Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem’s aim is to characterize the redemptive nature of the African American experience in terms of the painful and private life of an African American musician. It progresses from the incantatory to personal description back to the incantatory to reveal the suffering of African Americans. The italicized repetitive incantation of “a love supreme,” taken from the musical text as John Coltrane sang it, summarizes the poet’s conception of the sustaining force that leads to wholeness despite pain and agony. Significantly, the recurrent leitmotif of supreme love binds each disparate image in the poem to the others.

Love characterizes the voice and spirit of Coltrane and the voice of the poet. A supreme love is needed to hold steady in the face of losing one’s physical and symbolic manhood—“genitals gone or going/ seed burned out.” Both voices are testaments to the enduring ability of love to create art from the painful and private agonies of being an African American.

The poem represents a poetic attempt to resist the assault against human dignity as music has done. The nightmare of loss, literally and figuratively, establishes responsibility for the creative artist. For the poet, the responsibility is to bring harmony out of chaos and to challenge the collective amnesia related to the personal and the communal. Harper accomplishes, in “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” what Robert Frost suggested the job of a poet is: to make us remember what we have forgotten. His poem makes readers remember John Coltrane and the essence and vitality he and other African American innovators represent. It also testifies to the eternal spirit that should guide humankind: “a love supreme, a love supreme.”