A Love Supreme: On Michael S. Harper’s “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” (1966)

July 7, 2021   •   By Edward Hirsch


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Michael Harper wrote about family and friends, about iconic figures from the American pantheon, his personal pantheon, which spanned the centuries. It included a host of poets and musicians, of course, but also historical figures — Roger Williams, John Brown, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson — all of them representative presences, exemplars who tried to wake us from the nightmares of American history. Ralph Ellison said that “while one can do nothing about choosing one’s relatives, one can, as artist, choose one’s ancestors,” and that’s precisely what Harper did. He looked for connection and elevation, inspiring heroes. He may have considered himself an eccentric, but he also called his selected poems Images of Kin, and extended the idea of kinship, which for him consisted of bonding and recognition, a sort of chosen family of lineage and ancestry. He believed in songlines and pathways, in the American continuum, in learning history from oral tradition and library archives — he argued that American poets needed to be better archivists — and he wove his personal story into a national tapestry. He despised injustice and countered it with his own idiosyncratic eloquence. Above all, he believed in poetry and music, modes of comparative humanity, and found solace in art.

Harper was determined to situate himself as both a Black and an American poet. He was capacious in his reading, his enthusiasms, and unapologetic about his love for John Keats and Robert Frost — his own work has a Keatisian intensity, a Frostian feeling for vernacular eloquence. He adopted two literary fathers, Sterling A. Brown and Robert Hayden, and celebrated their work with a relentless sense of mission at a time when they were often scorned and condescended to by the Black Arts Movement. More than anyone else, he helped bring them back into the family archive. He loved their work not just because they were consummate poets but also because they were moral historians. He appreciated the way Brown had kept the folk spirit alive in African American poetry, the way he had built his own work on the dignity of folk forms, such as blues, work songs, spirituals, and folktales. Brown’s commitment to the exceptional in the commonplace fueled Harper’s project. So, too, Harper admired Hayden’s perfect pitch as a poet, his succinctness and sincerity, his unearthing of crucial American sources, his essential humanity. In his poem “Healing Song,” he characterized Hayden as “this creature of transcendence / a love-filled shadow, congealed and clarified.”

Harper loved two art forms equally, jazz and poetry, and took consolation from both. Jazz came first and initiated him into poetry. He noted that he never would have become a poet if his family hadn’t moved from Brooklyn to West Los Angeles when he was 13 years old. He went to high school and college in L.A. The Angeleno poet Henri Coulette taught and encouraged him at California State University, Los Angeles, where he also took classes with Christopher Isherwood, who introduced him to another early influence and inspiration, W. H. Auden. Nurtured on the California jazz scene, Harper was surrounded by a group of highly talented musicians who shaped his sensibility — and he admitted that he would have liked to become a musician, but he never had the chops. It’s not just that he took the rhythmic beat, the pulse of his poems, from jazz, but also that he got his emotional education from the music. He grew up on the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Andy Kirk, Jimmie Lunceford, and Fletcher Henderson, and listened closely to jazz singers like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Mamie Smith. Most fundamentally, he witnessed the revolutionary change to bebop.

Harper was friends with McCoy Tyner, who was Coltrane’s pianist, and he often attended live performances of Coltrane’s four-piece band in the 1950s and ’60s. He nominated Coltrane as his Orpheus and wrote poems about him all through his life. Coltrane’s music sang to him, and so too did Coltrane’s changed notion of the role of the artist, his rejection of minstrelsy in any form, his serious spiritual quest. Coltrane unabashedly transfigured pain into love and made love archetypal. That was the model.

Coltrane wasn’t just a spiritual person; he was also a committed political one. Part of what Harper learned from him was how a major artist responded to racism and genocide, how he countered it with an awareness of Black identity and solidarity. With Harper in mind, it’s worth listening again to Coltrane’s song “Alabama,” a requiem for the four girls murdered in the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. It’s also a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy. The way that Coltrane responded to Dr. King’s rhetoric became the basis for Harper’s later poem, “Here Where Coltrane Is,” which invokes a structure of feeling, the political and historical dimensions of Black art.

Harper wrote “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” in 1966, the year before Coltrane died. It’s as if he intuited Coltrane’s nearness to death. There’s an element of magical thinking in his fear that he was signing a death warrant by creating an elegy in advance. He published the poem as the title piece in his first book in 1970, and it’s been read as a retrospective ever since. I read it 50 years ago and still think of it as Harper’s signature piece. He took the refrain line from Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, which was recorded in 1964 and released the next year. In one take, Trane led his regular quartet — pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Elvin Jones — through a suite in four parts. The title appears as a vocal chant in the first section, “Acknowledgement.” Coltrane uses his tenor sax to play the opening four-note motif in all the keys, wringing dozens of changes out of it until it turns into words intoned by Coltrane and the other musicians. It’s as if he’s using his preternatural musical dexterity to suggest that all musical paths lead to God. A Love Supreme has a spiritual grandeur that is rare in any era, but especially in modern times. It stands beside Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, but is realized by four voices, by four different musicians.

By the time Harper wrote his poem, the phrase “a love supreme” had already become a tag line, a sort of anthem or refrain, not just in Los Angeles but in Black and musical communities all over the country. Harper’s poem weds the jazz lyric to the verse epistle. He takes a tradition inaugurated by Langston Hughes, who used the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of 1920s jazz as a way to address the struggles of African American life, and connects it to the philosophical letter poem, which has a much older provenance, dating back to Horace’s Epistles. The title of Harper’s poem, “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” is a double take. The poem is a meditation on Coltrane’s life that poses as a letter to the musician, and, like all verse epistles, it’s meant to be overheard by the rest of us.

