Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Minimalism XII: Corman and the Collateral Tradition

No account of avant garde American poetry in the second half of the 20th Century would be complete without a discussion of Cid Corman. My earliest impression of Corman's poetry was his
Sun Rock Man [1962], a volume of poems he wrote while teaching in Matera, in Southern Italy. Corman's efforts on behalf of American poetry, through his editing and publishing of the literary magazine Origin, and Origin Books, as well as through his own writing and translating (from Oriental and European languages), and a wide correspondence, are probably unparalleled in his time. His promotion of a string of underground poets who would become post-Modern classic figures seems in retrospect to have been almost clairvoyant. Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, Denise Levertov, William Bronk, Theodore Enslin, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Gary Snyder, Lorine Niedecker, William Carlos Williams, Paul Blackburn--Corman had a hand in bringing to light or of perpetuating the work of each of them. Typically, Corman wasn't the only one to realize how important this work was, but his confident commitment to his own taste and vision of good work, was immensely influential. Again, it's difficult to imagine innovative post-War poetry without him.

Nevertheless, I'm conflicted about the actual significance of Corman's vision, and what its actual effect has been, particularly since the 1950's in American poetry. When I came to literary consciousness in the mid-to-late 1960's, Corman's magazine wasn't easily obtainable in bookstores, and books he published had such small runs that they seldom showed up, even in places where new work was available.

Corman had a precious conception of poetry, and in addition, an interest in the physical (material) text which derived from the "little magazine" tradition in America, as well as the fine press book tradition--particularly the oriental traditions of book-making. Corman spent two years in Kyoto in the late 1950's, and returned to live there in the early 'Eighties, where he remained for the rest of his life. Corman has important ties to Boston, where he grew up, but his aesthetic connections were always characteristically oriental in character. His own efforts in translating from the Japanese and Chinese undoubtedly were crucial in guiding his focus on Asian imitations and contexts. He seems to have come to see himself as a sort of modern oriental sage, issuing haiku- or tanka-like miniatures in a countless series of quotidian occasions, many of which were self-published. The example of Pound was important to many of the experimental poets of the post-War period, chiefly through his encouragement to his followers to explore the literature of other languages and periods, and to expand their imaginative horizons away from the central canon of English literature. This was good advice, and Corman seems to have taken it to heart, as did Blackburn and Snyder.

Corman wasn't the only one publishing this kind of work. Jonathan Williams, a writer, publisher and promoter with Black Mountain connections, did the same through his Jargon/Highlands operation, and there was James Weil with his Elizabeth Press, James Decker (Decker Press), and so forth. The history of the relationship between writers, editors and publishers of the literary underground is still being written, but the map is already well-demarcated. Corman's taste was formed largely in the crucible of the late 1940's and 1950's, during the ascendancy of the William Carlos Williams late "variable foot" period, and the poems included in Williams's Collected Later Poems. What Corman saw in Williams was American speech, American homespun wisdom, straight-forward presentation, and the narrow line, the modestly-sized stanza. Creeley, Levertov, Blackburn, Bronk and Enslin also picked up on this aspect of Williams. And behind Williams Corman heard Frost, the quirky, country guru spinning out rural magic. Ultimately, behind Williams and Frost, there is Dickinson. A thread of formal style runs right from her, through Williams, H.D., Zukofsky, Oppen and Niedecker to Creeley, Blackburn, Levertov, and finally to Corman and his Origin nexus. Crucially, Corman featured the work of Zukofsky, Niedecker, Creeley, Snyder, drawing these figures into a specific constellation of common themes which exerted a powerful magnetic underground influence over the progress of work during the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and after.

But personally, though he saw and appreciated important work across the spectrum of the Pound/Williams/Black Mountain vortex, Corman's bias was consistently narrower, confined primarily to Asian tropes and forms. By living abroad, Corman was able to maintain an objective separation from the chaotic richness of American life and art, to preserve a purity of regard that allowed him to think of his own work without the dissonance of competing attitudes, styles or possibilities.

Corman lived in Kyoto, where he ran a small coffee shop with his Japanese wife. In 1985, I spent two months in Kyoto, photographing the royal precincts, gardens, temples and architecture, living the while in a 500 year old ryokan. Even had I thought about it, I probably wouldn't have tried to visit Corman at that time. I was "out" of the poetry scene in those years. It's a beautiful city, surrounded by wooded hills, and it's become a tourist mecca, as well as a center for westerners wishing to pursue studies in oriental religion. Increasingly, over the decades, Corman's work looked and felt more and more like a tourist's version of Japanese and Chinese poetry. He never learned to speak Japanese or Chinese, and worked from cribs when he did translations. Corman published many of his own books, and they invariably felt oriental in binding and effect--not to speak of their contents.

