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Elliott Coleman’s seminary for writers.

By Myra Sklarew.

WHAT IS THE LANDSCAPE of a life? Does it drift toward us in delicate blue squares, pages inscribed with a man’s handwriting, the rhythm of his silences between the words so filled with meaning that we are altered by it?

And when he is gone, is it as poet Josephine Jacobsen writes in “Anti-Threnody”: “My ghosts, my dead, are hot and hardy,/ they have their tastes and lapses and music moves them;/ they are in the tried company of one who loves them;/ their touchstones stay…” [1]

Or in a conversation that continues, as Lou Andreas-Salome once wrote of Rilke: “Mourning is not as singular a state of emotional preoccupation as is commonly thought: it is, more precisely, an incessant discourse with the departed one, in order to draw him nearer. For death entails not merely a disappearance but rather a transformation into a new realm of visibility.” [2] 

OR IS THAT LIFE contained in a remembered gesture? A slap of the knee in laughter? Or as Fr. Joseph Gallagher said at Elliott Coleman’s memorial service, in the way he would hold up a letter unopened, kiss it, and throw it in the trash: “Never look unless you are prepared for everything or nothing.” Or in response to a student’s work (Gallagher’s, in this case!), which ended, “Should I curse it or bless it?” Elliott wrote, “I don’t know!” Or in a restaurant, where the waitress took fifty minutes to take the order: “Oh,” said Elliott, “I thought we’d already eaten!” Surely it is dangerous to speak for and about a man whose students number in the thousands over more than a quarter of a century. “It didn’t go that way,” they will say. “Let me tell you how it really was.”

Yet to keep the silence for fear of getting it wrong seems a poor substitute for attempting to bring a beloved soul into the light once more, a man like Elliott Coleman, who initiated the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University, the second of its kind in the country, in 1947. The lives of countless writers were radically affected by contact with Elliott. And how remarkably different that program was from those currently in session! It was sustained by the unique sensibility of a man schooled in the church, alive to the language of liturgy, at the same time as he had undergone psychoanalysis with Dr. Lawrence Kubie. Perhaps the self-knowledge that comes from that work was what permitted Elliott the comfort with which he tolerated all of us, and was not undone by peculiar behavior on the part of his students, in fact relished it. How to describe or even begin to characterize the form of deep freedom we felt in his presence in the Seminars. Not, however, freedom to abandon our purpose, but freedom to go into the depths as writers, as explorers, no matter the cost.

IT IS CURIOUS TO think about the journey that led Elliott Coleman to ordination in the Episcopal church as well as to the examination of the unconscious in his own psychoanalysis. In a review he wrote of Freudianism and the Literary Mind by Frederick J. Hoffmann,[3] he notes the importance of Joyce’s dream work and the suggestive ambiguity of words as central to the development of experimental writing. And he highlights the author’s thesis regarding Kafka’s rejection of Freud and Thomas Mann’s acceptance of Freud and the effect on their works.

Louis D. Rubin, in Beyond the Square, a collection of tributes to Elliott Coleman, speaks of Elliott’s “ability to recognize imaginative potentiality. Anyone with decent taste can recognize good fiction and good poetry when confronted with it; what is much more difficult is to discern, in apprentice fiction and poetry that is clumsy and unsuccessful, the potentiality for learning the craft of writing. It may be terribly disguised…” Yet Elliott was able to make his way through the thicket, to see into the core.

I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT it wise that the poet was not entirely at home in the Academy. Richard Macksey says it well: “Ever since Plato began revising the curriculum in the Republic, the place of the Poet in the Academy has been a vexed question.”[4] The poet in earlier times had been the “memory of the culture” and in many contemporary societies had represented his country in diplomatic service. Think of Octavio Paz or Pablo Neruda. Not so in the United States. The poet’s separateness permitted him to maintain a useful subversive stance.

Hadn’t I been alone in holding out against the entire Literature Department at my university in the ’70s when faculty were about to rule against teaching any works not in English? “Well then,” I pronounced, “that means no Shakespeare – strictly speaking, a different form of English – no Bible, no Homer or Ovid.” And on I went. They soon changed their minds. And when I laid the groundwork for an MFA Program to start in 1980 and insisted on a translation course requirement with a final project in another language, a hue and cry went up: “How can you translate if you aren’t fluent in the language?” The compromise? The name of the course would be “Seminar on Translation” instead of “Seminar in Translation.” And how many have won Fulbrights for their works in translation and greatly sharpened their own skills in their writing in English?

But more important than these examples is the effect on the writer’s own work, the independence of mind to explore and make discoveries and enter outrageous territory that will not be acceptable for years, if at all. Disjunction. What we see in Elliott’s poems—the language of belief as it is dismantled and reconstructed into a new shape, form, understanding. As if the poet is creating, in fact, a new language out of the bedrock of liturgy. A powerful exclamatory!

