Michael S. Harper, whose allusive, jazz-inflected poems interwove his personal experiences as a black man with an expansive view of a history shared by black and white Americans, and who was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry in 1978, died on Saturday in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 78 and lived in Providence, R.I.
He died of natural causes, his daughter, Rachel Harper, said.
Mr. Harper’s abundant gifts were on display in one of his earliest poems, “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” an elegy composed just before the saxophonist John Coltrane’s death in 1967. In compressed, sinuous lines, it wound its way to the aching words “The inflated heart/pumps out, the tenor kiss,/tenor love” by way of a startling interlude:
Why you so black? cause I am why you so funky? cause I am why you so black? cause I am why you so sweet? cause I am why you so black? cause I am
a love supreme, a love supreme.
Mr. Harper had submitted the poem, along with others, to a poetry competition judged by Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Penn Warren and Denise Levertov. Although they failed to win the grand prize, they were published at the urging of Ms. Brooks by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1970 as “Dear John, Dear Coltrane.”
Mr. Harper went on to publish another dozen poetry collections, deepening his study of history — his own and that of eminent black Americans like Jackie Robinson, Ralph Ellison and Dexter Gordon — in a series of expanding circles that embraced ever wider swaths of the nation’s past.
His complex notion of genealogy allowed him, in works like “History Is Your Own Heartbeat” (1971), “Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree” (1972), “Images of Kin” (1977) and “Honorable Amendments” (1995), to lay claim to figures as varied as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island; the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston; the abolitionist John Brown; and, in the poem “Study Windows,” two anonymous German immigrant craftsmen. His work stood out, the poet Rita Dove wrote in The Washington Post in 2000, for its “cleareyed and compassionate dealings with the hard news of life.”
Michael Steven Harper was born on March 18, 1938, in Brooklyn and grew up in the borough’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section. His father, Walter, was a post office supervisor. His mother, the former Katherine Johnson, was a medical secretary.
His parents’ extensive record collection kindled a lifelong passion for jazz, a musical form that Mr. Harper saw as integral to his sense of language and poetry.
In a preface to his poems in “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature,” he wrote, “My poems are rhythmic rather than metric; the pulse is jazz; the tradition generally oral; my major influences musical; my debts, mostly to the musicians who taught me to see about experience, pain and love, and who made it artful and archetypal.”
When he was 13 his family moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Dorsey High School. After graduating in 1955 he enrolled in pre-med courses at Los Angeles City College but gravitated toward literature, earning an associate of arts degree in 1959.
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He pursued English studies at the Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences (now California State University, Los Angeles), earning a bachelor’s degree in 1961 and a master’s degree in 1963.
“I was writing plays, one-acters, about musicians who were speakers of the idiom I loved most: black American male speech, full of curse words,” he wrote in an autobiographical essay for the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2004.
Mr. Harper with the poet Rita Dove in 1994. Jill Krementz, All Rights Reserved
Among his teachers was the British writer Christopher Isherwood, who occasionally brought in his friends W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Mr. Harper, already deep into Keats and the Romantics, began to see poetry as a vocation, an inclination that hardened into conviction after he was accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned an M.F.A. degree in 1963.
While teaching English at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif., he began publishing his poems in small magazines. In 1968, he was named poet in residence at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and he also taught at Reed College there. In 1970, after teaching at California State College (now University) in Hayward, he joined the English faculty at Brown University, where he remained until retiring in 2013.
In addition to the poetry collections “Debridement” (1973) and “Nightmare Begins Responsibility” (1974), Mr. Harper edited “The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown” (1980) and, with Robert B. Stepto, “Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art and Scholarship” (1979). His collection “Images of Kin” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978 and won the Poetry Society of America’s Melville-Cane Award.
In 1989, he became Rhode Island’s first state poet, a post he held for five years.
Mr. Harper’s only marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by two sons, Roland and Patrice, and two granddaughters.
“I’ve been called a black poet, revolutionary poet, a black aesthetic poet, an academic poet, an ameliorating poet — you name it,” Mr. Harper told The Washington Post in 1978. “I’ve never made any attempt to qualify out the black content in my poetry. I’ve written poems about a good many things. I’ve tried to keep my range of experience as wide as possible.”
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