Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry: Tribute to Elliott Coleman
(The excerpt below is from a larger article about the poet and teacher Elliott Coleman in the recent Fortnightly Review: )
I was 20 years old, applying to Johns Hopkins graduate Writing Seminars from a small Midwestern college. I had come to campus to meet Elliott Coleman, the director and founder of the program. He had read my application and invited me to lunch at the Faculty Club. Looking back now and understanding the processes of application and the competition for a position in the Writing Seminars, I realize how remarkable his attention was, but he showed that kind of attention to students, making each feel important and valued.
I had sought out his work before I came to Baltimore. I no longer remember how I found the slim volumes of poetry in my remote college town before online ordering, but I did, and I had read his book of poems Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry. When I spoke about those poems. he was genuinely humbled and surprised that I had made the effort to read his books.
He asked, “Would you like to go see Fort McHenry?” That afternoon, the student showing me around drove us all out to Fort McHenry, and I walked around the area with Elliott Coleman as he talked about poetry and the genesis of his poems. I’m sorry I didn’t write down what he said, or if I did, I can no longer find the notes of that afternoon. But I knew then that Hopkins was where I wanted to be if I had the chance, and even though I was a fiction writer, I wanted to study with Elliott Coleman. Fortunately I got that opportunity.
Elliott Coleman radiated a gentleness, a caring and a humility that shed light, illumining those around him. He didn’t seek the center of attention; he didn’t draw the spotlight to himself, rather he shined so that light fell on others.
From Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry:
Through a window in Tunis the green searolls its light. A few square white houses dazzle the Atlas mountains, the color of lions and honey. This foothill is hardly Africa; this bay is hardly Mediterranean. They partake of each other by reflection, absorbed as they are in the depths of space.
(I hope you’ll share in the comments section memories of teachers important in your lives or books you are reading or going back to re-read.)
I was moved by the persisting love embedded in your blog about Elliott Coleman; one of my professors at the School of Medicine, Mac Harvey, had a similar impact on me. And I was touched by your description of the labors of novel writing—I watched my late wife, Sue Kaufman, suffer the same way for many years.
I happened on your post about Elliott Coleman. “Elliott Coleman radiated a gentleness, a caring and a humility that shed light, illumining those around him. He didn’t seek the center of attention; he didn’t draw the spotlight to himself, rather he shined so that light fell on others.” And I said, yes, this is the man I met in the summer of 1977 while I was in a summer writing program at Plater College at Oxford. Michael Lynch was the director of the program, and he had spirited Elliott out of a nursing home in the Baltimore area to spend the summer mentoring and inspiring the students. Elliott was so frail, and there had been no arrangements made to provide him with the assistance he needed. I and another student took it upon ourselves to make sure he got meals, bed changes, laundry and such. I so enjoyed the time I spent with this gentle and kind man. He must have been in his late 70s or early 80s at the time.