Allen Tate: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

Doubtless, Mr. Tolson does not expect his libretto to have a musical setting; or if he does, one wonders what an audience would make of it. Official celebrations in Liberia cannot differ greatly from those in Washington or Paris, where the apathy of polite inattention is usually all that an official poem deserves. One can imagine in Washington during the New Deal, a patriotic poem being read by the late Stephen Vincent Benèt; but not, I assume, by the late Hart Crane. That may be one difference between the literary culture of official Washington and that of Liberia: Mr. Tolson is in the direct succession from Crane. Here is something marvelous indeed. A small African republic founded by liberated slaves celebrates its centenary by getting an American negro poet to write what, in the end, is an English Pindaric ode in a style derived from – but by no means merely imitative of – one of the most difficult modern poets.

What irony we are entitled to infer from Mr. Tolson’s official appointment to this job I am not prepared to guess. I leave the question with the remark that I cannot imagine a white American poet of equal distinction being given a similar job by President Truman. …

What influence this work will have upon Negro poetry in the United States one awaits with curiosity. 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 language of the Anglo-American poetic tradition. I do not wish to be understood as saying that Negro poets have hitherto been incapable of this assimilation; there has been perhaps rather a resistance to it on the part of those Negroes who supposed that their peculiar genius lay in "folk" idiom or in the romantic creation of a "new" language within the English language. In these directions interesting and even distinguished work has been done, notably by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. But there are two disadvantages to this approach: first, the "folk" and "new" languages are not very different from those that White poets can write; secondly, the distinguishing Negro quality is not in the language but in the subject-matter, which is usually the plight of the Negro segregated in a White culture. The plight is real and often tragic; but I cannot think that, from the literary point of view, the tragic aggressiveness of the modern Negro poet offers wider poetic possibilities than the resigned pathos of Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was only a "White" poète manqué. Both attitudes have limited the Negro poet to a provincial mediocrity in which one’s feelings about one’s difficulties become more important than poetry itself. …

… In the end I found I was reading Libretto for the Republic of Liberia not because Mr. Tolson is a Negro but because he is a poet, not because the poem has a "Negro subject" but because it is about the world of all men. And this subject is not merely asserted; it is embodied in a rich and complex language, and realized in terms of the poetic imagination."


Title Allen Tate: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Allen Tate Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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