This review appeared in the January/February 2009 Issue of The Bloomsbury Review. ©2009 by Joseph Hutchison. NOTE: A correction and some additional information has been appended to this post as of 01/21/09.
The Next One Thousand Years: The Selected Poems of Cid Corman
By Cid Corman
Edited by Ce Rosenow and Bob Arnold
207 pages, paper
Longhouse, Publishers & Booksellers
1604 River Road
Guilford, VT 05301
All strong poets ground their work in their own “significant tradition”: an idiosyncratic, even contrarian view of what really matters in the history of their art. André Breton, for example, counted among the ancestors of Surrealism such diverse figures as Heraclitus, Abelard, Paracelsus, Giordano Bruno, Meister Eckhart, Rousseau, Swift, Sade, Poe, and Lautréamont. This is not exactly Harold Bloom’s Canon.
Of course, most poets don’t issue manifestos or found movements: the significant tradition remains largely implicit in their work. Nevertheless, its presence always serves to critique the poetry of their moment, because strong poets almost always swim against the current. In doing so, they inspire reevaluations of the accepted tradition that often change the direction, or speed, or depth of the current for subsequent generations. It’s hard to imagine the variety and breadth of today’s poetry, for example, without the generation of strong American poets who were born in the 1920s—poets such as Adrienne Rich, W. S. Merwin, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly and Allen Ginsberg. These are highly regarded, highly visible writers. But every period also includes strong poets who are not highly visible, for one reason or another: poets with vexed personal or political relationships, or a lack of what corporations call “advancement skills”; poets who are too shy, too reclusive, too far from the power centers of New York or Iowa City or one of the many University of California campuses, yet who still manage to produce influential work. Sometimes their influence extends to poets and audiences who don’t know their names and have never read their poems. Cid Corman was one such poet.
A member of the 1920s cohort mentioned above, Corman was a highly educated college dropout who lived most of his adult life in Europe and Japan. Before becoming an expatriate, however, he initiated America’s first poetry radio program on station WMEX in Boston in 1949; called “This Is Poetry,” the program broadcast readings by a wide variety of poets, including Theodore Roethke, Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, and Marianne Moore. In 1951 he founded the important literary magazine Origin, which was to appear irregularly over the next four decades. Origin provided an early venue for poets such as Gary Snyder, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov, and was instrumental in launching and sustaining the career of William Bronk. Corman’s taste in poetry was nothing if not broad, and he asserted that taste not just editorially but through his many translations from Italian, German, French, and Japanese, as well as through his own prolific writings. In a personal letter to William Bronk’s biographer, Lyman Gilmore, Corman reported having “at least 100,000 unpublished poems piled up around me here, and all worth publishing. […] I’m a weirdo,” he added. “A fulltime poet but without any means. No income, no pension, living—as always—in poverty. But the most productive poet in human history.”
Given the vastness of Corman’s work, one can sense the devotion that helped editors Ce Rosenow and Bob Arnold assemble The Next One Thousand Years. Not only did they have about 150 published books to work with, but several unpublished manuscripts that were available to Bob Arnold as Corman’s literary executor. In the event, thanks to the editors’ admirable efforts, those who already know Corman’s work will find previously unknown treasures here, and readers new to Corman will get a taste of his accomplishments without being overwhelmed.
Corman’s greatest strengths can be summed up in a sentence Corman himself wrote in describing the poetry of William Bronk: “His work,” Corman wrote to Bronk’s biographer, “was open and lucid and unpretentious.” Adding to those qualities a gentle, if sometimes pointed sense of humor brings us close to the center of Corman’s achievement. Here’s an example—a Corman poem that amounts to a credo poetica:
I want the words
so simple and
true you feel they
have come out of
your own mouth and
are breathing you.
