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On Libretto for the Republic of Liberia

On Preparing to Write the Modernist Ode
Melvin B. Tolson Jr. (1990)

[Melvin B. Tolson Jr. was a professor of French at the University of Oklahoma and in 1990, he wrote this essay on the career of his father, part critical analysis, part biography, part memoir.]

Sometime before beginning the composition of the [Libretto for the Republic of Liberia], 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. …

… 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 Cesaire, whose Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947) [French: Notebook of a Return to the Homeland] 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 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. …

from Melvin B. Tolson Jr., "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966)," World Literature Today 64:3 (Summer 1990), 398.

Rita Dove (1999)

An Introductory Overview of the Libretto

[Dove’s summary economically portrays the breadth and scope of Tolson’s epic, suggesting the structural soundness of its sequencing. ]

… Tolson contained multitudes and did not shy away from the contradictions therein to look for single-minded issues or simple solutions; he had no problem harboring the paradoxes of the melting-pot – indeed, he was able to refine from that cruel matrix a golden, ostentatious lyricism, drenched in the pain and beauty of the blues. …

In 1947 Tolson was appointed Poet Laureate of Liberia; he wrote Libretto in honor of the centennial of the founding of that African country. With its litany of African / Asian / European heroes, its griot rhapsody and telescoped aeons, this work rises above the circumstances of its genesis. No trace of the occasional lingers in this unique poetic celebration: a public ode that gives us not only the scoop on the nitty-gritty nasties of Western history but also, in a propulsive finale, predicts the rise of African nations.

Divided into eight sections corresponding to the notes of the scale, the Libretto has a built-in progression, a rising and compelling tension. The first "DO" contains eight stanzas, each beginning with the rhetorical question "Liberia?" This query is countered by images of what Liberia most emphatically is not – neither "micro-footnote in a bunioned book" nor "caricature with a mimic flag" – followed in turn by positive images of Liberia as the "iron nerve of lame and halt and blind" and "the quicksilver sparrow that slips / The eagle’s claw." After a lamentation ("RE") for the lost glory of the golden empire of Africa, "MI’ gives credit to various American abolitionists and church leaders for their role in the plans to settle Liberia with former slaves. "FA" provides a moment’s respite from instances of historical aggression; this "interlude of peace," however, is troubled by images of suspended violence: a giant snake ("fabulous mosaic log") poised to strike, a predatory bird (the American eagle?) looming over its stilled victim. History grinds on in "SOL" as the freed slaves set sail for Africa. Their reverse trail through the long terror of the Middle Passage is accompanied by the communal chant of the griot (the elder assigned the task of memorizing tribl history), reciting African proverbs: "The diplomat’s lie is fat / at home and lean abroad. / It is the grass that suffers when / two elephants fight."

"LA" devotes seven stanzas to the geological formation of the Liberian coastline and the advance of Christianity as the former slaves struggle to survive the ravages of nature. "TI" abounds with allusions and foreign phrases, French spilling into Latin even as Banquo’s ghost mingles with the outrageous tyrants of World War II. "You want erudition? I’ll give you erudition," Tolson seems to be saying, mocking the champions of the Western world by summarizing this dizzying sweep through history – largely a progression of wars and ravishment – as "unparadised nobodies with maps of Nowhere / ride the merry-go-round! / Selah!"

"DO" completes the octave. And though there are structural parallels between the first section and the eighth (the question-and-answer pattern of section one has, in section eight, become an elaborate call-and-response around key terms such as the United Nations, Bula Matadi, and Parliament of African Peoples), this conclusion explodes the boundaries of free verse. It resembles the stylized sermon of a charismatic black minister, borne along by the intensity of his vision.

Tolson takes the form of a libretto – literally a "little book" but usually understood as a text to the musical theatre – to its limits. The melodrama of man’s ambitions is swirled across a canvas that begins with prehistoric glaciers and tumbles into the Futurafrique – pageantry and intrigue abreast on a tide of high-fidelity language. With Libretto, Tolson learns to sing in the operatic mode.

From Rita Dove, "Introduction," "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems of Melvin Tolson, Ed. Raymond Nelson (Charlottesville, U Virginia P, 1999), xii, xvi-xvii.

from "Preface" to Libretto for the Republic of Liberia
Allen Tate (1953)

Doubtless, Mr. Tolson does not expect his libretto to have a musical setting; or if he does, one wonders what an audience would make of it. Official celebrations in Liberia cannot differ greatly from those in Washington or Paris, where the apathy of polite inattention is usually all that an official poem deserves. One can imagine in Washington during the New Deal, a patriotic poem being read by the late Stephen Vincent Benèt; but not, I assume, by the late Hart Crane. That may be one difference between the literary culture of official Washington and that of Liberia: Mr. Tolson is in the direct succession from Crane. Here is something marvelous indeed. A small African republic founded by liberated slaves celebrates its centenary by getting an American negro poet to write what, in the end, is an English Pindaric ode in a style derived from – but by no means merely imitative of – one of the most difficult modern poets.

