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.)