Melvin Tolson only published three volumes of poetry during his lifetime, he was internationally recognized as a major contributor to modernist poetics (see modernism) generally and to African diasporic modernity in particular. Such recognition led to Tolson's being selected to serve as poet laureate for the Republic of Liberia (1947); he is the only American poet to have been selected as laureate of another nation. More of Tolson's works have been published posthumously, and he is increasingly seen by critics and general readers alike as among the most significant of black American poets.
Tolson was born in Moberly, Missouri. His family moved to Iowa when he was 14, and it was there that he published his first poem. He attended high school in Kansas City, then enrolled at Fisk University in 1918. The following year, he transferred to Lincoln University, which was to figure prominently in his later poetry. After graduation, Tolson assumed a teaching post at Wiley College, beginning a long and illustrious career as an educator at historically black colleges that was to take him to Langston College and back to Fisk. Later graduate work at Columbia University in New York led to his thesis, which was among the first critical examinations of the harlem renaissance. Though the thesis was accepted, Tolson neglected the formality of applying for his degree for some years. It was officially awarded in 1940. The thesis, The Harlem Group of Negro Writers, was published in book form in 2001. Nearly as much time passed between the composition of the poems for Tolson's first book and their eventual publication. In his earliest years as a poet, Tolson wrote a massive series of dramatic monologues, resembling Edgar Lee masterss Spoon River Anthology in conception, centered on the lives of characters in Harlem. That book, A Gallery of Harlem Portraits (see harlem gallery), appeared posthumously in 1979. The first collection of poems published in his lifetime was Rendezvous with America in 1944. This was followed by Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) and Harlem Gallery: Book I, The Curator (1965). By the time of his last book, Tolson's poetry was beginning to achieve the sort of recognition his modern contemporaries had long enjoyed. Tolson was invited to visit the White House in the last year of his life, where he inscribed a copy of Harlem Gallery for President Lyndon Johnson, and he gave a reading from that book at the Library of Congress, which was recorded for the library's collection. Tolson was also awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for poetry (1966), Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin Award (1952), and first prize at the American Negro Exposition (1939) for his long poem "Dark Symphony" (see long and serial poetry). Tolson was also a renowned drama and debate teacher, mayor of the town of Langston, Oklahoma, a frequent public speaker and a regular columnist for the Washington Tribune newspaper. A selection from his editorials was published in 1982 under the title Caviar and Cabbage, which had been the title of Tolson's column.
There has been much misunderstanding regarding the evolution of Tolson's style and aesthetics, largely because so much of his work was unavailable to most readers for so many years. With the appearance of a selected edition, it is now possible to see his movement from early free verse narrative poetry to the highly allusive style of his later poems. What has remained constant has been his dedication to modernist experiment, his development of memorable characters, his gift for a highly lyrical narrative verse, and his ironic understanding of the racial politics of America. In Harlem Gallery, Tolson writes, "Black Boy often adds / the dimension of ethnic irony / to Empson's classic seven" (a reference to William Empson's widely read critical study Seven Types of Ambiguity ). These lines typify Tolson's stance with regard to modernist poetics. He takes up a skeptical, adaptive position within a modernism that he redefines as African-derived. Throughout his career, Tolson insisted that black poets must participate in the artistic movements of their time, but he was equally insistent that their participation must be critical. The characters of his first free verse portraits, like the characters of his Harlem Gallery, are essentially modern people carrying with them traditions whose value is denigrated by white society, even as that society borrows heavily from them.
Like W E. B. DuBois and Alain Locke, Tolson pointed often to the African and African-American roots of modern Western aesthetics. In "The Negro Scholar" (1948), Tolson observes: "The ground the Negro Scholar stands upon / Is fecund with . . . challenge and tradition." Having learned from T. S. eliot s the waste land, Tolson distances himself irreconcilably from the cultural politics that poet embodied. In contrast to Eliot's vision of Africa in his verse plays, Tolson presents Africa in Libretto for the Republic of Liberia as "The ladder of survival dawn men saw," and his poem, which pays tribute to more than a century of cultural contacts between Africa and America, proposes a new Africa as "A moment of the conscience of mankind!"
