The Poem

“Dear John, Dear Coltrane” is about love and concerns how pain and suffering can be transcended through “a love supreme.” Divided into two different but unified voices, the poem reflects solemnly and antiphonally on an acceptance of physical decay, spiritual malaise, and fragmentation. Throughout the poem, decay and disease are regarded as a part of a natural cycle that can lead to an expression of love. Pain is regarded as necessary—“there is no substitute for pain”—and vital to the creative act, as suggested by images of planting and harvest (seed, fallow, roots) or escape and revitalization: “move by riversinging.” Singing or creating music (or poetry) becomes the manner in which love of life is expressed.

The italicized lines are directly related to the voice and music of John Coltrane, a tenor and soprano saxophone player, who was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926 and died in Huntington, New York, near “the electric city,” New York City, in 1967. Coltrane introduced a vibrant singing sound to the upper registers of the tenor sax and had a revolutionary effect on the use of the saxophone in jazz. His masterpiece, “A Love Supreme,” is a four-part inspirational work produced in 1964 on which he literally sings, “a love supreme, a love supreme.” In that composition, the last movement is improvised entirely from the syllabic content of a poem Coltrane had written; thus, Coltrane’s musical composition was inspired by poetry as this poem is...

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Forms and Devices

This lyric poem can be considered a jazz elegy in which voice and idiom are central to the poem’s form and content. Contained within the formal structure is the traditional lament for a friend or a public figure. The poem follows a form that Harper has called “modal,” a term he borrowed from music (it refers to types of scales often used in jazz improvisation). Harper uses the term to refer both to his principle of composition and to his ethical vision; “modality” encompasses “relationships” and “energy.” It is always, he says, “about unity.” The form of “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” fittingly resembles the structure of a jazz number in which improvisation is open-ended. The first half of the title (“Dear John”) indicates a personal letter of love that says good-bye (the poem was written before Coltrane’s death). The second half (“Dear Coltrane”) represents a public or formal letter of good-bye. The double title reflects the multiple meanings of the poem—personal and communal, present and historical.

Many of the poem’s images are evolved from literary and historical allusions related to African American idioms and tradition. In the formal improvisational structure of the poem—itself a seeming contradiction—Harper relies on a formal arrangement of musical notes (words) being played (read or sung) to evoke emotions. Feelings are evoked by the arrangement of the “notes” and how they are played. On the one hand, the note “Dear John” is suggestive of an ancestral voice, John the Baptist, who baptizes Christ much like John Coltrane provides a baptism for the poet and for other saxophone players. On the other hand, “Dear John” echoes Father John in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), who requests that Kabnis do...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brown, Joseph A. “Their Long Scars Touch Ours: A Reflection on the Poetry of Michael Harper.” Callaloo, no. 26 (Winter, 1986): 209-220.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Harper, Michael S. “The Map and the Territory: An Interview with Michael S. Harper.” Interview by Michael Antonucci. African American Review 34, no. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 501-508.

Henderson, Stephen, ed. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Lerner, Ben. To Cut Is to Heal. Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 2000.

Mills, Ralph J. Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Moyers, Bill. “Michael S. Harper.” In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by James Haba. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

O’Brien, John, ed. “Michael Harper.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.

Rowell, Charles H., ed. “Michael S. Harper, American Poet: A Special Section.” Callaloo 13, no. 4 (Autumn, 1990): 748-829.

Stepto, Robert B. “After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.