What irony we are entitled to infer from Mr. Tolson’s official appointment to this job I am not prepared to guess. I leave the question with the remark that I cannot imagine a white American poet of equal distinction being given a similar job by President Truman. …

What influence this work will have upon Negro poetry in the United States one awaits with curiosity. For the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition. I do not wish to be understood as saying that Negro poets have hitherto been incapable of this assimilation; there has been perhaps rather a resistance to it on the part of those Negroes who supposed that their peculiar genius lay in "folk" idiom or in the romantic creation of a "new" language within the English language. In these directions interesting and even distinguished work has been done, notably by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. But there are two disadvantages to this approach: first, the "folk" and "new" languages are not very different from those that White poets can write; secondly, the distinguishing Negro quality is not in the language but in the subject-matter, which is usually the plight of the Negro segregated in a White culture. The plight is real and often tragic; but I cannot think that, from the literary point of view, the tragic aggressiveness of the modern Negro poet offers wider poetic possibilities than the resigned pathos of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was only a "White" poète manqué. Both attitudes have limited the Negro poet to a provincial mediocrity in which one’s feelings about one’s difficulties become more important than poetry itself. …

… In the end I found I was reading Libretto for the Republic of Liberia not because Mr. Tolson is a Negro but because he is a poet, not because the poem has a "Negro subject" but because it is about the world of all men. And this subject is not merely asserted; it is embodied in a rich and complex language, and realized in terms of the poetic imagination."

Mariann Russell (1986)
An Overall Description of Each Part of the Libretto

[Russell, one of the pioneering scholars who wrote at length on Tolson in her 1980 study, Melvin B. Tolson’s "Harlem Gallery": A Literary Analysis," provides a detailed overview of the entire work, with close-up focus on several passages.]

In the period between the publication of Rendezvous and the writing of Libretto, Tolson included in his eclectic reading the moderns who set the tone of the two decades between the world wars. The reading and the public occasion of Liberia’s centenary resulted in the style and content of Libretto. In the poem packed with Eliotic notes, we have Tolson’s venture in a style aimed at the literary caviar. [Footnote 1]

Here his view extends from Liberia and Africa to the world. The hero is, symbolically, Liberia, one of only two uncolonized nations in Africa then. Tolson reflects on this historical fact [footnote 2], on Liberia’s contribution to Allied efforts in World War II, and on the history of this republic founded by American Blacks freed from slavery; he therefore celebrates its national identity. The epic qualities from Portaits and Rendezvous appear here in a different context. Liberia, historically exploited by France and England, aids these two countries by supplying rubber and providing airports during the war. The campaign against "fascists" becomes almost a holy war. Liberia, the name and motto signifying freedom, emerges as both real and symbolic. Transcending racial and economic biases, it foreshadows Africa’s triumph in the world. Tolson thus fuses epic and "academic" style [footnote 3].

The poem is either an ode or a series of eight odes [footnote 4]. The titles of metrically varying sections range the diatonic scale from "Do" to "Do." The sections are thematically and symbolically interconnected in the ode form:

Metrically, the term ode usually implies considerable freedom in the introduction of varied rhythmic movements and irregularities of verse-length and rhyme-distribution. There is something ‘oratorical’ about a true ode; and its irregularities may be conceived of as produced by its adaption to choric rendition or to public declamation, either actual or imagined. … Primarily, it [ode] refers to the content and spirit of a poem, implying a certain largeness of thought, continuity of theme, and exalted feeling [quoted from J. F. A. Pye, "A Short Introduction to English Versification," Appendix, English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1929.]

Tolson, faced with the problem of writing an occasional poem about a little-known nation, turns deliberately to the ancient form.

Besides the real and symbolic Liberia, there is a lesser heroic image in the poet-visionary. Because for Tolson man completely fuses the biological, the sociological, and the psychological, only the Ishamelite poet knows him deeply. Knowing humanity, historical and contemporary, the poet-prophet discerns the future. Tolson embodies human history in the ferris wheel symbol, which subsumes empires and nations. They rise and fall, alternating decadence and "bright new beginnings." To escape the cyclic nature of power, Tolson asserts through the protagonist [footnote 5] that humankind must advance teleologically to a classless utopia. Liberia therefore marks the vanguard, the poet-prophet being instrumental to the movement. …

The first and final "Do" illustrate the manner. The first sets out the principal themes in the attempt to define the meaning of Liberia. A centered question, "Liberia?," highlights the dominant image. In each eight-line stanza, there follows a negation of some cliché: "micro-footnote," "barker’s bio-accident," "pimple on the chin of Africa," "caricature with a mimic flag," and "wasteland" (Europe) or "destooled elite" (Africa). After a denial, the fifth line in each stanza recenters the definition around the repentend "You are." In regular rhyme-schemes the metrically irregular verses relate Liberia to Europe as lightning rod and Canaan’s key and "The rope across the abyss…." …

The [Libretto] poem, unlike earlier ones, minimizes direct, hortatory rhetoric. Allusions help structure and codify meanings. Here the tagends of quotations as well as infusions from different languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew, complicate a line already abstruse. So do the African languages. Symbols like Hohere, the ferris wheel, the merry-go-round, and the tiny republic enrich the verse.

The first section reveals the tone and many of the poetic devices which recur throughout the verse, Liberia has survived the exploitation of Western colonizers. Although its freedom is "flayed and naked," the ideal lives on in promise. "Liberia and not Liberia," the dialectic, the tension of opposites plays throughout the ode. It leads from the initial poem of definition through those which describe the nation’s founding ("Mi," "Sol," "La") to the relationship to France, Britain and the United States ("Fa," "Ti"). Finally, it widens to classic African civilization ("Re") and the masses everywhere ("Ti" and passim). Tolson resolves the tension in "Africa-To-Be" (second "Do" and passim).