OR TO SAY IT another way: when the wholeness of vision and language gives way, “the tongue of Eden like a flawless glass” until Babel, “a second Fall… as desolate as the first,”[5] it is the poet who offers restoration and a glimpse beneath the surface of his language of the Ur-Sprache, the ancient bedrock of wholeness. Elliott’s poetry, while it breaks apart the primal elements and casts them in a new light, provides the lineaments by which that world can be seen.

Elliott taught us to read anew. “He helped to subvert the inertia of the Academy by introducing into the curriculum writers from the great generation of modernists—Joyce and Eliot, Proust and Mann—who had not yet been domesticated to textbooks,” wrote Richard Macksey. And he brought into our gatherings the likes of Auden, Dylan Thomas, A.R. Ammons, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, and shared the works of his friends and colleagues—Pierre Emmanuel, Georges Poulet, Andre Gide, e e cummings, St. John Perse (Alexis Leger) and many others. Talked on a first-name basis about “Tom” Eliot, Estlin Cummings, Anaïs Nin. How many times have I reached for Poulet’s Studies in Human Time, in Elliott’s exquisite translation —“The Dream of Descartes” or those transformative chapters on Proust or Montaigne, Rousseau, Baudelaire. Or writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil. And Rilke. As vitally different as his students were, as they embarked on routes not yet paved, their pages not yet inscribed, their tastes wildly divergent, he seemed to have knowledge for us all. He did not fear the new. I’ve long thought that it isn’t possible to teach a person how to write, but it is possible to learn to read for the sake of one’s writing . Elliott gave us that.

And when it was time to fulfill a university language requirement, what better enterprise than to learn to translate, in my case, the poetry of George Seferis, undertaken, if I recall correctly, with poet/artist Ted Scuris, in the Seminars during my time there. To this day, the beautiful Greek of The Last Day,” sings in my ears. And the discovery–as I was translating the work and began, strangely, to hear the rhythms of T.S. Eliot in the Greek–that Seferis, when he wrote that poem, was in process of translating Eliot into Greek. See how much Elliott Coleman helped me to discover!

LET ME GO BACK. Was I six? Black shades drawn down over basement windows. Not a shred of light. What did we talk about huddled in the dark while my father, a medical air raid warden, patrolled the dark streets? Did we have water? Food? We kept potatoes and onions stored in wooden bins. Apples? Jars of tomatoes, string beans, berries we had grown in the preceding summer and canned in glass quart jars for the rest of the year. Enough.

And Elliott? He was an “American in Augustland,” testing out the shores of England where what we feared most had already begun. Squadrons of planes blurring the sun. Here in America, we huddled in the hallways of our school during air raid drills, avoiding doorways, afraid at any moment that enemy armoured amphibious tanks would come roaring through the huge glass window of the classroom, tanks tempered for water or land. “There were signs:/ there were many more airplanes,/ And the grisly ululant of practice sirens…” writes the poet. He is at Oxford studying theology. And he is preparing for war: “Save the waste water./ Keep tarpaulins over the cornstacks. Whitewash the curbing. Remember to call the roll. And no smoking./ Remember to rest. Oh yes, and it’s warmth and rest for the lungs in oedema,/ And mustard is very persistent; the eyes will go first. / Watch feet and hands on the unclean side of the bench at decontamination…” And then home, to America. “Blue bulbs in the blackout, this is the station./ This is your crowd, they will push you along./ A smile from your porter, heroic elation/ Of war, that to kill a man, first makes him strong” (“The American Leaves England”).

Elliott Coleman had occasion to return to Europe several times during the war. Ismith Khan writes that Elliott told about “flying across the Atlantic during the war years in one of those terribly old fashioned planes. He was headed to Europe to invite several of her best known writers to the United States. He tells of the room in which he saw Gide, of the bleakness of Europe at that time, of the lack of barest necessities under which the man Gide worked and lived…” And in a letter from Gide to Elliott on 14 April 1948, Gide responds to an invitation from Elliott to attend a major conference at Hopkins on “the role of the critical spirit and the state of criticism in France”. There is mention of Alexis Leger (St. John Perse), and Keeler Faus. It seems unlikely that Gide was well enough to attend but he promised to provide a study to be delivered at the conference. Three short years later, Gide was dead.

IN 1940, ELLIOTT STUDIED at the Union Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained to the Episcopal diaconate at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, but shortly after the death of his father–an Episcopal minister–he turned toward work at several publishing houses. He then returned to teaching, this time at Hopkins in 1945, where he remained until June 1975.

