African American poet and anthologist. Drawing on both personal experience and the shared history of black Americans, Michael Harper has produced a remarkable body of work over the course of a long career, making him a significant voice in contemporary African American poetry. At the same time, Harper’s vision has been an inclusive one, aimed at finding common ground and healing divisions by recovering the nation’s racial past and integrating it in meaningful ways into the present.
At an early age, though he was forbidden to do so, Harper listened to his parents’ collection of jazz recordings. He later told an interviewer that jazz became his “bible,” and the rhythms and themes of jazz, blues, gospel, and black folk music permeate his work. Early and late, Harper’s poems draw on the jazz techniques of fragmentation, repetition, and improvisation, making his poetry highly performative, meant to be read aloud, appealing as much to the ear as to the eye.
Like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown before him, Harper is also drawn to the themes of blues music, which affirms life even in the face of pain, loss, and oppression. For Harper, life is inevitably disordered, even chaotic, and art (whether jazz, blues, or poetry) can allow the artist to rise momentarily above chaos and create art out of suffering.
The sense of suffering in Harper’s poetry is both personal and collective. In “Deathwatch” and “Rueben, Rueben,” for example, he records the intense personal grief that he and his wife experienced in losing two infant sons shortly after birth. In other poems, such as the epigrammatic “American History”—which conflates a racially motivated church bombing in the 1960s with a brutal incident during the slave trade—the suffering is communal and historical. One of Harper’s chief concerns is, in fact, the imaginative recovery of history through his poetry. Working against what he sees as an American tendency to forget the past, his poems revise cultural myths and misconceptions, restoring historical details to reveal the complexities and contradictions of the country’s heritage of racial oppression.
Much of Harper’s best-known poetry was published in the 1970s. His first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), brought together work that had appeared in prestigious journals during the 1960s. During this time, Harper earned two master’s degrees and taught English at various American colleges, gaining a tenured appointment in 1970 at Brown University, where he has worked for more than thirty years. Two books followed his first one in quick succession: History Is Your Own Heartbeat (1971) and Song: I Want a Witness (1972). Together Harper’s first three volumes explore his characteristic concerns with personal and family life and with the recovery of African American history. Many poems celebrate the achievements of figures in black culture, including jazz legends John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
In his next major collection, Debridement (1973), Harper honors two black historical figures—the abolitionist John Brown and the novelist Richard Wright—rescuing them from the kind of distortion and mythologizing that perpetuate divisiveness. The book’s title refers to a term used by army medics to describe the cutting away of dead or infected tissue from a wound in order to promote healing. In a sense, Harper’s poems are acts of “debridement,” removing from the American past the racial preconceptions and misunderstandings that poison the present. In the book’s title poem, the term “debridement” takes on a range of literal and figurative meanings in the story of John Henry Louis, a fictional Vietnam veteran who survives the war only to die in a Detroit street shooting. Drawing on a wealth of voices and details from American society during the Vietnam era, the poem reminds readers of the disproportionate burden that fell on African Americans in fighting a disastrous war.
Some regard Harper’s next book, Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1975), as his richest in range of theme and technique. The volume intimately connects personal loss with the collective pain of black experience, suggesting that out of the “nightmare” of history must come personal “responsibility”—the courage to act individually in the face of pain and oppression. Two years after Nightmare, Harper published Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems (1977), a compilation of work from 1970s that earned him the Melville-Cane Award and a nomination for the National Book Award.
After his remarkable outpouring of poetry in the 1970s, Harper’s pace slowed over the next two decades, though he continued to publish steadily in prestigious literary journals. His major collections from this period are Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985), which includes the widely anthologized poem “Double Elegy,” and Honorable Amendments (1995), notable for its range of subjects, including Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, the Cherokee tribe, apartheid in South Africa, and the writings of two American presidents, Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Although neither of these books signals a major shift in direction for Harper, they affirm the breadth and intelligence of his work and carry forward his ongoing dialogue with American history. Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000) provides a retrospective on Harper’s career, from his earliest poems in the 1960s to his newest work. The “Michaeltree” of the title is a fitting emblem for his accomplishments as teacher and poet. The collection includes notes that elucidate various historical obscurities in the poetry along with two brief essays that explore Harper’s artistic antecedents and poetic techniques.
In addition to his many achievements as a poet, Harper is an important anthologist of African American literature. With Robert B. Stepto, he produced Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979), which has been compared in importance to Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), the widely influential anthology of writing from the Harlem Renaissance. Also, Harper has published The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980), with Anthony Walton; Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (1994); and The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000). (See also African American Poetry)
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