Sunday, May 08, 2016

RIP Michael S. Harper

Yesterday I learned that Michael S. Harper (March 18, 1938 - May 7, 2016), one of the major poets of his generation, a profoundly influential teacher and mentor, and the Kapstein University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, had passed away, surrounded by his family and the music of one of his favorite musicians, John Coltrane.

Michael was, first and foremost, a poet of tremendous skill, whose poetry often fused a precise contemporary lyric style, profoundly informed by the African American tradition, with subject matter drawn from his personal life, as well as the vaster tapestry of black history and culture. Though he emerged in the wake of the Black Arts Movement and developed a poetics informed by it, he was not a polemicist, and his later poems suggested ways to bridge the racial divide. He was in particular a master of the occasional poem.

Michael published fifteen collections of poems, was twice nominated for the National Book Award, edited several important anthologies, including (with Robert Stepto) Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, and Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 (with Anthony Walton); served as the first poet laureate of Rhode Island; and received many honors, including the Melville Cane Award of the Poetry Society of America and the Frost Medal for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets.

As any of his students might attest, Michael was a proselytizer for the cause of poetry in general, and of black poetry in particular. He urged those who studied with him as well as fellow poets to delve more deeply in the black American poetic past. Accounts of how he would send a budding poet, who came to his office to chat about poems with him, into the archive to do background work in preparation, are legion. His own personal stories about figures like Sterling Brown were legendary, and he trained a number of major writers during his long tenure at Brown.

My own interactions were Michael were few, but memorable. The first came during a National Black Arts Festival and involved assuring him that I had a distinct identity from my boss, a literary editor, at that time. It took a while, and the intercession of another academic figure, to convince him of this. The next came several years later during my first year at Cave Canem, I found myself no longer needing an alarm clock, as Michael's early morning efforts on his typewriter in the room next door more than sufficed in waking me up early. Very early. Then there was the experience of walking alongside him and as we chatted he listed in my direction and eventually had me flat against the wall, all the while recounting a series of insights I can no longer remember. (I remember that experience of being against the wall!). He was a towering figure, literally as well as figuratively, so I believe I squeaked out a "Professor Harper" to free myself, and return us both to our journey down the hallway.

In my second year at Cave Canem I lucked out in having Michael as one of my workshop leaders. I'd been waiting for this experience for years, since I'd never attended Brown and had missed him in the round-robin rotation of faculty members the year before. As part of his workshop, he had us memorize poems, and I chose Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," one of the masterpieces of 20th century African American and American poetry, a poem I had read more than once but had not fully internalized. One of the pleasures of memorizing that Hayden poem, in addition to integrating it into the very fiber of my being, was witnessing all the other poets in Michael's workshops that summer learning their chosen poems by heart. And recite them we did. To this day, I can still recite that poem, and, despite the fact that he wasn't so fond of the poem I wrote in his workshop, can recall many of the lessons Michael taught about rigor and concision and listening to one's ear.

During the year I taught at Brown I never saw Michael, but we communicated a few times via notes. I have retained one of the notes he left for me, typed out on a standard index card, and the little message unfolds like poetry. I knew he had gone through a great deal and recognized the toll that academe had taken on him; that was another lesson I tried to learn, that our colleague Aishah Rahman tried to make sure I understood. He was a poet to the core, and one of my hopes is that readers return to his work and find the many treasures in it. I also hope that his students carry on the best aspects of his teaching, including sending students to the archives to read and read and read some more, and to be as exacting with their own work as is possible. Read the greatest writers, learn how they do what they do, listen to their stories and share them with others, and push yourself. Push yourself. You can't fake the funk.

Here is one of my favorite poems by Michael S. Harper. When he read during my first year at Cave Canem, as all the faculty do, I tried to send him brain waves to read it. He went through poem and poem and then announced, "A Mother Speaks..." and I turned to Toni Asante Lightfoot and said, I willed that poem! Perhaps it was telepathy, or just him deciding on one of his masterpieces, as relevant, sadly, today as it was when he wrote it in the 1960s. For this and all his work in the world, I think him. RIP, Michael S. Harper.


It's too dark to see black
in the windows of
Woodward or Virginia Park.
The undertaker pushed his body
back into place with plastic and gum
but it wouldn't hold water.
When I looked for marks or lineament or fine stitching
I was led away without seeing
this plastic face they'd built
that was not my son's.
They tied the eye torn out
by shotgun into place
and his shattered arm cut away
with his buttocks that remained.
My son's gone by white hands
though he said to his last word--
"Oh I'm so sorry, officer,
I broke your gun."

Copyright © Michael S. Harper, from Dear John, Dear Coltrane,
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.

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