In the long last section ("Do"), Tolson crafts language and symbols into a vision of Africa’s bright future. Through the metaphors of the automobile, train, and ships, as well as the airplane, he aesthetically transports Liberia, Africa, and the world to an apocalyptic Pluralism. Africa saves itself as well as Europe, America, and Australia. Africa achieves the cosmopolis, Hohere, through the United African Nations’ cooperation in "polygenetic metropolises polychromatic." The Parliament of African Peoples [footnote 6] redeems both the elite and the masses.

The final "Do" sums up the significance of the Liberian experience. It evokes the future in verse that changes from sestet through staggered unrhymed couplets, to centered patterns (lines 555-557) and finally to prose poetry (lines 575-770). The final "Do" thickens with fragments in different languages, references to African as well as European and American thought. Why does the ode, despite the chillingly simple poem, "Fa" (ominous in its simplicity), end in prose paragraphs? Possibly, oratory and Tolson’s notion of climax coincide here [footnote 7].

The entire ode moves to a climax as each of the eight sections achieves a minor affirmation. While the first "Do" climaxes in the symbolic dimension ("A Moment of the conscience of mankind"), the final "Do" declares a new beginning ("the Rish Hashana of the Africa calends"). And it silences doubts: "Honi soit qui mal y pense!" Yet Tolson does not deny the corruption in society and the individual. While "profit" and "avarice" continue, the masses are on a merry-go-round of the "unparadised" who have nowhere to go. The gorged snake, the bird of prey, and the tiger wait in a false peace to strike again. And African nations still wear "Nessus shirts from Europe on their backs."


1. Tolson remarked about his "The Man Inside": "It was not written for you, like ‘Caviar and Cabbage’ [his newspaper columns]. It was written about you. It speaks to those super-intellectuals who whoop it up for democracy," [in Caviar and Cabbages, edited by Robert Farnsworth, p. 229]. This illustrates his conscious preparation of form to accommodate different audiences.

2. Tolson in his Notebooks states: "Start horizontally from fact to metaphor: then the idea moves vertically from metaphor to symbol at the apex of the language."

3. Since the Libretto jacket blurb calls the poem an "African odyssey" and "this epic masterpiece" there is some indication of Tolson’s intention.

4. See Joy Flasch, Melvin B. Tolson (New York: Twayne, 1972): The Libretto is a long ode consisting of eight sections …" See also Jon Woodson, "A Critical Analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," doctoral diss., Brown University, 1978: "the poem, consisting of eight Pindaric odes …," p. 110. This same difference of opinion occurs about [Tolson’s] Harlem Gallery, called an ode by Flasch. "Harlem Gallery is structured so that there is an ode for each letter of the ancient Greek alphabet…." Woodson, p, 195.

5. Woodson points out the existence of the protagonist: "Note 367 contains, beside note 554, the only direct assertion that the poem, consisting of eight Pindaric odes – thus presumably spoken by someone – contains a protagonist. Tolson’s protagonost, in contrast to Eliot’s identification of the seer Tiresias as ‘a mere spectator and not indeed a "character" …’ is not anywhere named. … The reader of the Libretto is provided no key as to whom the protagonist might be" (pp. 110-111). See entire discussion, pp. 110-113.

6. "The poet Tennyson dreamed of a Parliament of Man, a Federation of the World. I cast my vote for that." (Cabbages and Caviar, p. 127.) See also Tennyson, "Locksley Hall."

7. See discussion of "climax," Flasch, p. 76, and Allen Tate, "Introduction" in Libretto, p. 10.

From Mariann B. Russell, "Evolution of Style in the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," in R. Baxter Miller, Ed., Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 9-12

Jon Woodson
Possible Intellectual Backgrounds for the Libretto

[Woodson’s 1971 Brown PhD thesis represents the earliest substantial scholarly work on Tolson. In this excerpt from a 1986 essay, he builds a case for Tolson’s deep interest in the writings of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky – philosopher-mystics who strongly influenced some of the writers in the Harlem Renaissance that Tolson studied and interviewed for his Columbia M.A. thesis in the early 1930s. In part, what is esoteric in Tolson rests, then, on data that is designed to signal its links to a particular mystical tradition and to release latent energies and to communicate primarily to those who were initiates.]

The structure of the Libretto – a section for each note in the musical scale – turns out to be a poetic use of one of Gurdjieff’s esoteric Great Laws, the cosmic law of seven-foldness, which is symbolized as a musical scale throughout the writings of Ouspensky. Tolson used this particular law, which explains how the world works, to analyze the past and future of Liberia. Tolson referred to this law in his poetry several times as "Do-to-Do" and was constantly finding ways to reveal the action of this law in his poetry. Tolson deepened the imagery of the law of seven-foldedness, or as Gurdjieff called it, "three octaves of radiation," by superimposing the first eight-trumps of the Tarot deck over the musical scale: each section of the Libretto describes the scene pictured on a Tarot card as the deck is described in Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe. So careful was Tolson to include esoteric material into his poems that he went so far as to provide a numerological element; the 770 lines of the Libretto can be interpreted as 770 + 7 x 10 x 11, which is easily read by a student of the Tarot by referring to the cards numbered 7, 10, and 11 – the numbers symbolize the theme of the poem on Liberia’s history. Tolson used the word "cabala" in Harlem Gallery, Libretto and "The Man from Halicarnassus." He intended his poetry to yield the secrets only when approached as a text that could reveal the great laws of hermetic occultism. The Curator asks in "Omega" (Harlem Gallery): "Do not scholars tear their beards – vex / their disciples over the Palestinian and Byzantine / punctuation of the Masoretic texts?"

from Jon Woodson, "Melvin B. Tolson and the Art of Being Difficult" in R. Baxter Miller, Ed., Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 38.

