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 , 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  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
cause I am
for them and
a few birds
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 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.
that spur and
nor is this
it blooms and
the feast is--
when it falls--
The god in the word--
worm in the garden--
death. Reach up the child
now to the branch to
retrieve an apple.
I sit on
in the shade
why make more
than death does?
Where was I
now? Let me
see. Lost in
the drift of
in on word--
An ark in
Sh. Breathe. Breathe.
from the earth
what the light
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.
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.
each rain drop
in the field
the sun light
all is just
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.