The Tolson Exception: The Anthology in the 21st Century


Melvin B. Tolson

by Harris Feinsod

Whenever a new anthology of modern U.S. poetry comes along, it seems that some distinguished critic or other is fated to take up arms, defending his or her vision of canonical distinction against the treachery of “inclusiveness.” The latest eminence to cast herself as such a centurion is Helen Vendler, who reproaches Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011) in a review that has garnered no shortage of sensational, morbid attention (“Are These the Poems to Remember?,” NYRB, November, 2011).

I have to hold my nose in order to rehearse Vendler’s argument. At its best, it strikes me as a musty remainder of the culture wars: “Twentieth-century American poetry has been one of the glories of modern literature,” but Dove has lamentably “shifted the balance” in favor of “black poets” over “better known authors,” “representative themes” over “style,” “multicultural inclusiveness” over “selectivity,” “accessibility” over modernist “difficulty.” For Vendler, Dove’s “populist” flirtation with a culturally diverse, semantically restrictive body of poems will, with time, treacle back into “the archives of sociology,” where it rightly belongs. And perhaps, if Vendler’s millenarian fears are not confirmed, a poetry of complexity and intensity will again prevail.

Vendler proceeds, with overwrought indignation, to pillory Dove for the imprecision of her diction, for her perfunctory sense of 20th c. history, and for much besides. Nevermind that Dove’s anthology is a convivially broadminded and “personal” selection, one whose greatest ambition as a physical object–with its decorative, burnt orange boards and its red ribbon bookmark–is to be a holiday gift for a precocious teenager, not a definitive teaching text nor an attempt to “broker poetry to the American public.” But Vendler rages on against this “inclusive” canon. With mounting pique, she targets a recent generation of minority poets who she chooses to identify not by name but only as a group, as well as giants of African-American poetry such as Amiri Baraka (whose expressions of nihilistic racial ire are perceived of as a double standard) as well as Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson’s crime? Usurping eight pages from Vendler’s beloved Stevens: “is it that she admires Stevens less than she admires Melvin Tolson, who receives fourteen pages to Stevens’s six?”

Dove, who rightly suggests that Vendler displays a shockingly naked condescension toward African-American erudition, has had no shortage of venues in which to make her reply, such as here and here. On the other hand, I found myself wondering how Tolson himself, from Oklahoma or Harlem, might have responded to Vendler at Harvard. Perhaps thusly:

let Brahmin pens kill
Everyman the goat,
write Culture’s epitaph in Notes upstairs. O Cordon Sanitaire,
thy brain’s tapeworm, extract, thy eyeball’s mote!

However distressing it is to watch Vendler counting pages, wincing over the motes of Tolson, Baraka and Brooks that itch in her radiant eyeful of Lowell, Merrill and Bishop, it isn’t news, and it isn’t a gesture confined to Vendler or her critical “camp.” Over a decade ago, when Cary Nelson’s Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford, 2000) voiced its own polemic about national self-reckoning through acts of recovery and canonical expansion, he elicited a more nuanced–but nonetheless similar reaction–from Marjorie Perloff:

Making my way through the 1250 pages of Cary Nelson’s monumental new Oxford anthology […], I couldn’t help thinking of the above lines from [Frank O’Hara’s] “To Hell with It,” a poem not included in this anthology, in which, incidentally, O’Hara is allotted only eight pages as compared, to, say, the fifty-two pages devoted to Melvin B. Tolson’s eccentric epic “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia,” whose every word demands annotation, making it a kind of obstacle course for even the most dedicated reader.

Vendler and Perloff do not champion much of the same canon, even if they occasionally unite against common foes (from Tolson to the expressive indentitarianism they lament all over contemporary multi-ethnic poetry). In fact, even as their shared disquiet boils over onto Tolson, their reasons diverge: for Perloff, Tolson’s hyper-allusivity is too ponderous for a teaching anthology; for Vendler, Tolson is a historical simplification–an aggrieved identity substituted for the joys of Stevens. On the whole, Perloff finds Nelson’s anthology too full of scholarly apparatus; Vendler faults Dove for her lack of one. Both Perloff and Vendler are energized by the compression of Crane or the allusiveness of Eliot (Eliotic citation even makes for historical precedent in Perloff’s wonderful Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century). Yet Tolson’s own flare for compression and allusion is made “eccentric.”

So what makes Tolson a lightning rod for questions of canonical inclusion? I can’t mount a full answer here, but the beginnings of an answer are found in a lingering “cultural schizophrenia” about the legacy of modernist cultural artifacts, a schizophrenia that dichotomizes blackness and modernity. So argued Michael Bérubé, in his excellent Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (1992). Bérubé pointed out that accommodating Tolson’s canonicity “leaves intact most of our assumptions about the necessity to literary study of complex, information-rich, high-cultural artifacts of serious intent and execution.” And yet, it seemed to him two decades ago that “an American academic criticism that takes even minimally sufficient account of Tolson will need to confront its continued willingness to consider ‘American’ and ‘African-American’ literature as exclusive categories.” How galling it is to find this now as true as ever in the NYRB.

But my intention here is not to relive such wearying deja vu nor to re-stoke the smoldering canon wars. Rather, I would like to speculate about what kind of anthology could ever take “minimally sufficient account” of a poet like Tolson. Certainly not Dove’s anthology nor Vendler’s implied revision. Both suffer from a fixed pie mentality about the anthology as a print object (and both ring hollow because of their willingness to claim that such a restrictive object could be a sufficient metonymy for a national canon).

