Michael S. Harper

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Michael S. Harper
Born (1938-03-18)March 18, 1938
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died May 7, 2016(2016-05-07) (aged 78)
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
Occupation Poet, professor
Language English
Citizenship U.S.
Alma mater California State University, Los Angeles, Iowa Writer's Workshop
Genres modern poetry, jazz poetry
Subjects Jazz musicians
Notable works Dear John, Dear Coltrane
Notable awards The Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry, Robert Hayden Poetry Award, Melville-Cane Award, Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award, Guggenheim Award and NEA Fellowships.
Years active 1968–2016
Spouse (divorced)
Children Roland, Patrice, and Rachel Harper

Michael Steven Harper (March 18, 1938 – May 7, 2016) was an American poet and English professor at Brown University, who was the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1988 to 1993. His poetry was influenced by jazz and history.[1]

He said that the most important thing he learned from musicians was phrasing, and the authenticity of phrasing, the transcendence and spiritual mastery. He published ten books of poetry, two of which—Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) and Images of Kin (1977)—were nominated for the National Book Award. Many of his poems have been included as examples of African-American literature and jazz poetry in various anthologies.

Early life and education[edit]

Harper was born in Brooklyn first of three children[2] into a middle class black family. His father Walter (who went by his middle name, Warren) was the originator of "overnight" mail and worked as a post office supervisor. His mother Katherine Louise, née Johnson was a medical secretary. He had a younger brother Jonathan Paul, born in 1941, who died of a motorcycle accident in 1977, and a younger sister, Katherine Winifred, born 1943. He grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant until his family moved to their homestead in Los Angeles in 1951, where he attended Dorsey High School.[2]

In 1955, he attended Los Angeles City College, initially enrolling in pre-med courses later literature, graduating in 1959 with an associate of arts degree. At the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences (now California State University, Los Angeles, he earned a B.A. and a M.A. in English studies in 1961.[3] He joined the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and earned an M.F.A. in 1963.[1]


He taught English at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California and his poems appeared in small magazines. In 1968, he became poet in residence at Lewis & Clark College and taught at Reed College both in Portland, Oregon. In 1970, he taught at California State College in Hayward, California.[3]

He joined the English faculty at Brown University, where he taught literature courses and poetry workshops to undergraduates He remained there until retiring in December 2013[3] and was the longest serving professor of English and Literary Arts at that institution.[4][not in citation given]

In 1993, Nathan A. Scott wrote in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics that "Harper has created a body of work which, though it has won much respect and admiration, deserves to be far more widely known than it is."[5]: 25

Personal life[edit]

Harper was married and had a daughter, Rachel, also a writer, and two sons, Roland and Patrice. He later divorced.[3] He lived in Providence, Rhode Island until his death on May 7, 2016.[1] Harper had two children who died at birth, which inspired several of his early poems, including the famous "Nightmare Begins Responsibility". .[3]


Harper wrote about people important in African-American history, including Jackie Robinson, Richard Wright and the John Brown. He said in a 2000 interview with Terry Gross, that the most important thing he learned from musicians was phrasing, and the authenticity of phrasing, the transcendence and spiritual mastery.[6]

Harper often wrote about his wife, Shirley (commonly referred to as "Shirl"), their children, and their ancestors, as well as friends and various black historical and cultural figures.[citation needed]

As writer
  • 1970: Dear John, Dear Coltrane,[5] nominated for the National Book Award[1]
  • 1971: History Is Your Own Heartbeat,[5] won the Black Academy of Arts & Letters Award for poetry[1]
  • 1972: Song: "I want a Witness"[5]
  • 1975: Nightmare Begins Responsibility[5]
  • 1977: Images of Kin, won the Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America; nominated for the National Book Award[1]
    • 1973: Debridement (included in Images of Kin)[7][8]
  • 1985: Healing Song for the Inner Ear[5]
  • 1995: Honorable Amendments[1]
  • 2000: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems[1]
  • 2000: Poems (University of Illinois Press)[1]
  • 2001: Debridement: Song I Want a Witness & Debridement
  • 2002: Selected Poems, ARC Publications[1]

He has released one CD, of poetry accompanied by jazz music:

  • 2004: Double Take: Jazz - Poetry Conversations, Paul Austerlitz, bass clarinetist/composer, innova Records, made through the American Composers Forum's Recording Assistance Program, underwritten by the McKnight Foundation.
  • I Do Believe in People: Remembrances of Walter Warren Harper (1915-2004)[3]
As editor
  • Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Literature, Art and Scholarship (1979, ed. with Robert B. Stepto)

Further reading[edit]

  • Lerner, Ben (ed.).To Cut Is To Heal: A Critical Companion to Michael S. Harper's "Debridement". Providence, RI: Paradigm Press, 2000. 9780945926573


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Michael S. Harper". Academy of American poets. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  2. ^ a b "Walter Warren Harper, obituary". Los Angeles Times. 26 August 2004. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f WILLIAM GRIMES (10 May 2016). "Michael S. Harper, Poet With a Jazz Pulse, Dies at 78". NY Times. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  4. ^ Michael S. Harper, University Professor, Brown University.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Nathan A. Scott Jr (1993). Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan; et al., eds. "Afro-American Poetry". The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press and MJF Books. 
  6. ^ David Bianculli, Terry Gross (13 May 2016). Remembering Michael S. Harper, A Poet With An Ear For Jazz (radio). NPR. 
  7. ^ Mikaelian, Allen, with Mike Wallace, (2002). - Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present. - New York: Hyperion. - p. 253. - ISBN 978-0-7868-6662-5.
  8. ^ Harper, Michael S. Debridement. - Poetry Foundation, 1977

External links[edit]