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Elliott Coleman: the American poet from Augustland.

A Fortnightly Review Portfolio

Two poems by Elliott Coleman: from ‘An American in Augustland’ and ‘Rose Demonics’.
Essay: Time of a Man: Proust and Christian morality.

Elliott Coleman’s Seminary for Writers
by Myra Sklarew.

Additional comments by
Geof Hewitt
Robert Jackson
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
James MacGuire
Joseph Millar
Roxie Powell
Charles Plymell
Stephen Wiest.

Elliott Coleman, ca 1953.

THE MFA IS NOW the most marketable product of America’s creative writing industry, steeped in academic credentialism, and a terminal degree. But it hasn’t always been so.

The Writing Seminars created by Elliott Coleman [1906-1980] for The Johns Hopkins University a little more than 60 years ago was one of the first of these graduate degree-granting ‘poetry and fiction workshops.’ For most of its history, participants were given the MA degree and a year to work under Prof. Coleman. During that time, the Writing Seminars attracted a surprising variety of literary artists, including John Barth, Gerald Costanzo, Louise Erdrich, Lawrence Markert, Josh Norton, P. J. O’Rourke, Charles Plymell, Louis D. Rubin, Stephen Wiest, and many others. The range of talent might have confused some who ask to teach writing. It’s interesting to consider what Coleman must have thought when he taught students as unalike as Russell Baker and Gil Scott-Heron, perhaps not the sort of writers who could sit still long enough for a two-year MFA. (In fact, Baker dropped out; Gil Scott-Heron went the distance.)

He had lived in his mind so long that by the late ’60s, Elliott Coleman was a benign, almost unassuming presence in the Seminars’ rooms. Many passed through not realizing the intellectual muscle of the modest man at the end of the table. His long list of books went unread by some students, and his beautifully written criticism – and his interest in the spiritual elements in Proust, especially – were sometimes not noticed, yet his insights were as striking as the language he used to express them:

Bernard de Fallois has remarked in his fine introduction to Against Sainte-Beuve that ‘unpublished work of Proust doesn’t exist.’ That is to say, Proust is always Proust, only sometimes more so; always all of one piece. There is about him the great monotony that he ascribed to Dostoevsky.

– A review of Jean Santeuil in the New Republic, 20 February 1956.

Coleman was always Coleman – and often more so – but there was no monotony in him, as this special Fortnightly portfolio demonstrates. It contains an appreciative essay by poet and essayist Myra Sklarew, and comments from others who studied in the Writing Seminars before the days of the MFA. The portfolio index appears as links listed above.

a partial bibliography.

The Poems of Elliott Coleman: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1940
An American in Augustland (UK/EU): University of North Carolina Press, 1940
Pearl Harbor: Hudson Press, 1942
27 Night Sonnets (New Directions, 1949)
A Glass Darkly: Contemporary Poetry, 1952
Golden Angel: Papers on Proust (UK/EU): Taylor, 1954
33 Night Sonnets (UK/EU): Contemporary Poetry, 1955
Studies in Human Time, by Georges Poulet (UK/EU): translator; The Johns Hopkins Press, 1956
Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry (UK/EU): Atlantis Editions, 1963
Broken Death (UK/EU): Linden Press, 1964
Metamorphoses of the Circle (UK/EU), by Georges Poulet: co-translator, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1966
Rose Demonics 1936-1966, chosen by Stephen Wiest: Linden Press, 1967
One Hundred Poems: Tinker, 1972
Tangerine Birds: Harbor House, 1973

Portfolios published by The Fortnightly Review’s New Series are ongoing projects.

Participants in the Writing Seminars who worked with Elliott Coleman are invited to contact the Editors at . Additional material relating to the life and work of Prof Coleman will be added to this portfolio’s index on an irregular basis. Newsletter subscribers will receive notifications of these additions. Others may wish to bookmark this page and return to it from time to time.

One Comment

  1. Samuel Zervitz wrote:

    Elliott Coleman taught us not only in Writing Seminars’ sessions back in the early 1970’s, he taught in a manner no one had experienced yet. He taught by not teaching. He taught by being. Being a presence, a motivator, a thoughtful and stress-free guide into the creative unknown. Ours, individually and uniquely. No one’s work was ever negatively received. No one’s work in Elliott’s purview was ever returned with anything but the best of intentions. Remarkably, Elliott once acknowledged he had students better than he was. Never had any teacher admit anything like that. He was sweet, gentle, caring, nurturing. It was as if he came down from another level to be with us. I genuinely enjoyed this program so much I not only chose participation in the poetry section, I attended and produced materials as well in the fiction category. I couldn’t get enough of what was offered. The year flew by as quickly as any year I had ever experienced. I was blessed to have had that year to savor as much as I benefited from the graduate degree I earned. When it ended it became as if I’d been told you can leave this academic Eden now. Why leave? I never wanted to depart from it, ever. It was perfect. It was impossible not to adore Elliott. It was impossible not to write the best you could for him, as much as you could for him, because it seemed your writing sustained him as well as you. Everybody read, everybody commented, everybody thrived. I think of Elliott now and I am reminded of the poet in Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana”, writing his last poem on that physical and spiritual journey from the end-of-a-life to what next? We must have known Elliott wasn’t well and we would be one of his last classes. I later became an educator and taught courses for forty years, struggling to have one class along the way as wondrous as what became the norm for Elliott. Only Elliott taught by not teaching. I could never come close in forty years to what he managed to achieve in any single session. His classes happened, as if my magic. He was a master teacher/magician. Now you see it, how did it happen? His approach to us, to teaching, to creativity, was the texture of the finest silk. His approach to education was a God’s gift. .

    Thursday, 15 October 2015 at 02:00 | Permalink

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