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Tolson's References and Footnotes

Jon Stanton Woodson
On Tolson’s Use of Reference

One of Tolson’s favorite techniques is the subject rhyme. He enjoyed finding metonymies and allowing the reader to deduce from the many allusions that the common element was important. In his poem "The Man from Halicarnassus" he has Herodotus say:

and if the tongue of tongues should die,
        tomorrow’s tomorrows will do
what I have done yesterdays in Cabiri.

Tolson’s difficulties send the reader not to dictionaries, atlases, and encyclopedias (as Dudley Randall and others have asserted) but to primary texts, as do the notes in Eliot’s "waste land." The reader must not look up Cabiri to find out what was intended here, but must consult Herodotus’ Clio, where this passage is located:

Anyone will know what I mean if he is familiar with the mysteries of the Cabiri – rites which the men of Samothrace learned from the Pelasgians, who lived in that island before they moved to Attica, and communicated the mysteries to the Athenians. This will show that the Athenians were the first Greeks to make statues of Hermes with the erect phallus, and that they learned the practice from the Pelasgians – who explained it by a certain religious doctrine, the nature of which is made clear in the Samothracian mysteries. [from Herodotus, The Histories, Book I, p. 150; Book II, p. 51].

Allusions in Libretto and The Harlem Gallery send the reader to similar passages in Jonathan Swift’s Journal to Stella and to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

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), 34.

Tolson’s Footnoting
Edward Brunner

When Melvin B. Tolson set out, sometime in the late 1940s, deliberately to obtain for himself a vanguard style he studied the canonical long poems of modernism. His belief was that the reputation of African American poetry had suffered from the unwillingness of its poets to demonstrate they could master the dominant discourse of modernity. Citing from Tolson’s journal, Robert Farnsworth reveals Tolson linking his own work, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, with two modernist precursors, T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane: "‘The Bridge’ is a way out of the pessimism of ‘The Waste Land’; the ‘Libretto’ is a vista out of the mysticism of ‘Four Quartets’ (Farnsworth 171)." Crane’s The Bridge (1930), with its insistence on a text that was at once formally complex and socially engaged, that was at once conscious of vast historical forces as well as their local representatives, remained a powerful example for him and for other poets who came of age during the 1930s, especially those working on the historically-engaged long poem like Muriel Rukeyser (The Book of the Dead, 1938) Selden Rodman (The Airmen, 1941), E. P. Thompson (The Place Called Choice, 1951) and Lawrence Lipton (Rainbow at Midnight, 1955). Yet Tolson also insisted that Crane had not done enough to counter Eliot’s negative prognosis of modern culture: "I believe Crane lacked a perspective of himself against the backdrop of history" (Farnsworth 171). A more complete confrontation with Eliot, for Tolson, would require a display of erudition not only within the poetic line but also within such features as defined the modernist project as the exegetical apparatus of the accompanying footnote.

According to Tolson, it was Karl Shapiro, then editor of Poetry, who suggested the idea of footnoting the Libretto, probably just after agreeing to publish a section of that poem in the July 1950 issue (where it would be accompanied by the preface that Allen Tate had agreed to write to introduce the volume). Indeed, the only other poem to which Tolson appended footnotes would be "E. & E. O.," a seven page poem accompanied by five pages of footnotes that Shapiro presented when he accepted the poem for publication in Poetry in the September 1951 issue. Surely it was the apparatus of the footnote as a mark of a vanguard style – as a defining note of modernism – that would have encouraged Tolson to append to the Libretto nearly two hundred footnotes, sixteen pages in the first edition. Just how intricately these footnotes are engaged in dialogue with the formal text that they purport to illuminate as well as contesting the authority of a figure like Eliot as well as political and social issues that deal with the historic roots of American racism deserves to be spelled out with some attention to detail. For it can seem, when Tolson’s tone in his footnote turns toward the whimsical, or verges on the pedantic, that the notes are in some final sense a mockery of the concept of learning or a dismissal of knowledge – that these notes are excessive and exaggerated, more performative and gestural than informative and useful. No conclusion could be more erroneous. Without denying that there are instances of humor and mockery in the footnotes, it is possible to show that there is a consistent and coherent pattern that can be traced through them, and that while they echo some of Eliot’s rhetorical strategies they also directly take to task some of the conclusions that Eliot might have drawn. Most important of all, they are not a last-minute addition to the poem but a wise and playful extension of it, one that advances the cause and scope of the poem in a way that is proportional to Tolson’s ambitions.

