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Monday, May 9, 2016

On the death of Michael S. Harper

Death, Our Artists, and Public Grief

Last month when a person I had known for over fifty years died, I wrote:

Saturday sorrows in purple

and hews so close to home

that memory's mission

traces the leaves of then

in the light of now.

Half a century

later than love

on a summer's day,

peace erases illness.

Eternity springs like hope.

When words make time

fit to freeze grief,

then we remember

how  we fall tomorrow

into winter's holiness.

The final stanza is crucial. It brought a common sentiment to an end and to the beginning of a different state of thinking, living, doing, and saying.  For those of us who knew the unnamed person well, grief involves some loss  of collective definition.  It is an inevitable  acceptance that nothing gold will stay.

The death of Michael S. Harper (1938-2016) on May 7 provoked  an instructive  awareness, one I associated with the 1964 film "Seven Days in May."   As I got messages from fellow writers about their contacts with Harper, their sadness,  and how they valued the legacy of his poetry and life, I felt more emptiness than sympathy. I remembered communion with Harper, had  flashbacks of  his readings at Tougaloo College in the 1970s, of a conversation about modalities and Gayl Jones in his office at Brown University, of his inviting me to speak at the University of Alabama during a short residency he had there, of his being a guest at my apartment in Charlottesville during a visit to the University of Virginia, of reading with him in Munich, of his agency in getting "Open," one of my best poems, published in a 1975 issue of Iowa Review.  These private memories are not designed  for spectacle and public consumption. Poems often are.

The death of our artists is a pre-future reminder of  death to come.  Public grief in poems  is such an ephemeral  commodity in the 21st century  that I want to have as little to do with it as possible. I tell artists  who have genuine meaning in my life how much I treasure them when they are alive by way of face-to-face or telephone conversations, interviews, having meals, coffee, or drinks with them,  letters (more recently in emails), reviews of their works, poems that they can read  or critical essays.  When our artists are dead, they are not interested in the sound a poem makes. The silence of memory  is sufficient. 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            May 9, 2016

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