michael-s-harper

Michael S. Harper, whose work "interwove his personal experiences as a black man with an expansive view of a history shared by black and white Americans," has died. Born in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, he earned a B.A. and M.A. at California State University, Los Angeles, then earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He taught at Brown University for over 40 years, before retiring in 2013. From the New York Times:

Michael S. Harper, whose allusive, jazz-inflected poems interwove his personal experiences as a black man with an expansive view of a history shared by black and white Americans, and who was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1978, died on Saturday. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by Gale Nelson, the academic program director for literary arts at Brown University, where Mr. Harper taught for more than 40 years. Details on where he died and the cause were not immediately available.

Mr. Harper’s abundant gifts were on display in one of his earliest poems, “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” an elegy composed just before the saxophonist John Coltrane’s death in 1967. In compressed, sinuous lines, it wound its way to the aching words “The inflated heart/pumps out, the tenor kiss,/tenor love” by way of a startling interlude:

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
why you so sweet?
cause I am
why you so black?
cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme.

Mr. Harper had submitted the poem, along with others, to a poetry competition judged by Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Penn Warren and Denise Levertov. Although they failed to win the grand prize, they were published at the urging of Ms. Brooks by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1970 as “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” which was nominated for a National Book Award.

Mr. Harper went on to publish another dozen poetry collections, deepening his study of history — his own and that of eminent black Americans like Jackie Robinson, Ralph Ellison and Dexter Gordon — in a series of expanding circles that embraced ever wider swaths of the nation’s past.

Continue reading at New York Times.

Originally Published: May 11th, 2016