Cornish, Sam(uel James)
CORNISH, Sam(uel James)
Nationality: American. Born: Baltimore, Maryland, 22 December 1935. Education: Attended Booker T. Washington High School and Douglass High School, both Baltimore; Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. Military Service: U.S. Army Medical Corps, 1958–60. Family: Married Jean Faxon in 1967. Career: Writing specialist, Enoch Pratt Library, Baltimore, 1965–66 and 1968–69; bookseller, 1966–67; editorial consultant, CARE, U.S. Office of Education, Washington, D.C., 1967–68; from 1969 teacher of creative writing, Highland Park Free School, Roxbury, Massachusetts; staff adviser and consultant on children's writing, Education Development Center, Newton, Massachusetts, 1973–78. Instructor in Afro-American Studies, Emerson College, Boston. Former editor of the Enoch Pratt Library publication Chicory, and Mimeo magazine. Former consultant in elementary-school teaching, Central Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratories Humanities Program. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967, 1969. Address: Department of English, Emerson College, 100 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02116, U.S.A.
In This Corner: Sam Cornish and Verses. Baltimore, Fleming McAllister, 1961.
People Beneath the Window. Baltimore, Sacco, 1962.
Generations (single poem). Baltimore, Beanbag Press, 1964.
Angles. Baltimore, Beanbag Press, 1965.
Winters. Cambridge, Massachusetts, San Souci Press, 1968.
Short Beers. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Beanbag Press, 1969(?).
Generations (collection). Boston, Beacon Press, 1971.
Streets. Chicago, Third World Press, 1973.
Sometimes: Ten Poems. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall Press, 1973.
Sam's World. Washington, D.C., Decatur House, 1978.
Songs of Jubilee: New and Selected Poems 1969–1983. Greensboro, North Carolina, Unicorn Press, 1986.
Folks like Me. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Zoland Books, 1993.
Cross a Parted Sea: Poems. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Zoland Books, 1996.
Your Hand in Mine. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1970.
Grandmother's Pictures (for children). Lenox, Massachusetts, Bookstore Press, 1974.
My Daddy's People Were Very Black. Newton, Massachusetts, Educational Development Center, 1976.
Walking the Street with Mississippi John Hurt (for children). Scarsdale, New York, Bradbury Press, 1978.
1935: A Memoir. Boston, Massachusetts, Ploughshares Books, 1990.
Editor, with Lucian W. Dixon, Chicory: Young Voices from the Black Ghetto. New York, Association Press, 1969.
Editor, with Hugh Fox, The Living Underground: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. East Lansing, Michigan, Ghost Dance Press, 1969.*
Critical Studies: Introduction by Ron Shreiber to Winters, 1968; "Kinship and History in Sam Cornish's Generations" by C.K. Doreski, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 33(4), winter 1992; "Make a Drumbeat" by William Doreski, in Pembroke (Pembroke, North Carolina), 30, 1998.
Sam Cornish comments:
Most of my major themes are of urban life, the Negro predicament here in the cities, and my own family. I try to use a minimum of words to express the intended thought or feeling, with the effect of being starkly frank at times. Main verse form is unrhymed, free. Main influences—Lowell, T.S. Eliot, LeRoi Jones.* * *
Sam Cornish feels that T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and LeRoi Jones have influenced him, and this influence is evident in his thematic affinity with Jones and the subtle irony of his poetry, a quality so significant in Eliot and Lowell. The three dominant themes in Cornish's works are urban life, the situation of people of color, and his own family. In form his poetry is strikingly concise—even terse—and his verse unrhymed. The short poem "Sam's World" is a representative sample of the poet's sharp consciousness of black people's plight and, simultaneously, his perception of the identity and dignity possible even in that plight:
sam's mother has
grey combed hair
she will never touch
it with a hot iron
she leaves it
the way the lord
she wears it proudly
a black and grey
round head of hair
In comments on his well-known "Generations 1" Cornish says that he "walked to the east side of Baltimore trying to find and remember the boys that grew up with me and were still living on the streets: laughing, talking and thinking about the streets, the playgrounds that had turned into parking lots, or weeded places after the riots. The poem grew out of those meetings and remembering what it was like to grow up alone, how I felt about women, the church, what I wanted to do with my life." Remembered, relived, and reflected-upon events provide a major basis for his poetry. The unrecognizable and beautiful transformations of these events into poetry is obvious in "Generations 1." Specific details about the familiar figures of everyday life become highly generalized and evocative in such lines as these:
he would come into her cold apartment
wondering if he had the special knowledge
that women wanted from men
endured the pain she moaned
the odor between her breasts
and wanted god to remember
he was young
and in much trouble
Cornish's poetry shows an intense awareness of what it means to be human and, especially, to be black in contemporary America. It fuses in a complex way a tender awareness of intimate man-woman relations, close family ties, and a sympathy and understanding for fellow blacks. As an African-American poet, Cornish suffers the anguish of his people and writes about it in a way that combines the immediacy of one sharing the experience and the control of the detached observer. It is this tone of wistfulness and this control that make his poetry deeply moving without being shriekingly militant.