By James MacGuire.
IT WAS ABOUT THIS time thirty years ago that I belatedly learned of Elliott Coleman’s death. Then, as now, the mere mention of his name floods my mind with images and memories–poignant, poetic, funny, and sad. A fine, pioneering poet, the founder of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, he seems already to belong to another world, and for that reason alone deserves to be remembered here.
Doubtless there are some still living who remember Elliott Coleman as a much younger man, as a student or a school teacher, an Episcopal monk, or a salesman for Doubleday. And there are many who remember him in his earlier days at Hopkins after the close of World War II when the Department of Speech, Writing and Drama was first formed. Russell Baker, among others, has sketched those times in the first volume of his autobiography. My own reminiscences are from much later, at the other end of Coleman’s career, when I became a freshman at Homewood.
IN THE FALL OF 1970 he was still healthy, a tall, erect ectomorph, dark-suited and white-haired. He occasionally wore an antique gray waistcoat which gave him a Dickensian aspect, which was only heightened by his luminous blue eyes, and concealed how very spare his frame really was. There were a number of tall, lean, seemingly ageless Hopkins profs in those days–Jimmy Poultney of Classics was another–and they didn’t so much stand out in opposition to the atmosphere of the late Sixties and early Seventies as above it, radiating an ethereal air and inhabiting a remoter reality than the rest of us.
Elliott was a formal but benign presence in the then cramped hallway of The Writing Seminars offices as well as in the Gilman seminar room where classes were held. He always had a word of welcome and encouragement (and when he sensed a student’s need it was always encouragement). After a session with him how many of us emerged onto the Gilman quad in a state of outright euphoria? Hundreds, I would guess. It was this ability to instill exultation in others that led one of his admirers to sum him up in a single word: “Incandescence”. His written criticisms, written in a bird-like hand, were always impeccably polite, but often fey to the point of mystery, or even hilarity. At the end of one of his apprentice poems a young Seminarian posed the question,
Is it the end of hope
And the onset of despair
Coleman gravely commented, “I don’t know,” and let it go at that.
When he read his own work his voice was strong, deep, resonant, yet somehow otherworldly. One was swept into his incantations and held there, as if in the middle of a dream or some high church rite presided over by the deacon he once had been. Afterwards one felt a little haunted by those performances. I still do.
ELLIOTT’S FIRST RETIREMENT PARTY was a three-day set of readings held during the beautiful Baltimore spring of 1972. A. R. Ammons claimed it would be his last such public reading. Russell Baker read his wonderful column on President Lincoln walking at night (years later I was emerging from a Broadway play as he walked past the theatre on his way to the Grey Lady, and his worn and weary face could have passed for Old Abe’s). He declined, however, an invitation to dine at Delta Phi for fear of being dunned for the money he still owed that house. Jack Barth read as well, and announced that he was about to return to his alma mater. It was a joyous gathering, and the last time I remember seeing Elliott completely happy. But perhaps that was because at the time I did not know him well and had not yet been permitted to peer beneath the surface. No one used good manners to fend off well-wishers more gracefully than Elliott.
The best part about the celebration surrounding Elliott’s retirement was that he enjoyed himself so much he agreed to come out of it (another happy outcome was that Archie Ammons did read publicly again). The second-best thing, from my selfish point of view, was that before the end of that year Elliott had offered me a place in The Seminars after I graduated. Until then, I had always thought that the expression “walking on air” was hyperbolic, if not schmaltzy. How wrong I was.
THE SEMINARS BEGAN TO pick up from that time. A previous Dean had tried to close the program. Now it flourished. New offices were even found. An unfriendly little woman who had been performing secretarial duties in the surliest manner imaginable was let go. (But not before she asked Elliott to ghostwrite her entry into a essay contest entitled, “Why I Want a Free Trip to Hawaii” in fifty words or less. He found it impossible to say no and complied. It lost.). She was replaced by that redoubtable retired WAC, Katie Billings, who soon had all of us marching double-time. She even took a shot at running Elliott and took to supplying him with delicacies obtained with her discount at the Fort Meade PX. But at some point his extreme privacy checked even her, and she gallantly made her peace with that. Her last unselfish act was to bequeath an emergency revolving fund to students in financial distress. She ran it herself until she retired, whereupon it was moved to Garland Hall (that then new but still hideous pile we used to call “Fort Gordon”), where its purpose was completely defeated by the implementation of an application process so complex and time consuming that it would have impressed even the bureaucrats of Philip II’s Escurial.
