Cid Corman Corman, Cid (Sidney Corman) - Essay

Corman, Cid (Sidney Corman)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Corman, Cid (Sidney Corman) 1924–

An American poet and translator, Corman lives in Japan. His poetry is essentially a poetry of exile, of cultural isolation, and its form is clear, brief, and immediate with great emphasis placed on the sense of word sounds.

Cid Corman is a practiced master of a distinctively modern genre: the skinny poem. A good skinny poem is spare in more than its line lengths (and usually its number of lines—were Poe alive he might explain how a skinny poem of more than, say, thirty lines would be at best a series of related poems)…. To qualify for the genre, a poem has to look like a skeleton that won its struggle to get out of its fat embodiment. If it says more than it leaves unsaid, it's just corseted corpulence, pathetically trying to play thin. If it suggests no special logic in its thinness, it advertises a way to cheat editors who pay by the line. Here is one of Corman's honest successes:

                        We drink
                        to each
                        One cup
                        leads to
                        Mind floats
                        lies by
                        Go friend
                        And don't
                        Your lute.

The lines of this poem are short and placed as they are for better reasons than a mere predilection for white space. It shows how such simple devices as immediate repetition can be peculiarly telling in a poem so rigorously spare. And it brings to mind another quality shared by many of the better pages in Livingdying, an Oriental flavor so strong in some poems that they seem not original works but carefully literal translations. At its worst this flavor may smack of cross-cultural belch, like pseudo-Zen gnomics or Pound pretentiously wagging his pigtail.

                Young strong and willing
                Sword in hand alone
                How much ground covered
                Chang-I to Yu-Chou
                Drank at the Yi's source
                Got to no man's land
                Nothing but old graves
                Of them two high points
                Chuang-Chou Po-Ya rest
                No longer around
                I have gone far—why.

Why indeed. But that isn't typical. Corman lives in Japan, really lives there, and in most of his short pieces the Eastern note is earned and genuinely resonant. Few of the wholly successful poems of Livingdying are far from the realm of haiku. "The Condiment" is a particularly deft example.

                      comes over
                      the slope
                      or nearly
                      the grass
                      the salt of
                      into the

And there are others ("Willows/pushing buds/I//only/reach to feel/more" and "Of course/life matters./Twitter//sparrow,/and let me/know it.") that exemplify a common feature of American haiku, making overt the connection between thing seen and man seeing.

Geography aside, Corman also lives in America. He has worked his way to the forefront of our native tradition of skinny poetry, a tradition that includes Frost's "Dust of Snow" as well as Williams' lean classics, the few achieved miniatures of Louis Zukofsky's work, or for that matter, the funning onomatopoeia of Aram Saroyan's "crickets/crickets/crickets/…." When he cares to, Corman can bring off a special blending of haiku-like ellipsis and down-right American idiom.

                    That there
                    the tree
                    What you do
                               to be
                    What you done
                                   (p. 53)

Robert J. Griffin, in The Nation (copyright 1970 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 20, 1970.

Cid Corman has long been a poet's poet: a writer neither very profuse—all his books are "slender" ones—nor very aggressive, but central. To read Corman is to become conscious of one's breathing, how slightly it separates us from things like stones. The pure language, in minimal lines like those of Williams or Creeley, makes one think of other arts in their purity: a clean tone of harpsichord music, or flute, or flute, or Matisse colors, or sumi painting or the Zen archer, shooting well. (p. 271)

Alicia Ostriker, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Spring, 1972.

Cid Corman's characteristic poem of the last 10 years (roughly the period since he went to live in Japan) has a somewhat Oriental look about it: brief lines, measured by syllabic count, with much interplay of tones and accents, usually turning on a point of acute perception. But don't mistake it for the schmaltz that passes as Orientalism in most American translations and imitations. Corman came from New England originally, he lived in Europe for some years before moving to Japan, and I detect in his work a Yankee toughness and existential lucidity that raise it far above trivia….

Corman's questions speak what whole libraries have debated about contemporary experience. And they show his method very well—conflict, balance, compression….

I'd say Corman hits about 10 percent, equivalent to a lifetime batting average of .400 in the ball park. A collection of his best poems, including those from ["Once and for All: Poems for William Bronk"], would be one of the finest works in English from the third quarter of the century. Beyond that, "Once and for All" is quite the equal of his earlier books, though perhaps more abstract in substance than some…. (p. 12)

Hayden Carruth, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1976.

