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NPR Arts & Life

Remembering Michael S. Harper, A Poet With An Ear For Jazz

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We'll end this week by remembering the poet Michael Harper, who died Saturday at age 78. He was known for his poems that were influenced by and celebrated jazz, starting with his first volume of poetry, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane," which was nominated for a National Book Award. Many of his poems were about important figures in African-American history, such as Jackie Robinson, Richard Wright and the abolitionist John Brown. Terry Gross interviewed Harper and poet Sonia Sanchez in 2000 about a CD anthology of black poets reading their own work. Terry asked Michael Harper to read his poem "Dear John, Dear Coltrane."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MICHAEL S. HARPER: (Reading) Dear John, Dear Coltrane, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, sex fingers toes in the marketplace, near your father's church in Hamlet, N.C. Witness to this love in this calm fallow of these minds, there is no substitute for pain. Genitals gone or going, seed burned out, you tuck the roots in the earth, turn back and move by river through the swamps, singing, a love supreme, a love supreme, what does it all mean? Loss, so great each black woman expects your failure in mute change, the seed gone. You plod up into the electric city, your song now crystal and the blues. You pick up the horn with some will and blow into the freezing night, a love supreme, a love supreme. Dawn comes and you cook up the thick sin 'tween impotence and death, fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart, genitals and sweat that makes you clean, a love supreme, a love supreme.

Why you so black? 'Cause I am. Why you so funky? 'Cause I am. Why 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. So sick you couldn't play "Naima," so flat we ached for song you'd concealed with your own blood, your diseased liver gave out its purity, the inflated heart pumps out, the tenor kiss, tenor love, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

That's Michael Harper, reading his poem, "Dear John, Dear Coltrane." Were you listening to - obviously you must've been listening to a lot of Coltrane while writing this. Had you seen him perform shortly before writing this?

HARPER: Well, I began to watch Coltrane play live in about 1955. And I wrote the poem actually before Coltrane died. Coltrane died 1967. sixty. I wrote the poem in 1966. And I was terrified because, you know, as poets, you sometimes have material select you. And I of course knew his music and listened to him live many times. I'd written about his great drummer Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner was a friend of mine. We were the same age and pretty much grew up together. But Coltrane was a special figure. And he was not a terribly talkative man. And I had spent many, many times being in his company.

But when I wrote this poem, I was terrified that I was, you know, I was, you know, writing his death poem or something. And the reason why the refrain - a love supreme - is because he himself had played that in 1964. And he and his musicians had chanted that. And it was a refrain, a kind of anthem which became widespread among - certainly among the black community and the musical community. And Coltrane was the superior musician of his generation.

GROSS: Michael Harper, do you feel that you have learned about language and its rhythms from reading with musicians as you've occasionally done?

HARPER: Absolutely, and the most important thing you learn from musicians is phrasing. And you learn it from the singers - you know, the Bessie Smiths, the Billie Holidays, the Mamie Smiths, the Aretha Franklins even. But you also learn, more than anything else, about the authenticity of phrasing because musicians take you to places that you might not necessarily want to go. And they go instantly to the transcendent and of course the mastery of their playing is not technical mastery. It is spiritual mastery. It is to take you to a place that perhaps is not your mode. And when we are in performance with musicians, they take us to places sometimes we don't want to go. We're not prepared to go. They take us instantly there.

And it seems to me that the pioneering efforts of great musicians - and Coltrane is just one of many - gives us a way, indicates the path. And of course they're on the frontier, which is one of the reasons why we lose so many because they're forced to live at the cutting-edge of the society. And oftentimes that sacrifice to themselves - and I'm not only talking about drugs. I'm talking about the rigor with which they have to express themselves, bring themselves. And of course, the pressure that black people in particular are under - and always have been - the musicians are the - they're the frontier. They're on the frontier. And, you know, we have to learn how to follow.

BIANCULLI: That was poet Michael Harper, recorded in 2000. He died last Saturday at the age of 78. On Monday's show - how genetics is profoundly changing our definition of disease and the way we treat disease. We talk with oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee about his new book, "The Gene." Mukherjee also is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the history of cancer, "The Emperor Of All Maladies." I hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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