Aldon Lynn Nielsen (1992)
The Libretto as Modernist and Postmodernist Text

[Nielsen positions Tolson precisely among some of the most powerful modernist poets of the twentieth century, then suggests aspects in which Tolson’s own poetics look beyond and substantially redefine some modernist tenets. Tolson’s importance will increase in Nielsen’s later book-length study, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Modernism (1997).]


Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and Harlem Gallery are poems which, like the longer works of Pound and Eliot, have designs upon their audiences. But they are works which both constitute a considerably different audience than that addressed by those White modernists and which constitute that audience on a different ground. Efforts to portray Tolson as a poet who betrayed his populist instincts to achieve the elite readership of academic modernism require that we ignore the nature of the poetry and the breadth of Tolson’s own remarks. While it is true that Tolson took some comfort from John Ciardi’s New Critical distinction between "vertical" and "horizontal" audiences, looking to possible future readers for fuller vindication, and while he was able to make jokes out of his understanding of the primary book-buying public, writing in one note, "My poetry is of the proletariat, by the proletariat, and for the bourgeoisie (container 10 in the Tolson papers in the Library of Congress), it is also true that Tolson’s works, far from being addressed only to experts, question the territory of modernist expertise and present knowledge as a link between poet and populace, a link which the populace should strive after as strongly as the poet. …

… Michael Bérubé is half-right when he describes Tolson’s approach: " … Tolson saw his adoption of modernist technique as a guerilla strategy, a means of letting revolutionary discourse sound in the ears of conservative whites by masking that discourse in a no longer revolutionary poetics." The poet did see his work as a guerilla strategy, but he did not see conservative Whites as his only, or even his primary, audience. Nor did he see modernist poetics as no longer revolutionary. To the contrary, he came to see modernist poetics as having been already arrived at by African aesthetics, thus rendering the African-American tradition primary rather than merely imitative.

… Tolson’s turning to the heritage of African proverb and the traditions of pulpit performance is part of an aesthetic that celebrates and continues the richness of verbal signifying practice among the people. In Blues People, Amiri Baraka’s seminal study of African-American vernacular music, Baraka claims for Black language practice as aesthetic reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s: "In language, the African tradition aims at circumlocution, rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrase is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality. In music, the same tendency toward obliquity and ellipsis is noticeable" (Baraka 31). Similarly, Tolson had written in his notes that "the direction of a poet is indirection. To speak in military terms, the prosifier says, ‘Forward! March!’ but the poet says, ‘Oblique! March!’" (from container 10 in the Tolson papers)

In Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen Henderson identifies among the features of a Black aesthetic in language virtuoso naming and enumerating, metaphysical imagery and hyperbolic imagery. … "Don Lee, for example, can use the word ‘neoteric’ without batting an eye and send us scurrying to our dictionaries. The word is not ‘Black’ but the casual, virtuoso way that he drops it on us – like ‘Deal with that’ – is an elegant Black linguistic gesture" (Henderson 33) Melvin B. Tolson finds in the vernacular of the African-American preacher and his flock the same thing he finds in the language arts of Africa, a highly allusive, hyperbolic, compressed metaphoricity, and what Houston Baker has termed "virtuoso mastery of form" (Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, 15).

… In writing Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, which is organized in sections following the Western musical scale, Tolson, who had already begun to rearticulate modernism as virtuoso African-American form, undertook a confrontation with American history on a transformed ground, displacing White experience from its position of centrality and refiguring both the Middle Passage and the Pilgrim story.

His earlier poem "Rendezvous with America" had begun this process by placing the experience of the Middle Passage on an equal level with the mythic progenitors of White America: "Time unhinged the gates / Of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown and Ellis Island." "Rendezvous with America," having unhinged accepted historical principles, adopts a questioning rhetorical strategy:

America is the Black Man’s Country,
The Red man’s, the Yellow Man’s,
The Brown Man’s, the White Man’s.

In this enumeration the White Man’s claim to proprietorship comes last, and thus "Rendezvous with America" sets the pattern for the Libretto in both form and rhetorical stance.

The Libretto does not stop at its allusion to the fact that Africans preceded the pilgrims in the New World (" … the Negroes have been in this country longer, on the average, than their white neighbors; they first came to this country on a ship called the Jesus one year before the Mayflower [one of Tolson’s footnotes to Libretto]"), it portrays the founding of Liberia as an altered return to a site of civilization which preceded the American:

Before Liberia was Songhai was; before
America set the raw foundling on Africa’s
Doorstep, before the Genoese diced west,
Burnt warriors and watermen of Songhai
Tore into bizarries the uniforms of Portugal
And sewed an imperial quilt of tribes.

At the opening of his Libretto Tolson recalls the form of his own earlier poem while simultaneously seeming to offer answers to Countee Cullen’s questioning refrain in "Heritage," "what is Africa to me?" and distancing himself again from Eliot’s "Waste Land":

[Nielsen quotes the opening stanza]

Liberia is not the ahistorical blank of Eliot’s Africa; neither is it the impotent tribal dirge of the Eliotic modern. It is rather the fecund soil upon which African and American histories rendezvous, the territory upon which both histories are to be reconstituted. Middle Passage and colonizing pilgrimage cross here in a reconstruction that undoes canonical versions of American heritage.

