Michael S. Harper, 1938-2016

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Along with Jay Wright and Etheridge Knight, Michael S Harper was one of the titanic “trouble men” of modern African American poetry. All three were lyrically centered, complex, and edgy as an hour sharpened stake knife. Literary sons of Robert Hayden and well aware of how his career was brutally and unjustly cut short by black nationalists, they claimed complex lineages in a style that let people know they couldn’t be fucked with on so many levels. Their mergings of so many worlds made their poems un-classifiable, and their marriage of the streets with high lyricism made their poems riveting to read. With Harper gone( and Etheridge gone 25 years now), only Wright is left.

If Wright was a maestro in blank verse and Knight molted the oral tradition into a gorgeous formalist style, Harper wrote free verse as fine and cast iron as one of your grandma’s pots. He wrote in a neer peerlessly sharp conversational prose that looked a lot harder than it read. It was sharp, crisp, direct, and powerful in the way that it could evoke deep feeling and complex emotions. Every word felt like it was thought of with the most intricate of care; and yet the poems also felt fluid and organic. Also like Wright and Knight, Harper did a lot of the heavy cultural lifting that black nationalists refused to. There was no warmed over Beckett in his verse, no messages to white people that said the black culture before him was stupid and that they should only listen to him. His poems were filled with an understanding of folklore, history and heritage; and every word he wrote showed that he took that heritage very seriously.

His poems about the death of his children are some of the most devastating works I’ve ever read; and they also signaled his retirement from being near the center of African American poetics. He was one of the most serious people to put pen to paper in the English language, and even before reading the poems about his child, I wondered how tough a job it might have been to “be Michael S Harper”. After reading the poems about his children, I wondered if he didn’t want to be Michael S Harper anymore. He served as a noble and diplomatic scholar of African American poetry the last 30-35 years of his life, and left a body of work that is taken seriously by every single serious student of African American Poetry I know.

Fare thee well, sir

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