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Corn, Alfred (b. 1943)  
 
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In a Line of Gay Poets

Corn's work has often invited comparison to great twentieth-century poets and to gay contemporaries and ancestors. The style and concerns of his first two books were compared to those of John Ashbery and James Merrill. Critic and fellow gay poet Richard Howard, in reviewing All Roads at Once, wrote: "Like Ashbery's, [Corn's] poems are about what it is like for him to be alive and conscious; like Merrill's, they are about how much must be gainsaid, renounced and forgone in order to have, at least, themselves; they are like no one else's in their zealous disposition to let the world speak through them, to praise being...."

Some of Corn's best known works pay homage to or draw upon the influence of great American poets such as Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore. Robert K. Martin, author of The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979), argues that Corn belongs in a line of visionary poets that includes Whitman and Crane.

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Along with "visionary," Corn's work is often also described in terms such as "transcendent." One of Corn's most famous poems, in fact, "The Bridge, Palm Sunday, 1973, " from All Roads at Once, begins with an epigraph taken from Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," describes a walk Corn took across the Brooklyn Bridge, and echoes Crane's masterpiece "The Bridge." The poem itself concerns issues of tradition and the question of influence. Corn's poetry embodies the embracing, transcendent vision of Whitman and the linguistic richness of Crane.

Use of Traditional Forms

Corn is often praised for his tight control of traditional forms, as well as for his fluency and accessibility. Critic David Orr, in reviewing Contradictions, observes that while Corn began his career as "one of the most talented heirs of James Merrill," he has "over the course of nine collections . . . frequently proven that fluency can have its own quiet drama."

Corn's accessibility is counter-balanced by a cutting wit, irony, an urbane sense of the world, high verbal energy, and a linguistic playfulness. His irony and wit have led some critics to describe him as "cool" or "cerebral," and his intelligence has brought comparisons to W.H. Auden, yet another twentieth-century master and gay predecessor.

Corn's work in traditional forms ranges from blank verse narratives to set stanza forms like the villanelle to experiments in English sapphics. His poem "Song for Five Companionable Singers" (Various Light), for example, is comprised of three villanelles, a sestina, and a pantoum. Not surprisingly, he has written a well-received manual on prosody called The Poem's Heartbeat (1997).

An often-discussed poem of Corn's is the Frostian blank verse poem "An Xmas Murder" (from The West Door), in which an elderly doctor tells the story of a small town murder and how it has left him with a life of guilt. The poem testifies to the power of blank verse to cast a narrative spell.

In "Musical Sacrifice" (from Present), Corn explores the lives of writer Franz Kafka and composer Johann Sebastian Bach through a series of poems that take on various musical forms (the "fugue," "waltz," "chorale," etc.). In its exploration of spirituality and faith, the poem presents a recurring theme in Corn's work, as manifest in the final lines that examine art's connection to divinity:

Fine art is not, beyond all else, technique.
The agile keyboard virtuoso tears
The soul open to God, who will surely speak
In each resounding step of the long stairs.

Corn also edited Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament (1990), a collection of essays in which contemporary poets and writers (including Anthony Hecht, John Updike, and David Plante) reflect upon the contemporary significance of the Gospels and Epistles.

Other Themes, Other Works

Another theme that runs throughout Corn's work is that of America and what it means to be an American. Corn has declared himself as "[f]irst and last . . . an American writer" and cites as his influences some of the greatest gay poets and writers America has produced. Poems like his series "American Portraits" (from Contradictions) and "1992" (from Autobiographies) literally span the country's history and geography, the latter examining the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century as the speaker spends a year traveling the country via its interstate highways.

Among other work, Corn has also published a novel, Part of His Story (1997), and a collection of critical essays titled The Metamorphoses of Metaphor (1987). He also frequently writes art criticism for major publications.

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