Where his earlier poem had claimed for African Americans a rendezvous with America at Plymouth Rock, in the Libretto Tolson figures forth a Black pilgrimage, one which retraces the Middle Passage to rewrite a redemptive history on the territory of a new African-American Africa. … The same waves that wash over the bones of many thousands gone during the Middle Passage now reverse the myth of English pilgrimage and carry African Americans to their Providence Island, where they will build an Africa made different by the American sojourn. The Black pilgrim fathers will establish Liberia as a city on a hill, as "a moment of the conscience of mankind!" Reversing the colonial expropriation of African resources, Liberia is to make possible the defense of freedom on African soil against racist, European adventures which threaten all the world:

The rubber from Liberia shall arm

Free peoples and her airport hinterlands
Let loose the winging grapes of wrath upon
The Desert Fox’s cocained nietzscheans
A goose-step from the Gateway of the East!

A new world music is to sound for a "Futurafrique" in which the "Parliament of African Peoples signets forever the Recessional of Europe."


For Tolson, Middle Passage and Pilgrimage are terrible mirror images of one another, reflecting historical horrors and redemptive human possibility. There is a city on a hill in Africa which is both precedent and descendent to the New Canaan in America. The Atlantic becomes a profoundly signifying divider, like the "paseq" which Tolson inscribes in his Libretto, drawn from his copy of holy scripture, and which he calls the "most mysterious sign in the literature." It is an unsounded textual sign floating an oral and oracular tradition. It is an interruption that denies the boundary lines we would draw between scripture and speech, between ecriture and lecture, an unspeakable parting of the scriptural seas. Tolson places these powerful signs in play, displacing the priority of the master text between whose lines he inscribes.

This was not a symptom of arcane obfuscation, but an opening of textual possibilities that others might follow. Tolson teased his students often by telling them that the White Man put everything he didn’t want Black people to know in the library. Like William Carlos Williams, Tolson’s texts broke through the library walls, releasing knowledge and language from their prison-house. They are an assault upon Anglo-American modernism’s territorial designs. …

from Aldo Nielsen, "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritorialization of Modernism," African-American Review 26: 2(Summer 1992), 24, 25, 26-27, 30-31, 32-33.

Jon Woodson

Libretto for the Republic of Liberia begins with a question, "Liberia?," that is an oblique allusion to the third stanza of "Heritage," Countee Cullen's pseudo-Keatsian meditation on Africa, which importunes: "Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes." It is not Cullen’s poetic that Tolson finds objectionable, for he pursues his satire of Cullen in meter and rhyme, nor is it Cullen's attempt at a reductive textualization of Africa; it is, instead, the being out of which Cullen’s attitudes project. In contrast to Cullen's decadent limpness, Tolson's poet-narrator speaks in the indomitable voice of the Nietzschean superman, and from that towering vantage he satirizes Cullen's under-manly romanticizing of African historical reality.

The Pindaric gist of Tolson’s opening movement, "Do," is that Liberia is an example of the "will" that is necessary if the forces ranged against liberty are to be overcome: thus Tolson sets up a dialectic between freedom and "an alien goad." Liberia is "no waste land yet" since the Liberian moment in the "Heraclitean continuum" has not been exhausted, its "will" used up, though the "protagonist of the poem" is able to look forward to the moment in which Liberia falls like the empires of the past.

It is tempting to read the second movement, "Re," as the description of the past glories of Africa and their destruction at the hands of European invaders; however, much more transpires here: Tolson is refuting Hegel's assertion that Africa "is no historical part of the World." Yet none of this "argumentation" is on the surface of the poem, for Tolson's Pindaric project, his celebratory lyric, must be allowed to soar. Below the song resides the dross of an ideological substitution of universal history for ethnocentric history. To allow himself more room for the transaction of politico-historical argument, Tolson has relegated these matters to his extensive notes. Rather than being notes that explicate his poem, Tolson's notes are designed to mislead the reader without allowing the reader to realize that he or she has gone astray. Thus, the notes do not provide a gloss indicating that the "micro-footnote in a bunioned book" of the second line is a key allusion to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, in which Spengler asks the rhetorical question—"Do we not relegate the vast complexities of Indian and Chinese culture to footnotes, with a gesture of embarrassment." Again, as with Hegel, the "protagonist of the poem" (here revealed as a universal historian who holds up "the Good Gray bard" as a mediating persona) casts before the reader the historical reality of Africa in the face of its obliteration by Hegel and Spengler. Thus, Tolson's poem is positioned as a countertext to the European philosophy of history in which Africa is theorized into historical nonexistence. In other words, the subject of Tolson's Libretto is not so much the founding of Liberia as a questioning of the nature of historical reality.

To keep before us the Pindaric strategy of digressive mythical narrative that Tolson employs in Libretto, let us recall that Hayden presents Cinquez much in the way that Crane presents Pocahontas, as a real person "transfigured" into a mythic significance in a digression that presents her narrative. Similarly, Tolson builds his poem toward his world-historical hero, Jehudi Ashmun, the founder of Liberia, by digressing through five sections: "Do," the invocation; "Re," a consideration of historical change; "Mi," an expository movement that summarizes the, conception of "the wren Republic"; and "Fa," an imagistic treatment of the Heraclitean alternation of peace and strife as the engine of history, only reaching the climax of the poem's narrative with "Sol," the account of the founding of Liberia led by Elijah Johnson.

