Friday, February 22, 2008

Michael Harper Wins Frost Medal

Congratulations go to Michael S. Harper (at right, Tufts University) one of my former teachers and favorite poets, who was awarded the 2008 Robert Frost Medal by the Poetry Society of America. Harper, the Kapstein University Professor at Brown University, and Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, is the author of 10 books of poetry, including the seminal volumes Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970); History Is Your Heartbeat (1971), winner of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award for poetry; Images of Kin (1977), which received the Poetry Society of America's Melville-Cane Award; and Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985). His most recent volume is Selected Poems (2002). In addition to the title poem "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," and many others, such as "Debridement," "Brother John," "Nightmare Begins Responsibility," Harper's "The Algiers Motel Incident" is a poem I refer to periodically just to study how a great socially and politically engaged poem, a poem so drenched with pain it could possibly implode, looks, unfolds, succeeds. A senior literary scholar once noted to me that many of Michael's poems are "occasional," and I always think of this in the best light: his reflections on history and society, on his family and friends, on himself, provoke a poetry that evokes an era, a moment, a place, words and lyrics themselves with materialist precision, as the poem itself, a dialectic between lyric self and world, enters into conversation with and ascends into the realm of song and myth.

Michael, a major proselytizer for earlier generations of African-American writers, has edited the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (1980) and co-edited other important volumes, including The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (2000) and Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (1994), both with Anthony Walton; and, with Yale professor Robert B. Stepto, the collection Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979), which is one of my favorite anthologies of Black literature. The Frost Medal also honors Michael's long career and impact as a teacher, and I can attest to what a precise and generous reader and guide he is; I know many poets who've studied with him at Brown or at workshops like Cave Canem would say the same. He was the first teacher since high school to require me to memorize a poem, and the poem I learned I still remember, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays." (This is one of the most beautiful poems in all of American literature.) For a while thereafter I returned to the practice of memorizing poems, which brought to mind those days sitting in Harold Bloom's NYU class on poetry alongside the wonderful poet Nuar Alsadir, as we watched him quote verbatim vast portions of the work of nearly every poet we discussed, as well as many others (from the Anglo-American tradition, of course). It also brought mind the time Galway Kinnell, who taught at NYU then, participated in a memorial reading for the late poet Etheridge Knight, and was able to recite most of one of Etheridge's poems by heart. I can't recall most of these poems nowadays, when my head is full of fiction, and I don't have many opportunities to require my students to memorize poems, I often will think of that process of layering Hayden's poem into my consciousness and what I learned from it, and utilize it in other ways not only when I'm in the classroom, but writing my own work.

Here is Michael's "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," from the eponymous book of that name, one of many testaments to Michael's immense vision and talent:

Dear John, Dear Coltrane

a love supreme, a love supreme
a love supreme, a love supreme

Sex fingers toes
in the marketplace
near your father's church
in Hamlet, North Carolina—
witness to this love
in this calm fallow
of these minds,
there is no substitute for pain:
genitals gone or going,
seed burned out,
you tuck the roots in the earth,
turn back, and move
by river through the swamps,
singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;
what does it all mean?
Loss, so great each black
woman expects your failure
in mute change, the seed gone.
You plod up into the electric city—
your song now crystal and
the blues. You pick up the horn
with some will and blow
into the freezing night:
a love supreme, a love supreme—

Dawn comes and you cook
up the thick sin 'tween
impotence and death, fuel
the tenor sax cannibal
heart, genitals, and sweat
that makes you clean—
a love supreme, a love supreme—

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:

So sick
you couldn't play Naima,
so flat we ached
for song you'd concealed
with your own blood,
your diseased liver gave
out its purity,
the inflated heart
pumps out, the tenor kiss,
tenor love:
a love supreme, a love supreme—
a love supreme, a love supreme—

Michael S. Harper, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane" from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of University of Illinois Press,

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (2000).

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