The man who always was

On Cid Corman

Cid Corman in 2003. Photo by Bob Arnold.

                                                                          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a massive correspondent and daily writer of poems, and one day more of the world will know this through his vast unpublished and printed works. The books range up to two hundred titles (peanuts for a man who claimed to write a book a day), and the unpublished works are scattered amongst fine libraries and institutions.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.

Bob Arnold

From the afterword to
The Next One Thousand Years, selected poems of Cid Corman, edited by Ce Rosenow and Bob Arnold (Longhouse, 2008).