An inattentive reader might greet this poem with a shrug. Too simple! Too direct! But notice that the enjambed lines, the brevity of the poem itself, and suggestiveness of the title leverage the openness that is the hallmark of Corman’s poetics. “How do … you do?” is implicit—and suggests both a socially conventional greeting and a statement of concern about the object of the greeting: that is, the reader. What does the poet want for the reader and for himself? Connection. A relationship. Unlike so many poets, Corman aimed to share rather than impose his perceptions and insights—and that aim led him to create poems too transparent to become fodder for theorists and Ph.D. candidates. This one, for example, entitled “the gift” (title lowercased by the poet):
first night in a
strange town to
be going home
strange girl saying
goodnight to me
how night is
when she says so
Again we find the lines enjambed in a way that repeatedly opens up the syntax, which in turn forces the reader to pay attention. When we do, we find that the apparently simple experience of unforeseen connection is not so simple: “first night … to / be going home,” after all, implies a conditional mood, a grammatical past tense that suggests a hypothetical or contingent situation. It’s a common construction in Romance languages, but strange in English—which reinforces the strangeness of “the gift” itself. Is the gift the strange girl’s “goodnight,” or the poet’s ability to imagine a situation in which he is wished goodnight? The poem leaves the question tantalizingly open and unresolved. The ambiguity extends even to the title, whose appearance in lowercase emphasizes the uncertain value of the gift.
Corman’s consistent exploitation of the hidden potentials of language itself might become tedious if it weren’t for his essential compassion and illuminating playfulness. Here are a few examples:
My brother awoke
one night, I’m told,
and said to a sound
moved, ‘Is that you, Cid?’
I’m here, of course—
whatever that means.
Always to want to
go back, to correct
an error, ease a
guilt, see how a friend
is doing. And yet
one doesn’t, except
in memory, in
dreams. The land remains
the feeling is of
There are things to be said. No doubt.
And in one way or another
they will be said. But to whom tell
the silences? With whom share them
now? For a moment the sky is
empty and then there was a bird.
Like all Corman poems, these do not require comment—they require only attention. And like all good poems they benefit from being read aloud, because poetry unites inspiration and respiration.
The Next One Thousand Years also contains a generous selection of Corman’s translations, which provide a good sense of the poet’s “significant tradition.” The breadth of this tradition is astonishing. (Probably the only poet among Corman’s contemporaries with a comparable scope of influence is W. S. Merwin.) Corman’s translations range from the classical—Sappho, Lao Tse, Li Po, Tu Fu, Issa, Bashō, and Saigyō—to modern masters like Taneda Santōka, Ungaretti, Montale, Lorca, Mandelstam, Michaux, Celan, Char, and the great French fabulist Marcel Cohen. It would likely prove a fool’s errand to find evidence of all these voices in Corman’s work, though the reader would do well to keep them in mind. The influence of classic Japanese haiku poets on his work is clear, but Corman’s attention to the ambiguities of language is distinctly modern. It’s a concern shared by his heirs: poets like Bill Knott, Rae Armantrout, Fanny Howe, and Jonathan Greene—not to mention the editors of the volume under review, who are fine poets in their own right.
If there is a weakness in this beautiful publication, it is bibliographical: no sources for the included poems are cited, although Rosenow’s introduction does note that the selection draws from Corman’s published work, as well as “rare, privately circulated editions and three unpublished manuscripts.” Only scholars and bibliophiles will mind the omission. For the rest of us, there is the extraordinary gift of Corman’s poetry, in which we experience again and again the moment of communion through the inherent contingency of language. As we do here, in what amounts to a corollary to the poem quoted earlier, “How Do”:
What else is
of the word
by the light
of a page.
UPDATE. I received this correction from Ce Rosenow, one of this volume’s editors: “Cid […] didn’t drop out of college. He started but did not complete graduate school.” She also noted that “so many of the poems appear in multiple publications that it became hard enough to decide on which version, let alone whether or not to list all the places a poem appeared. Maybe for the next edition?” Let’s hope this book flies off the shelves so there can be a next edition!