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
Cid Corman's Dorchester past
Where exactly in Dorchester is the campus? Hard to think of a spot where it cd be, unless something else was removed. At least from my time. The old insane asylum? In Franklin Park golf course? Or the removal of Franklin field? The areas have changed a good deal, of course, since my childhood. Yes, it has little sense of my ever having been there.
These words, typed on the thin onionskin of the old aerogamme envelope arrived on my desk in early winter 2002, its heading reading: “Winter Solstice 2002.” I’d written Corman a month before about his letters and papers, the poet, George Evans having brought me back to Corman’s work, reminding me of our connections: the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, Boston Latin School, WMEX Radio, Dorchester. I
I mentioned these connections when I wrote to Corman, in hopes that he’d respond. I told him of how I’d spent many afternoons in the fifties reading at the old West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, then located in the Old West Church on Cambridge St, (the venue from which he’d launched his poetry readings), like him had attended Boston Latin School, spent my evenings listening to WMEX, and, that through the eighties and nineties, I’d had been living in Dorchester, about a mile away from his old house. I mentioned all this as well as the fact that I worked at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, located in Dorchester, and hope there might be the possibility of bringing some of his papers to the campus, bringing them back home so to speak.
Corman’s was skeptical, of the idea. Boston had never taken to him, he thought. “Boston has famously been — from the start — least interested in me. The West Coast picked me up much more — and NZ/Australia, etc.,” he wrote.
Corman was right, of course. Lowell, Emerson, Longfellow, Bishop, all cast long shadows across the scene and true, there was little sense of Corman’s ever having been here. Yet, Corman, was here, and was both shaped and shaper of the city’s history, and a few of us — Bill Corbett, Askold Melnyczyk, Mark Pawlak, Joe Torra, Taylor Stoehr, and myself — had begun thinking of ways that we might reclaim Cid’s space. We even developed a plan for a Cid Corman Poetry Room in the university library.
For myself, the effort meant finding my way back to Boston Latin to find some traces of Cid Corman’s passage there. It was a hot day in the middle of summer, and the school was closed for construction, but the librarian devised a way to sneak me in. He’d already copied out some documents.
Cid Corman is “Sid” in that 1941 Boston Latin School Yearbook. He’s pictured on the page, his hair neatly cut in a slight pompadour, in wire-framed glasses, wearing a sport coat and tie, mandatory dress for what was an all-boys school up until the 1980s. His photo appears at the top of the page, below him are the photos and entries for his classmates: Robert Francis — “Baby-Face” — Coughlin, Sylvester — “Syl” — Robert Curran, and Nicholas “Mad Turk” Rocco DeBiccari. It’s 1941 and the shadow of World War II is already cast across their faces, future destinations etched out in college choices: the Coast Guard Academy and West Point.
His activities include the Senior History Club, the Chess and Checker Club, the Class Committee, and the Art Club.
Latin Schoolers passing Room 221 on Wednesday afternoons may have seen other boys sketching and posing, and yet never have thought of entering the room. This failure to take advantage to take advantage of a great opportunity is too bad, because art is everyone’s soul, and an Art Club should be encouraged in a school where such great stress is placed on the humanities. — Boston Latin School Yearbook, 1941
I’m not sure if Corman wrote the entry for the Art Club. He is listed as the vice president of the Art Club Yearbook. Though there are black box theaters, music rooms, and studios at the school now, Art was not a subject taught at Boston Latin in Cid’s or even my own day. Yet here on the page seventeen boys and their advisor, Mr. Sternoff of Massachusetts Art School, pose in suit and tie for the Art Club photo. Corman is at the center, the vice president. In the text, Corman’s role in the club is spelled out in more detail.
“The club enjoyed many interesting talks concerning color, and shading techniques given by Mr. Sternoff. Khirallah spoke on tones and their effects on the observor, and Corman discussed modern art and artists.”
Corman’s was a member of the Class Day Committee, responsible for penning the class oration, a document of remarkable prescience, which focuses on the importance of the preservation free speech in times of war.
“The greatest strength of a democracy may also be an incurable weakness. The tolerance of political belief guaranteed by the Constitution is, as it should be, irrevocable; but this may also be used as a weapon against that people that assured it. Nevertheless, this right should not and must not in any degree be curbed or impaired.”
