Harper, Michael S. 1938–
Michael S. Harper 1938–
Poet and educator
Michael S. Harper has been called America’s finest poet; among African-American poets working within the academic world, he is the unquestioned dean. His complex works do not yield their deeper contents easily upon cursory readings, but Harper’s poetry is widely taught in literature classes and urged upon readers by the many honors he has received. Those who make the effort will find a body of work in which the African-American past is raised to a level of universal tragedy by virtue of Harper’s unique style—one that blends the personal, the historical, and the musical in a unique tapestry. A professor at Brown University since 1970, Harper has stimulated the careers of younger African-American poets of various styles.
Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 18, 1938; his father was a postal supervisor and his mother a medical secretary. One aspect of his childhood that had a lasting influence was his parents’ large collection of 78-rpm jazz recordings, and another, though less positive, influence was his family’s move to Los Angeles in 1951. The previously segregated neighborhood in which they settled saw fire bombings when blacks began to move in. Pressured to become a physician to follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Harper was an indifferent student at Dorsey High School. School staff who placed him in vocational-track classes didn’t help his motivation level, although his father showed up at school to insist that he be allowed to pursue a college preparatory curriculum.
Enrolling at Los Angeles State College, Harper took pre-med classes while holding down a full-time job at the post office. There he encountered well-educated African Americans whom the institutions of racism had robbed of the chance to utilize their talents; Harper seemed destined to suffer the same fate after a white zoology professor pressured him to give up his medical career, saying that blacks were unable to survive the rigors of medical school. But Harper blossomed as a student for the first time in his English courses, where he was especially impressed by Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man and by the spiritually intense writings of English Romantic poet John Keats. Harper’s own interest in writing, which had first stirred while he was still in high school, inspired him to enroll at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1961.
There Harper once again was dispirited by discrimination in the form of segregated housing arrangements,
Born March 18, 1938, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Walter Warren and Katherine (Johnson) Harper; married Shirley Ann Buffington, December 24, 1965; children: Roland Warren, Patrice Cuchulain, Rachel Maria. Education: Los Angeles City College, A.A., 1959; Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles), B.A., 1961, M.A., 1963; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1963.
Career: Contra Costa College, instructor in English, 1964-68; Lewis and Clark College, poet in residence, 1968-69; California State College (now California StateUniversity), associate professor of English, 1970; Brown University, associate professor, 1971-73, full professor, 1973-; numerous visiting professorships; published first book of poetry, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970; eight full-length books of poetry plus other poems and collections edited standard collections of African-American poetry.
Memberships: American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Selected awards: Center for Advanced Study fellowship, University of Illinois, 1970-71; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972, for History Is Your Own Heartbeat, National Institute of Arts and Letters award and American Academy award in literature, both 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing award, 1977; National Book Award nomination, 1978, for Images of Kin.
Addresses: Home—26 First St., Barrington, RI 02806; Office —Department of English, Box 1852, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912.
but he began to focus seriously on poetry. The experience propelled him to a master of arts in creative writing at the University of Iowa in 1963. For the rest of the 1960s Harper taught at various schools in the West—Contra Costa College, Reed College, Lewis and Clark College, and California State College (now University) at Hayward. He had poems published in various academic and general journals and began to bring together the materials that in 1970 would be published as his first book of poems, Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Harper submitted the book to an annual competition sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh, and it was at that point that the U.S. poetry establishment realized that it had a major new talent on its hands.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane was inspired by Harper’s friendship with the recently deceased jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, but the poems in the book address Coltrane and his music only obliquely. Instead, Coltrane serves as a reference point around which Harper connects personal and familial experiences with black history and with American experience in general. In one widely quoted reflection upon his status as an African-American poet, Harper said, “I don’t believe in either/or. I believe in both/and. I’m not a Cartesian poet.” Dear John, Dear Coltrane did not win the Pittsburgh prize, but in 1970 it earned Harper a professorship in the English department at Brown, where he has taught ever since. The volume was nominated for a National Book Award in 1971.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane demonstrates several features of Harper’s mature style, one of which is a fascination with black music and an attempt to reproduce some of its qualities in words. Although he avoids the obviously rhythmic quality cultivated by other African-American poets (critic Amiri Baraka, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, once dubbed him the “rhythmless Michael Harper”), his poems capture the subtleties of jazz—its capacity for allusion, for homage, for wise commentary. The structure of the book—widely disparate poems united by a theme that has both personal and cultural resonances—was typical of Harper’s later works.
In his next book History Is Your Own Heartbeat, for example, Harper begins with a personal and seemingly everyday theme, his mother-in-law’s sufferings from gallstones. But that theme is expanded into a range of symbolic meanings—the gallstones become symbolic of various kinds of American illness, both spiritual and physical, among whites as well as blacks. His Images of Kin (1977) and other books likewise address not only members of Harper’s own family but also musicians and African-American leaders of the past. Images of Kin made explicit Harper’s complex attempt to place himself within history: It is structured in reverse chronological order. Images of Kin gained Harper another National Book Award nomination in 1978.
Like the literary critic and novelist Albert Murray, Harper tends to speak in an unusual mixture of academic theoretical language and African-American vernacular speech. He has used the term “modality” to describe aspects of his poetic technique, and observers have vigorously discussed exactly what is meant by the word. In music, modality is the structuring of a composition around a certain selection of tones and melodic gestures, a subtle flavor that is imparted to a piece of music by its raw materials. Harper has also drawn contrasts between the idea of a poetic mode and the dualistic European philosophical outlook that divides the world into body and mind, life and spirit, and, for that matter, white and black; for Harper a mode is a unified way of looking at the world. “Our mode is our jam session/of tradition,/past in this present moment/articulated, blown through/with endurance,/an un-reaching extended/improvised love of past masters,” Harper writes in his poem “Corrected Review.”
Harper has continued to write, although not quite so prolifically, in the years since the 1970s. His book Healing Song for the Inner Ear appeared in 1984, and Honorable Amendments in 1995. His volume of collected works, Songlines in Michaeltree, (2000) also included new poems. In the 1990s Harper edited or co-edited several standard collections of African-American poetry. He served as the first Poet Laureate of the state of Rhode Island from 1988 to 1993.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970.
History Is Our Heartbeat, 1971.
Song: I Want a Witness, 1972.
Nightmare Begins Responsibility, 1975.
Images of Kin, 1977.
Healing Song for the Inner Ear, 1984.
Honorable Amendments, 1995.
Songlines in Michaeltree (collected works and new poems), 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
African American Review, Fall 2000, p. 501.
Booklist, February 15, 1994, p. 1054; February 15, 2001, p. 1102.
Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1995, p. 66; February 7, 2000, p. 72; August 28, 2000, p. 79.
Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001, http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
—James M. Manheim
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