Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Michael S. Harper (1938-2016)

Academic journal article Journal of Ethnic American Literature

Michael S. Harper (1938-2016)

Article excerpt

Forty-five years ago, just a year after Michael Harper's amazing first book, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, was published, he came to Kenyon, like so many other young poets, to read on the Ohio Poetry Circuit. After his reading, we watched the NBA finals together and then sat down at our kitchen table and picked at the remains of the Cornish game hens my wife Inese had cooked for dinner earlier that night, drank a couple bottles of wine, and talked until both of us were stunned to see the sun rising. This is the first of many loving memories that came back to me when I heard that Michael died on May 7, 2016, at the age of seventy-eight.

Rita Dove was absolutely right when she wrote in The Washington Post decades ago that "No other poet has embodied the riffs and modalities of jazz and blues more exquisitely than Michael S. Harper." Nor has any other contemporary American poet been more attentive in his work to friendship, for whose rhythms, tonalities, and melodies he had an impeccable ear and not an ounce of mawkishness:

A friend told me

He'd risen above jazz.

I leave him there.

Both within and beyond the African American literary world, Michael's influence can best be suggested by analogy with his immense physical stature and presence. A legendary teacher and mentor for generations of students at Brown University over the past half century, the former professional football player in Canada was the first person one noticed in any room anywhere in the world. Introducing Michael to dim sum at a San Francisco restaurant years ago and watching the empty dishes pile up in huge stacks around us remains one of my most cherished memories.

Like his major poetic influences-Robert Hayden and John Keats, Sterling Brown and W. …

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