The combination of dry American speech, eschewing complex concepts, linguistically inert--with the Buddhist practice of using koans or brief, arcane, enigmatic, cryptic sayings, observations or anecdotes--to inspire transcendent insight or meditative illumination. The combination of a Thoreauvian nature-preoccupation, with Eastern mysticism--long familiar to writers and artists of the West--found a coherent advocate in Corman.

The appeal of this kind of writing in the West isn't difficult to comprehend. In translation, much of the subtlety and nuance contained in the original textual manifestations of Asian poetry, are glossed over or synthesized into cliché'd attitudes and poses. Corman's work, at its most characteristic, exploits these simple effects in the interests of a persona and program which are not in the least innovative, or even original. There is an attitude about apprenticeship in the West that prefers imitation and the use of established forms (of, for instance, the sonnet), in preference to "free verse" or formally unfamiliar structures. Pound's injunction to try out forms from other literature, from earlier periods in history (including China and Japan) was useful in some cases (Blackburn's work with Provencal/Troubadour, for instance), but in the case of a figure like Corman, it's possible to see how this suggestion may have led to a dead end. A great deal of writing has been done over the last 100 years, in imitation of effects common to Asian literature, but very little of it seems likely to survive. If poetry is what fails to pass through the membrane of translation, then trying to make effective zen poetry originals, in English, would seem--given the inscrutable qualities of Eastern thought and art--to be a very difficult task indeed. Take, for instance, the work of Rexroth, a poet whose work never seems to have found a comfortable form, never more so than in his strained attempts to make creative "versions" of classic Japanese and Chinese poetry. The market for such aesthetic tourism has always been reliable, but seldom useful. Pound's Cathay may be one of the very few instances of a fully imagined recreation of a context within which the supposed spirit of the East is persuasively achieved.

Bearing all this in mind, I approach a book of poems which Corman published with Elizabeth Press, in 1976, titled, simply, 'S. Towards the latter half of his career, Corman indulged in precious little effects, intended, I am sure, to suggest the painterly qualities of Japanese or Chinese calligraphy. The problem with such cute effects, is that Western alphabets don't have the visual variability of Asian ones, so no amount of manipulation of the Roman alphabet can have the same complexity and nuance of the other system.

The poems in spring & all [1923] succeed in ways that have no counterpart in Asian poetry. Their energy, their functional rhetorics, establish a platform of expression and free variation which is spontaneous and formally eccentric. The notion of somehow combining the best aspects of Williams's apparent directness and simplicity, with the formal ambiguity and templated visual symbolism of Asian poetic traditions, is a contradictory program on its face. Even granting that the choice of late Williams (the Williams of Journey to Love or Pictures of Breughel) presents a model that does less than full justice to the purest example of his genius--the choice of uninflected American speech as a filter through which to conjure Eastern mystic visual simulacra is destined for drabness.

In the early 1960's, Corman thought of himself as the inheritor of a tradition of light lyrical form, in a manner very like Creeley. Here are two poems which Corman published in Poetry (Chicago) Magazine (1962):


glad to be
back be-
cause I am

like winter
and trees
are branches

for them and

a few birds
and eyes--
the sky is


It clears. And the sun
throws light on the dust
on the windows, the

constancy of that
mist. To see "if the
weather is with us",

and it is. It is
amazing how much
a window lest in

or out. Part of a
cross from a tower
on a puddle on

a connecting walk,
white waterpipes that
sidle up sides of

white buildings to tie
tin cornices to
ground, other windows

polished by inde-
rections of reflec-
tions. Quiet. The sky.

Going back further in time is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope: Things get smaller and smaller the further away they are, which is more like how things should look, if we could indeed "see" into the past. Poems are one way of bringing the past closer to us, and reading an earlier poem by Corman yields clues to what he would become. The more complex a work of art is, the more tangled up in it the artist becomes, the more he tells us about who he is, what his limitations and talents are, and the ultimate meaning of his enterprise. This poem from Poetry was published in the early 1950's--

The Cockatoo

The lazy yellow cockatoo, at home
down under in antipodal cold, accepts

its outdoor cage with worn aplomb:
its narrow beak curved arrogantly.

Its sharply delineated claws exact
a hold and a half on the sanctuary bars.

