Ronald A. Sharp
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 last Saturday 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.B. Yeats—every fiber of Michael’s poetry entwined death and beauty. When he died on May 7, I called to tell the sad news to Philip Schultz, our mutual friend since the late seventies when the new series of the Kenyon Review was first revived and both were among our strongest contributors and supporters. Phil told me that for the whole last week, not knowing that Michael was near death, he had been listening to Coltrane’s music constantly, almost obsessively, with an intensity and gratitude that were so powerful and fresh that, though he had been listening to Coltrane for years—originally under Michael’s guidance and powerfully influenced by Dear John, Dear Coltrane—he felt inexplicably as though he was finally, after all these years, hearing the music as it was meant to be heard. When Michael died his three children—Roland, Patrice, and Rachel—were at his bedside, and no one familiar with Michael’s work will be surprised to hear that Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was playing on the stereo literally as he passed. Not least among Harper’s crucial legacy to American poetry is his unique articulation throughout his precious work of the confluence of life, death, beauty, suffering—and mystery.
Click here to read “Horse-Trading” and “Memorial Meetings” from the Summer 1982 issue of the Kenyon Review.