The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Michael S. Harper’s “Grandfather” is a celebration of its title character at the same time that it is a recognition of the racism and persecution that were part of the history of many African American families in the United States over the centuries. The poem holds these two subjects together in a delicate balance through its forty-seven-line length.

The first of the two verse paragraphs in the poem (lines 1-22) describes an ugly racial incident from 1915, when a white mob, fueled by a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), tried to burn out their black neighbor in Catskill, New York. (The film glorified the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan during the Civil War, at the same time that it demonized blacks and their struggles.) Even in the midst of this violence, however, the grandfather in the poem achieves a certain dignity, when “he asked his neighbors/ up on his thatched porch” of the house they were trying to burn down. The contrast between the human being here, a man who is both father and grandfather, and the brutal mob is clear.

In the second verse paragraph (lines 23-47), the speaker highlights the course of his grandfather’s career over the remainder of his life: first working as a waiter at his son’s New York City restaurant and racing, and beating, his grandson in a footrace; then through a series of everyday experiences; then, at last, sitting on a porch dying of cancer. The end of the poem returns to the opening incident, for “the great white nation immovable” is at least symbolically the same mob that tried to burn him out (now metastasized as a killing cancer), and “the film/ played backwards on his grandson’s eyes” in the last lines is the racist Birth of a Nation again. The grandfather’s life, in short, is bounded by acts and artifacts of the racial violence of American history. Put another way, the grandfather, and his grandson after him, are both defined by the particular racial history of this American “nation” or society, and at the end of the poem the film has been “played backwards” but both men know its meaning. Black history, Harper is saying, is highlighted by incidents and attitudes like those in the film and the poem.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sound is important in all Harper’s poetry; many of his poems have jazz subjects and modulations, such as “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” and “Bird Lives: Charles Parker in St. Louis,” and most can best be appreciated read aloud. “Grandfather” is no exception. The enjambment and internal rhymes of certain sections of the poem, for example, as well as the variable rhythms of the whole poem, can most easily be recognized when recited. In addition, the drama and momentum of the poem both benefit from such a reading. Harper’s poem is a complex confrontation with ideas, but it is a powerful performance piece as well.

Harper’s language and imagery are fresh and stark but often exist on the edges of clarity. Phrases such as “waiter gait” and “blossoms of fire” are vivid images that help to unlock the meaning of the poem, but the sense of the “white jacket smile/ he’d brought back from watered/ polish of my father/ on the turning seats” is not readily clear: Has the grandfather been turning his son on a counter stool in the restaurant where he works? Likewise, what is the crowd doing exactly in “spittooning their torched necks”? Does this translate literally as “rednecks spitting”? Why is The Birth of a Nation “played backwards” at the end of the poem? Many poems cannot be reduced to prose statements; Harper’s poetry in general, and “Grandfather” in particular, can usually lead, in the classroom at least, to spirited discussions of possible shades of meaning.

What readers often miss in the violence and drama of Harper’s poetry is the conscious way that the poem has been constructed. “Grandfather” encompasses the biography of one man, framed not only by the film but also by the “porch”: In the first case he tries to defuse the mob with his manners; in the second, he is dying of cancer. This poem bears reading and rereading and yields levels of subtlety and meaning each time it is approached anew. Like a complicated jazz composition, its sound at times disguises its careful craftsmanship.


(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.