Corn, Alfred

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CORN, Alfred

Nationality: American. Born: Bainbridge, Georgia, 14 August 1943. Education: Emory University, Atlanta, 1961–65, B.A. in French 1965; Columbia University, New York (Woodrow Wilson Fellow; Faculty Fellow), 1965–67, M.A. 1967; Fulbright Fellow, Paris, 1967–68. Family: Married Ann Jones in 1967 (divorced 1971). Career: Preceptor, Columbia University, 1968–70; associate editor, University Review, New York, 1970; staff writer, DaCapo Press, New York, 1971–72; assistant professor, 1978, and visiting lecturer, 1980–81, Connecticut College, New London; visiting lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1977, 1978, 1979, Columbia University, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, and City University of New York, 1983, 1985; Elliston Professor of poetry, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1989; visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles, and Ohio State University, 1990; resident, Thurber House, Columbus, Ohio, 1990; Bell Professor, University of Tulsa, 1992; Hurst Resident in Poetry, Washington University, 1994; instructor, graduate writing division, Columbia University, 1991–95. Awards: Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1974; George Dillon prize, 1975, Oscar Blumenthal prize, 1977, National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980, 1991; Levinson prize, 1982 (Poetry, Chicago); Davidson prize, 1982; American Academy award, 1983; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1987. Address: 720 Fort Washington Avenue, New York, New York 10040–3708, U.S.A.



All Roads at Once. New York, Viking Press, 1976.

A Call in the Midst of the Crowd. New York, Viking Press, 1978.

The Various Light. New York, Viking Press, 1980.

Notes from a Child of Paradise. New York, Viking Press, 1984.

An Xmas Murder. New York, Sea Cliff Press, 1987.

The West Door. New York, Viking, 1988.

Autobiographies. New York, Viking, 1992.

Present. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 1997.

Stake: Selected Poems, 1972–1992. Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, and Plymouth, Plymbridge, 1999.


Part of His Story. Minneapolis, Mid-List Press, 1997.


The Metamorphoses of Metaphor: Essays in Poetry and Fiction. New York, Viking 1987.

The Poem's Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody. Brownsville, Oregon, Story Line Press, 1997.

Editor, Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament. New York, Viking, 1990.

Editor, Walking Liberty, by James Haug. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1999.


Critical Studies: "Alfred Corn's Speaking Gift" by George Kearns, in Canto (Andover, Massachusetts), fall 1978; "In the Place of Time" by G.E. Murray, in Parnassus (New York), spring-summer 1983; "The Traveler: On the Poetry of Alfred Corn" by Richard Abowitz, in The Kenyon Review, fall 1993; by Robyn Selman, in Boston Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 20(2), April 1995.

Alfred Corn comments:

(1990) Observers have noted that books of mine have an upward or downward direction. If Notes from a Child of Paradise was in the mode of ascent, then The West Door is in the mode of descent, many of the poems concerned with incarnational themes. To go out of the west door of the sanctuary is an entry into a world of physicality, of suffering and death. The book is dedicated to David Kalstone, critic and teacher, who died of AIDS in 1986. The collection's longest poem is "An Xmas Murder," a narrative and dramatic poem set in Vermont, recounting a crime and its aftermath in the life of one of the characters. There are two extended sequences in the book, "Tongues on Trees," a pastoral exploration of nature and language, and "After Ireland," a series of Irish subjects. "New Year," the volume's concluding lyric, is in the tradition of sunset poems such as Baudelaire's "Recueillement."

(1995) Autobiographies is in two parts, an opening section of metered lyrics and medium-length poems, including "My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count," a characterized monologue in the voice of a young woman initiated into vampirism by Dracula; and "Contemporary Culture and the Letter K," a comic survey of recent history ending with a serious reflection concerning the AIDS epidemic. "La Madeleine" is a poetic sequence around the theme of Mary Magdalene and Proust's "petite madeleine," in which loss is balanced by the redemptive powers of memory and faith. "The Jaunt" is a twilight meditation on a boat trip not taken, to be understood as an allegory for the surprising directions imposed by the poet's private sense of calling.

The volume concludes with "1992," a long autobiographical sequence in twenty sections with dates for their titles, the earliest 1949, the latest 1992. Each section juxtaposes an incident from the narrator's life with an incident from the life of a series of fictional characters in different parts of America. In fact, every state of the Union is mentioned during the course of the poem. The sequence provides something like a portrait of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century, concluding with the quincentennial year of the Columbian voyage.

*  *  *

"Getting Past the Past" is both a title and a leitmotiv in Alfred Corn's impressive first book, All Roads at Once. Both in style and subject matter, past is present—or, as he puts it, "the past is a project/To be continued"—viewed and revised by a keenly individual sensibility: "We invent/The world and a wide cup to catch it in." Whether remembering childhood reading of and identification with fairy tales or traveling in Italy, France, and the Caribbean, the poet is caught by an evanescent past beyond recapture, if not recall, by the gift of imagination: "Yet somehow it's lost./The instinct to save, to fix in words,/Drains color, excitement dying to be/Art for others, from which you withdraw,/Victim of an imagination." This explains the artist's awareness of his vocation and his ambivalence about it, joy and inevitable disappointment, and meanwhile the hope in this "double life, to be read and dreamed/Until the secret order appears."