About Elliott’s poetry, Merrill Leffler, publisher of Dryad Press and author of the forthcoming collection of poetry, Mark the Music, writes: “There is a muted Catholic and mystical tone that broods itself through many of his poems and a correspondent language: grace, wafer, blessedness, communion, spirit, angels. In ‘Rose Demonics‘ he writes, ‘O to reach the/bright demonic/ not-becoming one’s satanic/double.’ But Coleman is unpredictable—his range is marvelous, from the experiment of language, color, and form in ‘Colors’ to the concentration of the Shakespearian sonnet, which he has used like a gaming table for attempting a conglomerate of themes.’ Coleman’s poetic ground is the boundary between form and formlessness, as if he makes the two challenge each other… Tangerine Birds works in a new way: most of the poems are short, some extremely spare, as if every obtrusive word plus another thirty percent were expunged. The book has an air of serious mischief: message, observations, aphorisms (‘whatever is whole/ and shared in common/ is holy communion’), trifles (‘Irish Ironies’: ‘They sound like flowers/ and they are’), cryptic notes (‘The last/moving day/ is really moving’), jokes, restrained but intense outrage in anti-war poems” (“Eight Contemporary Maryland Poets,” Maryland English Journal, Spring 1976).

Elliott published some eighteen books of poetry, criticism, and translation. After retiring from Hopkins, he returned to England as part of a program to establish a Hopkins-type program where Elliott served as consultant and poet-in-residence.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE, when I returned to the Washington area in 1961 in search of a writing workshop, I ended up finding some wood and stone carvers who invited me to join them. In a building behind Massachusetts Avenue in D.C., wood and stone chips flew across a room where master sculptor Bill Taylor and others worked listening to the music of Nina Simone. Though my studies had been in biology and neuroscience, I had written poetry all my life. I had been encouraged to apply to Hopkins Writing Seminars but hadn’t the courage, until I bumped into one of my teachers, Rudd Fleming, who asked why I hadn’t applied and insisted that I go home and call Elliott Coleman that very day, which I did. A short while later I had an interview with this remarkable man and soon began work in the program.

It was not the first time I had been to Gilman Hall. As a child, I had attended an accelerated program in that very room, a liberating experience after the restrictive teaching in the Baltimore public schools. And as a child I had known a little about Hopkins because my father had done his doctoral work in the School of Public Health. And the Hopkins neurosurgeon, Harvey Cushing, was my great hero in childhood. So under the tutelage of Elliott Coleman, I had come all the way home.

Sometimes I imagine Elliott’s spare living room with a bowl of irises on a low table and gathered around him all his students from all the years, and the writers and artists and theatre folks, the church fathers and psychoanalysts, Proust and Montaigne and E.E. Cummings sketching out a tiny elephant carrying a small banner of good wishes, as he did one Christmas in a letter. And I hear Robert Rosenburg, who could scarcely rise to his feet, saying: “Perhaps someday I may fling myself across half the world to see the Golden Angel of San Marco or to view a patch of yellow sunlight on a wall in Delft. If this ever happens I will remember Marcel Proust and Elliott Coleman and be thankful.” And I hear Richard Macksey quoting a favorite passage from Proust: “He was buried, but the whole mournful night the show cases were lit up, his books, arranged three by three, kept watch over all, like angels with wings spread open, and seemed for him who no longer was alive, the symbol of his resurrection.” And in Macksey’s words: “Elliott’s books are joined in the night by those of his students.”

GIVEN THE NUMBER OF those who had contact with Elliott Coleman and thrived in his company, and honored him through their own writing, it seems only fitting that they be permitted to speak. Adjoining this essay are contributions from the following:

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

…fellow seminarians all.

As you can imagine, there are many more, crowding around these words who have stories to tell, and perhaps one day they will. For now, our thanks to The Fortnightly Review (co-edited by Denis Boyles, yet another Seminarian) for bringing Elliott Coleman — and his poems, including “Rose Demonics”— back into the light.

Notes:

1. Beyond the Square,A Tribute to Elliott Coleman, edited by Robert K. Rosenburg, Linden Press 1972.

2. You Alone Are Real to Me: Remembering Rainer Maria Rilke, BOA Editions, Ltd, 2003.

3. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 61, No.3 (March 1946).

4. “The Teacher and the Poet: Elliott Coleman 1906-1980”.

5. George Steiner, After Babel.


 

Myra Sklarew, former president of the Yaddo artists’ community, is professor emerita of American University’s Department of Literature and founder in 1980 of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. Recent works include, Harmless (poetry), The Journey of Child Development (co-editor), and forthcoming, Holocaust and the Construction of Memory (SUNY Press). Her review of Robert Bly’s prose poems appeared in the Fortnightly in March 2011. Alan Wall’s review of Harmless appears here.
This essay is part of A Fortnightly Review Portfolio of work by and about Elliott Coleman.
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