Michael S. Harper Essay - Harper, Michael S(teven) (Vol. 7)

Harper, Michael S(teven) (Vol. 7)

Harper, Michael S(teven) 1938–

Harper, an American poet, sees history as a vital, continuing process and he often contemplates the past, notably the African heritage of his race. Although his verse appears free in form, it is regulated by the jazz and blues structures which have always interested him. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Michael Harper's poems [in History is Your Own Heartbeat] … are tense, driving poems, which see history in extremely personal terms. While individual poems work as such, pleasure and understanding are added to when the book is read as a whole, because members of the poet's family, and others close to him, keep reappearing, as do certain themes connected with them. One might speak of "leitmotifs", if that Wagnerian term were not so ludicrously inappropriate for Mr. Harper's concerns, with Afro-American culture, and with life—black, Indian, and white—in America. Many of the poems are survival poems: a son surviving premature birth; a woman of Indian ancestry surviving a difficult operation; Charlie Parker surviving by his music as long as he could. Blues and folk songs are consciously borrowed from in some poems; how well their rhythms translate into language and their spirit into written poetry, is another question. In Mr. Harper's case, I feel they don't. His poems are something quite different, being, for the most part, densely packed with assorted and rapidly presented snatches of personal knowledge and public history. (p. 295)

Lisel Mueller, in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1973.

Michael Harper is coming on like the trains running through his poems. Sometimes he travels barrelhouse like the train Casey Jones rode. Sometimes he goes in stealth like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and thousands of others who escaped slavery on the tracks of the underground railroad. Sometimes he travels according to the winding rhythm of John Coltrane's horn. That musician, whose name partakes of folk tradition, dominates Harper's imagination….

Nightmare Begins Responsibility … is Harper's fifth book of poems in five years. It is a book of dues paid to people and traditions implicit but unacknowledged in Harper's earlier work…. On the preface page to Sterling Letters Harper makes it clear that he sees rhythm as the essential of style. In his view a vision grew from the kinship Sterling Brown's poetic line has with men and women in the moving changes of that man's voice…. Like Sterling Brown, Michael Harper has a lineage going back into more than 100 years of folk tradition. Their common root lies in the blues' power not to kill pain but to transform it into life-giving energy, for the poet an energy of language that puts individual situations in touch with folk experience….

Until Nightmare Begins Responsibility Harper had left his own family past unarticulated except in stories told late at night with jazz blowing from the corners of the room. Now he's written a poem for each of his grandfathers, another for his mother's mother. They are masterful and unforgettable poems. In them Harper evokes for his children the lives of people whose legacy is a strength and integrity that crossed over the turf of survival….

For Harper, style is an intangible of personality made tangible in action performed with inner and outer rhythm. Like Ernest Gaines and Alice Walker, Michael Harper is out to restore the broken links between generations of black folk….

This is … Harper's mission as a poet: to deal in complexities no matter whose ideology he offends. (p. 25)

[Through] complexities of pain Harper's poetry expresses the process of love. Love is inseparable from detail, or as storytellers call it, anecdote….

Michael Harper is a deeply complex poet whose mission is to unite the fractured, inhumane technologies of our time with the abiding deep well of Negro folk traditions. (p. 26)

John Callahan, "The Poetry of Michael Harper," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 17, 1975, pp. 25-6.

In Song: I Want a Witness, Michael S. Harper continues his record of life as a black man in America…. [His] language is strong and spare, and his statement reticent. One defect of these virtues can be monotony. Another is that reticence pushed too far—as with Oppen—causes poetry to remain a private affair. Both defects are present in this book, but it is, on balance, a fine one because several of the poems accomplish what they set out to do with memorable force.

The poetry concerns the details of Harper's daily life, and the most powerful poems are those that successfully deal with that daily life as it intersects with history. (p. 173)

In poems such as The Night of Frost, At the Cemetery, and History as Apple Tree, Harper most powerfully develops the theme of his life intersecting with the lives of other Americans. (p. 174)

Mark Perlberg, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1975.

[Harper's] six volumes of verse constitute an orchestrated litany between past and present, kin and non-kin, creating historical landscapes on which heroes and types meet across time-lines and cultural boundaries. While perhaps best known for his poems for family and the jazz greats…, there are poems for painters … and many poems for writers…. Harper does not merely commemorate these adopted living kin and ancestors, but also attempts through his poems to gain a certain energy, at once private and artistic, through contact with them and their art. He seeks communion with these artists because they are modalists or mode-makers; creators of primary images transcending generic categories and constituting a tradition of articulation of which the writer is only a part….

