Commentaries - February 2013

By Carol Williams

Shizumi Konishi / Corman (left) and Daphne Marlatt in Kyoto (photo by Carol Williams)

I am delighted to be in touch with Carol Williams, a dear friend of Shizumi Konishi (Corman), Cid Corman’s wife of many years in Kyoto, Japan. Carol read J2’s recent feature on Corman with pleasure, and wrote me with further details about Shizumi and the Cormans’ life together in Japan. I urged her to let me publish a few of her notes, and they follow. — Al Filreis

I have just come across the article “Basho’s Pheasant” which I enjoyed immensely, but feel I should make the following corrections.

We lived just outside Kyoto for five years and became very close to Shizumi Konishi / Corman, shortly after Cid’s death, meeting her at least once a week, sharing meals and exploring places together both inside and outside the city.  She also came to stay with us on several occasions such as American Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Shizumi spoke of Cid, his family and her own at great length so I feeI I can safely say that she would be turning over in her grave at being described as a “native of Kyoto.” The Konishi family was from Kusatsu, a city outside Hiroshima, and moved to Kyoto shortly before the outbreak of W W II.  As stated by George Evans, outsiders were treated 'politely' by those who were really from Kyoto, i.e. that their family had been there several hundred years.  Kyoto people, with relatively few exceptions, are known for being reserved, or, as Shizumi put it, “the blood in their veins is as cold as their climate.”  Shizumi never considered herself to belong to Kyoto and certainly was not a “native” as described by George Evans.

(Note: Shizumi took on Cid’s family name when they married and was proud to use the name.  However, when he died the Japanese government would not allow her to use his name any longer and all formal paperwork, including medical appointments, had to be in the name of Konishi. The tatty “Cid Corman” sign remained on the front door of the house, except when the wind was too high, until she died.)

The subject of Cid’s translations: Cid never really learned to speak Japanese, let alone write the Japanese language.  He chose not to quite deliberately, and it is time that this was made known as Susumu Kamaike, a long standing friend of Cid's, who is fluent in both languages, was responsible for the translation from Japanese to English of the Basho work (and others in conjunction with Cid's name), referred to in this article.  Cid then refined the English version of Kamaike's translation, setting it in a more poetic medium. He and Kamaike Sensei would often spend many hours deciding on the best turn of phrase. However, Kamaike Sensei has not until recently been given the credit he is due.

On February 12, 2013, I interviewed John Ashbery in his Chelsea apartment, and moderated a discussion with people gathered at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia while hundreds watched via live webcast. The live webcast, of course, was recorded and here is a link to the YouTube recording of the GoogleHangout video. Ashbery was the first of three 2013 Kelly Writers House Fellows, and this was his second time as a Fellow; he is the only writer, in 14 years of the series, to be asked to serve as a Fellow twice. The previous visit was in 2002. On Monday, February 11, the poet met for three hours with students in the KWH Fellows Seminar and then gave a public reading (also available as a recorded webcast). During the reading he performed several poems from his new book, Quick Question, and read two unpublished poems — one of them having been written just a few days earlier.

John Ashbery, 2/11/13, with KWH Fellows students, during the break in our 3-hour session with the poet.

1995, before Ear inn reading with Ann Lauterbach, photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald

Three Collaborations
•"Slowed Reason," collaboration with Piombino, March 28, 1990 at the Living Theater in NY (1:37):  MP3

•Jackson Mac Low's "Free Gatha 1,"  performed by Mac Low, Bernstein and Piombino at the same event (5:36):  MP3

•Ear Inn, January 9, 1988, from Legend with Bruce Andrews (10:59): MP3
use the second player button for PennSound's new player

From an Auckland-New York video conference for Bad Language, organised by Artspace and the Jar Foundation, 11 July 2001. Auckland participants: Wystan Curnow, Leigh Davis, Tony Green
Full program (1:38:47): video/mp4
         Poem Composed for Jackson Mac Low, from With Strings (U of Chicago P, 2001).
         Thank You for Saying Thank You from Girly Man (U Chicago Press, 2006)
         Dear Mr. Fanelli from My Way: Speeches and
(U of Chicago P, 1999)

Ear Inn, with Ann Lauterbach January 4, 1992

(36:58):  MP3
1. Locks without Doors
2. 9:24 from The Subject
3. 24:20 "Dark City"

Radical New Jewish Culture Festival, curated by John Zorn, Knitting Factory, NYC - October 11, 1992
complete reading (42:29) MP3
Introduction (1:20): MP3
"Islets/Irritations" (from Islets/Irritations) (5:49): MP3
"Motion Sickness" (from Islets/Irritations) (5:20): MP3
"Sentences My Father Used" (from Controlling Interests) (12:28)  MP3
"March" (from Stigma) (1:40):  MP3
"Bought Off" (from Stigma) (1:20):  MP3
"Why I Am Not a Christian" (1:57):MP3
from "A Person Is Not an Entity Symbolic but the Divine Incarnate" (4:45):  MP3
"The Influence of Kinship Patterns upon the Perception of an Ambiguous Stimulus" (from Dark City) (6:38):  MP3

