Michael S. Harper Harper, Michael S(teven) (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael S(teven) Harper 1938–

Black American poet.

Harper 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 CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

The Virginia Quarterly Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dear John, Dear Coltrane] is an uneven collection of poems—flat at times, but alive with a potentially strong voice at others. Strangely enough, it reminds one most frequently of the verse of Kenneth Rexroth—strangely, because Mr. Harper claims that his prosody grows rather out of jazz than out of traditional Western poetics, and because much of his work is given to what we are learning to call "the black theme." Whatever his ideological loyalties, however, Mr. Harper's is a poetry of classically unadorned statement, a direct, unflinching record of a man alive in his time. When he is at his best, in both his public and his private voice, he creates a language humming with emotion and ennobled by a deeply felt human dignity.

"Notes On Current Books: 'Dear John, Dear Coltrane'," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1970, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 46, No. 4 (Autumn, 1970), p. cxxxiv.

Laurence Lieberman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Michael] Harper's Debridement is a trio of poetic sequences, each exploring the life of a key figure in the black man's valiant struggle to achieve an American identity, and representing three different eras in United States history: John Brown, Richard Wright, and "John Henry Louis," a persona for the black Congressional Medal of Honor winner who was murdered in Detroit. (p. 114)

Harper, recognizing that the crucial breach in the cultural identity of the black Westerner dates back to the epoch of total blackout of consciousness (the many decades of slavery with their legacy of namelessness: racial and cultural amnesia), set about to fashion a poetic instrument with the efficacy to fill the void of the historical interregnum…. Harper, in his first volume, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, pledging himself in spiritual apostleship to the great jazz master, modeled his rhythms and verse measure after Coltrane's music. His debt to the music was evidently far more pertinent to the annealing—a tempering and toughening—of his own distinctive line and meters than to any literary influences. (pp. 114-15)

Harper's language in [Debridement] is amazingly free of emotive words, his style approaching a tone of dispassionate quietude, in jarring contrast with the intensity of his subjects. He appears to have adopted the same code for dealing with both literary tradition and black American history: learn from the past, but most lessons are formulas for not repeating past mistakes. The words must be the irreducible few cues, signals, cries, instant messages, dead-center bull's-eye exchanges between men, "rifle ball words/on rifle ball tongue." The language of sentimentality and melodrama has been stripped from Harper's finely attuned medium, but his deadpan style is deceptive; when it most wears the guise of expressionless immobility, just under the chilled surface a cunning of insurgency lurks to spring…. Much as John Brown posed as a surveyor, his tools weapons in disguise, the crisp, spare units of Harper's verse imitate the form of maps, itineraries, blueprints, charts; their contents—plans, messages, orders, directions. All is presented with the spare economy of data, itemizations, agendas. A day's agenda becomes a year's, a movement's ("The Great Black Way"), a generation's, a race's agendas. The author's passions, like his protagonist's, are ordered, shaped, controlled by intelligence; rage, or pain, transfigured by vision. Emotions, as by a woodsman's discipline, are reduced to lean physical details. The poem unfolds with the clean, unwavery succinctness of a ship's navigator's recording logs, as Brown plans the next steps of rebellion, gauged to match the storms in the quick-changing racial weather.

Harper admires the work of Richard Wright, but with strong reservations about his "uneven wattage." He loves Wright's "soulful heart," but inveighs against his inadvertently subscribing to romantic stereotypes of black sex and black violence…. (pp. 122-23)

While Harper gives Wright his due both as a man and artist, he impugns him for misrepresenting black history as "hallucination"; his vision contains too much hysteria, not enough clear-sightedness. The novel in English, Harper seems to...

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David Lehman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael Harper is no polemicist. The three narratives which form Debridement—stories of John Brown, Richard Wright, and a black Vietnam veteran named John Henry Louis—are, rather, attempts of a more historical nature to illuminate the black experience in America. If that last reads uncomfortably like a college bulletin's description of a hurriedly assembled offering in black studies, so too does Debridement supply a kind of instant gratification, a fulfillment of its reader's prior expectations. Harper is obviously a serious poet, but his work is simply not daring, not sharp, not surprising enough. Applying a razor to language, he does, in some cases, succeed in jolting words from their customary associations, or in compressing nicely. But the strange punctuation (excessive use of colons, for example) obfuscates, and the retreat into the safety of the fragment conceals a basic inarticulacy. (pp. 175-76)

