Cid Corman and Kyōto
Sorting old papers, I found the fragment of a letter I wrote (and presumably sent) to poet, editor and translator Cid Corman shortly after we met during the summer of 1977 in Kyōto, Japan. He had been editing the small (nearly underground) but influential magazine Origin since 1950, publishing an international array of poets from the sort of subterranean worlds I unconsciously (though perhaps sometimes very conscientiously in adolescence) inhabited, basically stumbling into things by following my nose, more curious hick than knowing hipster. Origin was a window into the type of poetry and world literature that preoccupied me, and Corman was, to the very frayed end of his life (though educated and de-educated at university), a voracious autodidact and self-propelled world citizen of the first order — a member of my kind of scattered tribe. We became friends as soon as we met, and remained so for the rest of his life, though our contact existed mainly in epistolary space, the cyber space of an earlier, now-gone era, though it wasn’t really that long ago — not like, say, the fifties or sixties, which now seem like truly ancient times, though I know young people who already think of the 2000s as antiquity.
A native of Boston, Corman was a permanent resident in Japan, married to a remarkable Japanese woman, Shizumi Corman (née Konishi), a former Japanese television news editor (possibly a news presenter as well, something I vaguely remember being told but can’t confirm) and a Kyōto native. I was on an independent voyage there with no fixed end date, a visit that would last a little over a year, writing endless drafts of a lost epic road poem about “America,” studying Japanese language, culture and literature, and practicing the Japanese martial art Aikido, which I first learned in the United States. I was also intent on exploring Kyōto and its nearby towns and cities, traveling by foot, bicycle, train, and thumb. Japan was then a hitchhiker’s paradise. You had only to put out your thumb and someone would stop almost immediately. The Japanese weren’t always sure what it was you might be doing with your hand up by the side of the road, and would stop to see if you needed help, then, not infrequently, drive miles out of their way to take you where you were going — one had to be mindful not to take advantage of such concern. Although there were those who picked me up just to practice their English (a fair trade I thought), most Japanese, historically protective of foreigners, were just being kind.
I arrived in Kyōto from San Francisco with a shaky teaching contract from a private English language school (a company with students of all ages and backgrounds, though my students were adults), and wound up leading a culturally rich but Spartan existence in the northwestern section of the city, studying Japanese language and literature while practicing Aikido at two dōjō centers (practice halls) in different parts of the city. After a few initial weeks of living in an ancient farmhouse in a village south of Kyōto, commuting on a slow milk train, I moved to the city and spent the rest of my time there living in an unheated, tiny but exquisitely beautiful old Japanese house rented for next to nothing (the Japanese wisely wanted modern housing, so there was little competition), close to Ryōanji, the famous Zen rock garden temple.
I extricated myself from the shaky language school contract, and patched together a livelihood with private English conversation lessons. When I wasn’t working, I followed a self-imposed schedule as tight and complex as Japanese joinery, and every night sat cross-legged on a flat pillow, bent over writing or reading, shirtless in summer at a foot high desk, and through the fall and dead of winter bundled in a padded farmer’s haori (a thick half-kimono jacket), knees under the cover of a kotatsu, wind gusts (sometimes snow) bursting through the seams of the shoji screen walls, beyond which were drafty glass doors that slid open to the outside. I often sat there until dawn, surrounded by dictionaries and books spread open on the tatami mats, centered under a hanging single bulb inside a paper and bamboo shade, writing, typing, or trying to decipher poetry from a gone world and era.
I certainly must have asked Corman questions about Kyōto, considering I was there without reliable connections, but it astounds me that I didn’t take more advantage of his almost native knowledge about surviving there, though I think my determination to find my own way partly attracted him to our friendship. I later realized he would have gladly helped me unravel a few everyday mysteries about Japan, but I probably had a richer experience figuring things out on my own. On the other hand, I took full advantage of his freely offered literary knowledge, through letters — we talked by phone sometimes, but mainly corresponded from the start, back and forth across the neighborhoods between us.