One can imagine Corman behind these lines, or his classmate, Nat Hentoff, Hentoff, jazz commentator, First Amendment activist, and columnist for The Village Voice. Hentoff was friend and classmate of Corman at Latin School Days and for years after. Corman credits Hentoff with getting him the poetry show he would host on WMEX from 1949–1951 and with being part of the discussion group he started at the age of seventeen. Hentoff’s memoir, Another Boy’s Boston offers a glimpse of the world the two inhabited, in what Hentoff refers to than as “the most anti-Semitic city in the nation.” Hentoff’s book plays off the title of another well-known memoir: Samuel Eliot Morrison’s One Boy’s Boston. Hentoff’s memoir describes, not the worlds of Beacon Hill or Back Bay, but the world of Jewish Boston, a geography of Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, marked by shops, temples, shuls, immigrant households, a Boston of old jazz clubs, record stores, late night afterhours gathering places, racial borders, politics of left and right.
That world is gone, though I went seeking it recently, on a kind of pilgrimage. As Corman says, much has changed. The old trolley routes out to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan have disappeared, and with them the ease of connection of these neighborhoods to the city. The last of the city’s elevated lines through Roxbury came down a few years ago and the temple have moved to the suburbs. The golf course Corman mentions suffered years of decline, and was saved and resurrected in the eighties and nineties by the African American golfers and community members who refused to see it closed. The old insane asylum is long closed. Community gardens and housing developments sprawl across its old grounds. A few years back artists were invited to create installations in its wards. Former Celtic Tom Sanders, created a tennis program at the old Franklin Field in the worst days of the Roxbury-Dorchester gangs.
Corman’s old house, 51 Jones Avenue, remains. It’s a duplex now, located at the end of the street, one side only retains the number 51 address, that place from where Corman sent out the copy of those early printings of Origin, the pages filled with writing by Creeley, Olson, Levertov and others.
My visit occasioned some curiosity: who was this white-haired man standing in the street taking pictures of the house on the corner? I stopped people on the street, and knocked on doors, but no one remembered Cid. One middle-aged man, brought me in to talk to his aunt, translating from her Spanish, that she was happy to know that such a poet had lived right next door.
It was from this small house that Cid Corman’s writing life took off, spreading its influence over Boston, Buffalo, San Francisco, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, his works eventually translated into a dozen languages. Sixty-one years of writing poetry every day. And all that correspondence, only the very early letters his mother “compelled him to throw away” missing.
Sadly, the bureaucracy quickly nixed our plan for a Cid Corman poetry room. I think Corman would not have been surprised. Still, we managed to find an angel and purchase a set of all of Cid’s books from Bob Arnold. They form a neat line in the university special collections department now, where, slowly, and rightfully, Corman may be beginning to reclaim his space, there to remind us every day:
Life is poetry
and poetry is life – O – = Love =
awaken – children!
On Cid Corman
breath never left off
I’m of two minds about selecting Cid Corman’s poems, and no wonder given the man!
On the one hand we all know his output was tremendous, but I don’t necessarily believe that means we have to measure our own scale by his dimension. Cid could be redundant in his explorations, and I find no fault there; it merely meant he was ever cutting away, searching, drawing, sketching. Think of a skilled woodcutter shaping a forest. It brings up for a great deal of wonderful reading.
At the same time, he was a sharp editor, razor sharp, and would produce his own journal Origin at an even sixty-five pages each issue. The majority of his books were backpack marvels — packed light for the long distance traveler and the narrow trail. Scaled down. Plus his domain and mind was Kyoto and his practice amongst the natives was humility, silence, space, less is more. He wasn’t always wise with it and would blabbermouth into whole scale marketing of thousands of poems, but he meant to be wise. And quiet. I’d like to think we are not making as much a representative selection here, but a philosophical one practicing the less is more and at the same time presenting the highest quality of Cid’s poetry summing up that force of goodness. It’s definitely an edgy approach. What’s 500 poem pages of expanse, compared to the experience of reading Cid Corman in one warm flush sitting. As a poet, he would forever advocate how one poem can be enough, providing space around that one poem, so resonance be allowed. We, as editors, are simply allowing Cid Corman to practice what he preached.
Cid Corman lived the last forty years of his life, last days, last very seconds in Kyoto, Japan with his Japanese wife, Shizumi. They resided in a tiny and marginal location that others who visited knew much better than I — having never visited, myself, except by letter, and quite often Cid and I exchanged letters two to three per week for years on end. This was long before email correspondence which Cid only learned to use sparingly. He was already a massive correspondent and daily writer of poems, and one day more of the world will know this through his vast unpublished and printed works. The books range up to two hundred titles (peanuts for a man who claimed to write a book a day), and the unpublished works are scattered amongst fine libraries and institutions. Get in on the secret: Cid Corman was a major poet, translator, and editor of the twentieth century. He was well over six feet tall, generally out of shape physically but immense with energy, strength, and character. His bald head was often capped over with a beret which looked quite bohemian on him, and this was correct since Cid spent some of his early years in France and Italy living out of a suitcase, slumming with poets and artists and sometimes souls of poetry who wrote nothing, but lived the poem. These were Cid Corman’s people.