Tolson’s commitment to the footnote can be gauged quite dramatically by comparing an excerpt from the Libretto that was published in Poetry before Shapiro’s suggestion to footnote and the same section as it appeared in book publication after Tolson had added footnotes. This early version of "Ti," several lines shorter than the book version, discloses that virtually all of the phrases that Tolson later added provided opportunities to write footnotes. The implication is that Tolson’s footnoting was not a neutral followup to his finished work but another stage in composition, a generative interplay which gave rise to new lines that in turn required their own footnote. As published in Poetry in 1950, the last lines in the final stanza of "Ti" looked like this:

between Yesterday’s
golden goblet and truckling trull
and the ires
of rivers red with the reflexes of fires,
the ferris wheel
of race, of caste, of class
dumped and aped cadavers till the ground
fogged the Pleiades with Gila rot: Today, the mass,
the Beast with a Maginot Line in its Brain,
the Gravediggers’ men of base alloy,
the canagliaGorii!
die Untertanen,
hoi barbaroi,
Il Duce’s Whore, Vardaman’s Hound,
the vsechelevok, the people, Yes –
the hoi pollo
ride the merry go round!
Selah! (214-215)

In the 1953 volume, these lines have been expanded (most of Tolson’s additions or modifications are underlined):

Between Yesterday’s wills of Tanaka, between
golden goblets and truckling trull
and the ires
of rivers red with the reflexes of fires,
the ferris wheel
of race, of caste, of class
dumped and alped cadavers till the ground
fogged the Pleiades with Gila rot: Today the mass,
The Beast with a Maginot Line in its Brain,

the staircase avengers
of base alloy,
the ville canaille – Gorii!
the Bastard-Rasse,
he uomo qualyque, the hoi barbaroi,
the raya in the
Oeil de Boeuf,

the vsechelovek, the descamisados, the
hoi polloi,
the Raw from the Coliseum of the Cooked,

Il Duce’s Whore, Vardaman’s Hound –

unparadised nobodies with maps of Nowhere

ride the merry-go-round!

(lines 462-488)

One example can suffice to trace out some of the opportunities Tolson seizes through his added lines. In this stanza, Tolson catalogues the names that are used to define the second-class citizens of the world. One addition to this list of all those who are left out, these "unparadised nobodies," is the "descamisados" (which a footnote translates as "the shirtless ones") who are equivalent to the hoi polloi, (ancient Greek for "the many" but not translated in a footnote). Their presence next to the Russian (a footnote translates it as "universal man," but then quibbles with this as inaccurate) is designed to emphasize that the masses have existed in every country and the names they have usually been given in their particular languages reveal their degraded status. When Tolson adds further names, he does so to swell the ranks but also because of the footnoting opportunities they provide. Adding the line "the raya in the Oeil de Boeuf" allowed Tolson to generate this aside:

Raya. In the Turkish conquest of the Southern Slavs, the maltreated people became raya or cattle. Conquest salves its conscience with contempt. Among the raya for five hundred years, the ballads of the wandering guslars kept freedom alive.

No link with slavery in America is actually spelled out in this factual display of historical information. Yet Tolson’s own observation about conquest and conscience brings a disarmingly personal twist to the staid convention of the note. Further parallels become possible. Of special interest is the contribution made by wandering musicians who use a folk tradition to "keep freedom alive." Tolson’s footnotes for this line continue:

Oeil de Boeuf: a waiting room at Versailles. Cf. Dobson, "On a Fan that Belonged to the Marquise de Pompadour."

Tolson’s new line brings the long-derided peasantry (using the name that their conquerors had forced upon them) inside the walls of a location exclusively reserved for the privileged, thus conceiving a revolutionary explosion, a collision between peasants derided as "cattle" and a drawing room with a window named "bull’s eye" ("eye of the bull" in French) is evident enough. But the footnote cuts even deeper. The 1878 poem by Austin Dobson imagines a fan skillfully deployed as an erotic extension of its owner. In the particular passage from which Tolson cites, it flutters in the hands of a courtesan, "Thronging the Oeil de Boeuf through" (line 10), and it thus influences history’s course by scrambling great men’s brains – a sharp contrast to the artistry of the wandering balladeers in the previous note whose songs kept the concept of freedom alive for five hundred years. In short, these are not footnotes that will cultivate a "gelded look": they are packed with dynamite information, and they unfold upon and within one another, developing their brief but devastating scenarios.