Up to that point I had not met a poet with such complete knowledge of the art, coupled with absolute devotion to it. His perspective (no doubt modeled on Ezra Pound’s example) was rooted in broad reading and constant writing, translating and editing, reinforced by a seemingly limitless network of friends that included writers, artists, publishers, intellectuals, and public figures, even though he spent his life in relative isolation and obscurity.
He was opinionated to a degree that drove some to fury (my impression was that he made and lost friends regularly, but had a steady base of devotees), and though our interests and tastes weren’t always the same, we got along easily enough. From the start I let him have his head on the subject of poetry (he was the older, seasoned writer after all, and earned his chops long before I appeared), and in return he allowed mine (however wrongheaded I might have been), without interference or much advice. Nonetheless, he could be demanding (expecting younger writers to keep up intellectually or move on), and though sometimes pushy and hard to deal with, he was not (as I’ve heard him described) arrogant, nor was he unfair. I was more likely to be the arrogant one in those days, but if I ever felt he was out of line and said so, he simply clarified what he meant or apologized. By then he already had his fill of literary conflict. The Cid Corman I knew appreciated friendship, and expected unflinching, unhesitating loyalty only to poetry and one’s own writing, not to him. Poetry was the point of everything as far as he was concerned, and we were entirely simpatico on that front. We had disagreements and rough patches over the years of our friendship, but recovered quickly because the point was the art, always the art — to go on with it, to continue, even though it often met with silence.
It wasn’t unusual for younger writers and artists passing through the ancient capital to seek him out, and my turning up was not remarkable, but there was an immediate spark of recognition between us that was enough to keep us in touch, although we were both too busy to spend time together. I lived in Japan twice, just over a year each time (the first period in 1977, the second in 1980), and Corman was living in Boston throughout my second visit, which was not in Kyōto at any rate — during that period I was studying Japanese poetry on a Monbusho Fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, living on the north coast of Kyūshū, Japan’s southernmost main island. We met only once in Japan, and only two more times over the years, both times in San Francisco, and so the essence of our friendship existed in correspondence, beginning after our first encounter and continuing with varying degrees of intensity and regularity for the rest of his life. He sent a last note to me just days before his fatal heart attack twenty-six years later.
Among other things, we shared an interest in epistolary writing (as poetry, viz. Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, and communication), but weren’t self-conscious about what was going on in our correspondence — we were communicating, not writing for posterity the way, say, Olson sometimes did with Cid (and as an admirer of Olson’s work, I don’t mean that negatively). I view all correspondence — even e-versions, in any format — as a way to keep the tools sharp, so to speak, and staying in touch with Corman was demanding practice because he was very good at it, an inveterate correspondent who was persistent and reliable. Letters were his main means of staying in touch with the outside world (in many ways they were intellectual lifelines), and he corresponded extensively with many people, living a vital part of his life through the post.
I don’t recall why I kept a copy of that particular section of the 1977 letter I found, but probably because it addressed ideas I intended to come back to with Corman, or because our early correspondence was, as much as anything, an intense discussion, and we were in the middle of something I didn’t want to lose the thread of in a nomadic period during which many things were lost. However pretentious the fragment sounds (which it does to me in places), I’m glad I kept it because it reminds me of a year of tremendous adventure in Japan, and the beginning of a decades-long conversation with a treasured friend.
Before that first trip to Japan, I trained at an American run Aikido dōjō in San Francisco, and in Kyōto was trying to earn a black belt, training twice a day or more at the two different dōjō spots mentioned earlier, after being completely stripped of rank earned in the US and forced to start over at zero. The two practice halls were located in opposite parts of town, and I was most passionately attached to the smallest, an obscure, primitive looking dōjō in the railroad yards around Kyōto Tower. It was a challenging group with a demanding teacher, discovered by wandering around with a phrase book and map — I was the only foreigner member, and gaining acceptance there was both ordeal and education.
