by Clayton Eshleman

As a student at Indiana University, 1959, I sent some of my first efforts at poetry to Cid Corman, editor of origin magazine, living in Kyoto, Japan. Only days later I received a response from Corman that flushed me all the way through. In one paragraph he got through to me that what I had sent him was contemptible because it indicated that I was not taking art or my own life seriously.

I first met Corman in person in San Francisco on my way to Japan, August 1961. I visited him at the boarding house where he lived. He had returned to the States, I think, to gain backing for a second series of origin, which he told me would be focused on Louis Zukofsky and be anti-Beat.

Corman returned to Kyoto at about the same time that my first wife Barbara and I moved there from Tokyo in the spring of 1962. His routine seemed to be to work in his room until mid-afternoon, come downtown (occasionally browsing at the Maruzen English-language bookstore), eat dinner, and then take over a booth for the evening at The Muse coffee shop. There he read, wrote letters, and edited origin. If you wanted to see Cid, you went to The Muse which was, in effect, his office.

For over two years, weekly, I walked or motorcycled to The Muse and spent several hours with Cid in his booth. He initially received me somewhere between welcoming and putting up with me. As time went on, he warmed, somewhat. While he was diffident, circumspect, and authoritarian, he was willing to share what he was doing and what he knew. He was the first substantial literary person that I had an ongoing, reflective association with1. I learned the rudiments of what I have been able to do as an editor and as a translator from Cid. Since I had already, while at Indiana University, edited three issues of Folio and started to translate Neruda and Vallejo, I cannot say that I became an editor and translator via contact with Cid. However, his assiduity and acuity, not only as an editor and a translator, but as a dedicated worker in the art of poetry, helped bring to focus the initial problems that I faced.

As an editor: Cid composed each issue of origin, which was to be read as a kind of serial entity, with poems lapping against one another and collaged in with letters, statements, short essays, and occasionally art work and commentary. I expanded this base in editing Caterpillar and Sulfur, adding book reviews and archival materials. While origin’s 64 page format was appropriate for Cid’s poetics, based for the most part on the short lyric poem, it did not accommodate my sense of the wide-ranging diversity in 20th century international poetry, or what might be brought to bear upon poetry in a magazine context (thus Sulfur’s commentary section was often longer than a complete issue of origin).

As a translator: Cid was scholarly, exacting, and respectful of the original text. I learned this line by line when we co-translated some poems at The Muse by Spanish poet José Hierro, and again, when Cid went over some of my early versions of Vallejo’s Poemas humanos (which he then published in origin2). Cid’s meticulousness as a writer brought home to me, in the realm of translation, the necessity to do absolutely accurate versions as well as versions that attempted to be up to the performance level of the originals. No translation theory was needed.

The second series of origin consisted of 14 issues, instead of the 20 issues to be found in series one, three, and four3. The magazine’s motto was:

to respond     to offer    to let be

(Corman’s “translation” of T. S. Eliot’s “to give, to sympathize, to control”). The magazine was free—if you wrote and asked for it on a yearly basis. 300 copies were printed of each issue. The series was financed by Cid’s selling incoming correspondence and the magazine’s archive.

Here are some of the works from the second series that I studied and took to heart as one trying to find his way in poetry:

  • Sections from Gary Snyder’s Mountains & Rivers Without End, issues #2, 4, and 12.
  • “Yashima,” a Noh play by Zeami, #3.
  • Robert Kelly’s “The Exchanges,” #5.
  • Michael McClure’s “The Held Back Pain,” #6.
  • Twenty-four poems by Rocco Scotellaro, #7.
  • “A letter, of sorts,” by Gael Turnbull, #7.
  • Giacomo Leopardi’s “L’infinito,” #8.
  • Cid Corman’s “The Contingency,” #8.
  • Seven poems by Eugenio Montale, #9.
  • Excerpts from “The Day Book” by Robert Duncan, #10.
  • René Char’s “The Lace of Montmirail,” #11.
  • Jean-Paul de Dadelsen’s “Back in Autumn,” #11.
  • Bashō’s “Back Roads to Far Towns,” #14.

