Bearing Poetic Witness

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The poetry of Michael S. Harper bears eloquent witness to relationships between humans, humankind, and cosmology; speech and body; and past and present. It bears witness to the historical and personal suffering of people of African American heritage and to the suffering of all humanity. Harper offers healing songs rather than despair and celebrates family, friends, musicians, and heroes in his diverse poetry. He seeks unity rather than diversity, and his themes and interests are wide-ranging, from music, such as jazz and blues, to history, birth, death, and myth.

Harper was born at his parents’ home in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938. His father, Walter Warren Harper, was a postal worker, and his mother, Katherine Johnson Harper, was a medical stenographer. The family’s large record collection first interested Michael in music, which he says has always been the primary influence on his poetry. He grew up to the sounds of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker.

When Harper was thirteen, the family moved, and Harper claims he would not have become a poet had he not moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles; his world was both collapsing and full of possibilities. Harper; his younger brother, Jonathan Paul; and his sister, Katherine Winifred, moved with their parents to West Los Angeles, where Harper enrolled at Susan Miller Dorsey High School. He was placed in the school’s industrial arts program rather than in an academic program until his father spoke to the school counselor about Michael’s academic ability.

During high school, Harper’s poetic talents lay dormant, and he only occasionally scribbled out what he calls “doggerel” in the back of his English texts. He destroyed his early efforts and wrote prose and short drama until he was almost through college. After he graduated from high school in 1955, Harper attended Los Angeles State College from 1956 to 1961, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1961....

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Developing a Poetic Voice

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Harper’s poetic vision is mainly of the African American tradition; his vision is rendered in a magical language composed of the oral-musical traditions of jazz, the blues, and spirituals. He employs black literary motifs, black idioms, and black traditions within larger American landscapes, American institutions, and American lexicons. “Most of my ancestors were black; I’m one of their trustees; the context is America,” says Harper. The definition of the country is “up for grabs,” he has said. He feels that much of the country’s recorded resonance is mundane and should be heightened by rigor and rhetoric, by some sophisticated truth-telling. Harper agrees with Ralph Ellison’s statement that the African American is the most intimate part of American history, and he views black contributions to American culture as fundamental.

Harper does not apologize for loving Keats and Robert Frost, however, because he locates himself in their terrain as swiftly as he does in his own family. Therefore, he claims, the way into the family archives of literature must be earned, and this is done by eloquence. Poetry for Michael Harper is not a career and not a choice. It is expiation and bondage. He thinks in sequences of poems with overlapping thematics, and he is intrigued with framing devices, such as those found in Alf layla wa-layla (fifteenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1706-1708; also known as The Thousand and One Nights). Harper considers himself a narrative poet who plays with syntax for musical overtones, and he hears everything he writes. His poetry is for the ear, he says, but not for a mechanical ear; it is elegant phrasing and perhaps unelegant associations, plus narrative...

(The entire section is 714 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Callahan, John F. “The Testifying Voice in Michael Harper’s Images of Kin. ” Black American Literature Forum 13 (Fall, 1979): 89-92. Fairly brief and general examination of Harper’s poetic voice, language, images, and idioms. Special attention is paid to his performance poems, such as those that focus on musicians or historical action. Also examines Harper’s development of the relationship between himself and his reader.

Callaloo 13, no. 4 (1990). Special issue devoted to Harper. Includes twenty-eight pages of Harper’s poetry, a twenty-page interview with Harper, and eight essays on Harper by friends and students.

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 of Virginia Press, 2001. Short study suggesting Harper’s moral impulse in his treatment of history; another example of how new critical tools may be employed to examine Harper’s poetic work.

Fussell, Edwin. “Double-Conscious Poet in the Veil (for Michael S. Harper).” Parnassus, Fall/Winter, 1975, 5-28. Mostly about Harper’s book Nightmare Begins Responsibility, though touching on the other volumes of poetry published by 1975. Discusses what Harper tries to do with his poetry and the difficulty of Harper’s aesthetics for both him and his readers. Also examines Harper’s theories on the limitations of language, Harper’s poetic techniques, the recurrent image of the skeleton throughout Harper’s poetry, and his concept of “myth-as-a-lie.”


(The entire section is 743 words.)