Cid Corman Death Notes

by Andrew Schelling

A fledgling poet just beginning to publish and to encounter other poets in the early to mid eighties, I heard from Clayton Eshleman: if you are a young poet in North America you must get in touch with Cid Corman. It was a piece—not of advice but of true counsel—I couldn’t even understand at the time. Not until I began to write him did it come clear why one should have to come to terms with Cid.

I lived in Berkeley in those days. It turned out mail completed the round trip quicker from Kyoto than from the East Coast. Cid moreover famously replied to every letter instantly, his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside. Was there an unknown worker on the postal docks of San Francisco who was receiving a full education—eccentric of course but full—reading the aerograms that passed by as they were sorted for distribution around the country to Cid’s comrades?

Among Cid’s outlandish claims which could never be verified: that he was the most prolific poet who ever lived. Possibly it will prove true that he carried on the largest correspondence of any poet. This is of interest primarily in disclosing his deep loyalty coupled to a maddening stubbornness. Once he asserted that Zukofsky’s “A” was the longest poem ever written in English. It is not of course. “The Faery Queen” is longer, as are several out of print experiments listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Living in Kyoto, Cid often got charged with being out of touch with poetry and thought in the USA. It is true that the American grain came to him winnowed in curious ways. It would be equally true that expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.

I need only mention that his translation of Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi (Back Roads to Far Towns) remains a touchstone for poetic translation, enough to secure him a forever station in the hearts of all N. American readers. He showed too that translation is central to the composition of poetry, irritating some folk by including translations (uncredited as to original) in Of, his sizable five volume set.

He read through the manuscript of my first book—a collection of translations—in a characteristic act of generosity to a young writer he knew only by letter. He commented helpfully on nearly each poem, and provided the book’s title by supplying a list of ten alternates to my unsatisfactory working title.

Over the past decade I wrote Cid only a few times a year. In a way I wanted to give him time to spread his generosity around the poets younger, newer at it, than myself. When a student would start writing Cid I could watch the familiar emotions: pride, gratitude, love, bafflement, disbelief. In the same letter Cid could break your heart and outrage your belief systems. Often I thought I should gather up the fine paragraphs from his letters and keep a little running book, the kind of thing that might be cherished when he came to die. So it is ironic that at his death I have most of my papers packed into boxes, strapped under plastic sheets on pallets out back, nearly inaccessible, and periodically buried in snow. I did make the following out of the one letter that sits in my file cabinet:


Haiku from Cid’s Last Letter

Under the eaves of my Colorado shed, in cartons protected from storms by a plastic tarp, sit nearly two hundred letters from Cid Corman. I wrote him in 1983 and for years the letters between Kyoto and Berkeley made the circuit in under a week. Going to my active file cabinet—distributed two years ago into those cartons—I discover a single aerogram. Spare, sinewy, brisk, & lean. The hand of an aging man. From it I draw the following. They belong to the winter season, “in place of haiku.”

        Fifty degrees today
        we live at the edge,
                   working constantly

         bureaucracy, government—
                   she helps me prepare supper

        Sorry you & Anne—
        I don’t walk the wildlands—
                   cdnt quite make it 

        My old notebooks
        end of winter money shd
                   keep us alive

         at the shop sleeping—
                   love she more than deserves

        Only an inch
        of snow this February
                   we eat modestly

        Our love to you & Althea
        A new Basho this
                   year or next


28 March 2004