenic doubt—
         would kneel at the mourners’ bench,
            dressed in black crepe.
            as cannibal and idiot,
              rapist and ape,
              tumble out.”

or the selfconsciously populist voice of Hideho Heights, as he barges into an elegant reception at a Gallery opening:

   ”Hey, man, when you gonna close this dump?
      Fetch highbrow stuff for the middlebrows who
     don’t give a damn and the lowbrows who ain’t hip!
       Think you’re a little high-yellow Jesus?”

The articulation of such fully characterized. often slangy voices through the demanding prosody and deliberate artificiality of the pindaric ode makes in itself for a bravura performance, and the distinctions among the voices can be even more finely tuned. Hideho Heights delivers several poems during the course of Harlem Gallery. The concluding passage:

               with ravenous jaws
           that can cut sheet steel scrap,
              the sea-turtle gnaws
        . . . and gnaws . . . and gnaws . . .
           his way in a way that appalls—
           his way to freedom.

            beyond the vomiting dark,
            beyond the stomach walls
               of the shark.

may give a sufficient flavor of his parable of the shark who swallowed a Jonah-like sea-turtle, and the way that poem differs from his variation on a folk-poem about the legend of John Henry:

    Some say he was born in Georgia—O Lord!
         Some say in Alabam.
   But it’s writ on the rock at the Big Bend Tunnel:
    ”Lousyana was my home. So scram!”

or from the formal lament for the lost masters of a great music, composed according to the venerable ubi sunt tradition, that he slipped into his racy jazz portrait of Louis Armstrong:

       Where, oh, where is Bessie Smith
     With her heart as big as the blues of truth?
       Where, oh, where is Mister Jetty Roll
      with his Cadillac and diamond tooth?
        Where, oh, where is Papa Handy
    with his blue notes a-dragging from bar to bar?
      Where, oh, where is bulletproof Leadbelly
      with his tall tales and 12-string guitar?

Never mind Hideho’s closet masterpiece in the high modernist vein, which becomes the subject of “Chi”; the Curator himself provides enough of an example of the well wrought, formally closed, modern lyric in his bitter meditation about racial history:

              Beneath the sun
        as he clutched the bars of a barracoon,
             beneath the moon
          of a blind and deaf-mute Sky,
          my forebears heard a Cameroon
   chief, in the language of the King James Bible, cry,
     ”O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Other voices as well emerge from the polyphony of Tolson’s verse. One may look twice with a wild surmise at encountering a line that sounds and feels so much like John Donne (“no man is an escape running wild from/self-sown seeds”), but there it is. It is equally intriguing to come upon the sinister tones of T.S.Eliot:

    the dogs in the Harlem manger fret away their nails,
             rake their hair,
       initiate a game of pitch-and-toss;
    then (wried by the seventh facial nerve) confuse
  the T-shape of the gibbet with the T-shape of the cross.

the craggy rhythms of Robert Browning:

        Scragged beyond the cavernous door,
        clamorous as a parrot against the rain,
        Dipsy Muse’s vanity scrabbled in vain
    like an anchor along the neck-gorge of a sea-floor.

or even something of Chaucer’s morning freshness:

           When the bluebirds sing
          their perennial anthem
       a capriccio, in the Spring,
       the sap begins to move up the stem
   of the vine, and the wine in the bed of the deep
         cask stirs in its winter sleep.

Tolson manipulates his impersonations so deftly that the same character (Dr. Nkomo) can deliver himself at one moment in the lofty rhetoric of Hart Crane:

            Out of the visaing face
        of the sun swooped the falcon baron
       clarioning the summons of an aeried race.

and just six lines later shift into the neighborly voice of Langston Hughes:

          Old Probabilities, what am I?
            Mister, what are you?
       An eagle or a chicken come home to roost?
              I wish I knew!

These pleasant, haunting echoes are something more than ventriloquism or imitation. They add to Tolson’s poem an elusive resonance of common memory, feeling, and expression, like the murmur of family conversation in an adjoining room. More practically, Tolson is able through his borrowed voices to refreshen the now conventionalized spiritual and sensual responses they originally brought to the worldly spectacle, and make them instruments for tuning his prosody and filling out his virtuoso’s range of technique and sensibility.