Unlike any letter I’ve ever read, the poem divides the addressee’s name into two parts. It’s as if the poet is both writing a love letter, “Dear John,” and also writing to someone he admires from a more formal distance, a symbolic figure, “Dear Coltrane.” It’s a proto-elegy. The title is the first indication of the importance of phrasing in the poem; indeed, as the title poem in Harper’s first book, it points to the key lesson he learned from musicians. The phrasing itself seems to lead the artist somewhere he doesn’t necessarily want to go. But that’s precisely where he needs to go. Here, the title stammers and then jump cuts to the italicized and indented refrain of the poem, which seems chanted in Coltrane’s own voice. This is the inaugural movement of the poem, and it’s imperative to hear it four times:

a love supreme, a love supreme
a love supreme, a love supreme

Coltrane’s music was addressed to God; Harper’s poem is addressed to Coltrane. I think it has an erotic undercurrent (“I loved John Coltrane and I loved his music”) and a religious overtone. There is a jolted jump, a serious downward turn, from the elevated refrain to the first brutal narrative section of the poem. The letter is structured as a collage. The first sentence un-scrolls in a short Audenian mixture of two and three beat lines that culminate in a question:

Sex fingers toes
in the marketplace
near your father's church
in Hamlet, North Carolina —
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?

I never fully understood the harsh but cryptic first two lines until I read an interview in which Harper said that the first three words are the genitals, fingers, and toes of Sam Hose, who was brutally lynched, butchered, and burned alive by a white mob in Coweta County, Georgia, in 1899. Harper seems to be taking the racist spectacle of a lynching, linking it back to the slave trade, and anachronistically relocating it near the church in the North Carolina town where Coltrane was born in 1926. The narrator thus proceeds to tell Coltrane’s story — the tenor sax seems to be playing A Love Supreme while he is dying — inflected by a historical Black martyrdom.

I’m struck by the way the intimate tone (“Dear John”) jostles and even contends with the symbolic meaning (“Dear Coltrane”). It’s almost as if Harper reaches back to Egyptian mythology, an African antecedent, for the story of the death and resurrection of Osiris, which licenses him to treat Coltrane as a scapegoat figure, a dying and reviving god, a king whose seed is buried so that it can be regenerated. The musician heads to the urban North, to “the electric city” — probably Philadelphia, where Coltrane started to make his true music, to transform the sorrow of the blues with a new passion and intensity: “You pick up the horn / with some will and blow / into the freezing night: / a love supreme, a love supreme.”

The first two stanzas are presented in an ongoing present tense: “Dawn comes and you cook / up the thick sin…” Stanza two addresses Coltrane’s heroin addiction, the space he inhabited “between impotence and death,” the terrible need that fuels “the tenor sax cannibal.” It condenses into seven lines Coltrane’s long struggle to get clean, to find independence. The section ends with the refrain line, the fourth time that Harper repeats “a love supreme.” He is imitating Coltrane and wringing the changes out of the phrase.

Coltrane grew up in a religious environment — his father preached, and both of his grandfathers were ministers — and became deeply religious as he overcame his addiction. That’s why the third italicized stanza cuts to the call and response of a Black Pentecostal church. Listen to it again and you feel almost as if you’re participating in a service:

Why you so black?
cause I am
why you so funky?
cause I am
why you 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:

This is the most vernacular part of the poem (“why you so funky?”) and links the preacher to the parishioners, the musician to the community. The tone is lighter than elsewhere in the poem, but the meaning is serious, a pointed rhetorical interrogation of Blackness. Every question culminates in the same determined, existential answer: “cause I am.” Yet the enjambment in the last two lines cleverly brings the questioning to a larger conclusion: “cause I am / a love supreme, a love supreme.” Harper views Coltrane, as he would view Hayden, as a figure of transcendence.

The church section ends with a colon, not a period, and turns the supreme love downward to Coltrane’s earthly struggle with addiction. The last stanza moves as one sentence across 12 lines. The liftoff is remarkable. The speaker reenters the poem as a communal “we,” a stand-in for the community, as in a ballad. The repetitions enact the intensities:

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 — 

Harper inaugurates the last movement by recalling a time when Coltrane was too sick to play his signature ballad, “Naima,” and contrasts the musician’s diseased body, his physical sacrifice, his martyrdom, with the pure music that he attains, what “the inflated heart / pumps out.” The two elements of the poem, the intimate address to “Dear John” and the symbolic address to “Dear Coltrane,” come together and reach a high rhetorical pitch. The erotic charge and progression — “the tenor kiss, / tenor love” — reaches its culmination in the final transcendent repetition of the refrain: “a love supreme, a love supreme — / a love supreme, a love supreme — .”

“Dear John, Dear Coltrane” ends with a dash and not a period, as if to suggest that the poem is open-ended, the ending interrupted, indeterminate. This indicates that Coltrane’s idea of a supreme love is ongoing and continuous, an unceasing legacy. But the strong repetitive chant at the end also takes us back to the beginning and brings the poem full cycle. It has the ritual closure of a valedictory epistle, a letter of farewell. Harper found it difficult, maybe even impossible, to accept that he had written an elegy for John Coltrane even before Coltrane had died. Orpheus was gone, but he had left behind his music, which Michael Harper, his poetic protégé, would go on listening to and imitating, disheartened and enraged by social injustice but also continuing to seek transcendence, writing historical indictments but also love letters and elegies, homages and hymns.