MANY PEOPLE SPEAK OF Elliott’s “courtliness,” of his being polite, even to people who did little or nothing to earn it. One late afternoon at the Writing Seminars in perhaps 1968, a seminarian was reading his poems, at the top of his lungs. He bellowed every word, every line, of which there were entirely too many anyway. Eventually, the professor in the classroom next door was so maddened by trying to discuss, I think, Greek philology with advanced graduate students, that he started pounding on the blackboard attached to the wall between the rooms. This made the poet yell louder, and the Greek professor to pound harder. Elliott looked exasperated and weary, but he rose, and left the seminar room to go next door and deal with the enraged professor. He came back looking very upset: a man of ingrained politeness caught between two such outbursts. The pounding ceased; soon, mercifully, the poet ceased, and Elliott thanked him, going on to the next business without further comment.
Elliott told me once that as a young man he had taught equitation at the Asheville School for Boys. He recalled one day with obvious pleasure, when he and his riders rode back to the school in cold sunshine after it had snowed, in that mountain valley. They rode through a copse of pine trees, the green boughs bearing snow hitting them in their faces as they came on, making one to feel refreshed and alive to the moment. Then he talked about watching, years later, mounted police trying to deal with a crowd which was getting out of control — “They needed equitation,” he said. I can imagine Elliott as a horseman in either context. There was in him a civility of manner which amounted to a kind of subtle, but very practiced dressage. This daily form of behavior which was almost a dance, much as a poet can find the form of cadence, of line, of graceful motion, which creates emotional coherence in the face of things which otherwise remain deranged and threatening. In addition, there was a clearly ethical intent in what he did. His observance of personal decorum, again not unlike a poem’s decorum, was a way of giving other people a gift of respect as soon as he met them. One always felt that this carefully-dressed man had worn his coat and tie that day, entirely in your honor.
Robert Jackson lives in retirement after a career in business. He writes poems and circulates them in manuscript among trusted friends.
This essay is part of
of work by and about Elliott Coleman.