An underappreciated figure of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, poet Sam Cornish wrote about the urban African-American experience in a voice just as tough and realistic as that of any other black poet of the time. His poems, however, replace the enthusiastic self-expression and the experimental African-American idioms of much modern black poetry with a terse, precise style that at times found more admirers among white readers and publishers than among blacks. In a poem about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King ("Death of Dr. King," 1971), Cornish depicted rage not in mounting cascades of language but in a devastating quick brushstroke: "we are mourning // our hands filled with bricks // a brother is dead."
Samuel James Cornish was born on December 22, 1935, in Baltimore, Maryland. He spent much of his life in the city, returning there even after beginning to find work and publication opportunities in the Boston area. After his father's death, he and his brother Herman Jr. were raised by his mother and grandmother. "These women raised us on two things: chicken and God," Cornish wrote in his autobiographical prose poem "Winters" (included in Generations, 1971). After one semester at Baltimore's Douglass High School, he dropped out. He later attended Booker T. Washington High School in Baltimore and took courses at Goddard College in Vermont and Northeastern University in Boston. For the most part, however, he was self-educated.
Worked at Baltimore Library
From 1958 to 1960 Cornish served in the United Stated Army Medical Corps. He returned to Baltimore and began to get acquainted with other creatively inclined people and to write poetry seriously himself, issuing his first small collection of poems, In This Corner, around 1961. His best-known publication, Generations, began life as a single poem in the early 1960s, grew to a 16-page pamphlet that Cornish published himself in 1964 (using the publisher name Beanbag Press), and finally became a full-length book. In 1965 Cornish began working at Baltimore's public library, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, as a writing specialist. He worked with children in that job, co-editing a magazine of children's writing called Chicory and compiling an anthology called Chicory: Young Voices from the Black Ghetto that the library issued through its 1960s-era Community Action Program.
Cornish continued to have a strong interest in the creative lives of children and wrote several children's books, including Your Hand in Mine (1970), which Black World called "a gem," noting that "the book is about a little boy who might have been Sam himself." By that time, Cornish had issued several more small volumes of poetry, known as chapbooks, under his Beanbag Press imprint. Traveling frequently between Baltimore and Boston, Cornish worked in several bookstores and at an insurance office in the Boston area and did editorial work for what was then the U.S. Office of Education in Washington. After marrying Jean Faxon (who had edited the first edition of Generations ) in 1967, he returned to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for a year in 1968-69. In 1969 he took a post as a creative writing instructor at the Highland Park Free School in the Boston ghetto of Roxbury.
Although his poetry had attracted national attention as early as 1967, when he won a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Cornish's breakthrough occurred with the publication of the full-length Generations in 1971. The mostly short poems in that volume were organized into five sections ("Generations," "Slaves," "Family," "Malcolm," and "Others") that interwove Cornish's own family experiences with those of figures from African-American history. "Cornish shows that America has always been a land of crisis and social chaos," noted Jon Woodson in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. "His work is an individual's record of tragic events."
Work Published by Church-Owned Press
Generations was issued by Beacon Press, a Boston publishing house owned by the predominantly white Unitarian Universalist Church. The book was well reviewed by a variety of critics nationwide, but Cornish remained somewhat outside of the large group of black poets of the time who chose publishers from within the African-American community. He named black writer Amiri Baraka as an influence, but also the reserved white Bostonian Robert Lowell. Yet Cornish's poems often had a steely tone informed by the black militancy of the time, and his depictions of slavery in the first part of Generations were sharp and unforgettable. He wrote several poems from the perspective of famous figures of the pre-Civil War era, and in his poem "Frederick Douglass" he has the famed abolitionist leader recall his mother's childhood, during which "white fingers walked into her mouth // to count the teeth and raise the price."
Cornish continued to draw creative energy from his dual residency in Boston and Baltimore, returning to his hometown in 1973 to teach writing at Edmondson High School and Coppin State College. His next full-length book of poetry, Sometimes, was published that year; it depicted New England scenes while touching humorously on the racial divide in a poem called "Vermont Where White Students, Poets and Radicals Live and Expect to Meet Blacks Skiing Cross-Country." By the late 1970s he had returned to Boston and taken a staff job at the Education Development Center in the Boston suburb of Newton. He later became an instructor in the Afro-American Studies department at Boston's Emerson College, and taught there until his retirement in 2004.
Wrote Poems about Musicians
Issuing new poetry volumes in 1978 (Sam's World ), 1993 (Folks Like Me ), and 1996 (Cross a Parted Sea ), Cornish continued to write prolifically, penning the memoir 1935 (published by Boston's Ploughshares Press in 1990) as well as several children's books including Grandmother's Pictures (1974). His later poetry continued to take up the themes of personal and group history that had appeared in Generations. "Brown Bomber," from Cross a Parted Sea, recalled "Joe Louis fighting // from radio to radio" during Louis's celebrated heavyweight boxing championship fights of the late 1930s. Cornish also wrote a series of poems about great musicians from the African-American tradition: ragtime composer Scott Joplin, classic blues vocalist Bessie Smith, and modern rhythm-and-blues great Ray Charles.
At a Glance …
Born on December 22, 1935 in Baltimore, MD; married Jean Faxon, 1967. Education: Attended Goddard College, Plainfield, VT, and Northeastern University, Boston. Military Service: U.S. Army Medical Corps, 1958-60.
Career: Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, writing specialist, 1965-66, 1968-69; Chicory (children's magazine), editor; bookseller, 1966-67; CARE, U.S. Office of Education, Washington, DC, editorial consultant, 1967-68; Highland Park Free School, Roxbury, MA, teacher, 1969-early 1970s; Fiction and Literature Bookstore, Brookline, MA, operator; Education Development Center, Newton, MA, staff adviser and consultant on children's writing, 1973-78; Edmondson High School, Baltimore, and Coppin State College, teacher, mid-1970s; Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, literature director; Emerson College, Boston, MA, instructor of Afro-American Studies, late 1970s-2004.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967, 1969.
Addresses: Home— Brighton, MA. Office— c/o Department of English, Emerson College, 100 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02116.
By the 1990s Cornish was beginning to become more widely recognized. An essay in Contemporary Literature in 1992 explored Generations and argued for its place in the list of great works of black poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. Cornish himself exerted influence as a critic, writing freelance reviews in the 1990s for a variety of Boston publications. Cornish summed up his own style for Contemporary Poets by saying that "I try to use a minimum of words to express the intended thought or feeling, with the effect being starkly frank at times." His poems had appeared in a spate of anthologies of black writing in the 1970s, and by the early twenty-first century he seemed a promising candidate for inclusion in the curricula of African-American literature classes of the future.
People Beneath the Window, Sacco Publishers, 1962 (reprinted 1987).
Generations, Beanbag Press, 1964; enlarged edition, Beacon Press, 1971.
(Editor, with Hugh Fox, and contributor) The Living Underground: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Ghost Dance Press, 1969.
Winters, Sans Souci Press, 1968.
Sometimes: Ten Poems, Pym-Randall Press, 1973.
Sam's World: Poems, Decatur House, 1978.
Songs of Jubilee: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1983, Unicorn Press, 1986.
1935: A Memoir, Ploughshares, 1990.
Folks Like Me, Zoland Books, 1993.
Cross a Parted Sea: Poems, Zoland Books, 1996.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
Black World, July 1970, p. 50.
Contemporary Literature, Winter 1992, p. 665.
"Sam Cornish," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 18, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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