Of course the first signal that the footnote in the Libretto will be more than just a fussy adjunct to the text is its appearance in the poem’s second line, where Liberia is described as "No micro-footnote in a bunioned book / Honed by a pedant / with a gelded look." Can a footnote be other than "micro"? To those ready to dismiss the footnote as a distraction, Tolson is ready to show how much can happen within a compressed space. Indeed, the small but powerful space of the easy-to-overlook footnote is linked with the small republic of Liberia. Dan McCall (1966) observed that Tolson’s footnotes are never stable: they are "now-scholarly, now-sly" (538). They are original enough, and provocative enough, and so essential a part of the entire poem that they represent a further extension of the forms available to the poet of the symphonic epic.

That Tolson is processing information through the footnotes, taking advantage of their "secondary" role to import disturbing material that has been kept out of the record, is signaled in – what more appropriate place? – a footnote to a passage in "Sol." In his poetic text, Tolson is describing the first impressions of Elijah Johnson, a founder of Liberia in the nineteenth century, when the new colonists first glimpse the African shore: "hallelujahs quake the brig / From keel to crow’s next and tomtoms gibber / In cosmic deepi-talki" (ll. 161-163). The footnote text to line 163 explains "deepi-talki":

Cf. LaVarre: "My black companions had two languages: deepi-talki, a secret language no white man understands; and talki-talki, a concoction of many languages and idioms which I understood." (62-63)

This double-tiered communication which exists in this oral culture (with two languages, one of which is official, the other private) has a parallel in print literature in the two-tiered expressiveness of main-text-plus-footnote. The talk-talk of the main text carries on its official discussion even as the deep-talk of the footnote moves below it in a variety of ways, lending further support to the main text, or digressing from it, or even undermining it by raising questions. Though the footnote is supposed to be a faithful servant, it can also perform acts of subversion and rebellion.

Not every footnote is loaded, however. On occasion, Tolson uses the footnote more or less conventionally. In a text peppered with languages other than English – some of them non-European – the footnote can be an indispensable guide. Explaining that "Karibu wee!" (line 84) means "welcome" is a fundamental courtesy to the reader. Of course Tolson’s confident annotation of foreign phrases (identifying snatches of Arabic, Greek, Latin, Urdu, Japanese, German, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French ) also demonstrates a broad cultural competence that makes it difficult to dismiss his authority. The footnotes allow Tolson ground his poem in the literature of the western tradition (references abound to works by Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Petrarch, Ovid, Martial, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Milton, Shelley and Hardy), and permit him to display an impressive familiarity with early modern French poets, including many whose writings had not yet passed over into translation: Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Salmon (as well as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Appollinaire). Just as many references, however, testify to a wider knowledge than that of the literary. Tolson calls upon the sociology of Gunnar Myrdal and Herbert Aptheker; the epigrammatic philosophy of Nietzsche and the social activism of Camus; operatic arias by Monteverdi, Mendelssohn, and Bach; fragments from the pre-Socratic poet-philosopher Xenophanes; literally dozens of passages from the Old and New Testaments; and works by a variety of historians, centered on a range of cultures around the globe, from a popular uprising in the south of Brazil to the battle with Portuguese monarchs for gold reserves along the Niger River to a Spanish scheme to encourage Kentucky to secede from the union.

What is undeniably most important to Tolson in all this, however, is the reinsertion into the historical record of aspects of African history that have been otherwise erased. Here, Tolson is especially subtle, building upon the example of W. E. B. DubOis in The World and Africa (1946). Consider what appears to be a merely "literary" allusion to Tennyson in the footnote to line 57 (from "Re") which glosses "Timbuktu": "Cf. A Memoir of Tennyson, Vol I, 46, the letter of Arthur Hallam to William Gladstone on the Timbuktu prize poem: ‘I consider Tennyson as promising fair to be the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century.’" Here Tolson registers not just the fabulous African kingdom centered in Timbuktu but also suggests a lost historical knowledge of that kingdom. If we follow up on this footnote, we would learn that the "prize poem" for which Tennyson at 19 was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal in 1828 had a preordained topic: "Timbuctoo." Tennyson’s 248-line descriptive poem entitled "Timbuctoo" ended with a memory of a lost city of "brilliant towers" that gave way to a vision of "huts, / Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand, / Low-built, mud-walled, Barbarian settlements. / How changed from this fair city!" The footnote thus records not only Tennyson’s knowledge of a lost civilization but a nineteenth century culture’s knowledge of that civilization in its prize contest topic. The erasure of that civilization occurs over and over, from century to century, beginning with the collapse of the towers into huts. Tolson reinscribes that civilization back into the record, drawing in part upon DuBois but also the work of Maurice Delafosse as his footnote continues: "V. Delafosse, Les Noirs d’Afrique. The Schomburg Collection, in Harlem, contains many rare items on the civilization at Timbuktu." As a glance at Delafosse reveals, Timbuktu (also Tombouctou) on the Niger River had been the center of Songhai, largest of the ancient native empires of West Africa, and in keeping with Tolson’s interest in Liberia, the western edge of present-day Liberia would have been on the fringe of the gold-producing area of the empire. Founded circa 700, its rulers were converted to the Islamic religion around 1000. Under Askia Mohammed the Great (1493-1528) the empire reached its pinnacle, with a University at Sankoré that taught law, literature, geography and surgery. When the empire was shattered by an invading army in from Morocco in 1591, its downfall resulted in a massive expansion of the trade in slaves which had previously been limited to local needs."

