MIchael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper. Courtesy Education Update Online.

Michael S. Harper
Born March 18, 1938(1938-Template:MONTHNUMBER-18)
Brooklyn New York, U.S.
Died 7, 2016(2016-Template:MONTHNUMBER-07) (aged 78)
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
Occupation poet, professor
Language English
Ethnicity African American
Citizenship United States United States
Alma mater California State University, Los Angeles, Iowa Writer's Workshop
Notable work(s) Dear John, Dear Coltrane
Notable award(s) The Frost Medal for lifetime achievement in poetry (2008), Robert Hayden Poetry Award (1990), Melville-Cane Award (1978), Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award (1972), Guggenheim Award (1976) and NEA Fellowships (1977).
Spouse(s) (divorced)
Children Roland, Patrice, and Rachel Harper

Michael Steven Harper (March 18, 1938 - May 7, 2016) was an African American poet and academic, who served as Poet Laureate of Rhode Island. Much of his poetry was influenced by jazz and history.[1]


Youth and education Edit

Harper was born in Brooklyn as the oldest of 3 children[2] into a lower-middle-class black family. His maternal grandfather, Roland Johnson, was a well-respected Canadian physician and was the delivery doctor for Harper at their home.[3] He was also the primary influence in his early decision to pursue pre-med at Los Angeles City College.

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. Of his parents Harper once remarked, "My parents did not have much money, but they had a great record collection."[4] This would of course later influence his work, blending poetry with jazz.

His younger brother Jonathan Paul was born in 1941 and died in a motorcycle accident in 1977. His younger sister, Katherine Winifred, was born in 1943. They grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a north-central portion of Brooklyn, until his family moved in 1951 to their homestead in Los Angeles, where he attended Dorsey High School.[2] As a teenager, Harper was eager to get out of his father's house and into his own, marking his desire to work, create and learn on his own terms.[3]

In 1955, he attended Los Angeles City College, initially enrolling in pre-med courses and 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 an MA in English studies in 1961.[5] While there he worked part-time in the post office and called this experience his "real education".[3]

He joined the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he largely resisted the movement of writing in syllabics, which he called "incredibly mechanical". During his time in Iowa City Harper said, "Most of the things I learned…had nothing to do with the Workshop"[3] given the uprising of the Civil Rights Movement at that time. He earned an MFA 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.

Later that year, he entered a manuscript in the U.S. Poetry Prize Competition, submitted by Gwendolyn Brooks. Although he did not win, Brooks calls his work her “clear winner.” [3] Harper said Brooks gave him his career. With Brooks behind him, his book was published by the University of Pittsburgh and reviewed in Time in 1970 with a cover essay by Ralph Ellison.

In 1970, he taught at California State College in Hayward, California.[5]

He joined the English faculty at Brown University, where he taught literature courses and poetry workshops to undergraduates. Students referred to him as "MSH", "the Chief", and "the Big Man".[4]

As of 2011, Harper was the longest serving professor of English at Brown University, where he continued to teach poetry workshops to undergraduates.Template:Cn

Harper retired from Brownin December 2013.[5] Shortly after his retirement, former student George Makari remarked that Harper "deeply entered our personal lives, challenged us to rethink who we thought we were, [and] asked us to leave behind childhood and enter a kind of creative crisis."[4]

Private lifeEdit

Harper was married and had a daughter, Rachel, who is also a writer,<writer</ref>, and 2 sons, Roland and Patrice. He later divorced.[5] Harper also had 2 children who died at birth, which inspired several of his early poems, including the famous "Nightmare Begins Responsibility". .[5]

He lived in Providence, Rhode Island until his death on May 7, 2016.[1]


The Michael S

The Michael S. Harper Interview on The Paul Leslie Hour

In 1993, Nathan A. Scott in the "Afro-American Poetry" article of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics wrote: :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.[6]

Harper wrote about important and historically influential African-Americans, including Jackie Robinson, Richard Wright and John Brown. He said in a 2000 interview with Terry Gross, that the most important thing he learned from musicians was phrasing, the authenticity of phrasing, and the transcendence and spiritual mastery.[7] Many of his poems have been included as important examples of African American literature and jazz poetry in various anthologies.

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.


Harper served as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island from 1988 to 1993.

