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(continued)

Pound, Cole remembers, asked Williams if Cole would come visit him in “the bughouse,” as he called it. “I wrote back Williams and said I was frightened,” Cole recalled. “I said I admire his work but I don’t want to get involved in all this, with these charges against the man.” Reassured by Williams that Pound was a good man, whatever his political opinions, Cole eventually went to meet him.



Like many stories that have been told too often, Cole’s memory of what exactly happened next is fuzzy. There are two versions. In one, Cole met the poet inside the ward—he remembers Pound as a large man in a pajama suit grabbing him by the arm, shaking his hand and leading him off to talk. Another memory features Cole walking across the great lawns of the asylum to find the poet and his wife sitting on chairs. He recalls Pound as “a healthy looking man, a little fleshy,” in his late sixties, with a ruddy complexion and the famous flaming red hair gone to gray. Cole recalled his pointy beard, his flat American accent. Cole, who has a gift for friendship, soon became close to Pound and his wife Dorothy; he continued to visit the poet until Pound’s belated release and return to Italy in 1959.

Thomas Cole is a trim, dapper and effervescent man. He’s in his eighties now, but walks with a bounce. Born in Baltimore in 1922, he still lives there. He served in the South Pacific during World War II on a PT boat tender before being transferred stateside for officer training in the Navy’s V-12 program, which placed promising potential officers on various college campuses across the country. One of those colleges was Muhlenberg. Cole studied here for a time before his unit was transferred to Villanova and the war ended. From there, Cole took up work at the Post Office and likely would have stayed there had not he received an unsolicited letter of acceptance from Muhlenberg, which, like other colleges, used success in the V-12 program as sufficient qualification for college. The strategy not only attracted able students but also some welcome government money; the GI Bill would cover Cole’s college education.

By the time Cole arrived in Allentown in 1947, he had already caught the poetry bug. He’d taken some literature courses at Johns Hopkins and had a poem accepted by “Poetry” magazine. As an enthusiastic lover of literature and a talented writer, Cole was embraced by the Muhlenberg English department. Dr. William Kinter and especially, that legendary teacher of Shakespeare, Dr. John Brown, became mentors for the young poet who was already publishing “Imagi.” Cole’s fine first book of poems, “A World of Saints” (1956), features a lovely “Elegy to Dr. John Brown,” who died rather suddenly, in 1951, a year after Cole’s graduation. It begins:

Now in the dead of winter
When nature plays us fools,
Squandering one spring day
In every ten, they tell me
You are dead who made a joke
Of such miserable time.

Cole is an accomplished poet. His work echoes the most powerful voices of his time—Williams, Pound, Stevens, Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. Yet, he is not often merely imitative. His poem “Of Remembering” recalls one of his many visits to William Carlos Williams’ home in Rutherford, N.J., where “Branches of golden forsythia/ Spill from a Chinese vase.” Later in the same poem, he invokes Marianne Moore, at an “evening talk at Harvard”

Retrieving from the floor
Her green silk scarf,
And like a magician
Squaring it slowly away
Into her bag of tricks.

—a perfect representation—but not an imitation— of Moore’s exquisite rabbit-out-of-a-hat writing style.

Despite his liking and respect for Pound, it was for Williams and his devoted wife, Flossie, that Cole felt special affection. He often stayed at their house, and even helped Williams edit “Kora in Hell,” later to be published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s famous City Lights Press. In a harrowing unpublished poem Cole shared with our Contemporary Writing class called “The Death of the Cat,” Cole recalls how he and the poet conspired to kill a sick and abandoned kitten whose howling kept the household awake at night. Williams, of course, was a physician, inured to death; Cole was less so. The two put the kitten in a galvanized can and the doctor poured in chloroform. “Stifled by the fumes,/ we avoided/ each other’s eyes,” Cole writes, “’Some bastards/ drown them,’/ Bill said.” Lying in bed that night the guilty Cole found himself kept awake by the final cries of the dying kitten. It is a wrenching poem. Poetry, we remember is not all hearts and flowers. It can be tough-minded. It must face what needs to be faced.

Muhlenberg holds a special place in Thomas Cole’s heart. A high school teacher in Baltimore for decades, he enjoys being in front of a class and especially in being around young people. After telling his story and answering questions, students gathered around his chair as he gave away valuable rare copies of “Imagi,” his little magazine that could. Those students who were poets seemed especially honored to shake the hand of the man who had shaken the hand of Pound and Williams. And I remember thinking, yes, and whose hands had they shaken? Pound had shaken the hand of Henry James, who knew Robert Browning, and who summered at Emerson’s house…vital old men have a way of bringing it all home.

A living tradition gets carried on in every literature class—and other classes too. I saw in this moment what Williams had seen in the sublime “Pisan Cantos”: that sense that the past is connected to the present, so that “the deepest past starts to life.” We are not that far away from the past and in the bright eyes of Tom Cole, reminiscing about the great poets he knew as a young man the past came a little closer; it was right here, at Muhlenberg, on a sunny day in March. He was walking by my side; he was talking to my students. And, they were listening.

 

Work Cited : Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. NY. New Directions. 1986.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Fistula of the Law.” IMAGI. Vol. No. Spring 1949.

 

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