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May 11, 2016

Remembering Michael S. Harper (1938-2016)

by Joanne V. Gabbin

Michael S. Harper reads at the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference

In many ways Michael Harper was my literary big brother. We had this connection of kin through Sterling Brown, whom we both revered and claimed as literary father and mentor. Michael edited The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown in 1980, the same year I completed my dissertation, “Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition,” which was later published in 1985. Over the past 30 years we found ourselves on panels at conferences, seminars, and readings usually talking about the complex, enigmatic man whom we loved. We shared the conviction that our elder was the most brilliant blues poet of the twentieth century because he carried the sense and the sound of that genre in his very being. In this poem, originally published in Nightmare Begins Responsibility (University of Illinois Press, 1975), Michael captures the poet’s essence as only another cultural master could:

Br’er Sterling and the Rocker

Any fool knows a Br’er in a rocker 
is a boomerang incarnate; look at the blade
of the rocker, that wondrous crescent
rockin’ in harness as poem.

To speak of poetry is the curled line straightened;
to speak of doubletalk, the tongue
gone pure, the stoic line a trestle
whistlin’, a man a train comin’ on:

Listen Br’er Sterling
steel-drivin’ man, folk-said, folk-sayin’,
that chair’s a blues-harnessed star
turnin’ on its earthy axis;

Miss Daisy, latch on that star’s arc,
hold on sweet mama; Br’er Sterling’s rocker glows.

The times that I spent with Michael were good times because he encouraged me, often prodded me, to see the other side of issues, to remind me that if literary scholarship was worth its salt it had to sting sometimes. It couldn’t be predictable or pedestrian. It had to be as genuine as Sterling’s love for Daisy and as imaginative as folk language and wisdom. I will miss my brother Michael Harper, outstanding poet, jazz enthusiast, poet laureate of Rhode Island for several years, and brilliant and admired professor of English and Creative Writing at Brown University for four decades.

Joanne Gabbin is the executive director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University. In 2014 she selected Michael S. Harper to receive Furious Flower's Lifetime Achievement Award along with Rita Dove, Toi Derricotte, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Ishmael Reed, and Quincy Troupe.

Photo of Michael Harper reading during the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference at James Madison University courtesy C. B. Claiborne.