The Hardheaded Romantic

By Anthony Walton ’87 A.M. / March/April 2001
May 11th, 2016

Among the most fitting tributes to the life and work of Michael S. Harper are the lines that end “Canary,” a poem dedicated to him by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove: If you can’t be free/be a mystery. For more than thirty years, since his first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, appeared in 1970 and running through the publication of his collected poems last fall, Harper has written verse that defies easy interpretation and challenges accepted notions of what constitutes proper poetic form and subject matter.

Mary Beth Meehan
Michael Harper challenged literary notions.
Harper has been as intriguing and elusive a mystery in his life as in his art. Since his appointment as an associate professor  in 1970, Harper has devoted much of the time and attention most poets these days dedicate to networking and creating mythic personas to being a living, and somewhat unsung, legend at Brown; questioning, challenging, at times prodding and angering, but always helping, generations of students. These students have gone on to become teachers themselves, or scholars, artists, lawyers, doctors, husbands, and wives who know a little more, often a great deal more, about themselves, their life’s goals, and their nation than if they had never crossed Michael Harper’s path. 

As one former student, Suzanne Keen ’84, ’86 A.M., now a professor at Washington and Lee University, has written, “When I can, I visit Mr. Harper in his big office to listen to his wisdom…. As often as not, the line I join in the hall is made up of ‘former’ students like myself. When I can, I listen to the conversation going on inside the office. Is he on the phone, or is a student in there, perched on the edge of a chair piled with folders, trying to comprehend the point of Harper’s commands? Bewildered, irritated, thrilled, the student sasses back. Harper’s got another live one. And chances are, the student hasn’t noticed yet that she’s been hooked.”

I first met Michael Harper as a twenty-one-year-old first-year graduate student who had just driven 1,200 miles for the privilege. I eagerly approached the master’s office for our first official meeting, expecting to be praised for what I now see as an embarrassing handful of poems. Instead I watched my best work brutally dissected and found myself wilting under a barrage of questions on topics ranging from the Civil War to the writings of obscure literary critics. Finally, Professor Harper waved his hand and said in a gruff Clint Eastwood deadpan, “Well, I guess you got some work to do. Go on, boy, you gonna spoil my lunch.” I, too, was hooked. 

To begin to unravel the mystery of Michael Harper, it is necessary first to take a step back from today’s imposing presence. It is necessary to imagine a young black man sitting in the lockup at Pico Station in Los Angeles in November of 1962. He is there as a result of the kind of mindless scuffle that young men full of bravado and testosterone are prone to, except that this one involved white boys and there were witnesses and here he sits. He is scared, not so much of the charge or of the police, but of what he may have done to his future. A recent graduate of the famed writing workshop at the University of Iowa, he realizes that his ambitions have suddenly been eclipsed by this trouble, that he has come to a fault line in his life.

As he tries to come to terms with his predicament (his father has refused to bail him out, and will in fact leave him locked up for three days), he reaches into his pocket and begins to read the only thing he has with him, Paradise Lost. He’s scheduled to make a presentation on Book Four next week in a graduate seminar on Milton; in fact, the only reason he still has the volume  with him is that a kindly sergeant, a family friend, let him keep it when he was booked. With nothing else to do, he begins to read with great intensity. As he explicates the difficult text in his head, divining tropes, charting the schematic, making the connections to Keats and other poets, he realizes that, yes, he can do this, he can be a poet and a scholar. The themes are not lost on him: the frailty of human life, the impulse toward freedom and the moral responsibilities it implies. He understands the poem as a vehicle for the culture; he begins to perceive literature as equipment for living.

That moment marked the beginning of Michael Harper’s understanding of the seriousness and dedication required of the artist, and of the intimate interrelationships between art and life. In a 1973 interview, he said, “A poet has the most difficult task: to be functional in the long line of tradition, the long line of the continuum of human culture. It is through the poet that the spirit flows… . You have a job to do, a function, and you must live up to that function, and that has to do with serving, with making yourself available, so that you can do the kinds of cosmic duties, human relationships, that are in the cards that you do; and you’d better do them.”

