"I asked to go to South Africa," poet Michael Harper was explaining here the other day, "because my great-grandfather John Albert Johnson, a bishop in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church, was a missionary there between 1908 and 1916.

Harper, 39, hailed as one of America's best young poets, believes "our job is to penetrate reality. Too often we become confused about who we are and where we're going. Art creates reality, a manipulated reality - a conscious reality, if you will, as distinguished from an unconscious reality."

The poet tried to penetrate his reality, his past, last summer by going on a four-week State Department-sponsored lecture tour of Africa.

"I found that the reality of life here fortified me, prepared me for the South African experience," he said. "Over there they had no euphemisms. Everything was up front."

Harper, professor of English at Brown, spoke at Howard University during a five-day colloqium entitled "Blacks *in the Humanities" which concludes today.

Trouble for him began in Zaire when he boarded a plane bound for Johannesburg. No white South African would respond when he asked whether seats were occupied.

"Afro-Americans drive them up the wall," he said. "Nobody said anything. So I just dropped my bag in a dude's lap."

The stewardess rushed to ameliorate the trouble, and later offered him a bottle of South African wine.

"I said I didn't drink that," he continued. "We're boycotting that. I drink nothing but French wine.' She brought me eight bottles of French wine."

Harper, whose recently published book, "Images of Kin," has been nominated for National Book Award, read his poetry and that of two mentors, Sterling Brown and Robert Hayden, to students in South Africa.

The reaction at the University of Zululand was overwhelming, he noted. The poet recalled student borrowing his volume of Brown poems, waking away for a short while and copying in long hand the poem, "Strong Men," which tells of a continuous line of formidable black males assuming leadership roles despite threats and violence.

Harper was detained for several hours by South African authorities after making an unauthorized visit to a home in Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, and scene of bloody clashes between police and residents in 1976.

Another person might have responded violently to the physical and verbal abuse Harper experienced in South Africa. But the poet has a gentle but firm manner that belies his expansive physical size (he's well over 6 feet and weighs more than 220 pounds).

His writing contains similar contrasts - so many that critics have trouble defining him.

"I've been called a black poet, revolutionary poet, a black esthetic poet, an academic poet, an ameliorating poet - you name it," he laughed.

"I've never made any attempt to qualify out the black content in my poetry. I've written poems about a good many things. I've tried to keep my range of experience as wide as possible.

"I have great passions - and some energy, I'm told."

Like most poets, Harper doesn't earn his keep by writing. He's taught at colleges in Oregon, California and Illinois. But teaching and writing can be a demanding combination.

"It has to be modulated," he explained. "Teaching is a calling of the highest order. But the energy of making words is connected to one's inner voice - and if you're teaching, you don't have time to be in touch with the inner voice."

Does it bother him that he cannot write full time or that more people don't buy poetry?

"I guess I have a few thousand readers," he answers. "Some would say that's enough. I'd like to have more. Readership is important. But I'm more concerned with expressing poetic themes. Poets shouldn't be too concerned with audiences. The worry brutalizes them."