The Poetry of Harper

Author Michael S. Harper (1938– )

First Published Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970; History Is Your Own Heartbeat: Poems, 1971; Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree, 1972; Song: I Want a Witness, 1972; Debridement, 1973; Nightmare Begins Responsibility, 1974; Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems, 1977; Rhode Island: Eight Poems, 1981; Healing Song for the Inner Ear: Poems, 1985

Type of Work Poetry

The poetry of Michael S. Harper is eloquent witness to relationships between humans, humankind and cosmology, speech and body, and past and present. It is witness to the historical and personal suffering of people of African American heritage and to the suffering of all humanity. Harper offers healing songs rather than despair and celebrates family, friends, musicians, and heroes in his diverse poetry. He seeks unity rather than diversity, and his themes and interests are wide-ranging, from music, such as jazz and blues, to history, birth, death, and myth.

Michael S. Harper was born at his parents’ home in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938. Harper’s father, Walter Warren Harper, was a postal worker, and his mother, Katherine Johnson Harper, was a medical stenographer. The family’s large record collection first interested Michael in music, which he claims has always been the primary influence on his poetry. He grew up to the sounds of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and jazz greats such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker.

When he was thirteen, the family moved, and Harper claims he would not have become a poet had he not moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles; his world was both collapsing and full of possibilities. Michael, his younger brother, Jonathan Paul, and his sister, Katherine Winifred, moved with their parents to West Los Angeles, where Harper enrolled in Susan Miller Dorsey High School. He was placed in the school’s industrial arts program rather than in an academic program until his father spoke to the school counselor about Michael’s academic ability.

During high school, Harper’s poetic talents lay dormant, and he only occasionally scribbled out what he calls "doggerel" in the back of his English class. He destroyed his early efforts and wrote prose and short drama until he was almost through college. After he was graduated from high school in 1955, Harper attended Los Angeles State College from 1956 to 1961; earning a bachelor’s degree in 1961. Throughout his college years, he worked full time as a postal worker, and he claims that that work experience was the real beginning of his life. He was surrounded by educated African Americans who could not get employment in the private sector, and he recalls that he learned a great deal from them. Their sharp wit presented a constant challenge to Harper; they would often stop and discourse on Anton Chekhov or Fyodor Dostoevski, and they told their own stories. It was here that he learned about narrative, silences inherent in speech, and how to pace a good story. He also learned about the country he lived in and about people.

Harper faced the same racial roadblocks that held back his coworkers. While Harper was in a premedical course in college, his zoology professor advised him to give up medicine, saying that blacks could not succeed in medical school. The experiences of racism and rejection that Harper saw in his life and the lives of African American friends and acquaintances were influential in forming the vision of American society that appears in his poetry.

During college, Harper was greatly influenced by his reading of John Keats’s letters and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and these works prepared him for the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where he began working toward a master’s degree in creative writing in the winter of 1961; he earned the degree in 1963. He claims that while those works were leading him to poetry, he was also influenced by a course called "The Epic of Search," in which the classics were presented as a historical view of the human quest for self-assertion.

At Iowa, Harper began to appreciate his uniqueness—he was the only African American in the poetry and fiction classes there—but he also became aware of racial differences; the university maintained segregated living quarters, and this reinforced Harper’s view of society as fragmented. At Iowa, he began writing poetry seriously.

Since his beginnings as a poet, Michael Harper has become the poet laureate of Rhode Island (1988) and a full professor of English at Brown University (1974) as well as visiting professor at many universities, including Harvard and Yale. His honors have included a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977; he has read at the Library of Congress and received both a National Institute of Arts and Letters Creative Writing Award and a Massachusetts Council Creative Writing Award. He was nominated for the National Book Award in 1971 and 1977 and was honored with the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1972.

Harper’s poetic vision is mainly of the African American tradition; his vision is rendered in a magical language composed of the oral-musical traditions of jazz, the blues, and spirituals. He employs black literary motifs, black idioms, and black traditions within larger American landscapes, American institutions, and American lexicons. "Most of my ancestors were black; I’m one of their trustees; the context is America …" says Harper. The definition of the country is "up for grabs," Harper has said. He feels that much of the country’s recorded resonance is mundane and should be heightened by rigor and rhetoric, by some sophisticated truth-telling. Harper agrees with Ralph Ellison’s statement that the African American is the most intimate part of American history, and Harper views black contributions to American culture as fundamental. He does not apologize for loving Keats and Robert Frost, however, because he locates himself in their terrain as swiftly as he does in his own family. Therefore, he claims, the way into the family archives of literature must be earned, and this is done by eloquence. Poetry for Michael Harper is not a career and not a choice. It is expiation and bondage. He thinks in sequences of poems with overlapping thematics, and he is intrigued with framing devices, such as those found in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (c. fifteenth century; English translation, 1704). Harper considers himself a narrative poet who plays with syntax for musical overtones, and he hears everything he writes. His poetry is for the ear, he says, but not for a mechanical ear; it is elegant phrasing and perhaps unelegant associations, plus narrative drive, and he enjoys putting things together that do not belong together.

His first book of poetry, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, is named for the inspiration that the musician John Coltrane provided for Harper throughout their friendship until Coltrane’s death in 1967. Harper refers to Coltrane as his Orpheus, his personal signature for competence, and Coltrane’s music has encouraged Harper’s belief in his own intuitive power. Thus, Harper named his book for the love he had for a man who never gave up the struggle and whose vision and inner strength encouraged others; the title represented a symbolic love that becomes universal in the poetry. The book pays tribute to many different musicians; the poem "Alone," for example, is dedicated to Miles Davis. The poetry in this book is rhythmic rather than metric, and the poems are meant to be sung or read aloud. Harper mostly writes in free verse and uses rhythms to enhance his images as extended metaphors. Dear John, Dear Coltrane is a collection of seventy-two poems with the theme of redemption, and Harper symbolizes the often painful African American experience by portraying the blues musician, who is at his best when he is low and suffering. Harper’s poetry never despairs; like the blues, it encourages singing to alleviate pain and sorrow and proclaims the need for people to rise above personal and historical pain and suffering.

