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Michael S. Harper's Life and Career


Keith D. Leonard

Michael S. Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Walter Warren Harper, a postal worker, and Katherine Johnson Harper, a medical stenographer. Harper recalls his family's move in 1951 to a predominantly white Los Angeles neighborhood grappling with racial tension as a traumatic enough experience to "make" him a poet. Also, his family had an extensive record collection that profoundly affected Harper's poetry. Encouraged to pursue medicine, Harper became only a marginal student after an asthma condition kept him from participating in a junior high gym class, which earned him a failing grade and kept him off the honor roll. At Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, Harper was placed on the vocational track, a situation his father had to "straighten out" so that his son could be on track toward a medical career. During high school, Harper avoided preparing to become a doctor, and he even got significant encouragement from a college zoology professor who told him that black people could not get into medical school. During his high school years Harper wrote a few poems, but he had not yet considered writing as an option for a career.

In 1955, he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, and then Los Angeles State College, which he attended until 1961, during which time he was also employed as a postal worker. He says that his life began here. Many of his coworkers were educated black men like Harper's father who had bumped against the glass ceiling of advancement in the American workplace. Their experiences, which they shared freely, and his own experience of segregated housing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop formed the foundation of Harper’s assessment of America as a schizophrenic society. Nonetheless, Harper credits his years at Los Angeles State, where he read John Keats's letters and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for preparing him for the Iowa Writers Workshop, which he began in 1961. After a year there, Harper taught at various schools, including Pasadena City College (1962), Contra Costa College (1964-1968), and California State College (now University, 1968-1969).

The only black student in both his poetry and fiction classes at Iowa, Harper encountered painter Oliver Lee Jackson, who would influence Harper's thinking. Moreover, he lived in segregated housing, which runs counter to the democratic principles of this nation and best illustrates what Harper calls the schizophrenia of this society. This idea encompasses more than the politics and legacy of racial segregation; it is involved in the very English we speak and the logic we follow. Such binary oppositions as white and black, hot and cold, set the language against itself through a mode of thinking that separates and opposes, contrary to what Harper sees as a holistic universe where humanity is a reflection of the universe, and the universe is a reflection of humanity. This philosophy serves as a basis for the themes, aesthetics, and strategies of his poetry, which include music, kinship, history, and mythology.

For Harper, history and mythology are similar in that neither is fully constituted or contained by its written or commonly understood versions. Such mythologies as white supremacy, and the marred history it engenders, too rigidly encase humanity in static categories. Manipulating old European and American myths and creating new ones illustrates a goal and technique Harper uses throughout his poetry, beginning with his first volume, Dear John Dear Coltrane (1970). In the volume, John Coltrane, who Harper knew, is both the man and his jazz, the talented and tragic musician, and his wholistic worldview and redemptive music. With an understanding of black music similar to W. E. B. Du Bois's in his description of the African American "sorrow songs," Harper includes the music of poetry as similar affirmation of the importance of articulating suffering to gain from it and survive it. Here, as in Harper's later volumes, musical rhythm replaces traditional metrics in the poetry without sacrificing craft. Coltrane becomes a link between the personal and historical, pain and its expression, suffering and love. To extend these themes, Harper devotes a section of the volume to poems about his own kin, thematically and literally personalizing history so that family ties become continuities of humanity as they link the individual with both a personal and collective history. This opening and overlapping of historical and personal possibility, in the context of Harper’s interest in music, seems to provide a handle on Harper’s difficult and abstract concept of musical and poetic modality.

In his subsequent volumes, Harper built upon and expanded his philosophy and repertoire of themes and strategies. In 1971, History Is Your Oun Heartbeat garnered Harper the Poetry Award of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. Instead of famous musicians, the volume focuses on Harper's family to explore similar issues as Harper's previous volume. Next, Song: I Want a Witness (1972) uses black religion as a subtext for its meditations on black history, while, in the second section, the volume dialogues with William Faulkner’s short story "The Bear," adding an element of literary history to Harper’s thematics. From this volume also comes the limited edition Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree (1972). Nightmare Begins Responsibility, a volume published in 1975, is another variation on the poet's philosophy of kinship, history, the wholistic universe, and an individual's responsibility to all of these. In many ways, it serves as the sequel to both Song: I Want a Witness and Debridement (1973), and is considered Harper’s richest volume. In it, Harper uses poems to address kinship in a jazz-blues idiom; to consider the death of his friend Ralph Albert Dickey; to affirm responsible action, like Jackie Robinson's, in the face of a racist nightmare; and to establish the poet's literary, personal, and historical ties to other African American literary and historical figures. Images of Kin (1977) earned Harper the Melville-Cane Award and a nomination for the 1978 National Book Award. Three other volumes, Rhode Island. Eight Poems (1981), Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985), and a limited edition entitled Songlines: Mosaics (1991) have since been published.

By the mid 1970s, Harper's reputation as a poet, scholar, and teacher was firmly established. Among many other awards, such as the National Institute of Arts and Letters Creative Writing Award (1972), a Guggenheim fellowship (1976), and a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1977), Harper received an American specialist grant in 1977, with which he traveled to Ghana, South Africa, Zaire, Senegal, Gambia, Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania. In several published interviews, Harper affirms the influence this trip had on his thinking and writing. Among Harper's former students are Gayl Jones, Melvin Dixon, and Anthony Walton. As a scholar, Harper has made several contributions, including a collaboration with Robert Stepto entitled Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, an edition of Sterling A. Brown's poetry, a limited edition of Robert Hayden's American Journal and Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep, an anthology of African American poetry since 1945. Harper, poet laureate of the state of Rhode Island, is currently a professor at Brown University, where he teaches literature and creative writing.

See also: John O'Brien, "Michael Harper," in Interviews with Black Writers, 1973, pp. 95-107. Edwin Fussell, "Double-Conscious Poet in the Veil," Parnassus 4 (Fall/Winter 1975): 5-28. Robert B. Stepto, "Michael S. Harper, Poet as Kinsman: The Family Sequences," Massachusetts Review 17 (Autumn 1976): 477-502. Robert B. Stepto, "After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden and Jay Wright," in Chant of Saints. A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, eds. Michael S. Harper et al., 1979, pp. 470-486. Michael S. Harper, "My Poetic Technique and the Humanization of the American Audience," in Black American Literature and Humanism, ed. R. Baxter Miller, 1981, pp. 27-31. Gunter H. Lenz, "Black Poetry and Black Music: History and Tradition: Michael Harper and John Coltrane," in History and Tradition in Afro-American Culture, 1984, pp. 277-319. Joseph Brown, "Their Long Scars Touch Ours: A Reflection on the Poetry of Michael Harper," Callaloo 9.1 (1986): 209-220. "Michael S. Harper: American Poet," Callaloo 13.4 (Fall 1990): 749-829.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Foster Smith and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.


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