S. Harper is an African-American poet whose work is influenced not only by other writers, such as Sterling A. brown, Robert hayden, and Ralph Ellison, but also by jazz and blues, especially the music of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. Harper says he resisted traditional forms (see prosody and free verse), because metrical verse "forced an accommodation to the mechanics of the count." Instead, the rhythm of his poems is modeled more after jazz and the way its "music was announced . . . in the auditory registers of phrasing" ("Afterword" 371-372). Harpers poetic language is uniquely conversational and musical.
Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York. He studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and in 1970 joined the faculty of Brown University. Dear John, Dear Coltrane, his first book of poetry, was published in 1970 and was nominated for the National Book Award. He received the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award for poetry (1971) and the Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1977. Additional honors include the Robert hayden Poetry Award from the United Negro College Fund (1990), the National Institute of Arts and Letters Creative Writing Award (1972), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1976), and a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1977). He was selected as the first state poet of Rhode Island (1988).
Although Harper's point of view is very personal, cultural issues of black America are the primary subject of his body of work. Several poems recount incidents of racism, not only against blacks but also against Hispanics and American Indians. Other poems are tributes to Coltrane, Parker, Bud Powell, Bessie Smith, and other musicians. A strong sense of family informs many of Harper's poems, particularly the poignantly rendered poems about the death of his newborn son. In "Reuben, Reuben" (1970), Harper shows how music can be a salve for those in pain. His son's death leaves the speaker in a forlorn state, with "a pickle of hate / so sour" that he cannot access song or melody. For solace he reaches out for music. He finds that jazz provides comfort and something else. Where there is emptiness, "the music, jazz, comes in," giving voice and expression to the speaker's unutterable grief. In his willingness to address difficult social issues in a strikingly personal way, Michael Harper plays an important role in moving poetry forward. He chose the cadence of everyday language and music over the metrics of traditional verse, creating a poetic language that is true to the world he portrays.
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