Throughout his career Tolson argued that African-American poets must be part of contemporary movements in poetry, such as modernism, but he was adamant that black poets could never simply be, as his colleague Robert hayden put it, poets first who just happened to be Negro. In the end Tolsons own poems demonstrated the reliance of modernism upon black culture, even as he charted new paths for the movement.
Berube, Michael. Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Farnsworth, Robert M. Melvin B. Tolson 1898-1966: Plain Talk and Prophetic Prophecy. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1984. Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. "Melvin B. Tolson and the Deterritori-alization of Modernism." In Writing between the Lines: Race and Intertextuality. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 48-70.
TOOMER, JEAN (1894-1967) Jean Toomer is regarded as an influence on the writers of the harlem renaissance, yet he did not identify himself as one of them. While those writers tried to establish a new voice to communicate the black experience in America, Toomer attempted to write the literature of an American melting pot, for a new American individual representing racial unity, not a collection of component races. Though he repudiated, for the most part, the writing of explicitly African-American works, Toomer did, according to Jon Woodson, bring "the techniques of literary modernism to some of the most accomplished of the young writers who gathered in Harlem in the 1920s" (30).
Toomer was born and was raised in the Washington, D.C., home of his grandfather, who had been an important Reconstruction-era politician in Louisiana. Living in a white neighborhood and recalling no racial prejudice among his white friends, Toomer developed a sensibility different from many writers of the Harlem Renaissance. After stints at several colleges, he began to write, influenced in part by the IMAGIST poets, as well as by futurism, symbolism, and impressionism. He also met various authors, such as Hart crane.
Toomer's reputation rests mostly upon Cane (1923). A vision of the rural, black South, Cane is a collection of poems, character sketches, and a play set in rural Georgia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., evoking a vanishing culture. The dominant persona is a man searching for his self-identity through a connection with black heritage, though that search is unsuccessful.
A poetry selection from Cane, "A Portrait in Georgia," exemplifies Toomer's vision of the black experience as part of an American melting pot. An African-American woman is described as having
"chestnut" hair "coiled like a lyncher's rope"—an acknowledgment of the slave past but also a representation, through her hair color, of the blending of the races into a new American one. The final lines, "her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame," reinforce Toomer's illustration of a violent slave past in America but also a new America rising out of the ashes of the past.
After Cane Toomer wrote short stories, articles, reviews, poetry, plays, four novels, and several works of autobiography; most were never published. Much of this work is driven by Toomer's vision of the American race, most vividly portrayed in his long poem "The Blue Meridian" (1936), a Whitmanesque discourse on this new American figure (see long and serial poetry). Toomer died in 1967, feeling he had never realized his literary aims, but, ironically, he is now regarded as one of the greatest artists in the canon of African-American literature in which he did not seek inclusion.
Fabre, Genevieve, and Michel Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
UPDIKE, JOHN (1932- ) John Updike has been the quintessential man of letters. In close to 50 years, he has published more than 60 books, including novels, short stories, poems, and criticism. He is most famous for his novels, which often involve American middle-class values and characters. Updike's poetry is typically metered and often rhymed (see prosody and free verse); much of his early work is light verse. His poetry is related to that of Richard wilbur and Anthony hecht, especially in its formal elements, use of light verse, and subject matter.
Updike grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in a middle-class home. He studied at Harvard and spent 1954 to 1955 at Oxford University's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts. He worked for the New Yorker for two years, leaving to pursue his writing career full-time. His first book was a collection of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958). Updike has received just about every literary award that America has to offer. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize (1982 and 1990) and has received a National Book Award (1964), American Book Award (1982), and National Book Critics Circle Award (1982 and 1990). At 32 he was the youngest invitee in the history of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Updike's Collected Poems 1953-1993 (1993), has more than 400 poems, which he calls his "oeuvre's beloved waifs" (xxiv). They exhibit both a remarkable restraint and abandon. They are often carefully crafted and structured, yet their subject matter is gleaned from mundane (sometimes scandalous) sources: a newspaper article, a naked female statue, a placard on a city bus. "On the Inclusion of Miniature Dinosaurs in Breakfast Cereal Boxes" (1993), a short poem of three quatrains, concludes: "I hide within the Raisin Bran; / And thus begins the dawn of Man." Updike seemingly has the ability to take almost any facet of everyday American life, its blessings and burdens, and fashion it into a poem.
