Michael S. Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 18, 1938. He earned a BA and MA from what is now known as California State University, and an MFA from the University of Iowa.
Harper published more than ten books of poetry, including his debut collection, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (University of Illinois Press, 1970), which was nominated for the National Book Award. His other collections include Images of Kin (University of Illinois Press, 1977), which won the Melville-Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America and was nominated for the National Book Award; History Is Your Heartbeat (University of Illinois Press, 1971), which won the Black Academy of Arts & Letters Award for poetry; and Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
About Songlines in Michaeltree, a review in Publisher’s Weekly said: “Harper has eschewed neither the personal, political nor the lyrical, but consistently forged a middle road from the multiple intersections of memory and experience, music and language, oppression and achievement.... His elegiac meditations on jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell are well known, and his use of repetition and lyric fragmentation displays the influence of not only that supercharged idiom, but the slower-paced traditions of African American blues, gospel, and folk music. Harper’s writing, however, derives only in part from these traditions, and the many finely honed narratives in this collection display the influence of poets as diverse of W. B. Yeats, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Elizabeth Bishop.”
Harper edited the Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown (Triquarterly, 1980). He was coeditor with Anthony Walton of The Vintage Book of African American Poetry (Vintage Books, 2000) and Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (Back Bay Books, 1994), and with Robert B. Stepto of Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (University of Illinois Press, 1979).
Harper was the first poet laureate of the state of Rhode Island (1988–93) and received many other honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Harper was a professor of English at Brown University, where he taught from 1970 to 2013. While there, he served as a mentor to the writer Gayl Jones.
Harper lived in Barrington, Rhode Island, until his death on May 7, 2016.