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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: the arts and the black revolution

Hill, Herbert
The negro writer and the creative imagination,   pp. [244 and 245]-255 PDF (11.0 MB)

Page 249

No micro footnote in a bunioned book
Honed by a pedant
With a gelded look
You are
The ladder of survival dawn men saw
In the quicksilver sparrow that slips
the eagle's claw!
This work, recently reissued in a new
format, had been originally commissioned
by the Liberian Government and
received high critical acclaim.
Allen Tate, in his preface, wrote that:
"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 Anglo-
American poetic tradition."
But, it was not until Karl Shapiro wrote
his now famous appreciation of Tolson
which appeared during 1965 on the front
page of the New York Herald Tribune's
Book Week, that Tolson began to
receive some of the attention he
deserved. Shapiro wrote:
A great poet has been living in our midst
for decades and is almost totally
unknown even by the literati, even by
poets. Can this be possible in the age
of criticism and of publication unlimited?
It is not only possible but highly
probable. Poetry today is an established
institution which has many of the
characteristics of a closed corporation.
(One of the rules of the poetic
establishments is that Negroes are not
admitted to the polite company of
the anthology.) Poetry as we know it,
remains the most lily white of the arts.
In his 65th year, Tolson's most
ambitious work, Harlem Gallery was
published (1965). This vo'ume subtitled
The Curator, Book I was regarded by
the author as only the first part of a
longer, forthcoming epic poem. In this
work the poet poses the "phoenix riddle
of this allegory of the Harlem Gallery. . .
a people's new world odyssey from
chattel to Esquire."
This brilliantly structured poem is laid
out in 24 sections, the largest
being "Harlem Vignettes," a collection
of portraits whose characters appear
in the dialogues of the poem.
Tolson writes:
Where, oh, where is Bessie Smith
with her heart as big as the blues of truth?
Where oh where is Mister Jelly 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.
Towards the end of the book, the
analytical wit and sensuous humor
moves into a high mocking serious
criticism of lost causes and hollow
beliefs. Thus, Tolson writes:
White Boy,
Black Boy,
the meander of a curator leads him by
the house where illiteracy beds
with ignorance and all her brats.
Should he
skim the milk of culture for the elite
and give the "lesser breeds"
a popular latex brand?
Should he
(to increase digestibility)
break up
the fat globules and vitamins
and casein shreds?
Tonic spasms of wind and wave
assail compass and lamp
in the cabined night?
but the binnacle of imagination
steers the work of art aright-
even if the craftsman gives us

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