All the meaning life provides

Excerpts from Cid Corman's notebooks

Scan of the cover of Cid Corman's journal no. 2
Scan of the cover of Cid Corman's journal no. 2

These excerpts are from The Uncollected Kyoto Notebooks of Cid Corman, Selections: 1960 to 1975. Selections were made by Fred Jeremy Seligson and Gregory Dunne and submitted with the permission of Bob Arnold, Literary Executor for the Estate of Cid Corman. Inquiries concerning Corman can be sent to and copies of Corman's books are available for purchase at


In 2002, the late American Kyoto-based expatriate poet, Cid Corman (1924–2004), gifted Fred Jeremy Seligson, an American poet living in Korea, a collection of his notebooks as a token of his appreciation for the financial support that Seligson had provided to him during some particularly difficult years. These “Uncollected Kyoto Notebooks” span the crucial period from 1960 to 1975, a time in which Corman was establishing himself both as a poet and as a skilled editor; his poetry journal Origin garnered much attention for the poets it published, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Lorine Niedecker, and Gary Snyder.

Although Corman’s other notebooks were purchased and placed in U.S. research libraries after his death in 2004, these notebooks remained outstanding. Over the past several years, Seligson and I have been reading through the journals and creating a book manuscript from the selections. The selections that we have chosen concern poetry and the vocation of poetry, as well as art in a more generalized fashion. The inclusion of the following excerpts from the manuscript marks the first time that these writings will be accessible to a wider readership. In these selections, readers will encounter a young poet/editor considering poetics with utmost attention and detail. Corman’s writings will prove of interest to both contemporary poets and scholars.

Throughout his life, Corman maintained an extensive worldwide network of correspondents from all walks of life, including young students, accomplished writers, artists, politicians, and members of religious communities. On occasion, his notebooks contain quotes from both his incoming and outgoing correspondence. Corman indicates the names of correspondents by using the initials of their first and last names. Not all correspondents have been identified at this date. However, some of the correspondents can be identified: Robert Kelly (RK), Louis Zukofsky (LZ), Will Petersen (WP), and Marianne Moore (MM).

We present the following excerpts in chronological order:


 Summer 1963, Kyoto

 To SLC about my work 23 June 63

… The poem should reach people with a kind of absolute directness so that it penetrates them. In a way, before they can think to themselves. It is a poem. The awareness I am interested in is not the awareness that says = That is a tree, or a palm or a nightingale, or a poem. It has no name for what is happening at once. but is at once engrossed in the occasion, feeling it as it occurs. As an undivided attention.

The most mystical of all human experiences always occur where realization is complete and nothing needs be known: feeling and perception are absent, and we are, as it were, absent as presence in what circumstance we are in. The engrossing genitive case.

 From letters to LZ. 11 July 63

… It is never a question of negating oneself or reading oneself from an ego, or what have you, but moving with and from the base and basis of what one is. Which in fact needs little or no analysis to function finely…


From letter to LB July 63

Publication, recognition, identification—you have named all the sources of loss. 

Why should I judge you when your life does perfectly? 

You will send me poems when you have them. It is food we share. We need not publish the table or the dishes. I have a house with no doors and no windows, and the roof is high and the floor is low. It is as simple to enter as coming.

From letter to RK 23 July 63

All poems weigh sound and meaning. Any length will do. If you make it do.

All art is “meaningless”: that is, precisely, its accord. It is of an order, if you like, that transcends order. It is not “understanding” as such, but, “understanding” that has so entered event as to be intrinsic with it.


 …The poem says most by saying nothing: it happens too. Or it happens to happen.


From letter to Will Peterson: August 15, 1963

The poem is just where
nothing’s left: there we
not to begin.  

to be attached
as nothing is to nothing
in just that proportion.
you must lose meaning 

in the rock, bury it there:
the act is mourning turning
to morning for its content.

I have said often that poets make poetry as a woman prepares a meal for her family and friends. She doesn't expect to be applauded when she brings food to the table or after it has been eaten. No more do I for my heart's work.

Sample scan from Cid Corman's Journal no. 1


Fall 1963, Kyoto

From letter to SLC 1 September ‘63

…Poetry is always extraordinarily ordinary whenever it occurs. And poetry is to be made not only with the pen, on paper or feeding blank sheets to a typewriter's jaws, but in every contact with every day and all night long in the breath one dreams through, in the body when one composes. Or there is that chance.

The scholars have a consistent ignorance concerning poetry: they avoid all contact with actual practice [and] contemporary experience—unless it is so conservative and academic as to reinforce their own deafness. For there is, say as much to be said, for the use of “departure” from any “regular pattern” as the adherence to it. In fact, it is hard to conceive of any poet adhering to such a pattern and accomplishing anything. Every poet of note discovers the “pattern” only in the “make” (on the fly). By ear: which has its intelligence. The complexities of nomenclature and classification that the classes have devised, would have swamped Homer, Sappho, and the tragedians, and PREVENTED any poetry from ever having occurred. It is a posthumous game bent on alluring scholars a foothold in texts for which they lack sensitivity otherwise. 