Cid Corman was raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in a now dangerous neighborhood he would barely recognize. All his life he adored his parents, Abraham and Celia, and his two brothers Harvey and Len; strangely, his sister Sylvia is less spoken of in his poems and autobiographical prose. Nonetheless, they all played a major feature in his development as a poet. They each kept him alive, often financially, and particularly with his two brothers there was a shared existence. His one wife for life, Shizumi Konishi, would inherit the same love Cid gave to his mother and father and siblings and closest friends, and despite the often shabby treatment of Cid by some of his colleagues — if Shizumi was by his side, all was well.
Cid could be difficult, or at least singular, like all fascinating critters. Complex and simple. Grainy and smooth sailing. One moment ornery and glacial, the next moment pacific and nectar, it all depended on his axis. He seemed to think in the old Japanese tradition of the apprentice and the master — Cid of course being the master to many of the younger poets that arrived in his mailbox or at his door after the loudest wave of Asian influence came crashing the shores in the 1960s via the works of Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Watts, and the Vietnam War. There was something gem-like and sparkling to a Cid Corman poem, learned himself from the myriad of poems he translated from enriched world poets. He never stopped finding known (but made new) and unknown poets to bring to English.
Things to know about Cid Corman are that he never conceived any children, but he wrote wondrous poems completely fathered onto others’ children, so made his. The woodcutter and his son with waiting wagon in this book is one of Cid’s quick sketch beauties taken from one of my letters to him and shared from my family work scene. He was quite capable of receiving love and returning it just the same. He much enjoyed his Boston Red Sox throughout his life, Japanese baseball, and sumo wrestling. He never learned to drive a car. He hitchhiked, he walked, he waited. Almost every part of our letters had something to do with the Boston Celtics, world cinema (he enjoyed Bresson and much respected Meryl Streep, and Shizumi has a thing for Jennifer Jones), and so many differing steppes of books to love. We papered our letters and conversation walls with books; one or two or three always in hand, we may as well have worn books as deep fluffy boots and shoes. One time we stood together in Scribner’s Bookshop in downtown Manhattan during an impossible dream visit that was true (he from Kyoto, I from Vermont) and just flocked for a henhouse flurry hours flapping our wings over tons of books. What luxury. Two guys in from desert islands. He cared nothing about the books he already knew in that part of the conversation — he wished to know more and more about the new and younger poets he hadn’t read. He was the opposite of grandpa: everything fascinated Cid, if but for a few seconds. The ingredients may all reappear in a letter from him in a year, so best keep on your toes.
For a man who never wore a tool apron, broke a woods trail, connected down into a soft stump with an axe, or snarled with a chain saw, Cid managed to attract himself to some of the wilder portions of a poetry life. He translated old trail guide Basho one of the best. He published Gary Snyder’s first book of poems Riprap. He was friends for over a half century with the woodland and coastal Theodore Enslin. Louis Zukofsky was his own frontier, and Cid literally preached his poems to audiences traveling across America in 1960, about the same time Jack Kerouac was giving up on the road. Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and Will Petersen were friends; so was Robert Creeley (despite more sensational rumors) who once raised pigeons in backwater New Hampshire. Cid wanted my book On Stone about stone building and woods life and made it an Origin title, then he asked for two more books until it was a trilogy. And perhaps the wildest part about Cid — the pioneer of the man, the wagon master and pathfinder — was his work as editor with Origin from roughly 1950 to his dying moment, December 31, 2003. Same dying day (but different year) as his discovery and friend Lorine Niedecker. And though it is true Cid hung on in a coma for three more months … he was elsewhere. He walked into the hospital a very sick man, and never walked out. The very last place on earth he ever wanted to die, that’s why he was elsewhere.
When Cid wrote letters to me it was sometimes the only letter of the day in my rural mailbox, and there might be two in the bargain from him. Cid told me it was often the same case for him on his end: just my letters in the mailbox that day. What’s this — two lonely guys? Or two guys fully involved. “About what?!” you might ask. I can just see Cid’s beaming face coming through loud and clear and answering with the drama of a whisper: “it’s about poetry.” Like Orson Welles’s “Rosebud.” It was all about poetry. Breath never left off.