Even though Libretto narrates the return of African slaves to their original continent, the poet-narrator finds it necessary to turn to the subject of Hayden's poem, in order to conjure up the etiological horrors accompanying the transformation of African to slave: "This is the Middle Passage: here / Gehenna hatchways vomit up / The debits of pounds of flesh. / This is the Middle Passage: here / The sharks wax fattest and the stench / Goads God to hold His nose!" (152-54). Tolson reverses Hayden’s practice, giving Elijah Johnson only nine lines where the griots receive forty-two lines in which to speak the aphoristic wisdom of their "vertical" tradition. In speaking of vertical culture, Tolson was alluding to his idea that in every age, there existed few individuals who were aware on an esoteric, or "vertical," level, while the majority comprised a mass who were aware on a limited "horizontal" level.

The language of the description of "today" in the first eighty-five lines of "Do" perhaps owes much to the prose of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The scope of Tolson's practice is illuminated by Altieri's comment that "the epic and the joke become necessarily fused elements in a process of losing and finding the letters that can return 'his tory' to the state of the anagogic book, which must, therefore, also be an antibook." Lest the reader miss Tolson’s aim to write an antipoem, he spells this out in the extraordinary fourth stanza of "Do," in which the protagonist offers a description of himself: among the labels is "a pataphysicist" (509): the relevant part of note 509 reads, "Cf. Jarry, Gestes et Opinions du Dr. Pataphysicien," thereby confronting the attentive reader with the text of an antinovel that, like Tolson’s Libretto, is divided into eight sections, is metasemiotic in method, contains an occult subtext, explicates its own generation, and provides for the unmasking of its own subtext.

Dialectically, the opening movement of "Do" looks toward the text of the future, for the imagined/prophesied future is incommensurate with the "chaos" of Today. The protagonist looks for the glory of the past in the future because he sees no sign of its becoming in the destruction of "Today": "only the souls of hyenas whining teneo te africa / only the blind men gibbering mbogan in greek / against sodom's pillars of salt / below the mountain of rodinmashedstatues aleppe" (551-54). However, the text contains the resolution and reconciliation of even these universal oppositions. Like all anagogic texts, Libretto is an initiatory text that looks simultaneously to the fool in need of initiation and to the griot, superman, or alchemist that represents the end of initiation. Thus, Tolson’s protagonist is, like The Waste Land's Tiresias, simultaneously inside and outside of history. On the symbolic level, Tolson’s poem enacts the transformation of Caliban, the Fool, into Prospero, the Magician; however, Tolson’s concern is more for Prospero's book of knowledge than for the man himself. History must be textualized if it is ever to be conceptualized, for the shape of history can only be passed down through the text. Yet it is through the reading of the text that the Calibanic reader becomes metamorphosed into Prospero, the Magician. Thus, Tolson has tried to write an ultimate poem that, like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, we do not know how to read unless we become as well versed as Prospero.

from "Consciousness, Myth, and Transcendence: Symbolic Action in Three Poems on the Slave Trade." in The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry. Ed. Joanne V. Gabbin. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

Lorenzo Thomas on Tolson’s Afrocentrism (2000)

[Tolson’s first collection Rendezvous with America] is Afrocentric in terms of its presentation of the collective desire of black Americans to achieve full recognition as capable and willing participants in their society. Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), however, mounts a defense of Africans and African Americans against the derogations of white supremacist propaganda. It is, in this sense, an important text in a tradition that begins in the late eighteenth century with scholars such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and works such as Abbé Henri Grégoire’s On the Cultural Achievement of Negroes (1808). But these Tolson books have more in common with their exploration of aspects of the Afrocentric project. From our privileged position as the "vertical audience" that Tolson hoped would eventually learn to appreciate his works, we can see how the historical scheme of poems such as "Rendezvous with America" and "Dark Symphony" prepared him for his grand assignment.


The Libretto begins by questioning the Eurocentric view of Africa as a mysterious continent, while later sections (based on documentation from the works of J. A. Rogers and W. E. B. DuBois’s The World and Africa) depict precolonial achievements. There is also a dramatic telling of the struggle and hardship involved in the effort to establish Liberian Settlement in the early 1800s. Section 5, "Sol," suggests that the former slaves were not only required to survive on a hostile coast but also bore the burden of refuting Europe’s racist condemnation of black people as inferior. Later, in the 232-line tour de force of literary allusions and intricate rhyme that constitutes section 7, "Ti," Tolson directly confronts and denounces European imperialism and the intentional misreading of world history that allowed western nations to rationalize the plunder of other peoples’ past, present, and future.

The epic genre necessarily encompasses vast spans of historical (or mythological) time. Think of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Pound’s Cantos. The classical Greek epics, recited today, perform a ritual re-membering of heroes whose deeds were accomplished in an epoch that was ancient even to Homer. Taking advantage of this feature of epic form, Tolson’s Libretto represents an effective "correction" of white supremacist ideas. Perhaps the most interesting gesture used to facilitate this goal is Tolson’s deliberate attempt to demonstrate parity between the wisdom and eloquence of the great texts of European literature and the proverbial wisdom of the African griots – the oral historians and traditional bards that he describes as "living encyclopedias." Naturally this tactic also undermines the "universal" authority claimed for such European texts by so-called scholars who, in the 1920s and 1930s, were actually propagandists for the concept of Aryan supremacy. As Martin Bernal explained in Black Athena (1987), even the teaching of ancient history was tainted. Thus Tolson pointedly warned his readers to beware of any account – historical or literary – that chose to ignore the "dusky peers of Roman, Greek, and Jew" (Libretto line 294). In a sense, Tolson anticipates Molefi Kete Asante’s call for an academic discourse open to transcultural analysis in order to oppose Eurocentric definitions of history that constitute an "aggressive seizure of intellectual space" (Asante, p. 9). Unlike some recent Afrocentric scholars, however, Tolson is not interested in claiming superiority for a non-western viewpoint; instead, he cautions against the distorted perspectives caused by the "ferris wheel / of race, of caste, of class" (Libretto, lines 474-475).