In addition, one wonders what “the natural rhythm” of any language in English is: English is said to be “iambic” but that is not a rhythm: it is a very artificial measure. (Defensive mechanics) Every poet discovers his/ her own voice in the using of it. 


“That each poem comes “full born” according to the music the impulse requires, and in its making “naturally” acquires (brings out). The poet shapes the language happening. If he imposes to the point of superimposing a structure, he will either seriously hamper the flow of event or stop it altogether and then have to “construct” a river! (e.g., “A”-11)1.

Only when the Emptiness is left open and clear can it be always “full.” But weightlessly so (with weight.) 

My poems are from the heart to the heart, but one needs all one’s ears and eyes to go directly through the world from one such place to another.

There is no meaning but what we— men— attach meaning is our attachment. We beg for what we feel to stay felt to stay alive as felt we want to dramatize the moment. No drama has the grace of realizing the fundamental emptiness of all human gesture and to realize it with an encompassing. compassion of art.  

The candle’s jewel of light centers darkness. 

The altar of the dead is the altar of the Living. 

On WS (Wallace Stevens) (NOBLE RIDER). The distinction Stevens makes between imagination and reality can be missed because of the pressure those words exert. The rhetorical (imaginative) as he realizes, tends to lead almost invariably to its own self clarification. Whereas the real presumably refers us to the more vital sense of the world we everyday inhabit. 

The work of art makes us more alive —feel that we are living and that it is worth the dying to be this alive, to feel such reach (sounding). Of life in life. 

The religious experience is that of art.

Art gives life whatever “reality” it can be said to have. It is the experience upon which, within which, we may dwell, at which we warm ourselves.  For, it goes on illuminating us through itself. It does not fail us with its light or its works. It is the heart of the heart.

Life without art is not art at all. It is mere duration.


One does one’s poem and lets go of it. It is not a matter of “attachment” or “detachment” or “unattachment,” but letting a thing be, whatever it is, as it is. Love has led to its creation and one has given all that was in one to give. No more than a woman giving birth to a child “renounces” it. One sees it into individual strength then allows it its own world. 

Art is experience so offered. That is with and through. Love’s mind —. That it is itself an experience at depth. (Realized in the making.) 

The use of art is always its ability to yield experience at depth to anyone who opens to it. It requires openness. It requires only openness to experience. It is the spiritual sharing at the least esoteric level possible. It reaches through the ground of common senses, is enlarging them even as they “open.”

 So that yes, a larger deeper breath occurs. The sky is one sigh, the earth, one’s footprint.

Sengai and Hakuin were not “painters”: were asked by folk in passing for Sumi works because they were “great spirits” for that contact and keep to know relation with the best their world offered. 

Likewise, Basho, who wrote his haiku on demand often. As when the man, leading his horse through the fields moved him to compose one of his loveliest by simply asking. 

That I write, say, not for money nor fame, nor to vent a personal agony? Seems to virtually all “pretentious” or “smug” or “posing” or anything else that covers up accepted or acceptable attitudes that it could be simply to enter life more fully, at every moment, and to share in the best way I can find that experience—this does not occur. 


From letter to RS (Roberto) 28th Sept 63

“If you cannot live poetry, you cannot make poetry.” 

If the life does not test and weigh the poetry, the poetry is merely verbiage garbage. 

From letter to AH 

“... It’s an old reiteration of mine that the winged horse is still a horse. And he’d better fly and fly better with the feel of dirt in his hooves. In short, the roots and the food/ soil are inextricable with any flowering performance: that can be understood without being thrust in one’s face, though at times people learn to be embarrassed to know the fact of process and the thrust can be salutary. Only the poem can justify itself.” 


From letter to MM (Marianne Moore).
Every tree reaches us to the sun and roots us where we are. 

In Japanese and Chinese too the word for “heart” (Kokoro) is also the word for “mind.” It gives people here at once a great advantage without their knowing it and merely living. 


Winter 1964, Kyoto

 Poetry is all the meaning life provides. There is no need, however, to glorify it. Beauty resides always and only, and as long as man (which may be no longer than tomorrow) faces his condition. But it is more than reportage. It is RELATION. That breath be shared, that there is only one air; that every heartbeat is the one heartbeat. …




  1. Corman is referring to the Louis Zukofsky poem “‘A’-11”: 

River that must turn full after I stop dying
Song, my song, raise grief to music
Light as my loves’ thought, the few sick
So sick of wrangling: thus weeping,
Sounds of light, stay in her keeping
And my son’s face – this much for honor.