Note here that all of the above translations (or co-translations) were by Corman. This brings up his truly extraordinary contribution as a translator. While I imagine that the following list is incomplete, it should indicate his scope:

  • From the French: Artaud, Rivière, Michaux, Char, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Perse, de Dadelsen, Ponge, du Bouchet, Daumas, Daive, Jaccottet, Denis.
  • From the German: Benn (with Edgar Lohner), Gaul, Forestier, Scholl, Holthusen, Celan (with others), Rilke.
  • From the Italian: Montale, Ungaretti, Sanesi, Scotellaro, Pavese, Pasolini, Tadini, Fabiani, Guidacci, Gramigna, Risi, Sala, Erba, Volponi, Saba, Luzi.
  • From the Japanese: Zeami (with Will Petersen and Susumu Kamaike), Akutagawa (with Kamaike), Bashō (with Kamaike), Hitomaru (with Kamaike), Ryōkan, Issa, Kusano, Buson, Hakuin, Shiki, Santoka.
  • From the Chinese: Chuang-tzu, Su Tung-p’o, T’ao Ch’ien.4

Of the above poets, complete books or book-length collections were done of Char, Ponge, du Bouchet, Daive, Jaccottet, Denis, Celan, Montale, Zeami, Bashō, and Kusano. As far as I can tell, Corman was the first to translate a significant number of these authors, and given the fact that most of these translations are still buried in issues of origin or can only be located in out-of-print books, it would be most appropriate for some publisher to bring out a generous “selected translations by Cid Corman.” Especially for young poets today such a collection would be a landmark overview of 20th century European poetry with deep forays into the Japanese and Chinese literary past.

In Kyoto, I rarely saw Cid outside of The Muse. He never came to the expatriate weekend parties (where Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Will Petersen, and various Australian potters would show up), or joined us for late night sushi/sake feasts along the Kamogawa River. And going to The Muse was close to visiting a professor in his office during office hours. In this sense a hierarchy was maintained which would have been broken down (I conjecture) by hanging out with Cid in restaurants, bars, and parties. When I knew him, his main social life seemed to be with Will and Amy Petersen (to whom he would take his laundry to do, weekly, gratis). If he was seeing his future wife Shizumi at this time, I was not aware of it. He studied utai—Noh singing—with one of the actors in Kyoto Noh family. His thorough knowledge of Noh plays became a structural element in many of his books: the 5 categories of Zeami plays became poem sections, with the first filled with unidentified translations.

At some point, I discovered the writing of Paul Bowles in a New Directions Annual, a potent story called “Pages from Cold Point,” in which a son seduces his own father. Without thinking about the effect of such a story on Cid, I enthusiastically mentioned it and loaned him the magazine. When I sat down the following week, his face turned to stone. “Why did you give me that story to read?” he asked. I told him the truth: I thought it was a hell of a piece of writing! I then recalled that he despised Lenny Bruce and Paul Krasner (of The Realist) for their sexual explicitness. Did he think I thought he was gay? Did he think I had some seductional agenda?

While Cid was in 1962 only 11 years older than I was (he was 38, I was 27), on a literary level there was a greater discrepancy in our ages, enough to create an atmosphere of mentor/apprentice, or even father/son. As a novice, I was struggling to emerge from the limbo that committing myself to poetry had thrust me into. I heard things, had terrifying nightmares, and unexplainable headaches. When I was not translating Vallejo every afternoon at my coffee-shop, I was either reading Blake, Frye on Blake, the I Ching, The Masks of God, or working on poems (in my head when out of the house, or at home on tatami, cross-legged, the typewriter on a low table before me). I would sit there for hours, staring at single line, not knowing how to move beyond it into something that seemed my own. Squatting in the benjo one morning I realized that I was in a similar position to that of Tlatzeotl-Ixcuina, the Aztec goddess of filth and childbirth, a nephrite carving with a tiny god-infant projecting between her thighs. I too wanted to give birth but all that seemed to come out of me was shit.

