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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Michael S. Harper
(b. 1938)

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.

Born 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.

After 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.

Harper 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.

Harper’s 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.

Herman Beavers
University of Pennsylvania

In the Heath Anthology
Song: I Want a Witness (1972)
Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1975)
Here Where Coltrane Is (1977)
A Narrative of the Life and Times of John Coltrane: Played by Himself (1985)
Camp Story (1985)

Other Works
Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970)
History is Your Own Heartbeat (1971)
Photographs: Negatives; History as Apple Tree (1972)
Images of Kin (1977)
Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985)
Honorable Amendments (1995)

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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.

Secondary Sources