Alfred Corn Essay - Critical Essays


In the classic tradition of Dante and the American tradition of Whitman, Alfred Corn—a born-again Christian, homosexual, and a southerner in cosmopolitan New York—uses the rich materials of his own experience not to put forward introspective confessions but rather to create a representative self that journeys toward spiritual transformation across decades of poetic exploration. Corn explores the experiences of love, family, divorce, sexuality, and ultimately death. In metered verse that draws on a wide variety of tightly constructed poetic forms and elevates the sheer music of language, Corn distills from the accumulated experiences of his representative self meditative responses to cosmic questions such as the function of the soul, the logic of time, the value of regret, the nature of love, and the necessity of art. Such a contemplative protocol gives Corn’s poetry (much like that of Crane and Stevens, both acknowledged influences) a cerebral coolness; however, his verse never loses its anchorage in the immediate. Indeed, Corn’s poetic eye is restless, curious about the horizontal plane; his re-creations of the contemporary cityscape and of the rural landscape of the Deep South shimmer, giving his poetry its grounding in place that in turn accommodates a luminous trajectory into the visionary.

“Poem in Four Parts on New York City”

“Poem in Four Parts on New York City,” the centerpiece work of Corn’s second collection, A Call in the Midst of the Crowd, is a lyrical re-creation of a bustling New York City that, in the tradition of Whitman’s aggressiveness romanticism, renders the urban landscape as a visionary world edged with spiritual energies. Divided into four sections keyed to the seasons, the poem uses the city’s energy to explore the nature of time itself against the work’s specific narrative, the story of a young man, an artist, struggling with a difficult relationship and hoping to find in reunion with his lover the harmony promised by love. To endow that relationship with a broader sensibility of place and time, Corn, amid luminous textured passages that describe the city’s moods, weaves prose passages about the history of New York City taken from tourist guidebooks, newspapers, vintage encyclopedias, letters from New York City writers (among them Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and Crane), and even archival records of building permits in a structural strategy that deliberately evokes William Carlos Williams’s urban epic Paterson (1946-1958).

Notes from a Child of Paradise

With vaunting ambition, Corn audaciously draws on the model of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) to structure his own account of the pivotal years in the late 1960’s when, married and on a Fulbright in Europe, he accepted his own homosexuality. The book-length narrative poem Notes from a Child of Paradise, which like Dante’s spiritual epic...

(The entire section is 1218 words.)