Sun Rock Man seems above all else a rite of passage, the record of a poet working out his apprenticeship in a foreign country, but in Corman two very different ways of relating to this situation conflict. The book is thus less a study of the evolution of a style than a working out of a contention between outlooks. Many poems are impressive for their craft and their pure externality, the poet a mere agency, a word-journalist, of subjects which speak so eloquently and powerfully in their own right that comment seems superfluous…. [There] are five or six … accomplished [poems] in Sun Rock Man, one asks no more, for they demonstrate what the objectivists (whose influence informs them) meant by "rested totality."

And yet, in the end, such poems may rely too heavily on a form of exotica, particularly when their content is almost solely a function of the poet's fortuitous appearance on the scene. If places do speak to us, nevertheless, they run the danger of becoming terminal loci when the poet has taken himself out of his own cultural milieu. Such "objectivity" can inhibit the complexity of the poet's response, mainly by preventing him from sufficient accounting for his own presence in the equation of the world he is creating. This certainly seems true with Corman, for cast into the world of Sun Rock Man, like a grain of sand in an otherwise perfect oyster of impressions, is Corman's awareness of his own status as outsider, his resources, the choices which are denied his subjects…. There is a feeling … not only of coming too far but of not coming far enough, an ache to actually enter into that vastness. This mood permeates the last few poems of Sun Rock Man, suggesting a leavetaking but not a return. They introduce Corman's later themes, an epiphany to "that greater speechlessness/leading us all home"; in the work which follows, that "home" seems less a physicality than a place, any place, in which the poet can imagine "speechlessness" having an echo. (pp. 98-100)

In Corman, facing toward silence—since it cannot respond, only evoke—is a way of drawing off from the self what would pass for style or mannerism. As soulwork, it might usefully be compared to Eliot's notions of impersonality; as vision, it is death-haunted, and yet its consolations are strangely moving…. (p. 101)

In the poems of the last six or seven years, the themes are further muted, the attempt to grasp or to make sense of being not so much withdrawn as transmuted into a form of acceptance which has its own nervous energy. (p. 102)

These poems, no longer quests, are certainly different in tone from the anguished work of Sun Rock Man with its ache of excess being. Wise in a kind of yielding, they attempt to let things be what they are, what a Buddhist might call "suchness."… [The] capacity to maintain, in a kind of semantic juggling act, a multiplicity of meanings … is one of Corman's great gifts as a poet. That the meanings adhere to the language at depth and complexity testifies to the visionary nature of Corman's craft. For what is ambiguous about his work manifests itself without obscurity or recourse to private symbolism: it occurs in the service of the recognition, as he says in another poem, that "… in time go/words also, however true/Man's life is a conjuring/finally nothing once more."

The air of "finally nothing" pervades … Once and For All, Poems for William Bronk. Both have an ease and humor, the exile now so much at home in his exile, that past, pain, whatever, are transfigured into a new richness, a new balance…. [The] "nothing" in the substance of these poems is the self recognized as a transparency, an agency which works on and gives voice to its interferences. This is decidedly different from our usual liberal or religious ideas that the self is small, hence should be humble; Corman's balance is struck as a kind of arrival, an acceptance into one's condition. Poetic tension comes from the drama and the new knowledge acquired in reconciliation…. (pp. 102-04)

Those who are familiar with the work of William Bronk will recognize … that Corman's dedication to him of his latest book is a signal, beyond friendship, to shared themes and concerns. In both, what sets them apart from their contemporaries and from much American and English poetry is their metaphysical stance toward what phenomenologists call the "pre-objective" world, the world enshrouded in that silence before concept or name. In Bronk, this seems to have taken the form of Montaigne's "what can I know"; in Corman, the emphasis has been on the nature of the knower. Corman's best poems remind us that the self, of which we are often so glib, is no closer than that world in our understanding. The power of the poems derives from Corman's urge to pare that world, to reduce, to silence language to all but the essential…. Such poems have the feel, the completeness of natural objects; they demand as much from one's tact as from one's emotions in that like all otherness they resist our appropriations. Unlike much modern work, they refuse to trade on contemporary anxieties, refuse to be converted into a form of moral coinage—there is barely a word in these poems about the world of "big issues." Nevertheless, they insinuate themselves into our moral consciousness by going to ground, by addressing the self at its most affective point, the economy of its own organization…. (pp. 106-07)

What I have said of Corman's poetry strikes me as no less true of his editorship of Origin; like the poems, it is an enterprise, a meditation of exile. Its pages testify anew to what makes the American literary scene such a curiosity, such a contradictory set of patterns and influences, that its large-scale movements seem less to have grown organically from well-planted seeds than to have appeared like blisters swollen and agitated by rather small but significant pebbles. (pp. 107-08)

Michael Heller, "Soundings Toward a Greater Speechlessness," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 98-104, 106-08.