Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In a review of Honorable Amendments, Calvin Forbes comments that Harper “is a well-known presence, yet his poetry has not received the recognition that several other poets of his caliber and generation have garnered.” This situation resulted in part from the small circulation of his poetry published in academic journals or produced by university or small presses and in part from the difficulties encountered in reading his texts and understanding their contexts. It has been mitigated by the publication of his own edition of Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000), and Ronald A. Sharp’s edition of Harper’s Selected Poems (2002), as well as Ben Lerner’s critical companion andMichael Antonucci’s doctoral dissertation devoted to his work.

In Songlines in Michaeltree, which consists of 220 pages of the best poems from the past, as well as another 150 pages of new poems, Harper provides a generous amount of notes (“Notes on Form and Fictions” and “Notes to the Poems”) as well as biographical materials and autobiographical poetry that should help encourage explications and in-depth studies of his poetry, eventually leading to his recognition by a broader audience. Hints abound in these notes about African American figures, such as writers and musicians, who have influenced or inspired Harper, suggesting that his work is an integral part of an entire cultural canon and needs to be studied in appropriate contexts. Songlines in Michaeltree, as an edition compiled by the author, is framed in such a way that it begins and ends with the same epigraph:

When there is no historythere is no metaphor; a blind nation in stormmauls its own harbors:sperm whale, Indian, black,belted in these ruins.

In these lines (each line is actually replicated three times) Harper insists in no uncertain terms upon the necessity to reckon with history and declares his intention to do so by means of poetry.