When Ce Rosenow kindly asked me to join her in preparing a selection of Cid’s poetry I offered two ideas: let’s make this collection for the poets who don’t yet know they’re poets (check yourself out, you may be unaware), and that I might work best traveling along as her passenger. The sidekick who asks, “Did we miss our turn off?” or, “What a beautiful day for a drive!” And, of course, a passenger may just want another passenger and that’s just where you, dear reader, fit in.
Cid was but one man, one neighbor, one friend. The last thing he cared about was recognition — it was either the Nobel Prize / or nuthin’. So truly: read these poems as yours. Share them with someone else to make them theirs. See if you can be nearly as generous.
From the afterword to The Next One Thousand Years, selected poems of Cid Corman, edited by Ce Rosenow and Bob Arnold (Longhouse, 2008).
Historically, the content of a text has generally been considered as having a separate existence from its physical manifestation as print. Western Literature was originally oral, and though later committed to written form, the spoken word — the conditions of its utterance (or performance) — was long thought to precede, or to lie outside the parameters of, the physical text. This regard for the text as a convenient repository was reinforced by the traditions of dramatic and public speech.
In the East, where wood-block printing preceded moveable type printing (in Europe) by several hundred years, there nevertheless developed a different tradition involving elaborations of calligraphic expression and design. Europe also had a calligraphic tradition, though it was primarily restricted to the evolution of the Roman alphabet, and was geometrical in its spirit and character. In the East, calligraphic characters were invented to express meanings through shapes and styles of design, which encouraged the elaboration of techniques, sometimes associated with, or related to, painting, and a tradition of poetic expression going back hundreds of years, in which the meaning of a literary work was both signified, and visually expressed by the brush (calligraphic) medium, either as an integral accompaniment to works of art, or through the expressive definition and shape of the characters themselves. There is no true counterpart in Western Tradition, to the various Eastern calligraphic traditions of China, Korea, and Japan, which were unknown, for the most part, in the West, until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Printing from moveable type had a revolutionary effect on the production of literature, as it is credited with facilitating the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance, and of the Enlightenment in Europe. The enormous power of this mechanism tended to suppress the relationship between the means of text-generation and the artisan-writer, a division which continues right into the twenty-first century. This lack of a coherent tradition of calligraphic expression in the West, which contributed to a systematic alienation of the writer from the material text, fostered a skeptical regard for the visual possibilities and potentials of a literature based on the eye and the hand, instead of the mere conveniences of mechanized typographic generation.
The trend towards mechanization was accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, with increasingly sophisticated and efficient techniques of automated reproduction. A series of typographic machine inventions, beginning in the nineteenth century — including the linotype machine, rotary press, offset press, and the manual typewriter — transformed the traditional typeset model, driving the proliferation of print mass media throughout the twentieth century. Isolated exceptions to this historical trend would include William Blake (1757–1827), painter, engraver and poet extraordinaire — whose work has clear antecedents in the documents of medieval scribes — and his illuminated “visionary” manuscripts — integrating both custom inscription and illustration — are a direct attempt to resuscitate or restore a tradition effectively driven underground by the ubiquity of moveable print technology; and in America, where Walt Whitman (1819–1892) — who had worked as a typesetter early in his career — paid for, designed, and did much of the typesetting for the first edition of his Leaves of Grass (1855). Both the concept and feel of this original edition suggest that Whitman was attempting to unite the qualities of the material text, as an embodiment of visual and tactile object, with the rustic, nativist thematic content of his ambitious American poem sequence.
It was not until the invention of the manual typewriter — which may be seen, in an historical timeline of increasing elaboration of type technology (printing), as an intermediate step in the development of expression through mechanical textual means (media) — that efficient production of the print text was first made possible directly by the individual user, not depending upon any intermediate step for realization, freeing the writer/artisan from a dependence upon the printing press — permitting, in effect, a rapid setting of text, and an opportunity to express meaning through a medium controlled by the artisan/writer.
The manual typewriter, in the form that we now know it, was invented in 1867. It used the so-called “QWERTY” layout of keyboard letters (in English), which has remained standard through to the present day with personal computer keyboards. By 1910, after some minor mechanical adjustments, the manual typewriter achieved a standardized design. The dimensions of the paper — the familiar 8.5 x 11 “letter size” (as a field or visual surface) — is also a standard that is linked historically to the development of the typewriter.