Harper's first volume of poems, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), opens with "Brother John," naming or introducing Coltrane, and placing him as well, in an artistic community of mentors, peers, and craftsmen of other disciplines. This community is in turn placed in a cultural and historical continuum or landscape which, as in so many Harper poems, is rendered in a single assertive line and tonal metaphor. The presence here of "Bird" (Charlie Parker) and Miles (Miles Davis) is fairly predictable, as both were mentors—and in Davis's case, mentor and peer—of Coltrane. But in those lines:

               Brother John, Brother John
               plays no instrument;
               he's a black man; black;
               he's a black man; he is
               Brother John; Brother John—

the referents to Coltrane are altered so that they may contain and embrace the other John for whom the poem was written, the novelist and short-story writer, John O. Stewart. This is not a confusion of purposes and certainly not a dilution of Coltrane's extraordinary presence and power. The poet's plan is clearly to destroy the generic fences which constrict cultural landscapes while rendering a more richly-conceived artistic community as the voice and custodian of a central, sustaining mode and image. (p. 3)

Harper's pattern in "Dear John, Dear Coltrane" of continually answering assault with song—with crafted response—is repeated throughout his canon, the result being that the pattern becomes ritual and, in turn, the ritual becomes metaphor. In each of the extended portraits of individuals emerging from the agonies of assault as potentially whole and heroic figures, some rephrasing of Coltrane's driving, blues-centered, "cause I am" may be found. And in each instance, we discover that the individual's self-asserted transcendence of travail (which is his or her heroic action) has lifted them into a new place, a New World, which is almost always described as a new sense of personal and geocultural space, and rendered as a primary image or tonal metaphor. (p. 6)

We receive many pleasures from this poem, but none is greater than bearing witness to the poet's—and the poem's—exhilarating release from the empty conventions of most encomia. "Coltrane lives" not simply because of the melodies with which we are permanently invested, but because he can consolidate people and their diverging, inherited "modal songs," restore the true complexities of our cultural and moral landscapes, and, through art, give life. For the poet, Coltrane lives as a catalyst for heroic action; thus, after assault, when kin finally know themselves and each other's names, they assume a kind of heroic stature and are "… a well-knit family: a love supreme."

Coltrane also aids the poet in establishing kinship with the ancients of various cultures and with his living adopted kin. In this sense, Coltrane is a singer of assault transcended not just for Harper's family but also for the family of man. The literal and figurative landscapes of the poems depicting this new activity often extend beyond the littorals of America to absorb new cultures to be analyzed and possibly embraced. However, America, in all its misery and promise, is always the poet's frame of reference; and we sense that those same vectors which linked American landscapes (Minnesota, Alabama, et al) in the "family" poems are now uniting America and other lands. Several loosely-connected poems in Dear John, Dear Coltrane illustrate this point; and because each is set in Mexico, I … refer to the group as the "Mexico" poems. (p. 7)

One of the most intriguing features to Michael Harper's latest book, Nightmare Begins Responsibility, is its extraordinary number of poems for or about various modern Afro-American writers. This hasn't always been the case in his books. Indeed, one might argue that in their content, Dear John, Dear Coltrane and Nightmare Begins Responsibility appear to be antithetical volumes, the former evolving almost totally from the pulses and images of the jazz greats, while the latter is continually informed by the poet's responses to the texts and examples of Black American writers, precursors and peers alike. In Dear John, there are no poems for or about writers or texts; in the second book, History is Your Own Heartbeat, we find only one poem for a writer, "Madimba: Gwendolyn Brooks." The third and fourth volumes, Song: I Want a Witness and Debridement offer extended responses (long poems or sequences of poems) to antecedent texts, which, Harper declares, every contemporary American writer who studies American character, space, and race rituals must come to terms with—DuBois's study of John Brown; Faulkner's "The Bear"; and Wright's Native Son. But in Nightmare, the poet's heretofore segregated responses to author and text merge, producing three series of poems about writers and written art. (p. 11)

What does one make of this blossoming attention to written art? Does it spell the end of music's grasp on Harper's imagination? Some readers might think so, and further venture that as Harper becomes more and more visible as a major American poet he will (by, say, the eighth or ninth book?) be totally obsessed by antecedent texts, his own and others'. I myself don't feel this will be the case, principally because Harper is a non-Western poet in the all-important sense that he rejects the Cartesian "either/or" in favor of animism, and because he is a leading example of the Afro-American artist who sustains through art that cultural tradition which I can only term "the honoring of kin" or "the learning of their names."

This tradition is …—and here Harper is really our best contemporary example—… much closer to the vocation of the blues-singer than to that of the self-conscious Western poet. (pp. 11-12)

This … is the landscape of "The Sterling Letters": a figurative but culturally—and historically—bound space inhabited by craftsmen whose deeds and speech saturate the environment with loving, moral action. When Harper places his poems for Sterling Brown in this setting, they blossom and in turn illuminate the poems surrounding them so that the "Letters" speak not only of the poet's love for and obligations to Brown, but also, on a grander scale, of kinship and modal memories and songs amongst all artists, especially those among the poet's peers who like himself actively seek union with the tradition and, through the tradition, the knowing of each other's names. (p. 14)

Robert B. Stepto, "Michael Harper's Extended Tree: John Coltrane and Sterling Brown," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1975 by Hollins College), June, 1976, pp. 2-16.