IT WASN’T UNTIL JULY of 1969 that Elliott Coleman wrote to tell me that someone had withdrawn from the coming Fall semester and there was a Gilman Fellowship he could offer me. I was thrilled and delighted traveling east from San Francisco, with two changes of clothes in a backpack, along with an overblown post-Beatnik journal scribbled in run-on prose. Later, Elliott would gently explain that while the prose form had worked for Arthur Rimbaud, my poems needed to be written in lines, that they would benefit from what he called the “horizontal and vertical”, and that one of the meanings of the word “verse” was “furrow”, a small linear trench to be planted and tended.
As it happened, we had a genuine Beat writer for a classmate that fall: the poet Charles Plymell was contemporary with Ginsberg and Corso and a friend of Beat icon Neal Cassady, and his presence in our midst added a level of artistic experience most graduate writing programs would envy. Because of Charley, writers like John Weiners came to read to us. Ginsberg also came, cautioning against the use of “warmed over Donovan lyrics” in our writing and urging us not to be afraid to write political poems. Later Charley and his wife, Pamela Beach Plymell, would set up their small press, Cherry Valley Editions, near Ginsberg’s farm in upstate New York.
It was Elliott who created this oasis of liberty in the midst of Johns Hopkins’ staid environs. Most of the undergraduates we taught in our Composition courses were pre-med students with heavy science course-loads. As instructors, we veered off considerably from the proscribed reading list, refusing to follow the plan, and assigning instead writers like Jean Genet and Henry Miller, DH Lawrence and Hart Crane. We also had them read Steinbeck and Lewis, the lyrics of Woody Guthrie and the hobo poet Tom Kromer. I remember facilitating more than one lively classroom discussion over the question of whether one becomes a doctor to heal the sick or to establish a life of financial comfort. No doubt we made life more difficult for Elliott, but he never let on anything was amiss.
There was a good deal of unrest on most university campuses that year. I remember a carload of us driving to the University of Maryland to hear Abbie Hoffman speak (he was out on bail along with the rest of the Chicago Eight), and in May the US would invade Cambodia, leading to the protests at Kent State (see poem below). Throughout this tumultuous and conflicted atmosphere, Elliott appeared serene and balanced, maintaining his commitment to poetry as he knew it, the Modernist masters Eliot and Stevens and the later Bishop and Auden. It seems to me he must have been amused by our rabble-rousing and misbehavior, our poems about sleeping all night in the park, drinking wine on the bench near Poe’s statue. He’d look up at the workshop with a twinkle in his eye. I believe he loved us.
It was the time of the pin oak leaves
and the highjacked bus upside down
in the ditch. It was the spring
of 1970 and Ginsberg ate peaches from a can
and stroked each cow on its face
before leaving for DC on a plane
where the ghosts of four students
hung in the air like tear gas
over the huge angry crowds,
where he would sound his gutteral aum
across the White House south lawn
after the speeches ended, then
tell everybody to pick up their trash.
When the sun went down
the trouble started.
Chuck Berry was playing a half-empty armory
trying to pay down his tax bill,
someone set fire to a squad car outside
and we roamed the streets
half drunk with the night air
and the moon overhead
which we thought we could swallow,
its pale rocks and electric dust,
the shadowy lakes on its dark side,
though it was daylight in Vietnam,
land of rice paddies and ancient poetry,
land of the lotus pond hidden from sight,
its presence so hard to know.
This essay is part of
of work by and about Elliott Coleman.