Interestingly, Tolson’s gesture has been effective even if a number of readers seem to have misunderstood his purpose. Karl Shapiro’s statement that Tolson’s works "are the Negro satire upon the poetic tradition of the Eliots and Tates" may be the source of Richard Kostelanetz’s bizarre characterization of Tolson as "a poet who raised nonsensical parody to high literary levels. He was the great American Dada poet who could ridicule the allusive techniques of the great moderns in the same breath as certain African American myths about Africa" (Bérubé, Marginal Forces, p. 166; Kostalenetz, p. 217). This attempt to enlist Tolson in the ranks of a 1990s concept of "transgressive" literature does him a disservice; indeed, it is dismissive. Tracing the history of Modernist intertextual reference, Elizabeth Gregory has written that, during the Middle Ages, when "reverent quotation flourished in both Christian and scholastic texts, parodic quotation also flourished, in opposition to the authoritative mode. Parodic quotation builds on the impulse to irreverence and undermines the same authority that reverent quotation means to evoke and continue; it equalizes where the other works hierarchize" (Gregory, p. 7). While there is obvious ironic purpose in many of Tolson’s quotations and allusions, it would still be a mistake to see his method – as Langston Hughes did momentarily – as entirely parodic.

Tolson’s Libretto is surprising in a number of ways, not least the author’s choice of Allen Tate to write the books’ preface. Aldon Neilsen reminds us that in 1924 Tate had expressed the opinion that the American literary tradition was "utterly alien" to black writers. Tate, says, Neilsen "offers no explanation of why the tradition should be alien to an entire race of people whose presence in this nation extends as far back in time as that of white people. Nor does Tate recognize that he has confused a culture’s rendering of itself alien to the outsider with the outsider’s ability to comprehend that culture" (Nelsen, Reading Race, p. 109). Reading Tolson in 1953, however, Tate thought that he had found an exception, a "Negro [who] has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition."

Tolson, being educated enough to appropriate the tradition for himself, apparently felt flattered by Tate’s statement, ridiculous though it was. If Tate thought that Tolson was the first African American poet to achieve such stature, the reason could only be that he was ignorant of Phillis Wheatley, who, for all her international fame, had been criticized for her adherence to the neoclassical style popular in the 1770s. Indeed, the only American poet before Wheatley who had a wider readership was Anne Bradstreet.

In his preface to Libretto, Tate also complained that the majority of black poets were imprisoned by their reliance upon the black experience for subject matter, which he characterized as "the plight of the Negro segregated in a White culture." This charge certainly would not fit Tolson’s poem, though Tate might not have understood why. In fact, Libretto is partly the history of the American Colonization Society’s efforts to establish Liberia as a place to return free Africans and emancipated slaves, but Tolson uses the topic as a staging area for the presentation of the millenarian agenda of the Afrocentric tradition. If Liberia is, as stated in the poem’s first section, "A moment in the conscience of mankind" (line 56), it is also as Nnamdi Azikiwe wrote in 1934, "the hope of an African civilization which should emphasize proud spiritual values, and should apply the African ideal of hospitality, of friendliness, of honesty, of truth, of justice, and of the brotherhood of man" (Liberia, p. 396).

What Allen Tate did not know is that for Azikiwe, as for Melvin Tolson and other Afrocentric thinkers, this African civilization is intended to replace the one that Tate held so dear. "Day by day," Azikiwe had written, "it is becoming obvious that the civilization of the west could not withstand the reverberation of the civilization that is to be – and that is a Risorgimento of the majesty that was Ethiopia in antiquity, and the glory that was Songhay (Liberia, p. 396).

Most surprising about Libretto is the style that Tolson chose to celebrate the centennial of Liberia as the symbol of the "civilization that is to be." Tolson, says [Arnold] Rampersad, as "poet laureate of an African country had written probably the most hyper-European, unpopulist poem ever penned by a black writer." Langston Hughes thought the style of the poem was a clever strategem to ensnare just such as Allen Tate. In a letter to Arna Bontemps, Hughes chuckled, "More power to tongue-in-cheek Tolson! He told me he was going to write so many foreign words and footnotes that they would have to pay him some mind" (Rampersad, p. 235).

Critical responses concerning Tolson’s "difficulty" may seem peculiar, though, when one considers the context in which his work first appeared. Indeed, difficult poems were highly prized in the early 1950s. In a year when William Carlos Williams’s Paterson: Book III received the National Book Award, Poetry magazine published not only an excerpt from Tolson’s Libretto but also works ranging from the hermetic eroticism of Judson Crews to the stanzaic elegance of Richard Wilbur. A poem by Babette Deutsch in the June 1950 issue demands of readers a recognition of Dante, Delacroix and St. Augustine. …