The letter fragment refers to events during a ritual pilgrimage I made with a group from that dōjō (including the master teacher) to Kōyasan (Mount Kōya), an important, temple area in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula south of Ōsaka, an event that would mark my complete acceptance into the dōjō. The subject of the letter is a Matsuo Bashō haiku carved in stone, discovered during a late night hiking ritual through Okunoin, the largest graveyard in Japan, burial place of the monk Kōbō Daishi (aka Kūkai), founder of Shingon Buddhism, poet and artist, and traditionally attributed inventor of the Japanese kana writing systems (katakana and hiragana), syllabic “alphabets” wedded to Chinese characters and primary to all written Japanese. He was also the AD 819 founder of Kōyasan.
I arrived later than the most of our dōjō group, accompanied by two other members, friends who hung back to meet and travel with me by later train than the others because we all had to work that day. They were, coincidentally, the best (and only) English speakers in the dōjō, though all of our conversations were multilingual and conducted with the help of pocket dictionaries and phrase books. From the start I was under pressure from the master teacher to either learn Japanese or quit his dōjō, and although I was clearly making a serious effort, effort alone counts for little in budō (Japanese martial arts culture), so I was also trying to prove myself in other ways. My willingness to take that complicated journey to Kōyasan, an annual trip for all dōjō branches affiliated with our main dōjō in Ōsaka, symbolized my trust of fellow dōjō members and the teacher, who had challenged (if not ordered) me to go with them to prove myself. It was heady stuff, and sounds very macho, but there were also a few women present. One of my traveling companions was a woman, an accomplished martial artist, and the teacher’s wife, a high ranking and respected teacher in her own right, was scheduled to demonstrate multiple‑opponent fighting skills on the temple grounds next morning.
The relatively remote Kōyasan (at least it was remote then) is a sacred mountain complex of more than a hundred Buddhist temples, one of which we all spent the night in. I was steeped in warrior culture there, especially during a ritual night hike through vast and misty Okunoin, burial place of numerous historical figures, including famous samurai warriors, represented by actual graves or symbolic tributes — it contains, for example, a memorial tomb for the famed forty seven Ronin, their tombstones arranged around a stone for Asano Naganori, the master they served and famously died for in 1703.
We had traveled to Kōyasan by train and funicular, and went immediately to a temple to join other dōjō members and a crowd of martial artists from other branches of our main school, headquartered in Ōsaka. After a hot public bath and changing into temple yukata (cotton kimonos) and geta (wooden sandals) distributed by silent monks, we joined what I can only describe as a drunken but innocent debauch (eating, drinking, singing, spontaneous fight demonstrations), everyone sitting cross legged at long, low tables that filled the great hall of the dimly lit ancient temple.
Told to eat and drink quickly, our teacher ordered the three of us — the latecomers — to do what everyone else had already done: visit and pay respects at Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum in the heart of vast Okunoin, and we had to get there before midnight. The first leg was a long walk to the graveyard gate. He accompanied us with a few friends, the wooden teeth of our geta sounding like a train on the roadbed, and left us at the gate to go the rest of the way alone. It was a long hike into the heart of the sprawling graveyard, misty but illuminated by a full moon, and we encountered many others (notably a large, chilling procession of white‑robed, chanting pilgrims who could be seen marching towards us like an army of ghosts from a quarter mile away). The hike included a series of traditional ceremonies performed at various shrines and historical places throughout the graveyard, one of which took us past the Bashō poem, leading to my letter about it to Cid.
Although he returned to Boston to live for a spell in the early 1980s, Kyōto was his true home. He led an economically stressed life there, but the ever patient, supportive Shizumi was dedicated to him in a way so obvious and moving it was impossible to imagine them apart. A demure, cultured woman of considerable intelligence and beauty, her Kyōto roots were indispensible for their long‑term survival in an ancient city that functioned on connections as much as anything else. I heard it muttered more than once that Japanese families who lived there for even a century were considered newcomers and interlopers by “true” natives, whatever that meant (a thousand years of residence perhaps), and more recent transplants weren’t even worth considering.
