Lorenzo Thomas: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

[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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Lorenzo Thomas: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lorenzo Thomas Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Too Close to Turn Around
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