As I worked away at my Blakean “Tsuruginomiya Regeneration” (which I finally abandoned), one of the blocks I had to deal with was: because I respected Cid as a poet, editor, and translator (a combine which gave him considerable size), I wanted to write something that he would admire and publish. However, while writing, I would feel something that felt like his presence frowning over my shoulder at the material I was struggling to articulate. While I was finding out that the kind of poem I had to write did not fall within the domain of the acceptable for Cid, I was still plunged into self-doubt when he rejected the poems I would occasionally show him. I began to understand that what I felt as “Corman’s presence” was a part of myself stimulated by what he was to me. The poet Cid Corman evoked in me the stern father that I was to my emerging son-self. I also had to acknowledge that as poets, Corman and I were, in Blakean terms, “spiritual enemies.” While I admired his deft haiku variations on creatures and the elements, I also found something very negative about them—in a way I will go into later.

Cid was more friendly in person than in correspondence, and after returning to the States in the fall of 1964, I encountered a dictatorial rigidity on his part in our exchanges. Over the next decade I engaged him in the best way I knew how, which often meant sparring about this issue or that, without Cid, as best as I recall, ever giving way. In the fall of 1966 I moved to NYC, left my wife and baby son, and went into Reichian therapy. Reich’s writing was a big discovery for me and I wrote Cid a long letter about its effect on my life. His response was: “Reich is so thin he makes me wince.”

On one level, I was asking Cid to accept me as a peer and to readjust what had been our mentor/apprentice relationship. In my case, at least, he never chose to do this and was as overbearing, in his own way, with me, as Olson was with him in correspondence in the 1950s (and before that, as Dahlberg was with Olson in the 1940s). I felt that he was passing on a “spare the rod and spoil the child” stance that he had received from Olson, and I am sure that I passed on some of my frustration with my own life as well as with Cid to others at the time. Honesty has many edges, some of which are noble, other ignoble. A case can be made for saying what is on one’s mind—the rub is in not letting another’s position affect how one shapes one’s own response. As Blake once put it: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”

In 1972, while teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, I was able to invite a few poets for readings and, hearing that Cid was in the country, I invited him. He gave a fine reading, after which he urged students to buy his books, stating that they would be worth much more than at present in the future. He also gave a reading at our house in Sherman Oaks to a dozen or so of my students. He read several of his tiny Elizabethan Press books (16 tiny poems per book), then paused, and said: “A year from now, one of you may not be alive. With that in mind, I would like to read these poems to you a second time.” As he did, and as dusk settled in, students sitting on the floor turned and looked at me, as if to say: “What’s with this guy?” My current wife Caryl left the room while the second reading was taking place and later told me she went to the bathroom and vomited. To give Cid the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he wanted the students to hear his death-centered poems with their own transiency called forth. However, the impression that some were given is that he wanted to use death to make his poems more dramatic. Other than at a party at Bernard Forrest’s the following evening, I never saw him again.

While Cid published several short poems of mine in the second and third series of origin, they are slight pieces that mainly compliment his own poetic procedures. However, I sometimes had the sensation that my writing interested him more than he would acknowledge, so in the late 1970s I decided to test out such feelings. I had written a collection of poems under the name of Horrah Pornoff (the whole story, as well as Horrah’s poems, is to be found in Under World Arrest, pp. 75 – 100 and 189 – 191), and I decided to submit these poems to some editors who had rejected my work. I took out a PO Box in West Los Angeles and sent a large selection to Cid. A reply zipped in immediately (I always had the impression that Cid answered all mail the day received): “At Last,” he wrote, “there is a poet in Los Angeles!” And he accepted 24 poems, featuring Horrah Pornoff in origin #7, fourth series. He also began to write “her,” and for a while I went along with it, and we had this weird, and from my viewpoint, very funny exchange. At a certain point, when he wanted fix “her” up with an elderly bachelor friend in Laguna Beach, I decided enough was enough, and stopped corresponding. Since the display in Under World Arrest let the cat out of the bag, I imagine that Cid found out about it. If he did, he never mentioned it.