Michael S. Harper had a claim on the title of poet-historian, for he drew on the vast histories of African Americans as well as the United States to create works celebrated for their scope and jazz-influenced rhythms. “My poems are rhythmic rather than metric,” he once wrote. “The pulse is jazz; the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians who taught me to see about experience, pain and love, and who made it artful and archetypal.”
Harper died this weekend. He was 78.
Born in Brooklyn, Harper moved at a young age with his family to Los Angeles. A failed gym class put him on the vocational track at his school. His parents went to all lengths to get that decision reversed, as part of their encouragement toward his studying medicine. Harper had perhaps less interest in a medical career than they did. He found his way into letters, both the writing—of poems—and the carrying—of mail, as a postal worker. In 1961, he entered the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There, he was the only African American student in his classes and lived in segregated housing.
Harper’s first collection, Dear John Dear Coltrane, brought him immediate attention. Keith D. Leonard wrote:
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.
As Harper himself told NPR:
…the most important thing you learn from musicians is phrasing. And you learn it from the singers , you know, the Bessie Smiths, the Billie Holidays, the Mamie Smiths, the Aretha Franklins even. But you also learn, more than anything else, about the authenticity of phrasing because musicians take you to places that you might not necessarily want to go. And they go instantly to the transcendent and of course the mastery of their playing is not technical mastery. It is spiritual mastery. It is to take you to a place that perhaps is not your mode. And when we are in performance with musicians, they take us to places sometimes we don’t want to go. We’re not prepared to go. They take us instantly there.
In 1970 he joined the faculty at Brown, where he taught until 2013. Along the way he was awarded a Guggenheim and other honors, received a National Book Award nomination for his collection Images of Kin, and won the Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America. Harper became the first state poet of Rhode Island in 1989.