Michael S. Harper Essay - Critical Essays

Michael S. Harper Poetry: American Poets Analysis

Michael S. Harper’s oeuvre has established his stature as a significant voice in contemporary poetry. As an African American poet, Harper explores the historical and contemporary duality of consciousness that was first expressed by Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century and W. E. B. Du Bois in the early twentieth century: What it means to be both black and American, and how one survives as both. While using to a limited extent a narrative frame, Harper’s lyricism pays homage to the heroic endurance of family members, unsung musicians, and historical activists through a consciously developed technique that affirms the African American literary tradition, grounded in the oral tradition of storytelling and the musical heritage of spirituals, blues, and jazz. Avoiding the sometimes strident, polemical tones of black poetry in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Harper nevertheless fashions an ethically powerful voice, marked not only by a passion for exposing the tragedy of black history in America but also by a compassion for the individuals who have sought to endure and to create out of the cauldron of racism. His distinctive voice and all-embracing vision have evoked praise from both black and white reviewers and critics.

In an interview with Abraham Chapman, Harper identifies the poetic technique of much of his work as “modality,” an abstract musical concept that he uses as a metaphor for his ethical vision as well as for his subjective principle of composition. Many of Harper’s poems lend themselves to performance; they are meant to be read aloud. In hearing them, one hears, through a range of idiom, dialect, and individual voices, the past fused with the contemporary, the individual speaking forth from communal experience and the black American’s kinship, simultaneously tragic and heroic, to the whole of American cultural values. Rooted in classic jazz patterns from such musicians as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, modality is “about relationships” and “about energy, energy irreducible and true only unto itself.” As a philosophical, ethical perspective, modality is a “particular frequency” for expressing and articulating “the special nature of the Black man and his condition and his contributions” to the American synthesis of cultural values. As such, modality refutes “the Western orientation of division between denotative/connotative, body/mind, life/spirit, soul/body, mind/heart” and affirms a unity of being and experience: “modality is always about unity.” Consequently, Harper’s poetry gathers fragments from private and public experience, past and present, and seeks to rejuvenate spiritual forces historically suppressed by bringing them to the surface in a poetry of “tensions resolved through a morality worked out between people.”

Dear John, Dear Coltrane

In the early poems of Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper’s modal experiments succeed in a variety of forms that nevertheless remain unified in the power of his particular voice. In “Brother John,” Harper eulogizes Parker, the “Bird/ baddest nightdreamer/ on sax in the ornithology-world,” Miles Davis, “bug-eyed, unspeakable,/ Miles, sweet Mute,/ sweat Miles, black Miles,” and Coltrane, who serves as a mythic center for the poem and the volume as well as several later poems. Typical of Harper’s multiple allusions in naming, however, both the poem and the volume also eulogize John O. Stewart, a friend and fiction writer; nor is Coltrane merely a mythic figure, for Harper maintained a personal friendship with him until his death in 1967; in addition, the name “John” also conjures echoes from Harper’s great-grandfather, who spent several years in South Africa, and, further, evokes John Brown, who figures prominently in later poems by Harper. Thus, from early in his work, Harper uses modality to reconcile past and present, myth and history, and private and public; personal mourning becomes part of a universal experience and a communal celebration. Drawing inspiration from both the suffering and the achievement of jazz artists in this poem and in subsequent poems in his career, Harper establishes the modal wordplay that affirms his philosophical stance as an activist of the conscience, “I’m a black man; I am;/ black; I am; I’m a black/ man; I am; I am,” and his own cry of being, refusing any limiting universality of humanness that is blind to ethnic heritage and experience: “I am; I’m a black man;/ I am.”

In other poems from that first volume, Harper links past and present as well as private and public by exploring larger patterns of history. In “American History,” Harper asserts the invisibility of black suffering to mainstream America by juxtaposing “Those four black girls blown up/ in that Alabama church” with “five hundred/ middle passage blacks,/ in a net, under water . . . so redcoats wouldn’t find them.” Concluding in an ironic but colloquial idiom, he asks: “Can’t find what you can’t see/ can you?” In “Reuben, Reuben,” Harper uses the death of his own son to overcome his pain in the transcendence of creative energy, just as blues singers have always done when faced with the horror of loss: “I reach from pain/ to music great enough/ to bring me back . . . we’ve lost a son/ the music, jazz, comes in.”

History Is Your Own Heartbeat

Harper’s early poems test the possibilities of modality, and, in such techniques as concrete imaging, literary allusions, sprung syntax, enjambment, blues refrains, idioms, variable line lengths, and innovative cadences, he discovers in modality a formalism strong enough to bear diverse experiments in free-verse forms and yet a visionary field large enough to draw from virtually any relationship, however intimate or distant, however painful or joyful, for individual affirmation. In his second collection, History Is Your Own Heartbeat, Harper uses modality to reconstruct personal history, integrating it with a mythic sense of spiritual unity. Divided into three sections, the book begins with a twenty-poem sequence, “Ruth’s Blues,” which employs his white mother-in-law’s physical deterioration as an extended metaphor for the denial of black and white kinship. In tribute to Ruth’s endurance in her quest for physical and psychological health, Harper shows the potential for a unified American sensibility, one which respects cultural differences yet realizes from the pain of division that American experience “is all a well-knit family;/ a love supreme,” if one chooses to affirm multiple origins. The following two sections, “History as Personality” and “High Modes,” pay homage, respectively, to influential personalities such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gwendolyn Brooks and, in the latter, to the painter Jackson. Throughout these sections, Harper emphasizes the unity of a historical and cultural continuum that reaches back to Africa and comes forward to his own family, claiming his own past and an American history that is freed of its delusions, confronting its origins in the slavery of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans, to whom Harper also unearths literal kinship. In several ways, then, this volume, as the title suggests, builds from literal links of kinship with a diversity of races and cultures to a holistic view of American values, in contrast to the exclusive emphasis on European origins characteristic of traditional American history. By healing himself of narrow stereotypes, Harper offers “a love supreme” to his fellow citizens, asserting kinship even where citizenship has been denied and is diminished by racism.


Subsequent books extend Harper’s sense of kinship and develop the aesthetic of modality. In Song, he explores the black American religious heritage, using the metaphor of testifying, and conceptualizes the literary process as essentially one of an ethical affirmation of heroic character. Tracing American culture back both to Native America, by a link with a great-great-grandmother who was Chippewa, and to the Puritan legacies of Roger Williams and John Winthrop, by a link to the spirit of place where he lives, Harper, in “History as Appletree,” develops an organic metaphor that embodies history and family while also bringing the negative, through an extended photographic metaphor of those ignored by history, to present light and image. In this vision, the fruit of the tree, American culture itself, blossoms with the fertility of long-forgotten bones whose dust nurtures the root system.


The collection Debridement, a medical term for cutting away the dead flesh of a wound so that it will not infect the healthy body and a metaphor for revising stereotyped versions of American history, honors the heroic actions of John Brown, Richard Wright, and the fictional John Henry Louis. Together, the three sections, each revolving around its respective persona, correct the myth that Americans who have fought against racism were insane, zealous, or...

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