Those of us who come to take a look
away with us of its resourcefulness

and lemon-thin skin are not aware,
and care less, that its given place in the air

is less than the usual dosage science requires
for perfect normal famil life; of course,

it has its choice of two between two kinds
of mongrel cockatoos and all the breeze

the cage can carry. Some of us, the best
of pets, cluck between the throat and palate,

arriving at a jest the cockatoo,
by natural affinity, may master,

and must, as a token to sex, flurry its crest,
the fan of feathers creating its head;

but when we offer only our goodbyes
and mash of words: guttural scraps of tone,

it pulls itself by the beak to the wire edge
closer and cocks it horntipped weapon, tense

with hospitality. It leans there locked,
until we start to go of; then it drops

back into its deep retreat, saying
something to itself we'd rather not hear.

Writing like this conjures up for me a whole milieu of artistic presumption, which dominated poetry in America in the 1950's. It has New Criticism--Brooks and Warren--written all over it, and it accepts the premises of its time, almost to the complete exclusion of personality and individual expression. It was good of Corman to abandon this kind of writing. But the choices he made do not, in and of themselves, suggest that mere rejection of one kind of bland, awkward ratiocination, in favor of a simpler, less complex poem modeled after Eastern minimalism led to a superior alternative. Succession is a quality of time only. By the mid-1970's, when 'S was published, Corman's familiar stripped-down Japanese poetic style was well in evidence.

Your apple's
for the

how winter

that spur and
to flesh?

Food for
the scholar,
it feeds

the brains--
nor is this
all: a

rose when
it blooms and
a rose

when it
the feast is--

when it falls--
a life.


The god in the word--
worm in the garden--
fertility's breath--

death. Reach up the child
now to the branch to
retrieve an apple.


I sit on
a rock
in the shade

and am
content not
to think.

why make more
of life
than death does?


Where was I
now? Let me
see. Lost in

the drift of
word coming
in on word--

a murmur
of waters
closing in--

confined here.
An ark in
the deluge

of silence.
Sh. Breathe. Breathe.


Sun in
the sky
from the earth

We are
what the light
through us

The shift in approach from those earlier ambitious attempts at acceptance defines the growth from a desire for approbation--to be recognized for the quality of one's effort and the elegance of one's thought--to one of petulant complacence. Corman's mature poems are like short-handed cribs from original haiku or tanka, but the original effect of the models is lost in his English version.

In my reading of James Wright, or Jack Gilbert, or some of the best of Creeley's work from the Sixties (Words, Pieces) there is an appropriation of feeling that is invented in English. The universal quality which these other poets perceived at the core of the best writing they knew was re-imagined inside the language they had mastered. But mastery isn't simply the ability to manipulate language; it's the skill to be in touch with the feelings that reach far down into consciousness, to tap into resources of awareness through the language. Corman's failure to penetrate into the sources of his own deeper creative awareness is evident throughout his work.

After the train's gone
it seems so far away
to be here.
Or here.

In thousands of poems just like this, Corman played out the string of imitations, each derived in a specific way from the cliché'd formality of the translator's cribs. His spiritual journey away from Western to Eastern consciousness followed a well-worn path in his time. Meditation was hip, and Americans dug the cool caption-like brevity of dimestore haiku, Basho sitting by the stream, listening to frogs belch in the mist.

Mountains at
the doorway

Welcome the

Threshold and
summit meet.


Pointing out
each rain drop
in the field
the sun light

all is just
the smallest
part of it.

One might begin by pointing out that breaking up sentences into tight little enjambed arrangements like this is no guarantee of interest. What is accomplished by putting "Pointing out each rain drop in the field the sunlight remembers [all] is just the smallest part of it" into tight, little constricted stanzas--? If the poetic content of such a poem is its setting, how does its structure accomplish, or add to, the experience of feeling it wishes to convey? Corman, like Creeley (and a host of imitators), put great store in such precious "little boxes" (as RC called them half-ironically); but in Creeley, the sense is in the words, which speak directly to the resources inside syntax and sound and meaning, rather than, as with Corman, a preconception is proposed as a demonstration of another fact (derived from an "exotic" cliché). Corman's little zen poems all contain the same message. 'S is a book overshadowed, burdened, by the author's preoccupation with death, fragility, transitoriness, self-pity.

A man dies.
That's all. The
of that is.

