| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Michael S. Harper
The poetry of Michael S. Harper resists easy
categorization. Alternately metaphysical and reflective, historical and
biographical, musical and autobiographical, Harper’s poetry demonstrates a
“both/and” sensibility. He views poetry as a place where “the microcosm and the
cosmos are united.” Harper’s poetic project occurs, then, in a conceptual space
where he maintains the sacred nature of speech as a form of human connection,
evidenced by his assertion that “the tongue is the customer of the ear.” Harper
is a poet whose work is oriented toward performance; his poems are heavily
indebted to African American musical traditions such as jazz and the blues, for
he is interested, above all, in the ways we improvise on the themes that
compose human experience.
in Brooklyn, Harper spent the first thirteen years of his life in New York
before his family relocated to Los Angeles. His father worked as a post office
supervisor, his mother as a medical stenographer. Growing up in the 1940s and
1950s, Harper experienced the great cultural and artistic vitality manifested
at that time in the African American community: Jackie Robinson’s entry into
pro baseball, the music of Billie Holiday (she played piano in the Harper
home), the birth and growth of bebop, and the boxing prowess of Sugar Ray
Robinson. Harper’s poetry often celebrates African American examples of
artistic and athletic excellence.
graduating from high school, Harper continued his education at Los Angeles
State College and, later, the University of Iowa, where he received an M.A. in
English and did work at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. But he claims that his
education also took place at the facing table in the post office, where he worked
full-time to put himself through college. It was there that he encountered
black men and women who were trained doctors, lawyers, and teachers whose race
made the post office the only place they could find employment.
is the author of many collections of poems, two of which, Dear John, Dear
Coltrane (1970) and Images of Kin (1977), have been nominated for the National
Book Award. He is co-editor of a critically acclaimed anthology, Chant of
Saints (1979), and is responsible for bringing poet Sterling A. Brown’s
Collected Poems into print. Harper’s books offer the reader a pantheon of
heroes and heroines and a variety of geographical settings (often portraying
aspects of Harper’s travels through Mexico, West and South Africa, as well as
New England and the South) that demonstrate his affinity for different personas
and idioms, each of which allows him to create modes of address that call for a
more cohesive sensibility.
poems also explore his connections to other artists—jazz saxophonists John
Coltrane and Charlie Parker, writers Ralph Ellison, Sterling Brown, Robert
Hayden, and James Wright—and what they teach him about the inherent
responsibility of survival (a subject he has confronted in poems that concern
the deaths of two of his children at birth and, more recently, of his brother).
They provide models for his own poetic expressions. Jazz provides the
“architectonic impulse” that informs the structures of his poems. The writers
offer models of enduring craft and seriousness. All of these heroes exemplify
the concept of modality that runs through the Harper oeuvre. It represents, in
part, the act of resisting the Western impulse to compartmentalize knowledge
and experience and thus culture as well.
University of Pennsylvania
In the Heath Anthology
Song: I Want a Witness
Nightmare Begins Responsibility
Here Where Coltrane Is
A Narrative of the Life and Times of John Coltrane: Played by Himself
Dear John, Dear Coltrane
History is Your Own Heartbeat
Photographs: Negatives; History as Apple Tree
Images of Kin
Healing Song for the Inner Ear
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Michael S. Harper
Offers a brief literary introduction, several poetry texts, and a selected bibliography.
Modern American Poetry
This page has a biography, criticism on Brother John, and contextual information about Coltrane.
Poetry Daily: Two Poems
Offers texts of If You Don't Force It and Release: Kind of Blue.
The Academy of American Poets
A biographical sketch, links, and the text of American History.