Traditional typefaces were designed to set type with variable “proportionate” widths. Since mechanical typewriters could not “justify” type (that is, adjust the incremental movement of the platen carriage to accommodate the differing widths of the individual letters), monospaced typefaces were invented. The invention of the typewriter, with its equivalently spaced letters, created a two-dimensional grid of the paper field, consisting of the spacing between the individual horizontal lines of type, and the vertical equivalent spacing of the letters. Thus, the component materials for the personal typographic text were established and in place well before Eigner assumed their use in the 1940s.
Though originally invented to facilitate rapid and efficient recordation of physical text, the typewriter eventually supplanted handwriting for many kinds of writing, both technical and creative. Traditional typesetting techniques, as well as page and book design, both played a significant role in the assumptions and clichés regarding the formatting of prose, line length, paragraph dimensions, indents, justification, and so forth. The mechanical manual typewriter, however, despite its nearly universal use for nearly a hundred years, was largely ignored as a device with an inherent potential for creative expression. Typographic and book design styles and traditions were determined by the commercial publishing industry, which was in turn based upon pre-industrial, and later, industrial applications or adaptations of classic typesetting practice, and book binding. It has been commonly thought that the personal typewriter’s predominant characteristic, its equivalent spacing, and equivalently spaced type font(s), represented an inconvenient limitation, which could perhaps serve as an intermediate step in the generation of text (from which typesetters and composers made a finished product) — a necessary evil or unfortunate consequence of the limitation of the typewriter’s mechanical design. History would have to wait until the invention of the personal computer — with its automated justification programs — to liberate artists and writers from the typewriter’s dominant inter-position, as the sole alternative to either script or voice recording, to produce their art.
Early modern departures from the traditional presentation of distributed text formalities would include such deliberate examples as Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Des, or Apollinaire’s Calligrammes. In the fields of advertising and graphic display, of course, countless innovations took place, but these were primarily non-literary in origin, and visual in their intended effects. Meanwhile, the typewriter became the common medium across the spectrum of users, for composing, and fixing, written texts. For the first time in history, creative writers made their own textual versions directly in print form. It was inevitable, given this fact, that the new mechanical medium would influence the work of artisan-poets in the modern age. William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and — most particularly — E. E. Cummings (each a major Modernist innovator), were all influenced or inspired by the typewriter’s facility to arrange, modify, and express visual and aural effects directly on the page. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate the precisionist’s delight in lines like these, of Marianne Moore’s, constructed out of the most arbitrary of syllabic structures —
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the
split like spun
— and so on, without also acknowledging that its mathematical efficiency derives from an acute sensitivity to the strict increments which form the basis of its measure, a count not just of its syllables, but of its vertical indents and the visual tensions of its line-breaks — all qualities which suggest a mechanical appreciation of nature and form. From Pound’s perspective, the inclusion of Chinese characters directly into the body of his texts (in The Cantos) implied a coincident respect for the symbolic evidence of original meanings, embodied in their original form(s). To Williams, the poem was dynamic and gesticular, his stepped movements dramatic demonstrations of purpose —
Sunday in the Park
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
— a world
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
— upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
— which expresses a kinetic motion through the placement of words — nervous, impulsive, and shifting. Such innovations of the free use of shifting parameters and coordinates in verse, however, reach a kind of crescendo in E. E. Cummings’s various “typographical” “experiments” during the 1920s and after. Though it is not generally known or acknowledged, Cummings had always conceived of his poems in monotype face — his famous entanglements with traditional typesetters notwithstanding — and had striven to achieve a kind of mediated compromised version of his poems by tweaking his work into “linotype-ese”:
am fighting — forwarded and backed by a corps of loyal assistants — to retranslate 71 poems out of typewriter language into linotype-ese. This is not so easy as one might think;consider,if you dare,that whenever a typewriter “key” is “struck” the “carriage” moves a given amount and the “line” advances recklessly or individualistically. Then consider that the linotype(being a gadget)inflicts a preestablished whole — the type “line” — on every smallest part;so that the words,letters,punctuation marks &(most important of all)spaces-between-these various elements,awake to find themselves rearranged automatically “for the benefit of the community” as politicians say.