But to understand Harper’s unique aesthetic of responsibility to the past and the enigmatic artist he became, it is necessary to step even farther back in time. Like his transcendental forebear Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harper has plumbed the details of his own mind and heart to look for the oneness of things; like his poetic hero, William Butler Yeats, he has married this romanticism with a hardheaded sense of the political realities of his day, with how these realities shape, and often deform, us. The themes of his work are interwoven with family, ethnicity, and culture; he has made his family a metaphor for the kinships that bind the nation and for his own “wounds.” In a 1990 interview he said that his family “was anything but ordinary, full of characters, eccentrics, people of ambition and slothful types, many afflicted by race and class in a poignant way, which is to say I was mindful of their choices, and their stories: they made up a complexity I couldn’t reduce.”

Michael S. Harper was born on March 18, 1938, delivered by his grandfather, Dr. Roland Johnson, in his parents’ home at 902 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn. He was the first child of Walter Warren Harper, a postal worker born and raised in Catskill, New York, and Katherine Louise Johnson, a homemaker and Brooklyn native. The Harpers were a family of accomplishment on both sides (Walter Harper’s grandfather, John Albert Johnson, was a bishop of the A.M.E. Church in the early twentieth century), and though the Depression and World War II meant money was tight, hopes were high for Michael when he entered P.S. 25 in 1943. Harper recalls his childhood as one of discovery and adventure during a time when children could be left to their own devices, even in New York City: “I used to love riding the subways, paying your nickel and going anywhere. The one time I got lost up in the Bronx, I was about five; I asked a stranger where I was, and he took me all the way back home to Brooklyn. But you learn by getting caught at what you love, and shortly after that I resumed my travels.” 

Able to read before entering kindergarten, the young Harper excelled in school, earning a place in a citywide gifted program when he was in sixth grade, and scoring high enough on entrance exams that he was granted admission to all three of the city’s elite high schools: Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, and Brooklyn Tech. But before he was scheduled to enroll in 1951, a job offer prompted his father to move the family to Los Angeles. As a result, thirteen-year-old Harper suddenly found himself starting ninth grade at Mount Vernon Junior High, where he befriended a classmate, John Cochran, who would later become a world-famous attorney using the first name Johnnie.

The next year Harper entered Dorsey High School—where, despite scoring in the ninety-fifth percentile on the Iowa exams the previous year, he was astonished to find himself assigned to the industrial arts curriculum: wood shop, metal shop, and auto repair. When he approached the school administration to ask if there’d been a mistake, he was told that, no, he should report to the industrial arts building. When he refused, he was sent home. Returning the next day with his father, Harper, after much negotiation, was admitted to the academic, college-preparatory curriculum. He became an honor-roll student.

In 1955 Harper entered Los Angeles City College as a premed major, intending, as was common then, to collect credits and transfer to a four-year school. Discouraged when one of the supervising professors said he would not make it to medical school, Harper completed his associate of arts degree in English, then transferred to Los Angeles State College (now known as Cal State at Los Angeles). During all this time, Harper was working forty hours a week at the Terminal Annex post office, often a door or two down from his father, who was a supervisor there. 

It was at Los Angeles State that Harper’s life began to change. Encountering such professors as the poet Henri Coulette, the novelist Wirt Williams, and British literary legend Christopher Isherwood, Harper began writing poetry and fiction. He also began to see himself as a member of the “fraternity”: “Isherwood would regularly bring people to class,” he says. “You never knew who would show up—writers, musicians, movie stars. One day a guy comes and starts reciting his poetry from memory, and after he finishes, he says, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And I say, ‘Sir, would you recite your poem, “September, 1939”?’ And the visitor smiles at me and says, ‘With pleasure.’ I was the only one who knew he was W.H. Auden.” 

With the backing of Isherwood, Coulette, and Williams, in 1961 Harper enrolled in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he took classes from Paul Engle, Donald Justice, Vance Bourjaily, and Philip Roth. Fellow student writers included Mark Strand, Marvin Bell, Charles Wright, Vern Rutsala, and Lawson Inada. It was at Iowa that Harper began writing the poems which would constitute his celebrated first volume, Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Looking back, Harper finds nothing out of the ordinary about that time of his life: “While I was living and writing those poems, I wasn’t thinking about my career,” he says, “and there was no antecedent I was trying to approximate. I wasn’t trying to be Sterling Brown, or Robert Hayden, or Gwendolyn Brooks. I was merely reacting to what I saw around me, what I was experiencing in my life.” He answered the question in a slightly different way in a 1993 interview: “In the beginning I never found poems in the American literary pantheon about the things I knew best. I decided that I would at least do my part and try to put some of those poems in there.” Shaped, perhaps, by his sense of a literary canon that did not include much of what he knew about life, Harper often tells his students to “trust your own taste.” 

