Although known as one of the most eloquent poets of the contemporary urban experience, most notably for his evocations of Manhattan street life, Alfred De Witt Corn III grew up in rural Georgia. He was born August 14, 1943, in Bainbridge, near the Florida border. Before Corn was four, his father was drafted into the U.S. Army and subsequently stationed in the Philippines, and his mother died from blood poisoning from a burst appendix. Corn and his two older sisters were raised by friends and then relatives until his father’s discharge in 1946. The family moved to Valdosta, where Corn distinguished himself in school. A devout Methodist intent on pursuing the ministry, Corn began writing poems and stories while still in high school. He accepted a scholarship to study French at Atlanta’s Emory University, graduating in 1965 with highest honors. During a junior year semester abroad, Corn met and would later (1967) marry Ann Jones, despite his growing certainty of his own homosexuality (they would divorce amicably in 1971). He pursued his postgraduate study of French literature and language at Columbia University, in part because he yearned to experience New York, so central to the poetic sensibilities of two poets he greatly admired, Walt Whitman and Hart Crane.
In 1967, Corn accepted a Fulbright Scholarship and traveled for a year in France. He completed his master’s degree in 1970 and, after working briefly as a freelance writer and editor, began what would become a long and distinguished teaching career, at first as a visiting lecturer at Yale (1977-1979) then on the creative writing faculty at Connecticut College before returning to Columbia in 1983. He began publishing poetry during the early 1970’s, poems infused with a Whitmanesque sense of the transcendent individual, of the poet as representative self engaged in the restless investigation of the immediate, certain that the sensual world manifested a profound spiritual reality. Forsaking the faddish embrace of free verse with its unstructured lines, Corn worked carefully sculpted lines of traditional rhythm and rhyme. His verse immediately attracted critical attention.
By the mid-1980’s, Corn’s poetry had become more reflective, even metaphysical. After having spent a decade in which he was indifferent to religion, Corn underwent a powerful conversion experience (listening to J. S. Bach while walking through a cemetery) and joined the American Episcopalian denomination. Deeply moved by the pressing realities of AIDS, Corn, who was openly homosexual, began to explore the implications of mortality and the workings of time and memory in his poetry. Indeed, his work from the late 1990’s and early twenty-first century offers a sobering counterpoint to the visionary transcendence of his earlier work.