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Corn, Alfred (b. 1943)  
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Alfred Corn, born August 14, 1943, in Georgia, has become widely respected as one of his generation's finest poets. Corn is a multifaceted writer, an intelligent observer and chronicler, and a master of poetic technique.

As his work has developed over the course of nine volumes, Corn's style has progressed from a conversational eloquence to a rhythmically complex and rich elegance. He has been praised by critics such as Harold Bloom, who has marked for canonization Corn's second book, A Call in the Midst of the Crowd (1978), whose title poem takes a sprawling view of New York City, and has cited Corn's first book, All Roads at Once (1976), as the best poetic debut of that year.

Boyhood in Georgia

Corn was born in Bainbridge and raised mostly in Valdosta, Georgia. While he has been read by some as an American Southern writer, he actually writes infrequently about his boyhood in the South. Perhaps the most important poem in the context of his childhood is the long poem "The Outdoor Amphitheater," from his third book The Various Light (1980).

This poem, celebrated as luminous by several reviewers, uses lush language and richly textured images and details to recall summers spent as a child and teen watching community plays, visiting circuses and vaudeville performances, and listening to fiery sermons from a handsome preacher at an old-fashioned revival. Corn's message, however, is to look forward, not backwards, with the poem ending: "the assembled will / A continuance; that this stage not be the last; / And that the performance move on from strength to strength."

Other poems that touch upon his childhood include "Dreambooks," "Getting Past the Past" (both from All Roads at Once); "Stepson Elegy," "Sugar Cane," and the long autobiographical prose piece "A Goya Reproduction" (all from Present, 1997).

As he contemplates a Goya painting in this latter piece, he recalls discovering that his mother, who died on his second birthday, painted, played the violin, and loved poetry. Corn reveals he was the youngest of three children, that his father drank heavily, and that his family never seemed to have enough money. Young Alfred was a solitary boy who sought the comfort of books, which often made him the target of bullies.

"Dreambooks" depicts a young boy whose imagination, love of books, and clumsiness make him feel different. "Sugar Cane" is a riff--complete with a bluesy refrain, "I knew sugar was love"--on sugar, slavery, and the speaker's memories of a young black boy his father forbade him to play with.

Corn's poems about youth are rife with vibrantly detailed memories recollected through adult wisdom. Along with remembering people and places from his childhood, Corn in these poems wonders about issues such as memory itself, time's passing, and sentimentality.

Education and Urbanity

Corn left Valdosta to study French language and literature at Emory and then Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. (1965) and M.A. (1970) respectively. (He has also studied Italian, Latin, German, Spanish, and Attic Greek over the years.) During the period of the mid-1960s, he traveled through Europe, including to Paris in 1967 courtesy of a Fulbright Fellowship. Though much of Corn's poetry is emphatically American in its embrace of the country's landscape, language, and sensibilities, it is also greatly informed by the author's travels around the world and his great appreciation and knowledge of the rich literary, historic, artistic, and cultural traditions of Europe.

In fact, some of his strongest poems are set in Europe and draw from his experiences there. "Seeing all the Vermeers" (Contradictions, 2002), for example, chronicles Corn's travels through Europe to see Dutch painter Jan Vermeer's masterpieces up close and in person. The poem contemplates the paintings and recounts Corn's reactions as he is moved by their artistry.

In the moving "La Madeleine" (Autobiographies, 1992), the poet revisits the histories and myths surrounding the story of Mary of Magdala (known as Mary Magdalene) and the theme of Proust's famous "petite madeleine." The poem ranges from the caves of Lascaux, to the paintings of Caravaggio, to a Parisian cafe. The work is also a moving memorial to Corn's friend critic David Kalstone, who died of AIDS in 1986.

Marriage and Coming Out

In the 1960s Corn met and fell in love with Ann Jones. The two intellectuals married in 1967 and divorced in 1971 as Corn became more fully aware of his homosexuality. This part of Corn's life is recalled in Corn's fourth volume, the warmly received book-length poem Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), which also explores the counterculture and the anti-war movements of that time in American history.

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Alfred Corn. Image courtesy Copper Canyon Press.
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