In one of his earliest books, Sun Rock Man, Cid Corman writes: “Already I feel breathless/ as if I have come too far,/ to find peace, to have found it.” The thread linking more than thirty years of Corman’s poetry, translation, and editorship is the quest back toward some deep original peace, some attempt to find a permanent home in exile. Corman’s work is one long and moving dialectic, informed by his sense of having “come too far” and yet of being unable to return. The shifts, both technical and in terms of subject matter, that one discovers in his poems are like signposts pointing both forward and backward at once; they remind the reader that every act of creation has been one of destruction as well, that self-exile for Corman means also new territory.
In Corman’s career, this new territory meant, geographically, first Europe, then Japan. One sees, in particular, the Japanese influence in the details of Corman’s verse: his affinity for natural objects and the short, almost Asian, tightness of his forms. However, far more important has been the psychological and literary territory Corman traversed. Psychically, this terrain embraces the open spaces of poetic activity, of “making it new” as chartered by such forebears as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky. Like the poetry of these predecessors, Corman’s work is a departure from the traditional verse conventions of its time; it is marked, as well, by a willingness to bear the immediate deflections of incident, encounter, or thought much as Williams’s poetry submitted to the “local” or Zukofsky’s to the dictates of the musical phrase. Corman’s work can be said to seek its timelessness in its very moment. Thus his poems are spontaneous registers of isolation, of immersion in somewhat alien landscapes where both the native or local language and its cultural iconography are essentially mute; yet it is also immersion in that deeper awareness of world and people caught in the inarticulateness of their situations. In Corman, much is characterized as silent, as unknowable. Rather than raiding the inarticulate, Corman’s work attempts to come to terms with it, to construct a language that seems to represent a shared act of humanity and world.
Corman’s earliest published poems, such as those in Sun Rock Man, attempt to render precisely these occasions of inarticulateness. In them, Corman employs an imagist or objectivist technique, which rigorously favors the recording eye over the conceptualizing mind. The poet is an agency or a recording instrument, and the abject poverty and hopelessness of Matera, an impoverished Italian hill town, is witnessed “objectively.” Authorial control is maintained, as it were, only by the details to be selected. Poems such as “the dignities” or “Luna Park” operate under the force of Williams’s “no ideas but in things,” realized with an eye and ear for detail and tone that are compelling and satisfying; they seem to present an almost pure externality that speaks so eloquently and powerfully that comment is superfluous.
In the end, however, one feels that such poems may rely too heavily on their being a form of exotica, particularly when their occasion is almost solely the function of the poet’s arrival on the scene. Indeed, the less formally accomplished poems of Sun Rock Man suggest a troubled and yet more fruitful ambivalence, for they sound the note that in Corman’s career has its most significant distinction: a deepening capacity to express simultaneously the subjective and the objective terms of situations. As he says of his stay in Matera, “Nothing displaces us/ like our own intelligence.”
This displacement, suggesting a leave-taking that is both poetic and physical, is the major theme of all Corman’s mature work. The exile is not simply one of banishment to strange lands but to a kind of Rilkean soul-work of facing out on the “speechlessness” of the world. Thus, in nearly all the poems after Sun Rock Man, the visual imagistic technique, while not abandoned, is forsworn in favor of rendering the physicality of voicing itself, in an attempt to say without inflation or rhetoric the meaning for the poet of such speechlessness.
Corman’s poems often begin within an action, as though the poet finds himself surprised by circumstance into utterance. The prepositions or relational conjunctions, the statements containing continuous verb forms (“finding,” “remembering,” and so on) found at the head of many of Corman’s poems are devices for signaling the organic connection between the active and changing content of the poet’s situation and the arising of the poem. Rather than the “picture-making” or mimesis of the earlier poems (or of the more imagistically inclined poet), these poems are specifically linguistic occasions, not meant...
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