Michael S. Harper Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Michael S. Harper works almost exclusively as a poet, but in collaboration with Robert B. Stepto, he edited Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979), one of the most influential anthologies of African American letters since Alain Locke’s anthology from the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925). Like Locke’s anthology, Chant of Saints represents a substantial accomplishment in defining the importance of African American artists and writers to American culture. This was followed by Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (1994) and The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000), both edited in collaboration with Anthony Walton. In addition to his poetry and these anthologies, Harper has published several essays, including “My Poetic Technique and the Humanization of the American Audience,” in Black American Literature and Humanism (1981). Harper also edited The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Michael S. Harper’s poetry began receiving formal recognition with the publication of his first collection, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1971. Other awards and honors include the Poetry Award of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (1972) for History Is Your Own Heartbeat, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1972), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1976), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1977), and the Massachusetts Council of Creative Writing Award (1977). In accordance with his literary and cultural stature, Harper was invited to read in the bicentenary exchange with England in 1976 and at the Library of Congress in 1975 and 1976. Images of Kin received the Melville Cane Award in 1977 and was nominated in 1978 for the National Book Award. Harper served as poet laureate of Rhode Island in 1988-1993, was named a Phi Beta Kappa scholar in 1990, and became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995. He won the Robert Hayden Poetry Award from the United Negro College Fund (1990), the George Kent Poetry Award (1996) for Honorable Amendments, the Claiborne Pell Award for excellence in the arts (1997), and the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America (2008).

Harper has been honored with visiting professorships at Harvard and Yale and distinguished professorships at Carleton College and the University of Cincinnati. He has also been awarded honorary doctorates by Trinity College, Coe College, Notre Dame College, Kenyon College, and Rhode Island College.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What do Michael S. Harper’s frequent references to historical, cultural, and artistic figures and events add to his poetry? How does Harper connect explicit happenings with universal experiences?

Harper has written that “being a Black poet and an American poet are two aspects of the same story, two ways of telling the same story.” How do you characterize each title? What aspects of Harper’s poetry speak to those categorizations?

What is significant about Harper’s treatment of Robert Hayden, a black poet, and James Wright, a white poet, in “Double Elegy”? How does Harper connect white and black cultures in other works?

Harper’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and mother all worked in the medical field, and Harper was encouraged to become a doctor throughout his education. How are medicine and medical practitioners represented in Harper’s work? How do they relate to other modes of healing that Harper explores?

How does place function as a structural and thematic consideration in Harper’s poetry?

Harper has said that silence is a critical aspect of the jazz tradition he values. In what ways does “the absence of sound, what is not going on” inform Harper’s poetic style?


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Brown, Joseph A. “Their Long Scars Touch Ours: A Reflection on the Poetry of Michael Harper.” Callaloo 9, no. 1 (1986): 209-220. One of the several pieces on Harper to be found in this particular journal, this one provides a succinct, useful overview of Harper’s themes and sense of history.

Dodd, Elizabeth. “The Great Rainbow Swamp: History as Moral Ecology in the Poetry of Michael S. Harper.” In Beyond Nature Writings: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen Wallace. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. A discussion of Harper’s poetry from a moral-historical perspective.

Harper, Michael S. “The Map and the Territory: An Interview with Michael S. Harper.” Interview by Michael Antonucci. African American Review 34, no. 3 (Fall, 2000): 501-508. Harper refers back to statements in earlier interviews and clarifies his position on poets as historians and other matters. Comments on Robert Hayden, the legacy of John Brown, Ralph Ellison, African American cultural heroes, and several of his own poems.

Harris, Judith. “God Don’t Like Ugly: Michael S. Harper’s Soul-Making Music.” In Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self Through Writing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. Harris explores the cultural significance of the musical dimension in Harper’s poetry.

Lerner, Ben. To Cut Is to Heal: A Critical Companion to Michael S. Harper’s “Debridement.” Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 2000. Clarifies difficult aspects of Harper’s book. Includes an interview with the poet as well as an in-depth essay by Scott Saul.

Schettler, Meta. “Going to the Territory with Jay Wright and Michael Harper: Explorations of Black History and Culture.” Obsidian 7, no. 2 (Fall, 2006): 53-61. Examines how Harper and Wright use diverging techniques to understand African American culture by examining the past.

Seaman, Donna. Review of Use Trouble. Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 22. Favorable review terms the volume a “virtuosic, symphonic, embracive collection” that acts as “a memoir, a reader’s notebook, a professor’s lesson plan, a family scrapbook, and a poet’s book of gratitude.”

Sharp, Ronald A. Introduction to Selected Poems, by Michael S. Harper. Todmorden, Lancashire, England: Arc, 2002. Sharp relates a few revealing biographical anecdotes and provides some critical insights about Harper’s indebtedness to John Keats and his concept of “negative capability.”