As baffling as Cummings’s preferences regarding the appearance of his published pages may have seemed to his contemporaries, his insistence on the material realization of his original compositional methodology can now be seen within the context of a growing renewal of interest in the possibilities and potentialities of a closer relationship between author and medium, meaning and means. It’s easy to see how the setting of one of his typical poems — for instance, one such as his famous “Buffalo Bill”:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
— presented here in equivalently set Courier font — would depend upon the precision with which individual words and phrases were placed in relation to each other, on the grid of the page. Attempts to mediate traditional proportional typesetting procedure to accommodate such settings usually result in distortions of one kind or another. Though Cummings’s work would not be published in the manner in which it had originally been conceived, until the appearance of the ambitious Typewriter Edition of 1973, some eleven years after his death (London: The Marchim Press, Ltd., George Firmage, editor) — followed by the subsequent reissue of the original separate books of poems under the Liveright imprint “typescript” editions — the promise of his interest in the creative potentials of the typewriter was soon to be taken up by others in the intervening decades.
In his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson had proposed the typewriter as a conscious creative element influencing the generation of literary text:
from the machine has come one gain not yet sufficiently observed or used, but which leads directly on toward projective verse and its consequences. It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work. It is time we picked the fruits of the experiments of Cummings, Pound, Williams, each of whom has, after his way, already used the machine as a scoring to his composing, as a script to its vocalization. It is now only a matter of the recognition of the conventions of composition by field for us to bring into being an open verse as formal as the closed, with all its traditional advantages.
Despite Olson’s theoretical insistence on the typewriter as an accommodation of the writer’s desire to score texts for “performance,” his insistence on the importance of the typewriter as an instrument of composition did not carry that purpose over to the finished page in his own work. His dramatic, muscular, rhetorical verse is recorded on the page with a great variety of line lengths and arrangements, but in traditional proportional typefaces. In any event, by 1950 then, there had occurred a recognition of the crucial place the typewriter might play in creative composition, but aside from a handful of largely underappreciated experiments by Cummings (beginning in the 1920s), no serious poet had yet ventured into the visual/musical FIELD to explore what subtleties and effects might be achieved by using the equivalent grid to make poems radically set to their own specific measures and weights. In a statement Eigner made for publication in 1996, he said (in 1995):
Hindsight (experience) says people give meaning to the world by evaluating or emphasizing things strangely enough: I picked up from e. e. cummings that everything you do on the page matters. When you don’t have regular meter or rhyme, the slight pause provided by the line (/) or stanza (//) break, the turn from one verse to another, gives stress and emphasis. It seems that one thing may be given too much stress, sort of like getting too hung up, fanatic, about a thing, unable to continue until, say, you may lessen the stress by just having a line, instead of a stanza, break … It’s a course of thinking — unlike a piece of prose it can be very short or long, can stop anywhere or continue unexpectedly like a letter or a walk. But it’s different from either of these in that it has to have more coherence, more immediacy and force (I realized this before I saw Olson’s characterization ‘energy construct’).
Larry Eigner’s career as a poet could not have happened were it not for the invention of the manual typewriter. Though he was capable of a crude kind of handwriting, this was neither rapid enough, nor controlled adequately to have permitted accurate composition. Larry learned to type as a teenager, though his ability was limited to the use of a single index finger and thumb. The agonizing pace of this procedure — slowly typing one letter (key) at a time — was a determinative factor in his approach to writing. Thus the typewriter both facilitated and limited his approach to composition, restricting his access to its typographic qualities, while ironically affording him his only entrée into print. Beginning in the late 1940s, with the help of his Mother, he was able to make fair copies of his work, and to write letters. Though physically isolated, by the time of his first literary contacts, with Cid Corman and Robert Creeley, he was enabled by the typewriter to reach out into the world at large. The typewriter was thus the key “prosthetic” link between Larry’s disabled body and the universe of print media, facilitating his participation in it, while gratifying his hunger for contact and intellectual discourse.
By the early 1950s, Eigner had begun to survey the territory first explored by earlier twentieth-century writers, marking out parameters of scoring and placement — of words and stanzas — and testing the limits of syntactical progression, of visual massing, which would become the hallmarks of his mature style. This style bore an obvious relationship to traditional Chinese painting, as well as to pictographic brushwork, through the deliberate organization of the spatial arrangement of individual words and stanzas, a technique whose effects would variously be referred to as “floating” or “hovering” or as resembling the movements of the dance or birds in flight. Such metaphoric descriptives, though, fail to take full account of the essential linguistic sophistication of his poetic experiments.