The most successful section of Debridement is the title piece. Dealing as it does with a more contemporary issue—the black soldier in Vietnam—it avoids the curiously anachronistic flavor which mars the rest of the book. "Debridement," explains Harper, is an army medic's term for "the cutting away of dead or contaminated tissue from a wound to prevent infection." The medical references which unify this narrative ("my necklace of bullets/powdering the operating table") relate to both Vietnam and Detroit, where Louis, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, was shot and killed during an apparent hold-up attempt…. (p. 176)

Structuring his poem after the manner of John Dos Passos's U.S.A., Harper substitutes poem fragments for narrative prose, and "psychiatric reports" for newsreels…. Bad lines like "Black medics = black eunuchs" and "Do not pass Go/Do not collect $200" invariably jump up, diminishing the intensity of the poetry sections, but occasionally we meet with strong, straightforward lines…. Ghetto speech, however, is not always a sure charmer. (pp. 176-77)

David Lehman, "Politics," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXIII, No. 3, December, 1973, pp. 173-80.∗

David Ignatow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a vision of America, "Images of Kin" could have been the epilogue to Hart Crane's masterpiece, "The Bridge"—were Crane alive today to see the country in less-than-glorious light. Michael Harper has been publishing his poetry since 1970, and by now it is more than obvious that he has been writing steadily on one theme. He is passionately identified with the history of his people. As it was for Crane, history is, for Mr. Harper, a personal matter, but he, as a black man, carries in him the burden of the past enslavement of his race and, unlike Crane, who wrote to celebrate this country, for Mr. Harper the problem is to relieve himself of his burden. It is the storm center of his poems and it has made for a writing that could not have come easily.

Like Crane, who also had his knotted passages, Mr. Harper has objectified and made painfully vivid what in any other mode could have become simply crying for mercy or sententious talk. It is Mr. Harper's achievement to have projected his most difficult and complex insights and feelings through the epical manner, yet at the same time carried us along to identify with him.

In the section of the new poems called "Healing Songs," he begins looking for his own personal resolution and ease, as if he had found himself at last in tune with his society. There is a guarded reaching out for tenderness with others, and some measure of amusement, too, as for instance in … part of the third stanza from "Dining From a Treed Condition, An Historical Survey":…

     Told to saw off a limb on Mr. White's place
     he sat on the limb vigorously sawing the obstructing
     branch; dazed after a loud crack, on the ground
     Tom cried to Mr. White: "Oh, no Sah! I had the good
     fortune to land on mah head."

Of course it is an amusing poem, and is so intended, even in its references to the master-and-slave relationship. The fact that Mr. Harper has created this new perspective for himself, without bitterness or loss of dignity to himself, speaks volumes about a whole new advance in Mr. Harper's career.

David Ignatow, "Three Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1978, pp. 14, 34.∗

Paul Breslin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michael S. Harper turned forty last year, and Images of Kin marks the occasion with fourteen new poems and a generous selection of earlier work…. Harper's [work] is this-worldly: it is full of people and places, called by their names. Not that subject matter in itself makes poetry—but it helps to have something to write about as well as a way of writing. Harper's language, at a time when most poetry tries to sound quiet and simple, is ornate, rich in unabashed sound effects, active (sometimes hyperactive) verbs, and convoluted sentences stretched over a dozen lines. His style has weaknesses as well as strengths, but it is distinctive, immediately recognizable….

Harper, as a black poet,...

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Scott C. Cairns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Images of Kin, Michael S. Harper gathers the best of the old and the oldest of the new into a visit with his past. Of course, we all know of that strange haunting which is our connection with our kin; Mr. Harper has chosen to face the ghosts head on. Mr. Harper has created a formula in which he sums himself up.

The poems are of children in the business of growing, children being sadly beautiful, of the hidden costs of slavery, the back roads to freedom, of living today among the hard-bitten ghosts of one's history. The allusions are many and they are often difficult. But the search for a connection generally yields a powerful factor in his formula.

While the book, 213 pages, spends a thrifty 35 pages on new poems, filling the balance with selections from previous books, one has the understanding that this is the way these poems were always meant to appear. They provide a history which is, and ought to be, as near as a man's daily commerce, a man's own heartbeat, his poem. These poems are fine images of those scores of lives that combine to give us Michael S. Harper.

Scott C. Cairns, "Books in Brief: 'Images of Kin'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1979 by Hollins College), Vol. XVI, No. 4, October, 1979, p. 15.