In 1996, Gwendolyn Brooks presented Harper with the George Kent Poetry Award for Honorable Amendments.

2 of his poetry collections, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) and Images of Kin (1977), were nominated for a National Book Award.

Awards Edit

  • 1972: National Academy of Arts and Letters Award. Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award for "History is your own Heartbeat".
  • 1976: Receives Guggenheim Fellowship.
  • 1977: Receives grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Receives Massachusetts Council of the Arts Award.
  • 1978: Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems nominated for the National Book Award. Receives Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America.
  • 1987: Governor’s Award from the Rhode Island Council for the Arts. Honorary Doctor of Letters at Trinity College.
  • 1988: Named 1st Poet Laureate of the state of Rhode Island.
  • 1990: Receives Robert Hayden Memorial Poetry Award. Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Coe College, Iowa.
  • 1991: Honorary Doctorate of Letters at Notre Dame College in Manchester, NH.
  • 1994: Honorary Doctor of Letters at Kenyon College. Delivers commencement address.
  • 1996: George Kent Poetry Award for Honorable Amendments, presented by Gwendolyn Brooks.
  • 1997: Claiborne Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts, Rhode Island Council for the Arts.
  • 2001: Honorary Doctorate of Letters, Rhode Island College
  • 2005: Serves as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
  • 2008: Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Poetry Society of America.

Except where noted, award information couretsy Worcester Review..[8]



  • Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970; Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
  • History Is Your Own Heartbeat. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
  • Photographs, Negatives: History as apple tree. San Francisco, CA: Scarab Press, 1972.
  • Song: I Want a Witness (includes Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
  • Debridement. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.
  • Nightmare Begins Responsibility. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1974, 1995.
  • Images of Kin: New and selected poems. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
  • Rhode Island: Eight poems. Pym-Randall, 1981.
  • Healing Song for the Inner Ear. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
  • Songlines: Mosaics (limited edition). Providence, RI: Ziggurat Press/Brown University, 1991.
  • Honorable Amendments: Poems. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Songlines in Michaeltree: New and collected poems. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Selected Poems. Todmorden, UK: Arc Publicatons, 2002.
  • Debridement/Song: I want a witness. Providence, RI: Paradigm Press, 2002.
  • Use Trouble. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.


  • Ralph Dickey, Leaving Eden: Poems. Bonewhistle Press, 1974.
  • Robert Hayden, American Journal (limited edition). Effendi Press, 1978.
  • Chant of Saints: A gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (Edited with Robert B. Stepto). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
  • Sterling Allen Brown, The Collected Poems. New York: Harper and Row, 1980; Evanston, IL: TriQuarterly Books, 1996.
  • The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry (edited with Anthony Walton). New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[9]

Dear John, Dear Coltrane A poem by Michael S

Dear John, Dear Coltrane A poem by Michael S. Harper

Michael S. Harper-- Release Kind of Blue 8.17

Michael S. Harper-- Release Kind of Blue 8.17.59

Audio / videoEdit

  • 2004: Double Take: Jazz - poetry conversations (CD, poetry accompanied by jazz music: Paul Austerlitz, bass clarinetist/composer). innova Records, made through the American Composers Forum's Recording Assistance Program, underwritten by the McKnight Foundation.

See alsoEdit


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


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Michael S. Harper", Academy of American Poets,, Web, April 23, 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Walter Warren Harper, obituary". Los Angeles Times. August 26, 2004. Retrieved May 16, 2016. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Treseler, Heather (2009). "Office Hours: A Memoir and an Interview with Michael S. Harper". The Iowa Review 39 (3). 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Makari, George. "Into the underworld with Michael S. Harper". The Worcester Review. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Grimes, William (May 10, 2016). "Michael S. Harper, Poet With a Jazz Pulse, Dies at 78". NY Times. Retrieved May 16, 2016. 
  6. Preminger, Alex and T.V.F. Brogan, et al., editors, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993, Princeton University Press and MJF Books, "Afro-American Poetry" article, by Nathan A. Scott Jr., p 25
  7. Template:Cite AV media
  8. "Michael S. Harper: chronology". The Worcester Review. 
  9. Michael S. Harper b. 1938, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 30, 2012.

External linksEdit

Audio / video
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