But the dimensions of his aesthetic are only suited to underestimate the intensity of his probable desire. Western ambition and Eastern sagacity aren't necessarily happy bedfellows. During his life-time, Corman had a loyal following, and people often would speak affectionately of "Cid"--a name he adopted from his given name Sydney. He wasn't attached to institutions, and was politically outside the prevailing literary systems of his time. He had taken up people when they were still obscure, and enjoyed the notoriety of the excluded crusader. There's a certain advantage to being considered outside the Establishment--as Corman was, in faraway, exotic Kyoto--even when (or if) what's offered isn't any better than the culture you're escaping from (or disdaining). The real challenge for any artist isn't exile, but to inhabit the source in a way that either sustains (confirms) it, or methodically repudiates it. Repudiation (or acceptance) may begin in exile, but must conclude in return. In Corman's case, the self-exile led to a dumbing down of an aesthetic that had never been more than the quotidian aspiration. Corman's work was never better than the poems he wrote in Sun Rock Man. Between that book (written in 1956 but not published until six years later) and his death in 2004, he published a great deal (much of it by himself).

As an advocate of self-publication, I am in complete agreement with Corman's approach to total control over the means of text production. That independence allows one complete artistic freedom to present the meaning of one's vision, without the interposition of another screen of taste and framing. But Corman's abilities as a writer weren't as great as his editorial intuitions. He could recognize good work when he saw it, but--like many editors--his own work didn't have very much to recommend it. He wasn't an innovator, and he didn't have a powerful voice. You could make a case for his modesty of approach, and total commitment to the literary life, and the desire to bring better work into being. But the actual effect of conducting a guerrilla campaign that goes on for fifty years, is a little like the stale romance of partisans living a conflict well past its time, as some Spaniards are said to do in Catalonia. It can get to be a bit long in the tooth. In 1960, writing zen poems in English still held some cachet. And reviving the Objectivists in the Sixties clearly was an important task, that Corman helped get accomplished (Zukofsky, Niedecker). But those who look to him for wisdom or poetic example will make a fatal error.

In an earlier post, Minimalism Part VII - Joseph Massey & the Collateral Tradition, I posited a phenomenon of younger writers taking up inferior models as ultimate guides for imitation and emulation, suggesting that the young poet Joseph Massey had mistakenly bought into a poetic "tradition" spearheaded by Corman, and loosely buttressed by his later friends and compatriots as a second tier of writing, coming out of the 1960's. That discussion was largely dismissed as a sour grapes reaction to a complimentary piece on Massey in Silliman's blog. But I'd had these thoughts about Corman for many years. Reading the work of this young poet last year, I was uncomfortably reminded of how mediocre work can become the focus of aspiration for those just learning their craft--because it looks easy, it's attractive and tantalizing. Its modesty makes it seem noble. Its care makes it seem elegant. Despite these qualities, it may lack the ultimate currency of worth. The kind of approbation and mutual encouragement common among artistic wannabes and has-beens will occasionally be taken for the genuine. Early on in his career, Corman was helped by Marianne Moore to get him a Fulbright. No doubt she saw, in such poems as "The Cockatoo" (above) the sort of polite, well-intentioned effort at explanation and complex strategic methodology she herself cared so much about. But Corman was destined to do other things. Unfortunately, or fortunately, in his case, that "other" thing was his editorial effort. It would be best if the second rate work that Corman wrote (along with some of his friends, Enslin, Bronk, and Samperi, Tagliabue) were consigned to history, along with feng shui, and the pillow-talk of the palace concubines.


jh said...

i find the claim by corman
that he was writing a book a day
sort of amazing
forcing the issue
and i suspect that while he used
rather simple accessible language and form every piece lends something profound to the reader

J said...

Try as you may, you caint make English hymns fit chineee zithers.
Pound's asian fetish may have been one of his vanities, IMHE--. Some college WASPs go through a samurai fantasy or something (or most Mericans into ZenCo do). Study the language, perhaps--yet learning a few
mandarin characters does not compares to mastering ...sanskrit (a subtle and difficult tongue than tho still indo-euro, and not quite as alien as chinese).

jh said...

the continent stops at the ocean
the curiosity does not stop
poets seekers linguists writers
chinese food aficianados all looked a little further
into the culture of the east although they largely went west to get there

hard to dismiss it
the attraction to simple forms and simple unadorned insight expressed in elegant ways...though esoteric in some sense it would seem to me that the sound of asian languages was remarkable even in translation there's a sort of attractive innocence in the stories and poems

it all seems to me like a trouts' desire to live to seek out the purest springfed water

'm delighted with the aesthetic sensibilities of china and japan and korea

corman lives forever
that guy is the king
of love poems
and managing language

if you do not give a shit
it is certain that you will
soon be found
full of it ) (i paraphrase cid)

his whole body of work
weaves itself into an
infinite expression
it would be impossible for one person
to read all of cid corman

that is amazing

sanskrit yea
persian indian knowledge yeah
all equally fascinating

thanks curtis for this
scintillating expose'
i'm now head over heels
with corman

don't neglect the teacherly role
you've helped me a lot



Curtis Faville said...