Elliott lived alone in a penthouse apartment in The Marylander apartments, overlooking St. Paul Street. He rose daily before dawn to write. He described the difference between writing fiction and poetry with a baseball metaphor: “Fiction is pitching. Poetry is catching.” He caught best in the pre-dawn blackness. Then he dressed and came to school, administering the department and holding office hours in the morning, lunching faithfully at the Hopkins Club at noon and conducting seminars in the afternoon. Occasionally he would break the routine to give a reading or an interview, and one memorable day two of Dick Macksey’s students borrowed camera equipment from the Humanities Center in order to film Elliott reading his marvelous “Mockingbirds at Ft. McHenry” at the fort itself.
Early in 1973 he fell and aggravated an old back injury. For several weeks he required around the clock attention. As I lived in a modest building across the street (on my last visit to Baltimore I discovered that it has become an interiorly desecrated hotel where the cost of spending a night is greater than was my monthly rent), I was one of several students deputized to come by to give him food and keep him company. His was a writer’s pad, with little in the way of furniture or furnishings but lots of books, many of which were signed and inscribed to him. His door was left open and he received us in bed. In great pain himself, his first concern was to put others at ease. Seated in bed and looking like a large white bird, he would talk, listen, laugh and slap his leg so hard one thought that it would crumble into chalk, pausing only to light one of several hundred half-smoked cigarettes or to declare another round of drinks. When he was well he made the martinis himself. His method was simplicity itself. He removed the bottle of Beefeaters from the frig and poured it into a glass. By the third one he usually filled it to the brim. After that, one was excused.
Now that he was sick he asked his visitors to make the drinks. Meanwhile he held court in bed. He told tremendous stories of his conversations with Gide, Pound, Eliot, and many other writers he knew and admired. As he drank he got more subversive and funnier, sneaking out from behind his natural decorum to tell tales about the crazy Colemans hidden in his family closet, well-known writers he didn’t care for, and campus issues in need of after-hours expostulation. Those were great evenings. Although he appeared to revel in being surrounded by those who admired and adored him, he didn’t permit it often. As he related in his last poem, “Four Counties of Youth,” his was essentially a life of self-imposed loneliness.
WHEN HE FINALLY RECOVERED enough to come back to school he looked noticeably weakened and older. His spirits had dipped too. His mood was black and more than ever he kept to himself. But every so often he still rose gleefully to the moment. I happened to be daydreaming in front of my fourth-story window one Friday afternoon, a depressing time in the Baltimore winter, as the sky darkened and the long, empty weekend loomed ahead. On the sidewalk below I saw Elliott slowly making his way past the bus stop, and thinking to cheer him up, I telephoned a couple of minutes later. “I just want you to know I saw you pinching that old lady at the bus stop. You should be ashamed of yourself.” There was a moment of stunned silence whereupon he exploded into laughter, “I am, but it was so much fun.”
And he worked on. One of my most powerful memories of Elliott was his reading that Spring of his powerful eucharistic sestina, “Requiem,” a poem that captured all his profound despair at the warring world along with what little hope for it he could then muster, at Father Phil Cunningham’s Good Friday service in the Garret Room of the Eisenhower Library:
O Asians burning the lovely bombs
These sounds are a hymn to the ashes
To be taken for burial northward closed in their box of black
between white lilac and white birch on a slope near the water
As he spoke those words the entire room was frozen into a deep numbness. As it happened, when the time came he too would be cremated.
