Jon Woodson: "On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

Libretto for the Republic of Liberia begins with a question, "Liberia?," that is an oblique allusion to the third stanza of "Heritage," Countee Cullen's pseudo-Keatsian meditation on Africa, which importunes: "Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes." It is not Cullen’s poetic that Tolson finds objectionable, for he pursues his satire of Cullen in meter and rhyme, nor is it Cullen's attempt at a reductive textualization of Africa; it is, instead, the being out of which Cullen’s attitudes project. In contrast to Cullen's decadent limpness, Tolson's poet-narrator speaks in the indomitable voice of the Nietzschean superman, and from that towering vantage he satirizes Cullen's under-manly romanticizing of African historical reality.

The Pindaric gist of Tolson’s opening movement, "Do," is that Liberia is an example of the "will" that is necessary if the forces ranged against liberty are to be overcome: thus Tolson sets up a dialectic between freedom and "an alien goad." Liberia is "no waste land yet" since the Liberian moment in the "Heraclitean continuum" has not been exhausted, its "will" used up, though the "protagonist of the poem" is able to look forward to the moment in which Liberia falls like the empires of the past.

It is tempting to read the second movement, "Re," as the description of the past glories of Africa and their destruction at the hands of European invaders; however, much more transpires here: Tolson is refuting Hegel's assertion that Africa "is no historical part of the World." Yet none of this "argumentation" is on the surface of the poem, for Tolson's Pindaric project, his celebratory lyric, must be allowed to soar. Below the song resides the dross of an ideological substitution of universal history for ethnocentric history. To allow himself more room for the transaction of politico-historical argument, Tolson has relegated these matters to his extensive notes. Rather than being notes that explicate his poem, Tolson's notes are designed to mislead the reader without allowing the reader to realize that he or she has gone astray. Thus, the notes do not provide a gloss indicating that the "micro-footnote in a bunioned book" of the second line is a key allusion to Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, in which Spengler asks the rhetorical question—"Do we not relegate the vast complexities of Indian and Chinese culture to footnotes, with a gesture of embarrassment." Again, as with Hegel, the "protagonist of the poem" (here revealed as a universal historian who holds up "the Good Gray bard" as a mediating persona) casts before the reader the historical reality of Africa in the face of its obliteration by Hegel and Spengler. Thus, Tolson's poem is positioned as a countertext to the European philosophy of history in which Africa is theorized into historical nonexistence. In other words, the subject of Tolson's Libretto is not so much the founding of Liberia as a questioning of the nature of historical reality.

To keep before us the Pindaric strategy of digressive mythical narrative that Tolson employs in Libretto, let us recall that Hayden presents Cinquez much in the way that Crane presents Pocahontas, as a real person "transfigured" into a mythic significance in a digression that presents her narrative. Similarly, Tolson builds his poem toward his world-historical hero, Jehudi Ashmun, the founder of Liberia, by digressing through five sections: "Do," the invocation; "Re," a consideration of historical change; "Mi," an expository movement that summarizes the, conception of "the wren Republic"; and "Fa," an imagistic treatment of the Heraclitean alternation of peace and strife as the engine of history, only reaching the climax of the poem's narrative with "Sol," the account of the founding of Liberia led by Elijah Johnson.

Even though Libretto narrates the return of African slaves to their original continent, the poet-narrator finds it necessary to turn to the subject of Hayden's poem, in order to conjure up the etiological horrors accompanying the transformation of African to slave: "This is the Middle Passage: here / Gehenna hatchways vomit up / The debits of pounds of flesh. / This is the Middle Passage: here / The sharks wax fattest and the stench / Goads God to hold His nose!" (152-54). Tolson reverses Hayden’s practice, giving Elijah Johnson only nine lines where the griots receive forty-two lines in which to speak the aphoristic wisdom of their "vertical" tradition. In speaking of vertical culture, Tolson was alluding to his idea that in every age, there existed few individuals who were aware on an esoteric, or "vertical," level, while the majority comprised a mass who were aware on a limited "horizontal" level.

The language of the description of "today" in the first eighty-five lines of "Do" perhaps owes much to the prose of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The scope of Tolson's practice is illuminated by Altieri's comment that "the epic and the joke become necessarily fused elements in a process of losing and finding the letters that can return 'his tory' to the state of the anagogic book, which must, therefore, also be an antibook." Lest the reader miss Tolson’s aim to write an antipoem, he spells this out in the extraordinary fourth stanza of "Do," in which the protagonist offers a description of himself: among the labels is "a pataphysicist" (509): the relevant part of note 509 reads, "Cf. Jarry, Gestes et Opinions du Dr. Pataphysicien," thereby confronting the attentive reader with the text of an antinovel that, like Tolson’s Libretto, is divided into eight sections, is metasemiotic in method, contains an occult subtext, explicates its own generation, and provides for the unmasking of its own subtext.

Dialectically, the opening movement of "Do" looks toward the text of the future, for the imagined/prophesied future is incommensurate with the "chaos" of Today. The protagonist looks for the glory of the past in the future because he sees no sign of its becoming in the destruction of "Today": "only the souls of hyenas whining teneo te africa / only the blind men gibbering mbogan in greek / against sodom's pillars of salt / below the mountain of rodinmashedstatues aleppe" (551-54). However, the text contains the resolution and reconciliation of even these universal oppositions. Like all anagogic texts, Libretto is an initiatory text that looks simultaneously to the fool in need of initiation and to the griot, superman, or alchemist that represents the end of initiation. Thus, Tolson’s protagonist is, like The Waste Land's Tiresias, simultaneously inside and outside of history. On the symbolic level, Tolson’s poem enacts the transformation of Caliban, the Fool, into Prospero, the Magician; however, Tolson’s concern is more for Prospero's book of knowledge than for the man himself. History must be textualized if it is ever to be conceptualized, for the shape of history can only be passed down through the text. Yet it is through the reading of the text that the Calibanic reader becomes metamorphosed into Prospero, the Magician. Thus, Tolson has tried to write an ultimate poem that, like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, we do not know how to read unless we become as well versed as Prospero.


Title Jon Woodson: "On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joanne V. Gabbin Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Consciousness, Myth, and Transcendence: Symbolic Action in Three Poems on the Slave Trade
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