Dear John, Dear Coltrane can be divided into three sections. The first category contains poems about Harper’s personal relationships, including those with friends and musicians such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and James Brown. Harper connects personal experience, family experience, and the experience of African Americans to universal questions of self-assertion and transcendence, but this never leads to failure or despair. His poem "Reuben, Reuben," for example, is about his own loss of a son; in the manner of blues musicians, Harper attempts to transcend his own suffering through creative response to the pain.

The book’s second category is made up of geographical poems that evolved out of Harper’s travels to Mexico in the summer of 1967 and his search to find himself in relation to humankind’s history. To Harper, geography and seminal sites are most important.

The third category is composed of historical or political poems that concern central incidents, such as Lewis and Clark’s expedition in "Clark’s Way West: Another Version." "American History" uses the more modern incident of the deaths of four black girls in an explosion at an Alabama church as a reminder of "five hundred middle passage blacks."

Harper’s eighth book, Healing Song for the Inner Ear, is an experiment with elegy organized around certain themes. The text is divided into five sections, with personal history as the central theme. Continuing in the tradition of his other books, Harper celebrates musicians, folk heroes, poets, friends, and family. There is a feeling of the preciousness of life and an awareness of crimes committed against humanity, as in "The Drowning of the Facts of a Life":

Tonight we talk of losses in the word

and go on drowning in acts of faith

knowing so little of humility,

less of the body,

which will die in the mouth of reality.

This foolish talk in a country

that cannot pronounce napalm

or find a path to a pool of irises

or the head of a rose.

Harper includes poems on racial inequities in South Africa, and he questions the myths and lies of politicians, historians, sociologists, and writers. He joyfully sings of the full range of the African American experience while seeking his own personal freedom through his poetic creations. These poems are specifically individual and yet vastly universal. They encompass the earth, reflecting experience as "monuments to history and pain" in such diverse places as Stockholm, Soweto, and Mount Saint Helens. In "The View from Mount Saint Helens," Harper says:

The flying African would leap from the shores

of the continent called America,

though it was really only an island

in the Caribbean:

the text demanded the casirenas

be called cedars,

what a great poet called

the insulted landscape,

which is the breast of your forehead

now, so dense with frenesy

and greasepaint.

Harper’s poetry focuses mainly on exploring the dual consciousness of being an African American poet and an American poet by unifying the past with the present. He seeks unity in diversity and finds universality in the specific. Criticism on Harper’s poetry has included that of the conservative critic Edwin Fussell, who wrote that Harper’s poetry is very likely the finest poetry being written in a "woe-begone and woe-begotten country." The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks finds in Harper’s poetry an unafraid strength, his writing vigorous as well as brilliant, and although technically dexterous, magnificently different from most contemporary writing.

Harper balances the past with the present, uncovering stereotypes and myths as he goes, and he uses race as a metaphor. He claims that since he loves people and how they talk and sound, he doubts that he will ever run out of subject matter.


Callahan, John F. "The Testifying Voice in Michael Harper’s Images of Kin." Black American Literature Forum 13 (Fall, 1979): 89–92. A fairly brief and general examination of Harper’s poetic voice, language, images, and idioms. Special attention is paid to his performance poems, such as those that focus on musicians or historical action. Also examines Harper’s development of the relationship between himself and his reader.

Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990). A book-length celebration of Michael Harper. Includes twenty-eight pages of Harper’s poetry; a twenty-page interview with Harper; and eight essays on Harper by friends and students.

Fussell, Edwin. "Double-Conscious Poet in the Veil (for Michael S. Harper)." Parnassus (Fall/Winter, 1975): 5–28. Mostly about Harper’s book Nightmare Begins Responsibility, though touching on the other volumes of poetry published by 1975. Fussell discusses what Harper tries to do with his poetry, and the difficulty of Harper’s aesthetics for both him and his readers. He also examines Harper’s theories on the limitations of language and explores Harper’s poetic techniques. The recurrent image of the skeleton throughout Harper’s poetry and his concept of "Myth-as-a-lie" are also examined.

Harper, Michael S. "An Interview with Michael S. Harper." Interview by James Randall. Ploughshares 7, no. 1 (1981): 11–27. Discussion includes the influence black Africa has on African American writers, Harper’s early years, and Harper’s teaching experiences.

Stepto, Robert B. "Michael S. Harper, Poet as Kinsman: The Family Sequences." Massachusetts Review 17 (Autumn, 1976): 477–502. Stepto is interested in Harper’s use of kinship as a recurring metaphor for poetic process and the artist’s obligations to traditions. In order to explore these ideas and examine the processes of kinship within the poems, Stepto focuses on Harper’s poetic family sequences, such as the twenty-poem series section entitled "Ruth’s Blues" from Song: I Want A Witness.

————. "Michael Harper’s Extended Tree: John Coltrane and Sterling Brown." Hollins Critic 13 (June, 1976): 2–16. Stepto explains that a primary tradition in African American literature is the honoring of kin, especially kin who are also artists. He then takes the reader through an in-depth exploration of Harper’s poems on the jazz musician John Coltrane and the poet Sterling Brown, both African American artists whom Harper celebrates.