Generally speaking, Tolson’s deep-talk footnotes volunteer information not otherwise circulating in the 1950s (and that would not circulate for thirty more years). Arguably, Tolson had to master a type of scholarly discourse in order to read against and around the historical record that otherwise erased or minimalized the heritage of Africa. Whether one thinks of the interchange that Tolson sets up as another form of Gates’s signifyin(g) or a trace of the improvised call-and-response familiar from jazz, the effect is to set in motion a dialectic of disruption in which it is no longer possible to confidently assign what is primary and what is secondary. Some footnotes, then, by contesting for dominance with the main text provide an important disorienting function: they enact a relativization of cultures. "Sol" opens with this stanza:

White Pilgrims, turn your trumpets west!
Black Pilgrims, shule, agrah, nor tread
The Skull of another’s stairs! (ll. 140-142)

Both lines 141 and 142 have footnotes:

Shule, agrah: "Move, my heart." Cf. Sharp, Shule, Shule, Shule, Agrah. It is a refrain from old Gaelic ballads.

Skull: "gulgoleth," a place of torment and martyrdom. Another’s stairs. Cf. Rosetti, Dante at Verona, the epigraph from Paradiso, XVII:

"Yea, thou shalt learn how salt his food fares

Upon another’s bread – how steep his path

Who treadeth up and down another’s stairs." (62)

Here poetic text and footnote text mutually interact. Which is deep-talk and which is talk-talk is impossible to say. The poetic text, which is beginning to describe the return journey back across the Middle Passage of ex-slaves leaving America and seeking to found Liberia, distinguishes black pilgrims from white pilgrims. Whites turn westward, trumpeting their search, announcing their presence as loudly as possible. But blacks turn eastward in deep sorrow, as exiles in pain, moved by intense feeling ("Move, my heart") as exiles everywhere are. Their model is Dante, living far from his beloved heritage. The footnote, then, presents the black experience as both particularized and universalized, different from the "White pilgrims" yet not unlike experience that anyone associated with outcast and exile would have.

Here as elsewhere, Tolson is not simply demonstrating particular skill and competence in the juxtapositions that his footnotes promote: he is unveiling a web of connections that are pan-racial, multicultural and utopian – in which there is a stronger connection between Dante Alighieri and displaced African slaves than there is between Dante Alighieri and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He may begin by answering questions about the past of Liberia – an unfamiliar region that seems to merit no more attention than a micro-footnote in a book of world history that is already too-large, swollen with too much information – but he ends with a global perspective set in the future. Tolson’s visionary strain meets and matches his searing critique. His footnote, in one sense, is a mark of rebellion, as it demonstrates its lack of satisfaction with its role as a parenthesis in the text, obediently in thrall to the text itself. When the lowly footnote becomes an agent of change, pursuing its own strong agenda, and even offering revolutionary insights then a narrative in which the subordinate becomes the dominant is also embedded in Tolson’s "humble" annotations. But at the same time his footnotes network a constructive set of new alliances with juxtapositions that reach across cultures, beyond customary borders. Out of the ruins of Europe, a new political geography will emerge following World War II. Tolson’s extraordinarily ambitious epic not only responds to that possibility but encourages its occurrence by demonstrating constitutive powers that equal the most innovative work of his predecessors.

From Edward Brunner, "Epics True and False" (Chapter 6) in Cold War Poetry: The Social Text in the Fifties Poem (Urbana: U Illinois P, 2000).

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