Creating "poems across the trenches/of time" is one way to impose an order on "the curve of history" while waiting for the indefinite future. Already Corn demonstrates master craftsmanship in the traditional poetic forms. If in his sophistication he sometimes sounds too world-weary, even languid, the sharpness of his observations and aperçus, his wit and wordplay (often twisting clichés and turning puns into newer and neater truisms) prevent these poems from being merely facile, though not always from being mannered. Corn's verbal ability and technical virtuosity are reminiscent of James Merrill, as his gift for evoking associative meaning through catalog and astute juxtaposition owe more than a little to John Ashbery. The weights of tradition, however, like those of his own past, are not so much burdens as influences transformed into a distinctive identity. Thus, Hart Crane's The Bridge helps Corn make his own philosophical and spiritual connections, while "Passages from a Voyage," the brilliantly sustained long poem that concludes the volume, uses Darwin's account of his journey as a basis for personal poetic explorations of the duality of man's life, the ambiguity of consciousness and the body's "ignorant optimism," and mutability and its terrors, the whole becoming an "experience arranged in a splendid contraption."

With A Call in the Midst of the Crowd Corn continues to develop his themes of love and loss, but here self-assuredness replaces the self-consciousness of his earlier work. Again we find the subtle allusions to illustrious predecessors, the bright phrases and descriptive catalogs, but now the abstract and concrete combine in lyrics capable of capturing the most elusive mood or the immensity and diversity of a great city. Once again, travel is a subject, the dislocation provoking unease as "thoughts come stunned/And out of order." But the very disarray proves a creative stimulus. Though the "world of object perpetually/Closes in," Corn has many a "rare moment when seeing comes of age," particularly in the long title poem on New York City that makes up most of the book. The four-part poem is itself half made up of astutely selected and cleverly arranged quotations from Crane, Henry James, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Tocqueville, and Wallace Stevens, whose comments play counterpoint to Corn's own observations about the city, its effect on the individual adventurer (or exile) there, and the course of a broken but then mended romance. As the poem progresses, often ironically, through the seasons of love, it reveals the infinite possibilities for achievement and failure, the chaos, distractions, and sheer abundance that make the excitement and danger of the city. As long urban history merges with the individual present with oblique significance, we are told, "Our births choose us; then our lives; then our deaths." For all that, however, the city grants freedom to the poet, for here he is "free once more to stroll where I'm drawn, hero/Of my own story." The promise Corn finds in the city is the same the book holds for its author: "The speaking gift that falls to one who hears/A word shine through the white noise of the world."

In Present, his 1997 collection, Corn turns from addressing travel at home and abroad to focus on time. A study and appreciation of the present moment becomes the way to live more wholly in the future. The notion of "present" is also scrutinized as "gift," the gift of God's love, the gift of the artist's expression, and the gifts of self and love. In "Stepson Elegy" a woman Corn remembers from his childhood in Georgia makes an offering of "the double handicap of work/And housework in our poorly sited little house." In the prose passage of "A Goya Reproduction" Corn addresses Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga, a figure in the painting depicted on the book's cover. Spiritual intuitions are rendered concrete in the poem via the evocations of doom and innocence. Art is also rendered spiritually sacred in "Musical Sacrifice," a sequence that compares Kafka and Bach by tracing their lives. The poem ambitiously plays on meditations on music, German history, and details from the lives of the composer and the novelist. Corn describes the tonal qualities of Bach's concertos as "hard-pressed determination, the soul testing its powers of understanding when confronted with Creation from the first night until this, the Dorian mode's rugged heft mustered to convey a sense of ineluctable will accomplishing its ends in a world of mute suffering." As if in sympathy with Bach and Kafka, Corn seems to be expressing his tenant of the artist's responsibility: artists must refuse the complacencies of a hidden life and take a stand for their own personal expression.

For Corn writing and autobiography are inseparably linked. Stake: Selected Poems, 1972–1992 is an examination of a long-term fascination with both the symbiotic and the antagonistic relationship between these two forces. One section of "Notes from a Child of Paradise," a book-length poem, examines how a trip to the Grand Canyon renders the poet so disconnected from himself that he is forced to speak in the third-person plural, "staggered, trying then also/To find words that would fall in love with what they saw." The long poem "1992" uses personal anecdotes of cross-country trips mixed with small frames of imagined lives of everyday people to express the transitory and inherently meaningful: "Trees rushing by,/a sinking sun caught in them. Wordlessness,/more than anything else, was how we communicated." The poet's voice, both brave and historical, renders contemporary life at its most intelligent and complex.

—Joseph Parisi and

Martha Sutro