THAT YEAR ENDED SADLY for him. Although The Seminars had been rejuvenated, his health had failed and his spirit was on the ebb. By the end of the following academic year he retired for the last time. His last years were not all pain. He had many friends, gave readings, taught and traveled some. Much of the time, however, he was alone.
I was living overseas for the next five years and only saw Elliott on sporadic trips back to Baltimore. In 1976, after returning from two years of study in England and just before joining the Peace Corps in Thailand, we went to lunch in an overpriced new restaurant which had taken over the premises of the old University Club on Mt. Vernon Square. A Canadian cousin of mine had come from Montreal to run the kitchen, and he prepared a delicious meal for us. Elliott was in rare form. In retirement he had grown a fine, flowing white beard beneath which he wore a black turtleneck. The lunch began at noon, and we did not leave until after six, by which time everyone in the restaurant had come over to our table to listen to the poet talk. He had that kind of charisma. A minor miracle occurred as well: late in the day the owner took him on a tour of the restaurant, and, as we went into the bakery (where the baker presented him with enough goodies to feed his miniscule appetite for a month), I noticed that Elliott, who was more or less housebound by now and often in a wheelchair, had forgotten his cane back at the table. But he was hopping along without a hitch, conversing in animated French as he went.
I NEXT SAW ELLIOTT late in 1979 after I returned from two years in the tiny central African republic of Burundi. He was by then living at Stella Mauris hospice in Baltimore County. He had suffered two strokes, was bedridden and clearly dying. Nonetheless, he still had the gift, when talking to you, of making you believe that his concerns were unimportant and the the most important thing in the world was you. And he still had the most deadpan, mordant sense of humor I have ever known.
I first came here a year ago and hated it, so I accepted Mike Lynch’s invitation to teach at Oxford. I planned to kill myself there and had brought over a sufficient supply of pain killers to do the job, but I put it off and put it off, meanwhile taking the pills one by one, until I finally made up my mind the time had arrived, and just as I was about to do the deed–wouldn’t you know it–there were no longer enough pills left to get the job done, and that bloody British National Health wouldn’t give me a new prescription.
He also told me that he had just managed to read his last book, Lewis Thomas’ Medusa and the Snail, by holding it almost flush against his face. Now, however, his eyes had completely failed. When I related this story to Dr. Thomas some years later, he replied, “Elliott Coleman was one of the greatest people I ever knew in my life.” Elliott had also completed his last poem. “I didn’t even write it,” he said of “Four Counties of Youth.” “I dictated it. It’s the last poem I’ll ever write. It’s the whole truth, and I want it out.”
Thereafter he lay in bed and listened to the radio, cut off from the world of the written word. Another stroke came some months later and finally rescued him. In typically generous fashion he had provided for a celebration to follow the spreading of his ashes on the grounds of his brother’s East Baltimore parish. When I visited the site the following year I saw that the lawn and church were surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire on top, a touch which must have appealed to Elliott’s sense of the bizarre. “I used to believe in everything,” he once said to me. “Now I believe in nothing.” But he kept on searching.
ELLIOTT COLEMAN WAS A fine man and a loving teacher to all who knew him, however ill-equipped or ignorant we might have been. He was modest, honest, and, more than almost anyone I have ever known, completely committed to his art. Asked when he retired if he still intended to write, he answered, “Oh yes. I hope to make a few more catches, early in the morning.” And he did.
His friend and colleague Stephen Wiest described him thusly in “Notes for Screeds VIII”:
…and draws off beauty as his own
approaching the end of the circle
flesh touched with spirit
chanting in the dusk of a foreign tongue
He stood for artistic and human values for which we all ought to stand, and he was filled with an innate and overwhelming compassion for others, as well as a natural courtesy which was extended to the weak far more than to the strong. In these ways his life was, indeed, a chant in the dusk of a foreign tongue, but his work was utterly contemporary.
WHAT OF ELLIOTT COLEMAN’S poetry? It is all by forgotten now, but it shouldn’t be. Geof Hewitt, editor of the influential anthology, Quickly Aging Here, wondered why Coleman’s work was not better known. He referred to colleagues who felt that Coleman was “much better than William Carlos Williams, every bit as great as Auden.” A. R. Ammons has written that Coleman’s work “represents one of the supreme poetic achievements of our time”.