Way back in the Vendlerian era, before mass conviction in the future of print began to flag, the modern American anthology was a zero sum game. Every inclusion was an exclusion. Every narrative occluded another. And it was therefore possible to deputize a hawkish, agonistic culture of criticism to police national poetry. The tomato-ducking anthologist is a comic archetype in an eternal dodge with the badgering reviewer.

In a digitally prospective present, this hawkishness feels histrionic. You hardly need to be a digital humanities proselyte to suggest that in the age of Google Books, the modern anthology should be re-conceptualized for the screen. It could be made contractable or expandable at readerly or pedagogical imperative. It need not any longer be organized by movement, nor by the “neutral” chronology of the poet’s birth–which absurdly sandwiches Tolson between Horace Gregory and Léonie Adams in American Poetry: The Twentieth Century Vol. II (Library of America, 2000). It need not come in under 656 pages. And if any poet garners a few more virtual “pages” than another, this should have no business constituting poetry criticism. I am not suggesting that boundaries should not be erected, nor that evaluative judgments needn’t be made. The complete Adelaide Crapsey may fall to the cutting room floor. But is there still any conceivable reason to excerpt something like Brooks’s “Anniad” in order to save Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven?”

Instead, couldn’t we sensibly imagine an online poetry anthology that displayed the poetic archive with visual integrity, and organized it in imbricated dimensions of figurative, formal, historical, biographical, national, and transnational affinity? Forestall questions of copyright and canon for a moment and begin to imagine a digital  anthology that satisfied readerly habits rather than publisher pockets, and that ignited intellectual curiosities rather than critical kvetching. Imagine Melvin B. Tolson at some semi-prominent node in a network or constellation–a kind of anthological wiki with a flexible visualization interface. In such a scenario, we could amplify dimensions of his place in Afro-American literary history, like his early ripostes to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes in A Gallery of Harlem Portraits or his late prolepsis of Harryette Mullen. But instead of competing for pages with Stevens, we could simultaneously compare his 1944 “Rendezvous with America” with other pseudo-patriotic wartime poems, such as Stevens’s own “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” We could sensibly display his many, simultaneous adjencencies: to the revolutionaries of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as to T.S. Eliot whose allusive practices he hyperbolizes, Hart Crane whose phrasal intensity he occasionally improves upon, and Ezra Pound, where his links are so vexed that one early detractor accused Tolson of “out-pounding Pound.”

We could dilate his work from a short sampler into his complete works, reading unadorned poems free of apparatus if what Octavio Paz called “the naked contact with the poem” was our preferred mode. Or else we could toggle over hover text annotations, reviving musty antiquarianism as a digitally normative behavior. And, following the precedent of Cary Nelson’s MAPS website, we could supplement our reading with the slender dossier of good Tolson criticism by Bérubé, Robert Farnsworth, Matthew Hart and–yes–Rita Dove. But we could also create hyperlinked casebooks of the unrealized transnational affinities between Tolson and Pan-African poetic movements of his day (such as negritude), and gloss the modernization contexts that made Tolson Liberia’s poet laureate in 1947. Moreover, we could cluster Tolson, as Hart does so compellingly in Nations of Nothing but Poetry (2010), with other transnational “synthetic vernacular” poets, such as McDiarmad, Bunting and Brathwaite.

In other words, imagine an anthology that was a flexible site of intersection, affiliation, affinity, and textual inter-animation, rather than the inviolate scene of competition, antagonism, selection, and national narration. Syllabi designed around the Norton, Library of America, Oxford, or Penguin anthologies of Modern/20th Century American/Anglophone Poetry often labor to offer stories about modern poetics that adduce synchronic crosscurrents and historical recapitulations in something other than the sketchiest fashion. Hart, who is perhaps the only critic to take seriously Tolson’s “simultaneously American, diasporic and Americo-Liberian” vision of Afro-modernism, has pointed out Tolson’s devotion to a modernist “catholicity of taste and interest.” And it is precisely his catholicity that makes him so exemplary of an anthological sensibility that might serve the present.

For Vendler, literary criticism has been many important things over the course of her distinguished career. But we can put at least one of those things to bed: the heroic policing of the national anthology. In the 21st century, we owe ourselves a different kind of anthology (if that is any longer the right word), defined by connectivity rather than selectivity, by the prospect of comparison rather than the agonism of evaluation, and by the natural divagations of access and curiosity over the borderwalls of national narratives and the paywalls of copyrights. Rita Dove herself has been loudly protesting the outsized fee requests of certain publishers, and previous anthologists may be nodding silently in agreement.

This, too, is a wearying deja vu. Ezra Pound once ambitiously conceived a “twelve-volume anthology in which each poem was chosen not merely because it was a nice poem or a poem Aunt Hepsy liked, but because it contained an invention, a definite contribution to the art of verbal expression.” Pound’s conception of a definitive Annals of Poetic Innovation (over the capricious predilections of the proverbial “Aunt Hepsy”) is not exactly what I’d hope to see resuscitated. But the roadblocks Pound encountered feel all too familiar:

With this in mind, I appoached a respected agent. He was courteous, he was even openly amazed at the list of three hundred items which I offered as an indication of outline. […] In two days came a hasty summons: would I see him in person. I found him awed, as if one had killed a cat in the sacristy. Did I know what I had said in my letter? I did. Yes, but about Palgrave? I did. I had said: ‘It is time we had something to replace that doddard Palgrave.’ ‘But don’t you know’, came the awestruck tones, ‘that the whole fortune of X & Co. is founded on Palgrave’s Golden Treasury?’ (Ezra Pound, The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 17-18).

Nearly a century on, the doddard publishers still taunt us. Macmillan, which Pound tactfully called “X & Co.,” was even renamed Palgrave-Macmillan in 2002.

It is time we had something new.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License