Known for his complex, challenging poetry, Melvin B. Tolson earned little critical attention throughout most of his life, but he eventually won a place among America's leading black poets. He was, in the opinion of Allen Tate, author of the preface to Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, the first black poet to assimilate "completely the full poetic language of his time and, by implication, the language of the Anglo-American tradition." Even more, according to Karl Shapiro in his introduction to Tolson's Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator, Tolson wrote and thought "in Negro," thus adding to the quality of his best work. His sonnets, free verse, and epic poems, which employ both standard English and black idiom, illuminate the lives of black Americans and consider the role of black artists in white society. Noted James R. Payne in World Literature Today, Tolson's work is "a rich body of American poetry . . . that will give a great deal of satisfaction to readers."
Publication of Tolson's first collection of poetry, Rendezvous with America, came five years after his poem "Dark Symphony" won first place in the American Negro Exposition National Poetry Contest in 1939. Donald B. Gibson, an essayist for the Reference Guide to American Literature, remarked that "on the basis of his first volume of poetry . . . it would hardly have been possible to predict the kind of poet Melvin Tolson was to be a decade later. A poet who writes 'I gaze upon her silken loveliness / She is a passionflower of joy and pain / On the golden bed I came back to possess' does not show particular promise. Likewise the lines 'America is the Black Man's country / The Red Man's, the Yellow Man's / The Brown Man's, the White Man's' are not suggestive of the great lines yet to come." And yet, Gibson assured, some of Tolson's early poetry does foreshadow his future verses. The essayist singled out the poem "An Ex-Judge at the Bar" as being "in style and content very much like a good deal of the later poetry and untypical of the rather commonplace character of much of the first volume." It is "in tone typically Tolsonian. The juxtaposition of the formal and the informal, the classical and the contemporary, the familiar and the unusual accounts in large measure for the unique character of Tolson's best poetry."
Other critics also had praise for Rendezvous with America. The award-winning "Dark Symphony," included in the collection, "celebrates . . . the historic contribution of black Americans and their struggle to gain recognition for their achievements, ending with a proud and defiant prediction of black accomplishment and cultural realization," asserted Robert M. Farnsworth in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Other poems in the volume, written during World War II, address the war's destruction, human aspirations and corruption, and the possibility of achieving "a new democracy of nations," according to Farnsworth. Poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis, quoted by Farnsworth, characterized Tolson's writing in the volume as mature and masterful but "yet too complex for the masses"; many critics attribute the neglect of much of Tolson's writing to his complexity and erudition.
Appointed poet laureate of Liberia in 1947, Tolson attracted increased attention with his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, an epic poem commemorating the African nation's centennial. Observed poet and critic John Ciardi in Nation, Tolson creates "a vision of Africa past, present, and future" with abundant imagery and "prodigious eclecticism." Portraying Liberia as an offshoot of America, newer and smaller with hopes of achieving more, Tolson continues the allusiveness and vision displayed in his earlier work. Ciardi commended the poet's "force of language and . . . rhythm," concluding that Tolson "has established a new dimension for American Negro poetry." Gibson described the Libretto as "pyrotechnic," and credited Tolson with creating "a system of tensions not unlike the dynamic forces holding an atom or a galaxy together. Each element threatens to go off on its own; yet as long as the balance of forces remains constant, the system functions."
Published in 1965, Tolson's Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator was the product of years of work and is widely considered a poetic masterpiece. Robert Donald Spector, reviewing the poem for Saturday Review the year it appeared, judged that it "marks [Tolson] as one of America's great poets." Originally a sonnet, in the early 1930s it became the book length Gallery of Harlem Portraits, which remained unpublished during Tolson's life; in the 1950s Tolson conceived it as part of a five-book epic about Harlem and black America and revised it as Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator. A fictional gallery curator "provides the central point of view" in the poem's discussions of black art and life, remarked Farnsworth, "but three major characters, all practicing artists, dramatically amplify the reader's view of the black artist's dilemma and achievement." Stanzas in the style of blues music punctuate the portraits, reinforcing Tolson's points or offering ironic commentary. Payne found such stanzas "very effective, among the most effective elements of the book." Still, while Tolson used black elements such as the blues, focusing on black characters and a black setting, he did not espouse separatism. According to Blyden Jackson's New Republic critique, "The brotherhood of man and the universality of serious art . . . catalyze [the poem's] perceptions."
Tolson's skillful delineation of character, his ability to turn discussions of aesthetics into social commentary, his breadth of vision, and his deftness with language garnered critical acclaim. Reviewers compared Harlem Gallery to works by Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, Hart Crane, and T. S. Eliot and praised with Spector "the richness and variety of [Tolson's] characters" and the "allusiveness that absorbs classical, Biblical, oriental, and African references." Admitting that Harlem Gallery presents the same complexity and involved syntax that rendered Tolson's earlier works somewhat inaccessible, Jackson asserted that "nevertheless [it] is a fine product of the imagination. . . . [Tolson] achieved a memorable presentation of the human comedy and of human values." Responding to other critics' neglect of Tolson's work, Spector declared, "Here is a poet whose language, comprehensiveness, and values demand a critical sensitivity rarely found in any establishment. . . . Whatever his reputation in the present critical climate, Tolson stands firmly as a great American poet." And Gibson summarized: "Tolson, by virtue of an extraordinary mind and intelligence, keeps a vast array of disparate elements in constant relationship. His poetry is, therefore, coherent, and its primary effect is of the containment and control of vast reserves of energy."