Harlem Gallery Melvin Tolson

(1965) Harlem Gallery is a poem in 24 cantos (parts), written by Melvin Beanous tolson, and divided according to the Greek alphabet. The book-length poem is told through a narrator, called "Curator." Themes include social revolution through art and ironies of racial identity. Karl shapiro has called Harlem Gallery the lyrical answer to T. S. eliots the waste land, because the poem describes the problems and social woes that plague the America that Tolson sees. Shapiro notes that Harlem Gallery has been described as a comic poem, slapstick, crude, and funny: "It is massive, a kind of Odyssey of the American Negro, that like other works of its quality in the past, will turn out to be not only an end in itself but the door to poetry that everyone has been looking for" (14). Rita dove says, "the whole of Harlem Gallery, in fact, is very much like the mythic 'bad man' heroes in black oral tradition"; she calls Tolson's hero "the archetypal black artist" (xxi).

The poem originally was written as "Harlem Gallery: Book 1, The Curator," the first book in a five-volume history of the black man in America. Tolson died before the volume was finished. The book evolved from A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which Tolson wrote in 1930. "Book II: Egypt Land" was planned to be a delineation of slavery. "Book III: The Red Sea" was to be an analogy of the Civil War. "Book Iv: The Wilderness" was to discuss Reconstruction, and "Book v: The Promised Land" was to be the arrival to America of the black man.

The Curator, akin to Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man (1952), is a black intellectual ex-professor of art who introduces the reader to the highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows, a description of the class systems in society. The Curator is nameless, a way of criticizing the role of the intellectual in the black community. Tolson condemns both black intellectuals and black bourgeoisie (middle-class) for disassociating themselves from their folk background, and so-called black values, opting instead to assimilate into white American society . The Curator witnesses daily activities of black middle-class cultural figures. Another character, Dr. Nkomo, and the Curator learn about black Americans in a white-dominated society. Through their journey, the reader is introduced to three artists: John Laugart, a half-blind destitute painter; Hideho Heights, the poet laureate of Harlem; and Mister Starks, the conductor of the Harlem Symphony Orchestra.

The first five parts of Harlem Gallery, Alpha through Epsilon, set the tone for the themes of exploration into the everyday life of black America and the role of the black artist in white American society. The next four parts, Zeta through Iota, reveal philosophical commentaries on the subjects of art, the gap between the races, and what is considered happiness for black Americans, as told by Curator and Dr. Nkomo. Following is Kappa through Xi, focusing on the colorful character Hideho Heights. The next two parts, Omicron and Pi, are reflections about art, historical figures, and biblical passages. The last four parts, Phi through Omega, "reflect on art and the problem of the black artist," Joy Flasch reports, noting that this portion of the poem "recalls the enslavement and suffering of Africans brought to America and issues a warning to the white man to beware of the power of the black minority in this country" (126). Harlem Gallery concludes with the Curator meditating on the state of the black artist and his survival in a white-dominated society.

The formatting of the poems runs according to what is described as Tolson's "S-Trinity of Parnassus" notes Flasch (102): sight, sound, and sense. Sound refers to the oral nature of the poem, as Tolson intended his work to be read aloud, sense to the meaning and the sensory aspect of language, while sight entices the reader to examine closely the style in which the lines are written. Also commenting on this style of writing, Dove maintains that "with allusions to vedic gods and snippets in French and Latin, much of Harlem Gallery is fused with street jive and language told in folk tale" (xxi).

The first manuscript of the poem was written in free verse, deviating from the American standard of iambic meter (see prosody and free verse), modeled after Edgar Lee masterss Spoon River Anthology. Following two decades of failing to publish his work, Tolson rewrote the piece, patterning it after the style of such writers as Eliot, Ezra pound, and William Butler Yeats. The vignettes, make use of alliteration and allegories, while paying homage to black vernacular "with mimicry, exaggerated language, spontaneity and the persona of the braggadocio" (Dove xxii). For instance, the poem's seventh canto, "Eta," employs black speech to describe a furor that is wreaking havoc on the black American community: "The black widow spider gets rid of her man / gets rid of her daddy as fast as she can."

Robert Spector, in his review of Harlem Gallery on the occasion of the book's debut in 1965, said that there is a "somethingness that stirs in all [of Tolson's] characters: desires, ambitions, frustrations and failures" (29). There are several theories about the title. There is the play on peanut gallery, for instance—a term given to the cheaper balcony seats in a movie theater where black Americans were forced to sit. And there is the proselytizing of the notion that an art gallery is a symbol of the series of portraits and faces that humans wear, oftentimes disguising who they really are. Throughout this epic journey of black American life, as Shapiro calls Harlem Gallery (15), Tolson continues to employ his unique style of storytelling. He struggles, through the narratives of the artists in the gallery, to tell the plight of black America, showing that he feels misunderstood by the one group to whom he dedicates his works—all black writers.

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