Foreigners (or gaijin, literally “outsiders”) were treated politely and often with excessive generosity in Kyōto, but were thought of as barbaric (not always an unfair assessment). Corman was an exception. He appeared to be fully embraced by the Japanese in Kyōto (no small accomplishment for nonnative Japanese, let alone foreigners), no doubt helped by the fact that he was thought of as a poet there, a shijin, and that description assured him a particular eminence in the culture. I don’t remember him ever complaining to me about the Japanese, and he had nothing negative to say about the country — it struck me that he was in his element there. Along with full days of writing, editing, corresponding, and translating, he helped run a little family cafe, CC’s, but Shizumi was the real mainstay of their shop, as he called it, and his mainstay too.
I actually knew very little about him before we met. I knew of his magazine Origin of course (anyone interested in contemporary poetry did), though it wasn’t as active then as it once was — I later heard criticism that it wasn’t as vital either, but never met a serious young poet who didn’t want to be published in it. I was also aware of his link with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley (poets whose work I admired), had read Olson’s 1969 Letters for Origin by then, and a friend once lent me copies of Corman’s Elizabeth Press books. I liked his work. It was epiphanic with a spark of duende running through. It rippled, so to speak, and I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t the sort of poetry I was interested in writing.
I knew little about his personal life, and had no idea he lived in Kyōto. I discovered that fact by happening into a conversation about Japanese poetry with a young Harvard scholar who was passing through. I only remember his name was Michael, and we met in one of the coffee shops around Kawaramachi where I went to listen to jazz or classical music after work. I mentioned an interest in Japanese travel diaries, and he said his favorite was Cid Corman’s translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, a version I hadn’t read. I was familiar only with the serviceable Penguin Classic edition, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, translator of at least one other Edo era haibun masterpiece I was very interested in, Kobayashi Issa’s Oraga haru, which he translated as Year of My Life.
We went to a nearby Maruzen bookstore. I couldn’t afford to buy anything, let alone English language books, almost as expensive as melons and apples, the prices of which were surreal, but I wanted a look at Corman’s Bashō. I would read it standing in the store if I had to, no matter how long it took. Reading in bookstore aisles is a time-honored Japanese tradition that can be witnessed at any Japanese bookstore in the world, though the draw is mainly manga, Japanese comic books.
Unfortunately, Maruzen didn’t have Corman’s Bashō. In fact, they didn’t have any Corman books, which numbered in the dozens. Michael said he’d heard Corman’s books were for sale at his cafe, a place called CC’s — eponymous initials — and he’d figured out how to get there, wanting to meet Corman before leaving town. He was game to guide if I was game to go, so we agreed to meet the next morning on Sanjo Bridge, not far from the ryokan (traditional inn) where he was staying. We’d walk from there. Clouds started gathering at dawn that morning, and a storm was poised to hit just as we met, but he reckoned we could make it. Unfortunately, his sense of distance was off, and halfway there the storm broke. It was more like icy sheets falling from the sky than rain, and we reached CC’s freezing wet. It was closed. I tapped the window anyway, and at the back a friendly face appeared between the flaps of a noren (split curtains hung in doorways in Japanese restaurants). It was Shizumi.
She immediately opened the door and waved us in, motioning us towards the warmest table, where she gave us towels, then disappeared into the kitchen, returning with steaming bowls of local stew. She hovered with concern while we ate. Ravenous as always, I tried to eat in a proper Japanese manner, suppressing my barbarian ways, hoping my tail wouldn’t show. If anything, she seemed amused, fussing over us, giving us more stew, more towels, and hot tea. Speaking English, she asked a battery of friendly questions she’d probably asked any number of would‑be poets who’d stumbled into CC’s over the years looking for Cid, and in the end told us, in a disappointed tone, he wouldn’t be in that day, though she was certain he would want to meet us. Why, I couldn’t imagine — we looked like we crawled out of a sewer.
