Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970
History Is Your Own Heartbeat, 1971
Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree, 1972
Song: I Want a Witness, 1972
Nightmare Begins Responsibility, 1974
Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems, 1977
Rhode Island: Eight Poems, 1981
Healing Song for the Inner Ear, 1985
Honorable Amendments, 1995
Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems, 2000
Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, 1979 (with Robert B. Stepto)
The Carleton Miscellany: A Ralph Ellison Festival, 1980 (with John Wright)
The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, 1980
Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945, 1994 (with Anthony Walton)
The Vintage Book of African American Poetry, 2000 (with Walton)
Poet and educator Michael Steven Harper was the first son of his middle-class African American parents. He was encouraged to follow family tradition into the practice of medicine, but other influences proved to be stronger. One irresistible influence was music. Harper’s interest became apparent early, stimulated by his parents’ large collection of 78 rpm records. He spent hours in the recorded presence of such musical greats as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Poetry also had an important place in the Harper home. Framed copies of Langston Hughes’s poems hung on the walls of the staircase.
Michael S. Harper
When Harper was thirteen, his family moved to West Los Angeles, a predominantly white neighborhood where some black families were targets of racial violence. In high school he began privately experimenting with poetry and then fiction and drama. During his college years he continued writing, along with working full-time for the post office. He received his B.A. from Los Angeles State University in 1961 and enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop that winter.
The prevailing approach to literature in the workshop classes was the New Criticism. From this critical perspective, a work is analyzed and evaluated as an artifact; any traditional framework, historical references, or biographical situation of the writer are irrelevant. Harper disagreed with this approach. He considered a work as a delicate balance between its internal and external environments. For Harper, a poem is a microcosm, an individual utterance that reflects a universal emotion or experience.
The only African American student in both the poetry and the fiction classes, Harper experienced misunderstanding and prejudice. These experiences challenged him to explore and come to terms with the dualism inherent in being an African American/American poet. He refused to categorize himself as either/or. Instead, he affirmed his identity in both groups. Consequently, Harper’s is a voice of unification. His poetry testifies to connections–connections among racial groups, as well as connections between past and present, myth and actuality, the individual and the group, one geographic location and another, and traditional poetic forms and free verse.
Harper once defined himself as a poet of rhythm rather than of meter. His lines echo a variety of human speech patterns instead of proceeding in evenly regulated metric patterns. His rhythms combine with such conventional devices as repetition, internal rhyme, and enjambment, lines flowing together rather than pausing at the end. These techniques allow precision in modulating sound, and Harper’s poems come alive when read aloud.
Harper’s concern with synthesis emerges in the seventy-two poems in his first book of poetry, Dear John, Dear Coltrane. In one sense this book pays tribute to the greats of jazz and the blues. Harper recalled wondering during his studies at Iowa, “How would it be to solo with the great tradition of the big bands honking you on? Could one do it in a poem?” As Harper conjures the heritage of the music and musicians, the past merges with the present. The individual musicians invoked in the poems represent both themselves and metaphors for human achievement.
The poetic techniques and themes introduced in this first book evolve through Harper’s poetic canon. His second book, History Is Your Own Heartbeat, received the Poetry Award of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. In the preface to Song: I Want a Witness, Harper emphasizes the importance of an awareness of history: “When there is no history/ there is no metaphor.” Debridement recalls Harper’s early interest in medicine; he uses medical terminology to examine the historical relationships between white and black Americans. (“Debridement” means excising dead flesh.)
Harper narrowed his historical perspective to explore his own past and personal connections in Nightmare Begins Responsibility. The title is a variation on William Butler Yeats’s epigraph, “In dreams begins responsibility.” Harper won the Melville-Cane Award with the 1977 publication of Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems. This collection combines representative selections from earlier publications with later poems to explore universal traditions of both black and white poets. This theme continues in Healing Song for the Inner Ear, Honorable Amendments, and its cumulative effect is most evident in the collected and new poems in Songlines in Michaeltree.
In addition to being recognized as a prolific poet, Harper is a major scholar and educator. He has edited anthologies of African American literature and served on editorial boards of several scholarly journals, including The Georgia Review and TriQuarterly. He also has been a frequent contributor of poems, book reviews, essays, and articles to numerous publications. Harper’s teaching career has been extensive, including professorships at Colgate University, Brown University, and Harvard University, among many others. His extensive world travels inform both his poetry and his scholarship. Among his many honors, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977. From 1988 to 1993 Harper was the Poet Laureate of the State of Rhode Island.