Trusting his own taste led him to such poems as “For Bud,” “We Assume,” “Deathwatch,” and the classic first poem of his first book, “Brother John,” a declaration of independence and existential assertion. Harper begins the poem with the seemingly straightforward statement “I’m a black man,” and then proceeds to defamiliarize it by repeating it in different contexts, by breaking up the sentence and reordering it:

I’m black; I am—
A black man; black—
I’m a black man;
I’m a black man;
I’m a man; black—
I am— 

By fragmenting this simple assertion, he calls its component parts into question, transforming it from the reductive label mindlessly used in our society to an act of conscious self-questioning. The poem becomes a statement of being-in-the-world, as well as an affirmation of race; its compelling rhythms tie the poem to music, and in particular to jazz, through which Harper repeatedly celebrates identity and transcendence. The I of the poet moves through these rhythms, and through that journey comes to celebrate the self. The poem is all the more remarkable when you imagine the young man sitting through the wind, snow, and ice of a bleak Iowa winter and by force of imagination working toward this new transcendence.

After earning his M.F.A. at iowa, Harper returned to Los Angeles, where he began studying for a second master’s at Los Angeles State. He finished in 1963, and now armed with the two degrees, embarked upon the five-year odyssey that would culminate in his arrival at Brown. 

The odyssey began with a brief three-month job as a counselor at the Wiltwyck School for Boys in Esopus, New York, a state reform school for “incorrigible” youths. He thought the job would, in the spirit of the times, be a worthy social endeavor, with the added benefit of placing him close enough to New York to indulge his love of jazz, and in particular to see and hear his friend and cultural hero John Coltrane. 

Harper describes his experience at Wiltwyck as one of the most significant of his life: “It gave me a very clear understanding,” he says, “of how minority kids can get lost even when they haven’t done anything—innocence didn’t save them. I didn’t see any criminals. A lot of why they were there was circumstantial; they were abandoned and they didn’t have anybody to stand up for them. It became a metaphor for me without me even knowing it, and I decided to teach anyone who came to me, whatever situation they were from or in. I wouldn’t look down on them or assume they couldn’t be helped.” He sees connections to his later life as a professor: “Many of the young people I’ve come across at Brown and other places are wounded in the same ways—it might be covered up with credit cards and fancy schools and ski trips, but a lot of them are broken, from divorce or drugs, what have you. The psychic wounds are the same. It was at Wiltwyck that I started thinking about children and peacemaking and the violence we do to each other.”

Mary Beth Meehan
Harper cleared the way for younger poets to reimagine African-American culture and history.
After three months Harper was offered his first teaching post, at Contra Costa Community College in San Pablo, California. Easing into his new role, he continued to work on his poems at night. In 1967, the poet Josephine Miles introduced him to Seamus Heaney, who was then a young poet from Ireland just beginning to make a name for himself. Heaney was encouraging about Harper’s work, and the two men became friends. The following year, when Harper accepted visiting appointments at Lewis & Clark and Reed colleges in Portland, Oregon, another established poet, Philip Levine, suggested that he enter his manuscript in the United States Poetry Prize competition. Although that manuscript, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, did not win, one of the judges, Gwendolyn Brooks, arranged for its publication.

Just as Dear John, Dear Coltrane was about to be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Brown English professor Mark Spilka approached Harper about joining his department. Harper made his first visit in January 1970 and accepted Spilka’s offer the following month. Dear John, Dear Coltrane was published that year to rare acclaim for a first book. Here was a poet who had brought something genuinely new to American poetry, a new mythology. There had been poems about jazz and the blues before, notably by Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden, but in Coltrane and his fellow musicians, Harper had found a way to claim African-American heroes much as Yeats had done with the Celtic legends Oisin and Cuchulain. This is one of the veins Harper has continued to work throughout his long career, creating an African-American poetic cosmos in which the constellations have names like Coltrane, Miles, Bird, and Monk; Douglass, DuBois, Hayden, and Brooks. In so doing, he has cleared the way for such younger poets as Elizabeth Alexander, Cornelius Eady, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Yusef Komunayakaa to reimagine various related areas of African-American culture and history.