Ear Inn, with Leslie Scalapino, April 2, 1994
full reading (40:23): MP3

"Echo Off (Use Other Entrance)" (10:08): MP3

from Residual Rubbernecking (1995):
"Residual Rubberknecking" (1:29): MP3
"Are You Being Sarcastic?" (0:35): MP3
"Rivulets of the Dead Jew" (0:47): MP3
"Swelled by Certainty" (0:32): MP3
"Edlin" (0:32): MP3
"Revolutionary Poem" (0:26): MP3

"Sane as Tugged Vat, Your Love" after Leevi Lehto (2:14): MP3
"Nuclear Blanks" after Estaban Pujals (3:20): MP3
"Claire-in-the-Building" (4:20): MP3
"Low Regrets" (2:17): MP3
"Memories" (3:55): MP3
"Max Weber's Favorite Tylenol for Teething" (2:20): MP3
"The Republic of Reality" (7:39): MP3

from Defoe (13:55):  MP3
  1. from The Front Matter, Dead Souls (11:56):  MP3
  2. from Objects in the Terrying Tense / Longing from Taking Place (13:48):  MP3
Monterey, Mass., July 27, 1994

(1:33:34):   MP3
"Echo Off : Use Other Entrance"
"Pinky Swear Sonnet"
"Memories Custom Blinds"
"Buffalo Nights"
"Dear Mr. Fannelli"
"A Defense of Poetry"
"The Lives of the Toll Takers"
"Emotions of Normal People"

John Lowther reads four poem from Rough Trades (full text available on-line)
part of the Atlanta Poetry Group's new series of poets reading other poets.




Charles Bernstein PennSound readings page

Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros (detail)
Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros, translating dimensions (detail)

But there is one unfortunate difference between us [the British and the Greeks], one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital.  — C.P. Cavafy to E. M. Forster, 1918

The proliferation of English translations of Cavafy’s poems in recent years has been remarkable, notable even for the work of a poet to whom recognition came belatedly and international acclaim largely after his death in 1933. The first extensive selection, by George Valassopoulo—presumed to be the only one seen by Cavafy himself—remained unpublished until 2009. John Mavrogordato’s versions, preferred by Cavafy’s executor, appeared in 1951; Rae Dalven’s volume, introduced by W.H. Auden, came out in 1961. Important collections were published in 1972 and 1975 by the team of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Though a handful of selections appeared in the interim, until the late 1990s most Anglophone readers and poets knew Cavafy, if they knew him at all, through Dalven or Keeley and Sherrard.

As the Cavafy archive, under the ownership of G.P. Savidis and later his son Manuel, has made available “repudiated” and “unfinished” poems excluded by the poet from his authorized corpus, this material, along with Cavafy’s growing influence on a new generation of writers, has stimulated a cottage industry in Cavafy translation. Penn’s library now holds volumes of Cavafy in English by at least seventeen translators, including high-profile projects from Aliki Barnstone and Daniel Mendelsohn in the past few years.

Two biographical facts form the données for Cavafy’s poetic development. One is his homosexuality. The second, less often remarked today, is the collapse of his wealthy family’s fortune and their subsequent impoverishment. Though born in Alexandria, Cavafy spent formative adolescent years in England—which, on the failure of the family business, he was forced to leave. He was taken in by relatives in Constantinople, while his elder brothers looked for work in Alexandria and sent what money they could. Food was not always plentiful.

Returning to Alexandria after almost three years to live in his widowed mother’s house, Constantine would spend the rest of his working life in a minor post in the Anglo-Egyptian civil bureaucracy. His mother’s family, aristocratic Phanariot Greeks settled in Constantinople since the 17th century, had included a Prince of Samos and an archbishop of Caesarea. On his father’s side were prosperous and cosmopolitan merchants; the family firm was one of the largest international brokers of Egyptian grain and cotton. The youngest of six surviving children, whose literary bent was encouraged early, Cavafy may never have expected to need to earn a living; his brothers had intended to make him financially independent. Certainly he never forgot that he was a rich man’s son. Some writers have blamed the business failure on mismanagement by the family, but political and macroeconomic forces also played a role, as rising nationalist feeling undermined the international trading monopoly granted to Egyptian Greeks by the French prior to 1840. The impact on young Constantine was profound.

The youthful years spent as a lodger in Constantinople were in one sense fruitful for him. Away from his mother’s eye, he often roamed the city after dark and probably had his first homosexual experiences there. Once back in Alexandria, he made nocturnal pilgrimages to disreputable quarters of the city to seek pleasure, while by day he attempted, at least for some time, to maintain a dignified social position as the scion of a once-great house. It took many years, however, before he became intellectually reconciled to Alexandria. His cosmopolitan sensibility chafed under its cultural provincialism, and he missed the freedom offered by large and anonymous cities.