The most important thing about the language Tolson chose for Libretto, however, is that it is very consciously a development of the style first explored in "Dark Symphony" (1941) and an attempt to incorporate the discursive method of the African oral tradition of the griots whom the French linguist Maurice Delafosse called "living encyclopedias": "There are all categories of griots: some are musicians, singers, poets, story-tellers, mimes, dancers, mountebanks; others have the task of learning by memory the genealogies of noble families, the important facts relating to great personages, the annals of States or of tribes, political, juridical or social customs, religious beliefs, and their transmission to the next generation" (pp. 268-269). Tolson had drawn a sensitive portrait of the griot in a poem from the 1930s included in Rendezvous with America. "The Bard of Addis Ababa" confronts the 1936 invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s air force and motorized legions. This event galvanized most black Americans. Journalist J. A. Rogers, a frontline correspondent for the black weekly Pittsburgh Courier, wrote in his widely distributed pamphlet The Real Facts about Ethiopia (1936): "whatever be the outcome of the threatened Italian aggression against Ethiopia the world consciousness of the darker races against white exploitation has been intensified and will not subside. … The avalanche is on its way and it will not stop until the last vestiges of the brutal and debasing color line imposed on the world by the white race shall have been shattered into irretrievable fragments" (p. 3). For Africans and African Americans, the Italian invasion of Europe was as shocking a challenge as Guernica was to the rest of the world.

Tolson’s poem, however, is not a dirge. The traditional bard that he describes is

A blooded Amharic scholar
With the lore of six thousand years –
Yet he wears a sackcloth shamma…

But the bard is no outcast:

The battle-cry of his ballads,
The meters’ blood-spurring pace,
The star-reach of his spearing forefinger,
The eloquence of his face,
The seven-league boots of his images –
Stir the palace and the marketplace

The second section of the poem reproduces the bard’s song with its exhortation, "Rise up, ye warriors, do or die," as sung to "the back-boned men" of Ethiopia:

The Fascist jackals shall die on the dunes
        From Gambela to Danakil,
And the rain and the sun shall not rot their thighs
        From Gojjam to Bodobo Hill

The poem’s final section leaps forward to a victory parade where "Along the Imperial Highway / The heroes of Takkaze ride" resplendent with medieval shields and swords, while

The Black Shirts slump on the camels,
Haggard and granite-eyed;
No longer the gypsying Caesars
Who burnt-faced breeds deride:
In the river Takkaze their vanity
Lies with the Caesars who died.

Significantly, the vistory of the Ethiopians over the invaders is also a victory over the myth of racial superiority and European imperialsim. The poem, of course, identifies the Ethiopians’ "secret weapon" as the Bard of Addis Ababa, who is both bearer of tradition and the people’s inspiration. It was a role that Tolson coveted for himself.

It may be possible, as Joyce Ann Joyce suggests, that "the theoretical foundations of African-American poetry are of African origin" (p. 6), but any actual connection would be a matter of carefully studied technique and poetic practice rather than atavistic inheritance. To the extent that poets of the Black Arts movement aspired to create works in what they understood to be an African tradition, one of the ways of reaching it was through Tolson. There are two sections of Libretto that show exactly how Tolson interpreted his commission as an opportunity to assume the role of a modernist griot. The section entitled "Sol" in fact consists of a number of proverbs spoken in the deepi-talk or "deep talk" used by the Zo’s (or men of wisdom) of the Liberian Poro ritual societies. In his note to lines 163 and 168, Tolson sarcastically comments: "[Maurice] Delafosse feared that the mass production technics introduced by missionaries and traders would contaminate the art for art’s sake of Africa." But this section of the poem makes clear that the proverbial wisdom is timeless, accurate, and imperishable. Furthermore, the poem and footnotes make very clear that carnage is Europe’s true art pour l’art (see notes to lines 42, 148, and 422) in much the same way that Pound makes this point in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" (1920).

The way that Liberian "deep talk" operates has recently been explained by Beryl L. Bellman’s anthropological monographs, though Tolson was probably familiar with George W. Ellis’s 1914 study Negro Culture in West Africa. Understanding the narratives of the wise men, Bellman writes, "involves the same interpretive procedures as does the discovery of intended meanings in parables, proverbs, chants, ritual metaphors, and dilemma tales. These procedures are the primary methods of communicating concealed knowledge without being accused of exposing secrets" (p. 54). "When listening to ‘deep talk,’" says Bellman, "hearers must attend to it as an analogical description that refers to meanings other than those contained in the narrative itself" ([. 60). This requires locating an "interpretive key" either in the text itself or its immediate context (what has been told before or after the tale).

Charles Bernstein has usefully suggested that we review Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of poetry as a "language game" being played. When we apply this notion to Tolson’s Libretto, we see that the poem is an extraordinary display not only of the author’s mastery of "the Anglo-American tradition" that Allen Tate applauds but also of Tolson’s knowledge of German, Latin, Greek and numerous other traditions. The poem, indeed, suggests clearly that Liberia is heir to the combined wisdom of the world, or at least to planetary erudition. By providing the reader with footnotes, Tolson suggests an idea quite the opposite of the one entertained by his critics. Libretto is not a poem that needs deciphering but one equipped with its own bibliography. As with the references and citations in Pound’s Cantos, the text and footnotes of Libretto constitute Tolson’s own indispensable curriculum, complete and self-contained. Indeed, what is offered here can be seen as an Afrocentric alternative to Pound’s syllabus – not because the poets chose different sources, but because Tolson offers a quite different perspective for reading them. Though it is written in imitation of the Liberian Zo’s "deep talk," Libretto is delightfully an encyclopedic history of the intellectual sources of Liberia’s century of existence. A recitation of the poem is a recitation of the nation’s (and the author’s) pedigree; in the process, Tolson consciously performs the African griot’s age-old function.

From Lorenzo Thomas, "Too Close to Turn Around," Chapter Four in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth Century American Poetry (Tuscaloose: U Alabama P, 2000) pp. 109-117

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