At one extreme of his expressive register is his favorite revision of the extended epic simile, a streetsmart exercise in cumulative hyperbole that reveals its subject by overwhelming it, so to speak, with light. Such a figure describes Hideho Heights’ defeat of the ersatz ecclesiastical Uncle Tom he left:

  tongue-tied as a puking slop-bowl gobbler with a con head
   that had a Napoleonic forelock, but a naked monkey ass

A more decorous but also more syncopated example is to be found in a description of a painting of the archetypal wicked city:

                O hail
      Paolo’s doomsday Sodom that brasses
       caricatures of patterns and colors and masses
     fluxing away from the cruxing incandescence convulsing
              the engouled town!

At the other extreme Tolson employs a provocative restraint and delicacy, which invites the reader to bring emotion to it, as if one were happening (as in the narrative one is) upon a manuscript of poetry left by a dead friend:

        Sanson’s images of my own Harlem
           burned brightly
        like gold and silver paper
          at a Chinese funeral.

The ubiquitous comic writing in what frequently becomes a very funny poem is equally sophisticated and supple. The evocative detail in the description, say, of the affected laughter of Shadrach Martial Kilroy:

              all of a sudden
           the promontory of his belly
           shakes with cultivated jollity.
         like effeminate grains of wet quartz

can give way in a moment to the broadness of “Professor Freez Skerritt’s whiskeyfied baritone” as it “gropes along the bars of Sweet Mystery of Life,” or the energetic foolery of one of the Curator’s comic catalogues:

                   White Boy.
                the Negro dish is a mix
                 like . . . and unlike
               pimiento brisque, chop suey.
             eggs a la Goldenrod, and eggaroni;
            tongue-and-corn casserole, mulligan stew,
           baked fillets of halibut, and cheese fondue;
             macaroni milanaise, egg-milk shake,
            mullagatawny soup, and sour-milk cake.

Humor is never left on its own. The doublemindedness of even this apostrophe to White Boy, which in context has an unmistakable edge to it, is characteristic of all of Tolson’s comedy. On another occasion he might complicate his voice by use of a significant discrepancy in an otherwise lyric passage in order to evoke the temptation to cynicism that often threatens to sour his perception of his world:

                and art
            vapor away in Harlem

or snap into place the final terms of a larger argument, this one about the tyrannies of time as duration or opportunity, with a comic aphorism:

          I remember the wisdom
      of a grand duchess of the burlesque shows,
          whose G-string gave repose
          to no man’s imagination.
     ”It’s all in the timing,”
            said Rose La Rose,
         Mister Minsky’s tigress in heat.

In many ways it is the comedy of Harlem Gallery that carries the poem along and from moment to moment gives its characters the heart to endure still another day in a world that is, except for art, almost unrelievedly frustrating, painful, and dangerous. The laughter of the poem is, in the Yiddish phrase by which Tolson described it elsewhere, lachen mit vastchekes, laughing with needles stuck in you, or it is the olympian laughter of a Dickens, a Balzac, a Rabelais. Repeatedly, on his moral pilgrimage through this comedy of many sets and many players the Curator (and his alter-egos) come face to face not only with the personal dilemmas through which, in one way or another, they manage to stumble, but also with embodiments of the enigmas they both seek and dread. Then Tolson’s comic posture gives way to his prophetic one, and his evocations of mysteries, rich with social and racial as well as spiritual implications, can return the poem always to the dark ground from which it arises:

              Black Boy,
      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.

At other moments of recognition and implication the prophetic voice assumes the passion and eloquence, and often the vocabulary, of its Old Testament sources, whether it is bent to denunciator description:

       For dark hymens on the auction block,
    the lord of the mansion knew the macabre score:
          not a dog moved his tongue,
     not a lamb lost a drop of blood to protect a door

or lifted in invocation of wrath and vengeance:

              O son of profits,
          when does the hour come to sight
        the anchor? When will the parasitic crater
         stifle the bulls of Bashan in the night?

The prophetic mode is not easily assumed or easily sustained among late-century audiences who have heard too much prophecy and all but reflexively seek refuge in skepticism or irony. The Tolson of Harlem Gallery wrote as a proponent of neither of the systems of belief, Marxism or Christianity, he had once espoused, although he still drew ethical strength and direction from both of them. That under those circumstances he could utter prophecies and not make himself seem merely an instrument of sounding brass speaks to his size, and the size of his poem. He demands of us not only our attention but our judgment, according to the standards assumed by his resolute invocation of the giants of art. No matter that it may be too soon to make such judgments on such terms. Surely they must one day be made. Through Harlem Gallery Tolson has thus contrived to keep himself under scrutiny and on the spot, just as he did during his lifetime.


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