Hewitt ultimately decided that one of the reasons Coleman was not better known was that he had never been afraid to experiment with new form or content. His very lack of celebrity, in other words, had liberated him to experiment fearlessly in pursuit of his muse. Thus, while many better known poets become linked to a single style, his work changed radically from the colloquial poems of the Thirties, to the spare but eloquent sonnets of the Forties, to his later experimental poems, prose poems and even construct poems in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
In contrast to his Old World mien, Coleman was in fact a rigorous and determined modernist, always pressing forward with new word formations while retaining a vast store of the poetry and learning of the past. He was a classicist and knew so many modern languages that he was often asked to sit as a referee on doctoral orals in those departments. He published articles on Proust and Joyce long before those writers were ever taught in the Hopkins literature departments (they were, of course, studied in the Seminars). So far as I have seen (and this is not meant as a put-down), his work is more avant-garde than anything the staff of The Writing Seminars has written since. Moreover, Elliott’s poetry is imbued with indisputably major tragic themes–the agony and cost of artistic creation, the conflict between faith and disbelief, the impossibility of love, the edge between insight and madness, and the role of metaphysics versus (or along side of) that of the natural order.
Though private, Elliott Coleman’s life had many parts. He was an artist, teacher, friend, near mystical believer/disbeliever, a luminous link in the chain of poets extending from pre-history to the end of time. He affirmed and upheld the dignity, nobility and utter necessity of his calling without ever seeking celebrity or material reward. His work and his whole life–in all their richness and achievement, joy and pain–deserve to be more widely remembered. Those who were touched by him during his life were greatly inspired, and I believe that those who read his work today would see in it the essence of a true and often visionary poetic voice. This “Portfolio” includes a few examples of Elliott Coleman’s work but interested readers should dig much deeper. There is a treasure to be found there.
ON THE DAY I learned that he had died, winter had begun to loosen its grip, and with the thaw spring itself seemed to seep out of the Long Island ground. Walking in the wetlands I heard the singing of the marshbirds begin, perhaps even the song of a single mockingbird.
By an odd coincidence (which Elliott would not have found at all unusual), about that time I played tennis one morning with a group including Galway Kinnell, who was late arriving because he had just come from the bedside of the dying James Wright. Ten years later James Wright’s beautiful Midwestern voice was lovingly republished in Above the River by Farrar Strauss. It would be fitting, only fair, for Johns Hopkins Press or some other appropriate house to reissue a collection of Elliott Coleman’s incandescent work sometime soon as well.
LETTER TO ELLIOTT
You gave us a flute
So we whistled;
And we strummed.
Was it always like that?
No one really knowing what it was….
Rain poured across the African hills at dawn,
And sun swept in at noon.
A red hawk snatched a frog
Up from the garden,
While from the jacaranda
Orioles sang their two-part song,
Turquoise in one light
Violet in the next.
These things always happen,
But today they trigger thoughts of you.
It’s as if you decided a long time ago that,
Like a mummer, your world is gone,
And the shape of emptiness would ever be
The cane, the walls, the hair of snow.
But I don’t know…
There is enough of nothingness already
Without you surrendering to sterile rooms,
And the daily special hospice fruit blend,
Mixed with conspiracies for an early end.
And is there not another time when
We will drink neat gin and laugh
Until we lie down, listening to
Stories of the poet’s plight,
Mingle with the soft rain that falls
Deep on a Baltimore night?
James MacGuire, who studied at Johns Hopkins and Cambridge, directs the Portsmouth Institute and edits the Portsmouth Review at Portsmouth Abbey School. He is the author or co-author of five books, including a collection of poems, Dusk on Lake Tanganyika. His poetry has been published in The Southern Review, America, Ironwood, St. Austin’s Review and many other magazines. He has two sons, Pierce and Rhoads, and divides his time between New York and Rhode Island.
This essay is part of
of work by and about Elliott Coleman.