Since Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper has gone on to publish nine major collections of verse, History Is Your Own Heartbeat (1971), Song: I Want a Witness (1972), Debridement (1973), Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1975), Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems (1978), Healing Songs for the Inner Ear (1985), Honorable Amendments (1995), and most recently, Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000). From the titles one can begin to divine the interests and passions that drive Harper’s subject matter: jazz, family, nation, romance and marriage, and African-American culture and history. 

The subject matter may have stayed largely the same, but the poems have changed, blossoming from blade-sharp lyrics into dense constructions with ever more texture and awareness—almost too much awareness. Beginning with the new poems in Images of Kin, the subject matter has become in a strange and novel way history itself, how history animates and circumscribes us, how the past fits into the present as a living force. It is almost as if “the past” has been redefined not as memory but as a mythic location. Thus the title of last fall’s Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems, a reference to the songlines described by Bruce Chatwin in his 1987 book, Songlines, as a “labyrinth of invisible pathways” utilized by the legendary totemic ancestors of Australian Aboriginals, who “wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence.” 

Immediately apparent is the beauty of this concept and its interest to a poet; Harper has described his attraction to it as stemming from a visit to the African desert, a “stirring up of details to live in the world, the useless curiosities which in fact provide a construction of survival.” Another variant of this idea is Yeats’s postulation that “memories are old identities”—the poet as remembrancer, navigating an ocean or a galaxy of history. Rekindling memories is a poetic act; personal identity moves through time, and in Harper’s words, “who you are is not who you were,” and the distance between the two creates a poem. This act, according to Harper, is ultimately religious; the poet is in search of epiphany and hoping to stretch his insight from the individual to the tribe. His purpose is to connect humans to one another and, ultimately, the world.

Harper’s poem “the ghost of soul-making” illustrates the range and development of his accomplishment. A gift from the poet to Ruth Oppenheim, a longtime English department secretary, it was composed on the occasion of her retirement. The title refers to a passage from a letter by John Keats to his brother and sister-in-law George and Georgianna Keats, in which the great Romantic poet describes human life as a “vale of soulmaking…. I say ‘Soulmaking’ soul as distinguished from intelligence—There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself…. How, but by the medium of a world like this?” In the same fashion, Harper substitutes the word ghost for vale, as an acknowledgement of and in deference to the millions of Jews who died during the Holocaust.

Oppenheim, who is Jewish, witnessed Kristallnacht as a child, and Harper the poet tries to celebrate her survival as a human being and the victory that survival represents—as quoted in the epigram, from Ralph Emerson: “Art in its ultimate always celebrates the victory.” The poem sings the praises of someone who survived the unthinkable and became a beacon of light to others. Because of such individuals, Harper is saying, evil cannot completely triumph, and human values are affirmed.

“The Ghost of Soul-Making” is a long way from the jazz-and-blues-based poems for which Harper has long been praised, but in it we see the same central concerns animating his work. It is another songline emanating to and from the poet, connecting him with others and with our physical world. The older he gets, the more he learns, the more he travels, the more he crisscrosses the country and the globe, the more he connects with the world around him and sings. Harper’s work is obsessed with history and our place in it, and as a result his poems have grown ever more complex and inclusive.

These days Michael Harper’s life is relatively simple; as a University Professor, he has a lighter-than-average teaching schedule—though he continues to prod and challenge students—and he has time to work on other projects. In addition to his collected poems, last year he published one of his longtime dream projects and the first collection of its kind: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry: 1750–2000. (I am the book’s co-editor.) Harper hopes the anthology will be the first of many attempts to define a canon of African-American poetry as it, along with other genres of African-American literature, moves away from the controversies of the 1960s and 1970s and assembles a body of poems large and varied enough to warrant a spot on the shelf defining the American literary canon. Harper also plans to edit a more general anthology of American poetry, which would make him the first African American to gather and evaluate works from the larger body of mainstream poetry. Harper is fond of saying to his students, “evaluation is a two-way street,” and one of his remaining goals is to end the “ghettoization” of black writers by white editors.

Most days Michael Harper sits in a third-floor office in Wilbour Hall overlooking the Green, reading, writing, and talking on the telephone. Perhaps he also contemplates how far he has come from that young man reading Milton in a jail cell. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To know that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men: that is genius.” It is Harper’s deep understanding of his own path and of how far he has come that has allowed him to appreciate the wide range of students who have walked into his office as fellow human beings, fellow sufferers, fellow pilgrims—and that has prompted him to help them see that in themselves. 

Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey. He teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Read Harper's poem "The Ghost of Soul-Making" here.

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March/April 2001