Michael S. Harper (b. 1938)
Contributing Editor: Herman Beavers
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Harper's poems often prove difficult because he is so deft at merging personal and national history within the space of one metaphor. One must be aware, then, of Harper's propensity toward veiled references to historical events. One can think here of a series of poems like "History as Apple Tree." The result, in a series like this, is that the reader cannot follow the large number of historical references Harper makes--in this case, to the history of Rhode Island and its founder, Roger Williams. The poems can be seen as obscure or enigmatic, when, in fact, they are designed to highlight a mode of African-American performance. In the same manner that one finds jazz musicians "quoting" another song within the space of a solo, Harper's use of history is often designed to suggest the simultaneity of events, the fact that one cannot escape the presence of the past.
Harper's interviews are often helpful, particularly those interviews where he discusses his poetic technique. Harper is a story-teller, a performer. He is adept at the conveyance of nuance in the poems. A valuable strategy is teaching Harper's poems in conjunction with a brief introduction to modern jazz. Team teaching with a jazz historian or an ethnomusicologist while focusing on Harper's strategies of composition is a way to ground the student in Harper's use of jazz as a structuring technique in his poems. Moreover, it allows for dialogue between literary and musical worlds. Since Harper's poems are often about both music and the context out of which the music springs, such a dialogue is important for students to see. As far as history is concerned, pointing the student toward, for example, a history of the Civil War or a biography of John Brown will often illuminate Harper's propensity to "name drop" in his poems. What becomes clear is that Harper is not being dense, but rather he sees his poetic project as one of "putting the reader to work."
You might introduce Harper by showing the film Birth of a Nation in order to flesh out Harper's revisionary stance toward myth. Using the film as a kind of counter-milieu, one can point out that Harper's poetry is designed to create a renewed, more vital American mythos. Also, a class where the students can hear John Coltrane's A Love Supreme album will prove invaluable to understanding Harper's jazz poems.
Students often protest the inaccessibility of the poems: e.g., "I don't understand this poem at all!" There are often questions regarding Harper's use of the word "modality." Also they do not understand Harper's use of repetition, which is designed to evoke the chant, or the poem as song.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Harper is very concerned in his poems with the "American tradition of forgetfulness." In his poetry, one finds him creating situations where the contradictions between oral and written versions of history are brought into focus. Because Harper thinks of poetry as a discourse of song, the poems utilize improvisation to convey their themes. The intent of this is to highlight the complexity of American identity.
Harper's personal issues are, further, not necessarily distinguishable from the historical in his poems. If one were to point to a set of events that spur Harper's poetic voice, it would be the deaths of two of his children shortly after birth. Harper's poems on the subject express not only the personal grief of his wife and himself, but also the loss of cultural possibility the children represent. As a black man in a country so hostile to those who are black, Harper's grief is conflated into rage at the waste of human potential, a result of American forms of amnesia.
In short, the historical and the personal often function in layered fashion. Thus, Harper may use his personal grief as the springboard for illuminating a history of atrocities; the source of grief is different, but the grief is no less real.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
While Harper does not write in "forms" (at least of the classical sort), his work is informed by jazz composition and also several examples of African-American modernism. Clearly, Brown, Ralph Ellison, and Robert Hayden have each had an impact on Harper's poetry, not only formally, but also in terms of the questions Harper takes up in his poems. I would also cite W. H. Auden and W. B. Yeats as influences.
Formally and stylistically, Harper's poetry derives from jazz improvisation. For example, in one of his poems on the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Harper works out a poem that doubles as a prayer-chant in Coltrane's memory. What this suggests is that Harper does not favor symmetricality for the mere sake of symmetricality; thus, he eschews forms like the sonnet or the villanelle. One does find Harper, however, using prosody to usher the reader into a rhythmic mode that captures the nature of poetry as song as opposed to written discourse.
Harper's poems have indeed been widely read. However, his work has undergone a shift in audience. When he came on the scene in the late sixties, the black arts movement produced a large amount of poetry, largely because of poetry's supposed immediacy of impact. For that reason, I believe Harper's work was read by a number of people who expected militancy, anger, and a very narrow subject matter. However, one can see that his work has a different stylistic quality than that of many of his contemporaries who claimed to be writing for a narrower audience. Harper's poetry is more oriented toward inclusiveness, thus his poems utilize American history as a poetic site rather than just relying on a reified notion of racial identity that is crystallized into myth. Thus, after the sixties, Harper's audience became more clearly located in the poetry establishment. Though he still writes about musicians and artists, his readership is more specialized, more focused on poetry than twenty years ago.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare Harper with Brown, Ellison, Auden, and Yeats, as well as James Wright, Philip Levine, and Seamus Heaney. Hayden, Wright, and Yeats can, in their respective fashions, be considered remembrancers. That is, their work (to paraphrase Yeats) suggests that "memories are old identities." Hence, they often explore the vagaries of the past. A fruitful comparison might, for example, be made between Harper's and Hayden's poems on Vietnam. Brown and Harper are both interested in acts of heroism in African-American culture and lore. Ellison and Harper share an inclusive vision of America that eschews racial separatism in favor of a more dualistic sense of American identity.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
The letter-essay is extremely effective. Here the student writes a letter to Harper, a figure who appears in one of his poems, the instructor in the class, a classmate, etc., and engages the poems through their own personal response to the poems. The exercise allows students to feel more comfortable posing questions as part of their inquiry and also provides an opportunity to reflect on the poem's impact on their lives both experientially and exegetically.
See the interview with Harper in John O'Brien's Interviews with Black Writers. Also see his interview in Ploughshares, Fall 1981.
Read Robert B. Stepto's essay on Harper's work in the anthology Chant of Saints (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979) and his essay on Harper's poems in The Hollins Critic (1976).
Michael G. Cooke has a chapter on Harper in his book Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).
The most recent retrospective on Harper's work can be found in Callaloo 13, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 780-800.