I became familiar with Elliott Coleman and his incredible poetry in October of 1967. I had just gotten a job at the Milton S. Eisenhauer Library, developing microfilm, and various other library duties. It was while I was doing stack work that I discovered Professor Coleman’s Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry, and found that he was on the JHU’s campus, directing the Writing Seminars. However, it wasn’t until early 1970 that I wrote to him, briefly explaining my interest in his poetry, as well as my needing his professional guidance with mine.
A few days later I received the first of several post cards from him with instructions and his office phone number, explaining—in his small written hand—that it would best to call him and to set up a luncheon meeting, which I did at once.
Professor Coleman was beyond cordial on the phone; he suggested we meet for lunch at the Johns Hopkins Club, that I should bring a sample of my writing, and I agreed. At the appointed day and time, Professor Coleman met me at the entrance to the Johns Hopkin’s Club, and I was indeed impressed, not only with Professor Elliott Coleman, who was tall, white-haired, and thin, wearing a dark blue suit, a white straight-collared shirt, and black silk tie, but with being invited to such an impressive environment for lunch.
We were seated at a table with a few other professors; Elliott introduced me to them as a poet, and we hit it off at once. It was as if we had known each other for years, and this was despite our age difference of several decades. It was world literature and poetry, of course, but something more, perhaps something invisible. It was also the first time that a “published” poet referred to me as a poet
After our lunch, we walked over to his modest office (Gilman Hall Room 108). He sat behind his desk, and I sat in a comfortable wooden chair. We easily slipped into our literary conversation, talking about writing poetry, getting published, as well as authors and poets we admired; for example: Joyce, Beckett, Celine, and Gaddis. (The struggles of being an artist / poet, too.) I recall that it was an honest conversation, and it was where I easily recognized that Elliott Coleman was one of the most sincere and direct human beings that I had the pleasure of meeting—and that was my first and lasting impression!
A week later, I received another post card from Professor Coleman. He suggested getting together at his office to review the poems I had given him to read. Our second meeting was just as cordial and noteworthy as the first, and it was at this time that I was introduced to the director of JHU’s writing seminars Michael Lynch, author of the novel An American Soldier, who was helpful to me in the future….
Elliott was sensitive and complimentary about my poems, only offering encouraging words and absolutely no negative criticism at all. It was also interesting and noteworthy that whenever I attempted to have him discuss his poetry, he’d laugh, slap his thigh, as if I were trying to discuss various mysterious weather patterns. He’d rather discuss Proust, or Rimbaud, or something about his experience with Dylan Thomas or Anais Nin than discuss his poetry.
Before and after his retirement, he would often telephone to invite me to his modest hi-rise apartment in The Marylander, at St. Paul Street and University Parkway in Baltimore, for dinner. Usually, it was an early invitation, always starting with gin and tonics, or vodkas-on-the-rocks. Followed by intellectual discussions on Georges Poulet, whom Elliott was busily translating. Then, he would prepare Omaha Steak filets, which we always enjoyed, as we discussed his time teaching in Ashville, North Carolina, as well as his time in New York City, as an Episcopal Deacon at St. John the Divine, and his jobs at the publishing houses of Henry Holt and Doubleday.
There were also the many Writing Seminars stories involving his encounters with the countless visiting poets that he shared with relish and great interest. Stories that were usually brief and personal. He was indeed splendid in his descriptions about those visits, especially E.E. Cummings and Anis Nin, both of whom he had great admiration.
Since I was often unemployed, looking for suitable work and writing my second novel during these early 1970s visits, he would inquire how I was doing financially. I would say that I was getting by as best I could, then, as I was preparing to leave, he would press a well-needed a ten or twenty in my hand. His thoughtfulness and kindness to me was something that I had never before experienced. Just what he saw in me, I will never know. Perhaps it was my youth, or my literary ambition? He did, however, delight in other younger people as well.
I was also struggling with completing a novel and was puzzled what to do with it? I wasn’t certain if it was ready for publication, or not? Elliott suggested that I have Michael Lynch look at it, which he kindly did, and to which I was always thankful for his literary insight.
Time passed … .
After his retirement he spent much of his time translating Georges Poulet’s Proustian Space. He had a little card table set up in his living room; it was where he did his translating, and other writings, perhaps In the Canyon. When I visited, we usually sit in his living room. He would be sitting on a light gray sofa, drinking vodka-on-the-rocks, while I would be seated in a chair opposite. Between us there was a glass top coffee table, where an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes rested within easy reach for us. We were both smokers. But I do recall on a later visit, I saw that he wasn’t smoking, and I asked if he quit: — Doctor’s orders, he answered without further clarity.
Elliott visited Oxford for a literary conference, as well as other well-known European institutions. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line he broke his ankle, if memory serves (Austria departing a plane?), and it was at that point that his life seemed to drastically change. In fact, the last time I visited him at his St. Paul street apartment, he said, due to his health and physical limitations, he was moving to Stella Marris, a Catholic advanced health care facility in Baltimore County. He was more than worried about his mobility, mainly caused by his ankle issue, he was by this time using a cane and he had to wear an uncomfortable brace around his ankle for support.
By the time Elliott had moved into Stella Maris, my life had changed in many ways, as a result, I couldn’t see or visit him as much as I would have liked. When we did get together, I would arrange to pick him up, and I’d find him eagerly waiting for me in his room…. At this point, it was rather sad to see him diminished, living in such a small room—much like a monk’s cell…. We would go to several different typically Baltimoresque restaurants for a long literary lunch—for example: Johnny Unitas’ The Golden Arm; Bertha’s; Brooks Robinson’s Gorsuch House, and the S.S. Nobska, among others, places that are now all gone, except in memory…. It seemed that Elliott relished our lunches. It was certainly an escape from his small room. He always wore a blue, or burgundy turtleneck, black slacks, and a blue blazer. He had also grown a white beard, which added to his remarkable distinguished looks—his eyes especially were an arresting deep blue. In colder weather, he wore a heavy trench coat and a Russian fur hat. All of our lunches started with a few stiff “pops” and a discussion on what was currently happening in our lives. It seemed that we each had stopped writing about the same time. Once he had completed the translation of Poulet’s Proustian Space, and In the Canyon, his will to write had dwindled. (I had somehow run out of time.)
Of course, for me, being with him was always rewarding in so many ways: listening to his professor’s voice, much like a skilled English actor’s; his erudite discussions on Bryon, or Keats; his quick laughter, too. In order to help me with my writing he introduced me to a few poets he thought might have been helpful to me. There was Roxy Powell, and also Charles Plymell, who at the time was living near the Maryland Institute of Art, and with whom I visited once. There were others as well, including a quick introduction to John Barth. With me, it always seemed that Elliott was sharing—He shared a lot, especially friends, money, food, books, insights, and truth to name but a few.
The last conversation we had was a phone call he made to me a few days before his death. His health was failing, and I could sadly tell that he was calling to say good-bye.