She was so friendly and welcoming we hung around a while, impressed with ourselves and pleased by our luck, flipping through the many poetry books and magazines that sat on racks, all written by Cid and his friends. Except for the fact that we didn’t meet Cid, we thought the visit was a great success, and though we didn’t have much between us, we pooled resources for the food. Shizumi refused our money and wouldn’t discuss it. She repeated several times that we should return when Cid was there, insisting he would want to meet us.
Thinking we should at least buy a book as a gesture of gratitude, we started going through the collection until Michael excitedly yanked a used book from one of the racks. It was a copy of the bilingual Mushinsha edition of Cid’s translation of Bashō’s travel diary we’d been looking for at Maruzen. I grabbed and started flipping through it, excited, then Michael got excited too, searching for another copy, but there was only one. I flipped through it a little longer, noting it was co‑translated with Japanese scholar Kamaike Susumu, then gave it to Michael — if anybody deserved that book, he did. We agreed to split the cost, but when Shizumi told us the price we dropped the whole idea — we didn’t have enough between us — but promised to come back.
The storm had passed, and as we left we thanked Shizumi so profusely we embarrassed her. Outside we agreed to meet and come back again, but Michael was leaving in a couple days and I couldn’t make it that soon. He would have to come alone. We exchanged addresses and agreed to stay in touch, even meet in the States someday, then shook hands and took off forever in opposite directions. The day had been a bit like one of Bashō’s brief encounters with kindred spirits on the road.
A couple days later, I brazenly sent Corman some poems. He quickly dropped back an encouraging note, inviting me to CC’s whenever I could make it again. I went a week or so later and we spent a long afternoon together, discussing poetry and the world, from early afternoon to well past dark. We hit it off like old friends and promised to stay in touch. I made plenty of promises like that in Japan that never panned out, but Cid Corman was different, willing to stay in touch with just about any writer he met. We started corresponding that week, and it wasn’t long before he was making plans to feature my work in Origin. But that was for the future, and there was a great deal to talk about in the meantime.
His title for Bashō’s travel diary is Back Roads to Far Towns, and when I finally got a copy (he sent one as a gift), it turned out to be my favorite translation of that masterpiece, even after I was able to begin deciphering the original during my second stay in Japan, studying classical poetry (mainly Bashō) at a university in Kyūshū. Corman’s translation is lively as well as accurate, and easily holds its ground against other efforts. We never discussed his methodology, but he did his homework — I know because I checked. Like Kenneth Rexroth, he simply had an instinct for Japanese poetry.
Something that always appealed to me was his aversion to publicity and self-promotion. Some mistook it for crabbiness, pretension, stubbornness, or as a cynical ploy for attention. It wasn’t. It’s a very real Japanese trait that he absorbed. He could be self‑centered, but was not self‑indulgent. Still, he lived in marginal economic circumstances all his adult life, aware that it was his choice, his own doing, yet complained about it at times, and because of often profound financial straits, came across like the uncrowned champ of Horace’s genus irritabile vatum. He had contemporaries and friends who, by contrast, genuinely were nasty, but he was not and could never be. It wasn’t in his nature. Poetry was his religion, philosophy, and life. It was air itself, and all other elements combined, not to be poisoned by personal ambition, literary jealousy, or competition. He didn’t mind a little gossip, but only a little, and never of the cruel or vicious sort. Literary politics held next to no interest for him. His writing projects were all that mattered, along with his friends and massive correspondence. The only thing in the world he cared more about than poetry was Shizumi. He was no saint, but she was, to him at least (of the Buddhist sort no doubt), as he was to her — a reality that stood out in letters and in person.