The specific combination of factors influencing Eigner’s approach to the page can be conflated: A) physical and social isolation for the first fifty years of his life, largely confined to the rooms in his parents’ house, his access to experience of the world circumscribed by limited opportunities for travel, movement, working in an enclosed porch; B) use of the typewriter to create texts, either as reflexive meditations, or as communications within a growing social and literary sphere. In retrospect, it may be seen that the adaptations forced upon him by these conditions would lead, ironically enough, to a fulfillment of Olson’s predictive composition by field technique, with its emphasis upon the typewriter as creative instrument, as well as upon the incremental unfolding of perceptions, whereby the poem becomes an open-ended extension into space and time, without arbitrary structural restraints or closures, beyond those imposed by the typewriter page. It is the coincidental nature of this “opportunity by limitation” which is perhaps the most revealing and gratifying aspect of Eigner’s accomplishments.
Though Eigner would initially be forced to acknowledge — as Cummings had before him — the predominance of traditional typesetting procedures, he lacked alternative means of composition, and thus continued throughout his life to create his typewriter texts in the same manner, unchanged. Given the limitations of his circumstance, it is unlikely that Eigner would ever have been in a position to dictate the terms of his appearances in print; nonetheless, when afforded the opportunity, he usually did his best to mediate between the precision of his original typescripts, and the proofs or galleys of printed pages of distributed type, just as Cummings had. The history of the publication of Eigner’s works, in magazines, books and broadsides is the record of the appropriation of his stylistic exactitude(s) to the limitations of traditional print text models.
In poring over Eigner’s voluminous manuscripts, and noting the extraordinary range of various traditional typographical “versions” of his poems undertaken over the years, it became apparent that to add to this list of adaptations would not do justice to the central meaning of his artistic effort and significance, and would in effect perpetuate the subtle but troubling distortions to which his work had been subjected during his lifetime. Eigner regarded the setting of his poems, within the exact equivalent dimensions afforded by the typewriter grid-field, as organizations of precise spatial relationships. As anyone who has ever attempted to mimic or duplicate the shifting relations of his words and stanzas on the page with distributed (variable) proportional typefaces knows only too well, this task is impossible: Following left-hand placements of first letters aligned with subsequent letter increments from above, or below, results in lines and words — especially in longer poems — radically rearranged. Such distortions are self-propagating; as each subsequent resetting of text takes place, there is progressively less fidelity to the original design. The basis, then, for any determination of the correct (intended) set of relationships, must be the original text. In order to present a valid “ur-text” or model upon which future use could be based, for posterity, it was decided to present the texts in equivalent typeface, just as Eigner had “set” them. It is possible, perhaps even useful, to imagine, that, like photographic negatives, these poems will be reimagined (printed) in other typefaces — distributed or proportional — over time. No writer can completely control how his or her work is reproduced in the future, but in order that the original designs and settings are not lost, the first responsibility to Eigner’s text, as to his present and future audiences, is to establish a reliable benchmark.
All decisions regarding typeface, composition and layout are aesthetic, though they may masquerade as practical requirements: legibility, size, density, and so forth. In the case of Eigner’s work, determined by the manual typewriter’s equivalent spacing, and the traditional letter-sized sheet, these are a priori frames, within which other problems must be mediated. Eigner’s text itself is, therefore, in every sense, an “image” of itself — or, in William Carlos Williams’s sense, “the thing itself” — opaque and obdurate. It is not a version of something, but the thing itself. That is both its beauty and its potential.
4. Cummings, Poems 1905–1962, ed. George Firmage (London: The Marchim Press, 1973). Copyright 1923, 1951, © 1991 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust. Copyright © 1976 by George James Firmage, from Complete Poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. “Buffalo Bill” originally published in The Dial 1920.
The poets who appear in Donald Allen’s earthquake anthology The New American Poetry 1945–1960 got to write their own biographies. Here’s Larry Eigner’s: “Born in Swampscott, Mass. (out of the nearby hospital in Lynn); still living there, where after public school I took correspondence course from U. of Chicago. I’m a ‘shut-in,’ partly. In 1949, a couple months after finishing up the last course, I bumped into Cid Corman reading Yeats, on the radio, in his first program, I gather, from Boston. I disagreed with his non-declamatory way of reciting, and wrote him so. This began a correspondence in which I got introduced to things, and the ice broke considerably.”