Cavafy’s early poetry was derivative of Romantic and Symbolist models and has held little interest for later readers. It was not until after the age of forty that he developed the method that would yield the poems for which he’s known today. Critic Peter Bien offered a concise summary as early as 1964. Cavafy, he wrote,

perceived that his sexual decadence was congruent with his and his family’s social and economic decline, and that this personal situation was in turn congruent with the decline of the local Greek community as a whole; furthermore that in broader perspective his situation bore analogy to the ups and downs of Greek fortunes in Alexandria over a period of two millennia, to the decline of Hellenism as a civilizing force in numerous other centers, and (implicitly) to the weary, decadent status of European civilization in general. Cavafy now had at his fingertips an expanding series of equivalent substitutions, any of which could be utilized poetically to symbolize any or all of the others. [1]

If we read “sexual decadence” to refer to the mature poet’s recollection of bygone vigor and pleasures, rather than to a sense of moral decay, the passage holds up fairly well. C. M. Bowra, Edmund Keeley and others long ago noted that historical Alexandria and the Hellenic world offered Cavafy the materials for a modernist “mythic method” analogous to that described and used by Eliot as well as by Yeats, Joyce, and Pound. That method weaves what the poet called his “erotic,” “historical,” and “philosophical” poems—as well as the modern and the ancient city—into a single fabric.

By midcentury when Dalven’s translations appeared, the Western intellectual mood had moved, as Bien suggests, from the disgust of Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth” through the various interwar utopian impulses to the ennui of Beckett and of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. This was a fertile climate for the recognition of Cavafy’s undecorated and dis-enchanted poetics, as well as for the dramatic irony with which he so often leads the reader to a jaundiced view of human striving—whether for personal glory, political power, or merely enduring happiness.

W.H. Auden, in his introduction to Dalven’s translations, wrote that several of his own poems would not have been written had he not read Cavafy. By the 1980s, with the rise of gay pride and the gay rights movement, followed by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, Cavafy’s influence on American poets had become more overt; his frank if chaste depiction of homosexual encounters—along with the self-justifying attitude toward sensuous pleasure in many poems—now became the salient aspect of his literary legacy. James Merrill published translations of three Cavafy poems; in the early nineties Mark Doty’s popular and prizewinning collection My Alexandria contained poems that used the title template of Cavafy’s “Days of 1903” and “Days of 1896”—as, a few years later, did Marilyn Hacker’s Squares and Courtyards.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing costly wars, the resonance for American cultural hegemony of Cavafy’s remark to Forster about “losing your capital” has become more apparent. But the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the deep recession that followed have, perhaps, created the most receptive conditions for readers to appreciate Cavafy’s unified project. Not since the 1930s have so many Americans seen their material security unexpectedly threatened or destroyed by forces beyond their control. As was true of survivors of the Depression, recent economic events have affected attitudes toward risk and called into question traditional American assumptions about the value of individual achievement and the rewards for hard work.

How should one live in aftermath—of financial ruin, of bereavement, of physical decline, of cultural eclipse? This question haunts Cavafy’s poems; it provokes us to consider what, in fact, matters in life.

In a timely and culturally significant action, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation announced near the end of last year that it had purchased the Cavafy archive from the Savidis family, who had been entrusted with its care and development by Cavafy’s executors. The collection will remain in Greece, while broader scholarly and public access is anticipated.


[1] Peter Bien, Constantine Cavafy [Columbia Essays on Modern Writers] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 19.

All things possess intelligence, and a share of thought.
– Empedocles of Acragas


I who
am dead
call to
the living
how absurd
your walk
& adrift
you run across
your words
are manacles
& cage
your mind
I know
enough of you
to sense
your pain
& fiercely
I move
into a deeper
where none
will reach me
I strike
a blow
an imbeciling
from inside
my body
                          (A. Artaud)
the ground
& blocks
all entry
like little
down the sky
le mal
du ciel
the phrase
I hear
& fly from


to bits
of light
a thin
or eye’s
it sticks
my throat
I try
but cannot
cough it
the edges
of a tongue
than nails
leave me
& distant
from my own
of pain
the pattern
of small
that block
my path
a flash
of lights
back of
my eyes
& call
of birds
made out of
the fragile
my fingers
& weave
like wires
in a line
so thin
it fades
from sight
tick tock
the clock
your heart
will overcome
the sleepers
we will raise
a sheet
& watch them
as they fall
like phantoms
a thousand

my word
for it
is not
it takes
a certain
the mystery
of mind
spread through
the universe
in each
of us
our thoughts
to the source
each time
my breath
to minutes
to days
the mystery
is in
the words
(he writes)
the rest
he cannot know
but bears it
in his mind
all things
a share
of thought