Cid Corman: Par Avion

by Beth Dugger Kanell

He was the center of a worldwide family of poets, a blunt-speaking, love-pouring father figure, as much attached to mentoring as to writing. He marked the outside of his air letters “LOVE” in red pen, and typed a small poem next to the address. Though he lived in poverty, he equated the word with poetry—and he lived and died rich in joy.

Cid Corman began writing on December 21, 1941. He told me this via airmail. It’s the only way we met, a slender connection in the last year of his life. He had lived in Kyoto for four decades then. But his work of publishing other poets began while he still lived in the United States.

“My first publisher was myself,” he recounted, “and Felix Stefanile (then living in Queens, but long since poet-in-residence at Purdue). I was 46 when New Directions first published me.”

He brought out Sub Luna in 1944, privately printed in Dorchester, Mass., in an edition of 400. Sparrow Magazine brought out his Thanksgiving Eclogue from Theocritus in 1954, followed shortly by The Precisions from Sparrow Press in 1955 in an edition of 250.

In the meantime, Cid had created Origin Press, in 1951. The location of the press would vary over the next few years—just “Massachusetts,” or Kyoto, Japan, or Ashland, Mass. The effect of his Kyoto experience was almost immediate, as he began to bring out delicate volumes of poetry with verse that hinted at haiku, with wrappers of washi (rice paper) of varied textures and colors, bound Japanese style with strong threads. These tiny treasures, about 3.5 by 5 inches, entrance me. Their names became intense, brief, mysterious: “For sure.” “In no time.” “For good.” “Nigh.”

It was certainly not a profitable career, and Cid described himself as “the one family failure—you cant win them all.” His parents, working-class immigrants from the Ukraine, didn’t understand, he felt, “though they took it well.”

Having his own press doubled his career. Printing the work of others was irresistible. Soon the press name also stood for a small magazine, origin. I have not found copies from the first series, but volumes of the second, third, and fourth series are still available in the poetry marketplace.

“I grew with ORIGIN,” Cid wrote, “but Europe and my mentor Achilles Fang (extraordinary man—just outside of Harvard/taught there finally) were vital. Nothing political involved.” Fang translated poetry from the Chinese. Corman soon amassed an armful of poets he’d translated, from Japanese and from French, as well as dozens of Americans whose promising beginnings he nourished.

“ORIGIN was not at all for me, as any glance at it makes obvious,” he reflected. “Indeed, no poetry mag has EVER boosted so many others decisively.” He seemed to fall in love with their work, and to rarely loose the passion, still enthusiastic about many of them 50 years later. Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jackson Mac Low, William Bronk, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Frank Samperi, Barbara Moraff. Fond of superlatives, he continued to promote Midwesterner Lorine Niedecker, lost to an early death, as “one of the best of the 20th century anywhere.”  Maine poet Theodore (Ted) Enslin was among the best, Cid claimed, and he grieved that such work was “virtually ignored.” He kept printing more of it, and adding the work of Japanese poets also, as he settled in Kyoto and married there. Kusano Shimpei and Hitomaro entered the pages he printed. Drawings by Hidetaka Ohno contributed to at least one work.

In fact, the artwork of lithographer Will Peterson became an abiding part of Cid’s life, along with the artist himself. A circle of passionate poets explored Kyoto and other parts of Japan and its heritage as Cid held forth there: Allen Ginsberg visited, Clayton Eshleman connected for a long while, and some massive hardcovers from Grossman/Mushinsha showed clear evidence of Cid’s nurture.

While New Directions embraced Cid’s work in 1970, he gave readings across America, books selling wonderfully, often moving into new editions within months. But after the fever of the readings, sales ground to a halt, and Cid would see the same effect when Black Sparrow took up his work. Finally his publishers became either other small presses or his own. Yet the effects were far from small: He published Gary Snyder’s first book in Japan, he recalled, and also a fresh translation of Bashō.

At the time our correspondence took place, Cid and his wife still held threads of connection with poets and friends around the world. Poet Chuck Sandy, a professor in Kyoto, helped a great deal with the logistics of the final year, and offered Cid a count of published titles: 162. But that was probably low, Corman noted. “I don’t keep track—lost in immediate work.”  His own guess was “about 200,” which he described as a fraction of his work. “Many unpublished books lost in this room—amidst piles—thousands—of poems, etc.” He called himself the most productive poet ever, having written every day since that 1941 start.

“Famously tactlessly frank” was another way he described himself, and when I sent him a sheaf of my own work, along with some books of others, he commented, “your feelings are good but you use far too many words to say very little.” He meant it both sincerely and kindly, and scribbled warm wishes and fond memories in every bit of marginal space on the airletter paper.

It’s hard to accept that such vitality can vanish under the weight of a failure of blood and heart. The two letters I have almost throb with exuberance and eagerness to speak. One sheet ends with the small poem that he typed onto the outside of the second letter, clearly a favorite:

          Life is poetry
          and poetry is life—O—