Michael S. Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 13, 1938. He attended what is now California State University, earning a Bachelor's degree, and then went on to earn a Master's of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa.
Harper was the first poet laureate of Rhode Island, from 1988-1993, and has received fellowships from both the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Much of Harper's poetry deals with elements of jazz, cultural referent, and history.
Harper had a long career at Brown University, teaching courses in literature and poetry from 1970-2013. Throughout his career, Harper published more than 10 books of poetry, and served as an editor for many others. Most recently, his book Use Trouble (2009) plays with the romance between music and poetry while constructing a tribute to his family. His debut collection of poetry, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), which incorporates the experience of jazz, was nominated for the National Book Award.
Michael Harper passed away on May 7th, 2016 at his home in Rhode Island.
Edgar Tidwell of the University of Kansas has written a lovely tribute to the great Michael S. Harper:
The world of poetry is in mourning today. Poet, anthologist, and raconteur Michael S. Harper has left this life for a more ethereal one. I’m told that in the end he was surrounded by all of his children, while the music of John Coltrane presided reverently over the gathering. For those who knew Michael or his work, you know that family (both immediate and extended) was an all-consuming passion. Some of his most intense—and, yes, challenging—poetic expression plumbed the depths of his ancestral past, exploring the continuity of a tradition that revealed the past as prologue. Now he has gone to join the ancestors about whom he wrote so thoughtfully. The body of work he leaves behind, his expressive legacy, is best described in words inspired by Coltrane: “a love supreme.” Thank you, Michael, for all that and for much more. May you now and forever rest in peace.