Harper, Michael S(teven)
HARPER, Michael S(teven)
Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 18 March 1938. Education: Susan Miller Dorsey High School, Los Angeles, graduated 1955; City College of Los Angeles, A.A. 1959; California State University, Los Angeles, B.A. 1961, M.A. in English 1963; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1963; University of Illinois, Urbana, 1970–71. Family: Married Shirley Ann Buffington in 1965; one daughter and two sons. Career: Statistics teacher, Pasadena City College, California, 1962; instructor in English, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, California, 1964–68; poet-in-residence, Reed College and Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, 1968–69; associate professor, California State University, Hayward, 1970. Associate professor, 1971–73, since 1973 professor of English, and since 1983 Kapstein Professor, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Visiting professor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974, 1977, and Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1976; Benedict Distinguished Professor of English, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, 1979; Elliston poet, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1979; National Humanities Distinguished Professor, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, 1985. American specialist, International Congress of Africanists, State Department tour of Africa, 1977; council member Massachusetts Council on Arts and Humanities, 1977–80; board member, Yaddo Artists Colony; original founding member, African Continuum, St. Louis. Awards: American Academy award, 1972; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977; Melville Cane award, 1977; Poet Laureate, Rhode Island, 1988–93; Robert Hayden Memorial poetry award, United Negro College Fund, 1990; George Kent poetry award, 1996; Claiborne Pell award for excellence in the arts, 1997. D.Litt.: Trinity College, Connecticut, 1987. D.H.L.: Coe College, 1990. Address: Box 1852, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, U.S.A.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
History Is Your Own Heartbeat. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1971.
Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree. San Francisco, Scarab Press, 1972.
Song. I Want a Witness. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
Debridement. New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Nightmare Begins Responsibility. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1974.
Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Rhode Island: Eight Poems. Roslindale, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1981.
Healing Song for the Inner Ear. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1985.
Songlines: Mosaics. Providence, Rhode Island, Brown/Ziggurat Press, 1991.
Honorable Amendments: Poems. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Recording: Hear Where Coltrane Is, Watershed, 1971; Michael S. Harper and Quincy Troupe Reading Their Poems, Gertrude Clarke Whittal Poetry and Literature Fund, Library of Congress, 1994.
Editor, Heartblow: Black Veils (anthology). Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Editor, with Robert B. Stepto, Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Editor, The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown. New York, Harper, 1980.
Editor, with Anthony Walton, Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of African Americans since 1945. Boston, Little Brown, 1994.
Editor, with Anthony Walton, The Vintage Book of African American Poetry. New York, Vintage, 2000.*
Critical Studies: Nightmare Begins Responsibility: A Study of Michael S. Harper's Poetry (dissertation) by Joseph Raffa, Columbia University, New York, 1985; "Their Long Scars Touch Ours: A Reflection on the Poetry of Michael Harper" by Joseph A. Brown, in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 9 (1), Winter 1986; Michael Harper issue of Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 (4), Fall 1990; "Robert Hayden and Michael S. Harper: A Literary Friendship," in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 17 (4), Fall 1994; "Another Version: Michael S. Harper, William Clark, and the Problem of Historical Blindness" by Elizabeth Dodd, in Western American Literature (Logan, Utah), 33 (1), Spring 1998.* * *
Michael S. Harper's poetry collections reveal a broad diversity of themes and disparate interests, ranging from music (jazz and blues), to nature (birth and death), to history and myth. His writings are the manifestations of a highly sensitized black witness, and within him all of these themes coalesce and then are transposed into emotional and spiritual expressions. Harper states that "relationships between speech and body, between men, between men and cosmology are central to my poetry."
In certain respects Harper's poetry defies characterization, for it is controlled by intensely personal rhythms emanating from his deeply rooted jazz and blues impulses. (He tells us, for example, that "Billie Holiday played piano in my family's house when I was twelve)." At the same time the scope of his writing is attuned to a historical sense of moment, something of what T.S. Eliot called a perception not only of the pastness of the past but also of its presence. Harper sets out to affirm his conviction that man must not allow himself to be dislocated from his historical continuum: "When there is no history there is no metaphor." It is with such conviction that his poetry at once synthesizes and articulates this sensibility. And it is out of his own blackness as well as his own humanness that Africa is viewed as the "potent ancestor," providing "a strong ancestral base that reflects the African spirit wherever it is located":
And we go back to the well: Africa,
the first mode, and man, modally,
touches the land of the continent,
modality: we are one; a man is another
man's face, modality, in continuum,
from man, to man, contact-high, to man …
Out of this spiritual and historical consciousness Harper defines relationships between people and the cosmos and generates metaphor:
This suture is race
as it is blood,
long as the frozen
lake building messages
on typewritten paper,
faces of my ancestors,
warm in winter only
as their long scars touch ours.
Conviction, of course, means responsibility. Harper's responsibility as a poet is to take on ""the very tenuous business' of operating on historical legacies," creating a "clinical imagery to draw attention, to shock a reader with a detailed, medical closeness and approximation." Thus, when surgeon is poet and flesh is landscape with its history, tradition, and myth, debridement becomes metaphor and restoration becomes image. In this sense Harper's poems may be perceived as "healing songs":
Ragboned Bob Hayden, shingled in slime,
reaches for his cereus ladder of midnight flight,
his seismographic heartbeats
sphinctered in rhiney polygraphs of light:
Dee-troit born and half-blind
in diction of arena and paradise,
his ambient nightmare-dreams streak his tongue;
mementos of his mother, of Erma, he image-makes
peopling the human family of God's mirror,
mingling realities, this creature of transcendence
a love-filled shadow, congealed and clarified.
—Charles L. James