My point about Corman isn't that what he did wasn't important, or useful, just that to confuse his contributions as editor and publisher, with the value of his own work, is a mistake.

There's a kind of myth about Corman, which he himself exploited, that his commitment to his writing deserved to be rewarded with a consequent seriousness and approbation. Though he may have been a far-seeing literary editorial figure, my estimation of his own work places him far down on the scale of literary value. People wishing to perpetuate this myth may end up imitating the worst aspects of his work (and that of some of his "friends"), perhaps not realizing that they're selling themselves short. Joseph Massey, for instance, is potentially much better as a poet than Corman ever was, but he's almost deliberately holding himself back, in a misguided attempt to recreate Corman's "oriental" effects in his own poetry. That's just really dumb.

If you want to enjoy Corman's poetry, you're certainly welcome to do so, but I'd recommend Jack Gilbert, James Wright, Robert Creeley, and Louis Zukofsky instead. Once you've seen what these writers can do in English, there isn't much point in laboring over Corman.

jh said...

i further think that the influence of corman is in his effort if not in the "high" quality of his poems

he pursued a completely no-publicity type of poetix he had no interest in "getting" published or being known and he saw in the substance of chinese and japanese poetry the almost banal certainly pedestrian observations of daily existence to be attractive and no great exaltation of language or sentiment was necessary -- but the mind enters in

so he could set about everyday writing typing sketching and call it all a days' work and that perhaps is the example
the dedication to simply do the work as daily work make it as important as what any one else is doing more important than brain surgery or space ships simply by defying the extraordinary

if emulating corman would be a stepping stone to poetic activity i think he should be taught in all the schools especially the charter schools

how to make a book 101

if i owned one of those thousand hand made books he put together i'd consider it a treasure
no matter how weak the verse


Curtis Faville said...


This is backwards.

We don't emulate and sanctify good art and literature to the degree of its "dailiness" or its quotidian measure.

Great art isn't produced like hand-towels, or pulling weeds or doing the dishes or fixing sandwiches. God knows we need good hand-towels, weed-eaters and good-tasting sandwiches. There might even be an ART OF SANDWICHES book somewhere.

But towels and sandwiches aren't like good poems. We build cultural hierarchies of value by privileging certain artifacts over other ones.

Deliberately privileging "bad art" is like having kids practice hip-hop in high school. We know that having them act Euripides, or read Milton's Il Penseroso, or play violin sonatas is more rewarding in the long run. If you love hip hop, that's just fine, and if you want to grow up doing it, that's just fine too (as long as I don't have to hear it!).

But Corman is a mediocre writer. Not a bad one, just not nearly as good as the rest. And certainly--this is really my point--not as an ideal model for serious aspirants to the art of writing. God bless them.

Army enlistment ads promulgate "be the best that you can be." And it's true--in other contexts--that we want to strive higher than our grasp. Idolizing Corman is a recipe for third-rate work.

Get my drift?

jh said...

where i disagree curtis is in the challenge corman presents it's as though his whole effort is a dare a challenge somewhere in there there is a pearl of great price but it don't come easy you know it don't come easy
and his aesthetic point then is
for you to find it it might take some drudgery i like that

one could make a metaphorical case for photography of the millions of shots taken for instance today how many of those might qualify for first rate status... maybe one
and tomorrow it is all but lost
so should the photographer just quit

well according to me yeah
about 99% of them must quit it's stupid

cormans' wife made paper
and that too is an interesting refererence rrrr

it forces the issue
one could say that each corman poem is equal to everything bukowski wrote and have it be well fairly true

one could say corman was makng an effort equal to that of ts eliot only going in quite an opposite cultural way

i'd say you can't leave someone like corman out there simply because oen would have to read through a tousand poem before finding the pearl of great price

for religious purposes language has always been understood as somehow exalted but for entertainment in the market place language is more or less maleable and fracturing and perhaps at times best used to simply observe something like a crack in an old wall

my sense is that every corman poem has a point
he's deliberate about saying something even if it doesn't amount to an exalted sense of a really high class scotch

the tea today tasted such and such

that too can be a beautiful expression and might'nt we say

sunlight through clouds through grape leaves
through a pane of glass
lands on my table

i appreciate frost
for most everything he tried
but those cats who looked to the east
i like their daring-do

i'd publish any corman poem on my blog
and i'd call it superior poetry
but that's just me talking
i've published a few kirby poems
and he's like the best ever