[Fragment of a letter to Cid Corman, Kyōto, Summer 1977. Transcribed with minor corrections and additions, the original was typed on one side, single spaced without paragraph breaks, with typed translations and handwritten Japanese poems on the reverse (hiragana in my hand, calligraphy in someone else’s) — the copy is two pages stapled; the original was one sheet.]
[…] sending here translations of haiku done with the idea that haiku can be correctly translated into several stanzas [versions], picking up, highlighting, different inherent and/or obvious aspects, qualities and meanings of that dense, ostensibly minimalist form. English can also suggest a universe with brevity, but my understanding of haiku is one that tends towards the impression that meaning can be lost and/or not communicated as completely as possible if translated into English with brevity similar to the original. It’s the type of poem that creates a room one enters and is then overwhelmed by possibilities. I can imagine a book-length translation of one haiku. This is not to be critical of any other means of haiku rendering. It’s only experiment and delight — mostly because I’ve been my own teacher of Japanese and probably won’t be able to actually read the poetry (or calligraphy) with any facility for a couple more years. I could never add anything to your knowledge of the form, but perhaps you can to mine. This would be an absurd approach to any other translation (meaning anything but the briefest poetry we have to my knowledge), but here it engages me as a notion of interesting possibilities. Each stanza, or extension of the translation, can move the poem in a larger or more limited direction, whichever is intended, and thereby evolve a completely new poem that functions/lives as its own poetry, but always beholding to the original for inspiration, meaning and direction. As a form of meditation on the elements of the original, I think it’s valuable for the personal emotional experience alone. As scholarship it cannot even be considered, but as poetry: that’s another thing and remains to be seen. The argument that it — the result — is anything but haiku is one I would share, but one must play. If each link illuminates the poetry, it’s successful. Ideally, for haiku, mood of place and historical perspective are necessary for complete translation. That could involve a journey and a great deal of study. To me a wholly acceptable ideal. Anyway: on a visit to Kōyasan in Wakayama, during a ritual night hike to Kōbō Daishi’s mausoleum in Okunoin, I found this Bashō poem engraved on a stone. If you’ve been there you know the immensity and beauty of the place. The giant cedars, the acres of old tombs and monuments, the warrior mythology that permeates it, the emotional experience of walking the long distance through the haka [graves] to Kōbō Daishi’s wooden tomb, and the ritual of walking around its veranda in total silence under many paper lanterns suspended from the rafters, giving the place a magical ambience. I spent the night in a temple with my teacher and fellow students, and walked through Okunoin late at night on a full moon with two Japanese friends. We were there nearly three hours because there is so much to see, so many ceremonies (tasks actually) to perform, and because we met other people and stopped many times to talk, to explain things to each other, or just to sit in silence. I know Bashō visited Kōyasan during his 1687–88 journey and believe the poem was written then. One of my friends there said it was part of a haibun. Maybe you know which. (A note I scribbled says it’s from a work titled Kōya nite.) I’m going on the premise I have to dig harder for context, and will, but send this in the meantime. Scholarship will improve as my reading does. My friends helped transcribe it, standing, we assumed, where Bashō stood. Well, I’ll stop and let you read the translations (other side). If the idea strikes you, maybe you could suggest a couple other haiku to work with. If anything, it might help me develop acuteness. By the way, where can I find your Back Roads to Far Towns? The only copy in your shop was sold before I got back to it. Someone took it to Wyoming.
Bashō’s haiku (transcribed from the Kōyasan stone, with some modern era characters):
父母の しきりにこひし 雉子の声
In rōmaji (Romanized letters):
chichi haha no shikirini koishi kiji no koe
Pilgrimage to Kōyasan
I hear a pheasant cry
and yearn for my dead
father and mother
tells what is gone
cry of a pheasant,
from now on
I’ll always be old
we are like fog
on the trees
and the hidden pheasant
— Matsuo Bashō, Okunoin, Kōyasan