Michael S. Harper

Dear John, Dear Coltrane by Michael S. Harper

‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane’ by Michael S. Harper describes musician John Coltrane’s life and alludes to the ways in which it influenced the poet’s work. 

This moving and highly important poem was written in 1966, only a year before its subject, John Coltrane, died. Despite being written before Coltrane’s death, ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane‘ is often read as an elegy. The poem was published as the title piece of his collection in 1970. 

It’s important to note that the refrain, “a love supreme” was not unique to Coltrane’s music. It was used throughout the Black community in the United States at the time. It is directed at God and the love that he delivers. 

When speaking about his album, John Coltrane described a spiritual awakening he had a few years prior. He said: 

I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

His music became intertwined with his faith in God, something that can be seen throughout Harper’s elegiac verse.

Dear John, Dear Coltrane by Michael S. Harper


Summary 

‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane’ by Michael S. Harper is a powerful poem that speaks to the importance of John Coltrane’s music. 

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by alluding to an act of violence perpetrated on a Black man in the American south. He immediately describes Coltrane growing up in the same area and leaving for Philadelphia to play music. As the poem progresses, the speaker introduces the reader to Coltrane’s creative expression, his struggle with drugs and alcohol, and later, the liver disease that resulted. 

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form 

‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane’ by Michael S. Harper is a four-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, and as is common to Harper’s verse, music was a major influence. Throughout his career, Harper was inspired by the rhythm of jazz. This is something that can be found in much of his work and is seen through the fragmentation and collage-like nature of specific sections (stanza one is a great example).

Literary Devices 

  • Allusion: one of the most important literary devices at work within this poem. It can be seen from the title through to the final lines. Harper is alluding to the life and work of jazz musician, composer, and saxophonist John Coltrane. The line “a love supreme” comes from his 1964 album of the same title. 
  • Alliteration: one of the musical elements of this piece. It is seen through the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “genitals gone or going” in line nine. 
  • Refrain: the repetition of the same phrase multiple lines within a poem. In this case, “a love supreme, a love supreme” which starts the poem and appears at the end of each stanza. 
  • Imagery: highly descriptive passages that are easy to imagine and which trigger the senses. For example, “seed burned out, / you tuck the roots in the earth.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Epitaph

The poem begins with an epitaph. It reads:

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

These two lines are an allusion to the work of the poem’s subject—John Coltrane. The phrase is also the title of his 1964 album. This is one of several poems that Harper wrote about Coltrane, one of his main muses throughout his career. He was inspired by Coltrane’s artistic ability as well as the way he responded to injustice and racism. 

Stanza One

Lines 1-14

Sex fingers toes

in the marketplace

(…)

by river through the swamps,

singing: a love supreme, a love supreme;

This free verse poem begins with another allusion. In an interview about this particular piece, Harper described how the first two lines were written with the death of Sam Hose, a Black man who was lynched in Georgia, in mind. The phrase “Sex fingers toes” refers to his genitals, fingers, and toes, a direct reference to how the man was butchered in 1899. 

Harper relocates the event to “your father’s church / in Hamlet, North Carolina.” When he uses the second-person pronoun “you” he’s speaking to Coltrane directly. Hamlet, where Coltrane was born, is the opening scene in this piece. Readers already have a backdrop of violence, the death of Sam Hose, as a way of understanding what the American south was like at the time. 

Harper describes Coltrane’s life and how, out of a dark environment, he rose. Already in these first lines, there is a feeling of perseverance and change. Coltrane is described as walking out of the swamp singing “a love supreme.” Amid the horrors of the previous lines, he continues to turn his mind to God and love. 

Lines 15-24

what does it all mean?

Loss, so great each black

(…)

into the freezing night:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

The middle of the first stanza includes the question “what does it all mean?” The poet is likely alluding to the meaning of violence, particularly racial violence, as well as the handwork that men and women, like Coltrane himself, engaged with in order to create. 

The next lines allude, again, to the contemporary moment and the attitude toward Black men and women at the time. The loss, meaning the lack of obvious potential or the ways in which failure would come much easier than any manner of success, is interpreted by the “black women” around Coltrane. Even they do not see his success. 

The following lines reference the “electric city,” likely an allusion to Philadelphia where Coltrane’s career first took him. The speaker clearly references the saxophone, which Coltrane picked up and blew into the “freezing night.” He introduced the same feelings of love and dedication to the world as the musician felt in the refrain (and which can be interpreted in) “a love supreme.” 

Stanza Two

Dawn comes and you cook

up the thick sin ‘tween

(…)

a love supreme, a love supreme—

The second stanza is only seven lines long. It, again, ends with the refrain. But, before this, the poet includes a few references to Coltrane’s heroin addiction, something he struggled with during the 1950s. He quit cold turkey, Coltrane noted at one point. He later said that he heard god’s voice during his withdrawal. It was during this period that he had a spiritual reawakening and was inspired to create A Love Supreme.  

Stanza Three 

Why you so black?

cause I am

(…)

a love supreme, a love supreme:

In the third stanza, the poem changes. It mimics the call and response nature of the Black, Pentecostal churches. This is an environment that Coltrane would’ve been very familiar with. The “cause I am” refrain. It is a phrase of determination and confidence. The people chanting are inspired to accept themselves and promote themselves as they are. They are “black,” “sweet,” and “funky.”

There is a great example of enjambment between the last two lines of this stanza. The last “cause I am” runs into “a love supreme.”

Stanza Four 

So sick

you couldn’t play Naima,

so flat we ached

(…)

tenor love:

a love supreme, a love supreme—

a love supreme, a love supreme—

The final stanza of the poem again references the struggles Coltrane endured in the 50s with his heroin addiction. He was “So sick” that he “couldn’t play Naima.” “Naima” is commonly considered to be one of Coltrane’s most important ballads. He was sick, suffering, and in a way, had martyred himself to his music. He longed, as the listeners did, to hear the “song” Coltrane had “concealed / with [his] own blood.” Coltrane’s alcoholism and heroin addiction led to liver failure in July 1967, when he was only forty years old. 

The poem ends with another repetition of “a love supreme.” But, uses a dash at the end of the poem rather than a period. This suggests that the feelings associated with Coltrane’s music, a love for God, and poetry itself, continue on beyond the confines of this specific poem. 

FAQs

Who is the subject of ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane?’ 

This well-known poem is dedicated to the late saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who died in 1967 of liver failure. His music was an incredible inspiration in Michael S. Harper’s life. 

What is the tone of ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane?’

The tone is reverential, loving, and devoted. From the first lines, the speaker’s opinion of John Coltrane is obvious. He respects the man for his lifetime of struggle, his musical compositions, and the way in which he dealt with conflict in his life. 

What is the purpose of ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane?’

Despite having written it a year before his death, ‘Dear John, Dear Coltrane’ serves as an elegy for musician John Coltrane. He died of liver failure a year after this poem was published. Today, it is commonly read as a memorial to his life and to the influence he had on Harper’s work. 

Why is Michael S. Harper important? 

Michael S. Harper is considered to be one of the most important writers of his generation. His work was incredibly influential in its originality and approach to contemporary issues, real-life figures, and the Black experience. 

How did John Coltrane die?

John Coltrane passed away at the age of forty, in July 1967, from liver failure. He struggled with alcoholism and heroin addiction throughout his life.


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some related poems. For example: 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap