On Corman

by Robert Kelly

          I lift a little
          cross-shaped flower
          white to smell it
          and all I smell’s
          my finger,
          could a flower’s
          scent be so

As I finish writing that down, very late at night, scraping the barrel of the mind, or wherever it is that we find things to say, I find myself thinking about Corman.

Chaster and quieter than I am, he would have written:

          I lift a little
          my nose
          smells just my finger

or even less.

Maybe less playful that day, he’d drop the nose:

          I lift a little
          smell just
          the finger.

Yes, that’s where he’d likely stop—and he would keep the “I.” He never abandoned that paterfamilias of poetry, the authority of the perceiving, recording I. But he’d drop the ‘my’—goes without saying.  Maybe he’d add—I can almost hear him—Poetry is what goes without saying.

There is a wonderful human push in saying it, saying it anyhow, saying it though it can’t be said.

He trusted the silence around his words, trusted silence the way a man trusts the walls of his house. Not many of us live in houses whose walls we raised ourselves, yet they are our walls, we take them, they hold us, and they stand. Silence is the firmest thing of all.

Few of us carve the silence in which words sometimes consent to happen hard.

Only in silence are words really hard, and only when they’re hard can they be themselves and mean themselves.

How to trust the words:  trust nothing else.

I began to correspond with Corman in the late 1950s, and most of the urgent, almost daily exchanges took place between then and 1962, when he brought out the issue of origin (2nd Series) that featured my work. (William Bronk was in that issue too.)

The brusque, testy rightness of Corman’s letters—always the same length as the letter he was answering, doing so (this was a pride of his) the same day he received it—was a severe and valued guide to me in those early days, and many another poet grew strong and clear on Corman’s strictures.

One of the first books by Cid I read was also the longest I know, his poems from Matera, the parched austere Italian landscape he exchanged for Kyoto. Sun Rock Man he called the book, the words stacked. Those poems won me, as his grace and acumen had mastered me earlier.

And now I think:


Cid is the hero, el mio Cid, el Campeador, who is both a hero and a poem of the hero, subject and object intricately connected, the unknown narrator writing of mio Cid, my Cid, as well as el Cid, as we usually remember him.

Cid, el Cid, al-Sidi, the lord—(like the Sidi Hamet who was the author of Don Quixote that Cervantes discovered in his head or in his heart to tell the story), the champion of a struggle against the Saracens, who bears a Saracen name,

and Cid is Sidney too, so common a bourgeois Jewish-American name made romantic, estranged from the seventy-years-gone calms of Roxbury and Dorchester into the Extreme Orient of poetry, the land where the pearl comes from,

the thing we need, the word we find, the text that suddenly understands us.

The double sense of the name—the exotic, the commonplace—reveals at once the starting point in the everyday, the common light, which through the ardent listening of the poem turns out to be the sparks of Lurianic splendor. The glory is always here and now.

And Cor is heart of course, his work never failed to feel, never for all his love of the minimal, the barebones, the harsh Zen light on the rice fields, never stopped referring gently to the eternal triangle of speaker and a found world and a heart that hears.

He had such grace. We imitate his minimals with ease, but they seem slim or slack or trite, lacking the heart he had. The heart he heard.

It is so easy to take on those Japanese clarities, brevity, lucidity, and take them as excuses to be brittle, disconnected, uncommitted.

How false it would be to think of Corman that way—read his translations of Celan, or his great verbalization of a real-time enactment of a Zeami play or his wonderful reading of Bashō’s pilgrimage, and you find the emotional complexity of tenderness, gesture, response.  Always he was searching for that, always letting silence cancel out the usual acceptations and associations of words, as only silence can, and let the revived meaning speak.