Updike's book of verse Americana and Other Poems (2002) is a continuation of familiar themes and stylistic choices. It is also, however, a slightly changed voice, showing a nostalgic appreciation for a life now in its decline: "The competition thins; so does my blood" ("On The Nearly Simultaneous Deaths of Harold Brodkey and Joseph Brodsky"). Gone is the light verse and rhyming tactics of his earlier works, although the poems remain fluent and lucid; they are what the reviewer John Taylor calls "eminently readable" (294). This collection, perhaps his last, has a preponderance of iambic pentameter and somber themes. The poem "New York," for example, shows the lyrical intensity of Updike's verse at its best: "this hell holds sacred crevices where lone / lost spirits preen and call their pit a throne."
Many of Updike's poems portray contemporary America as being gloriously flawed. A poignant fondness for and honest perception of America might very well be his most enduring legacy.
De Bellis, Jack. The John Updike Encyclopaedia. Westport,
Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: TWayne, 1998.
Taylor, John. "Short Reviews." Poetry 179.5 (February 2002): 294-302.
Updike, John. Preface to Selected Poems 1953-1993. London: Penguin Books, 1993, pp. xxiii-xxiv.
VALENTINE, JEAN (1934- ) Jean Valentine's poems do not easily yield meaning, engaging the reader an unsettling dreamlike reality. Whether written in the first person or as a third-person close observer of others, Valentine's poems are a quiet study of the human condition. Her poems are marked by their brevity, in terms of both diction and the length of the poems themselves. "Valentine seeks refuge in a language of silence, or extreme privacy," notes Stuart Friebert (479). These deeply personal poems, offering "little exposition or context" (479), render them difficult to comprehend, but they never lack in specificity. Writing after the confessional poets, Valentine has the freedom to be deeply introspective without overt, blatant self-disclosure. Her poems explore the issues of womanhood and roles of lover, mother, wife, and daughter (see female voice, female language), but Valentine's poems would not properly be considered feminist. Gender issues inform her work, but the human condition guides her inquiry.
Valentine was born in Chicago and has lived most of her adult life in New York City. She won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her first book, Dream Barker and Other Poems, in 1963. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and won the Maurice English Prize in 1991 and the Sara teasdale Poetry Prize in 1992. In 2000 Valentine received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Breaking from family or a beloved, whether by choice or by death, is a recurrent theme in Valentine's work. At times separation is drawn in plain language, and the emotional impact is unspoken. In "The Drinker" (2000), the speaker addresses one who is perpetually "making for the door" and trying to step out of his or her own life. The monosyllabic, flat language underscores the speaker's concession to the impossibility of being anyone but herself. The self remains, Valentine asserts: Even "death / won't take you out." Valentine also depicts separation in surrealistic terms (see surrealism). In "He leaves them" (2000), the effect of the schism is so extreme as to be metaphorically transformative: "He turns into a moon . . . / He turns into strips of film." For the speaker what remains of the man who leaves is ephemeral. He is transformed into the Moon, which is constant in the sky, yet ever in flux. He becomes not a fixed, photographic image of the self but "strips of film," evoking a strip of negatives or something that is torn into strips. No wholeness remains. Valentine's poems often explore a fractured world or a fractured self in the world. Silence, therefore, becomes a crucial element in her poems. That silence, which is also portrayed in the white space Valentine employs on the page, stands along with language, not in opposition to it. There is as much meaning vested in Valentine's silences as there is in her words.
Friebert, Stuart. "Introduction to Jean Valentine." In The Longman Anthology of Contemporary Poetry 1950-1980, edited by Stuart Friebert and David Young, eds. New York: Longman, 1983, pp. 478-481.
Muske, Carol. "Time into Language." Nation (July 21,
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