(As I write this advertisement for Larry Eigner’s poetry to my left sits The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier. That is four volumes of Collected Poems each volume measuring 9” x 11 1/4”, all four weighing in at fourteen pounds and 1,740 pages plus “Notes” and “Appendices” sits there waiting to be named. Magisterial? That word has been used too often to do justice to these books and the passion and effort it took to produce them. Mount Eigner! Like calling Allen’s anthology an earthquake, a word that recognizes a change in the landscape, is needed. I cannot know what readers fifty years down the road will make of this Eigner, but today — the volumes appeared this spring — his achievement is big enough so that it will have to be ignored by going around it or, if your interest in American poetry is hardy you will want to scale this Mount.)
“Shut-in” refers to Eigner’s permanent cerebral palsy caused by brain damage occurring at birth. Although Eigner crawled as a child he spent most of his life wheelchair bound. The physical condition life assigned Eigner is part of the story, but his art is not a record of that condition. Robert Grenier sees Eigner’s poetry as “perhaps the best (and most varied) fulfillment we have to date … [of] Olson’s theory of composition by field.” Grenier’s “perhaps” is the modesty of an editor, poet, and man who has given much of his life to Eigner and his work, so much that he knows enough not to overstate his view. In any case, Charles Olson is part of what came into Eigner’s life and poetry when the ice broke.
In 1954 after meeting Eigner in his Swampscott home Olson wrote Robert Creeley, “The eyes most. And the wild whirling body, frothing at the mouth, listened to for the things come out of that head! So direct and witty and delightful.” Grenier begins his introduction, “Larry Eigner had great eyes …” And the poems, most of the pages in these volumes, presented as Eigner typed them with thumb and forefinger on his Royal portable typewriter, are, as the volume’s subtitle suggests, an act of “calligraphy typewriters” — eye music.
Eigner took the 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of typing paper he wrote on — for him writing was typing — as expressive space on which his machine made letters, words, and spaces at his command. (I can only imagine what he felt when he achieved even the shortest of his poems.) Unlike Wallace Stevens who could compose entire poems in his head as he walked across Hartford, Connecticut to his insurance company desk, Eigner depended on the keyboard. These volumes are, in one sense, a record of what Grenier calls the “perfect freedom,” the “whole world” that is there for the poet who works within limits, in Eigner’s case machine and typing paper. Take these as given and it’s all there if the poet has the imagination to see it.
Others will look at this book up close and write critical articles about Eigner’s poetry and what Grenier and Faville have given us. I feel no need to do that because their achievement seems an act living in the future. I have had these books for two months and still cannot measure how far I am “up” their height. Eigner for me has never been a poet I can spend hours of time with. I like to open these books at random and read until my head is filled with his poems, and I have enough to think about until I get the urge to open one of the books again. For me his poems read like one long poem, and Eigner is, with Philip Whalen, one of America’s supreme poets of consciousness. James Schuyler is another, but he did not, as Eigner and Whalen did, catch the pass Olson threw downfield. Eigner and Whalen did, and they are great in the open field.
That said I want to add, before having more to say about Faville and Grenier’s effort, that Eigner had big ears. He was housebound for much of his life, but this doesn’t mean he was shut out. Yes, he apprehended the world through his sharp, penetrating gaze, but he also heard more than most of us do because he had, I guess, a listening post. He lived the life Pascal wanted us to, the life in our own rooms, which meant for Eigner, I imagine, acute hearing that allowed him to separate out noises that blend together for most of us. I have yet to “understand” exactly what this means to me as a reader and writer. I am aware that where Eigner’s work takes me I have not gone before.
In his introduction Robert Grenier describes his work on behalf of Eigner as a “medieval apprenticeship.” Having spent thirteen years editing James Schuyler’s letters I know a little of what Grenier means. I emphasize “little” because Grenier not only typed all of Eigner’s poems and edited books by Eigner while he lived and edited these volumes; he was for some years Eigner’s housemate and caregiver. An extraordinary apprenticeship! And it must be remembered that Grenier did this at a time when few poets want to be apprentices. They want to graduate from writing programs with prize winning books and teaching jobs. Unlike Robert Grenier they want to have done for themselves and not do for others. His effort and that of Curtis Faville are models for those who understand the value of serving poets who have come before.
Eigner was always lucky in his publishers. Robert Creeley, a champion of his work, published his first book From The Sustaining Air under The Divers Press imprint. Jonathan Williams’s Jargon published On My Eyes with photographs by Harry Callahan. Black Sparrow Press, Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum in London, Oyez Press, Burning Deck and James Weil’s Elizabeth Press followed in their stead. And now Stanford University, Robert Grenier, and Curtis Faville add their names to this bright list. Their may be other editors who have done or are doing for other poets what Grenier and Faville have done for Eigner, but to these eyes their accomplishment is unparalleled.