Since the appearance of his first book of poems in 1976, Alfred Corn has distinguished himself as one of the most original poets writing in the United States. In addition to his poems, Corn has also published one novel, a highly praised manual of prosody, a collection of essays, translations of poetry and drama, and critical writing on art, music, and the theater, as well as an edited collection of essays on the New Testament. Corn’s poetry is in the visionary mode of earlier American poets like Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, but at the same time it is the work of a poet’s poet, full of craft and the keen, urbane sensibility of mid-century poets like Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill.
Born on August 14, 1943, in Bainbridge, Alfred DeWitt Corn III was the youngest of three children and the only son born to Grace Lahey and Alfred DeWitt Corn Jr. Shortly after Corn’s birth, his father was mustered into the army, assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, and stationed in the Philippines. In 1945, on the day of Corn’s second birthday, his mother died of complications following a burst appendix. The children were then cared for by family friends and later by their aunt Jon and her husband, Fred Schroer, who lived on a farm near Ray City, in Berrien County. Corn and his sisters remained with their aunt until 1946, when their father was discharged from the army. From there, the family moved to Valdosta, living at first with Corn’s paternal grandparents. In 1948 Alfred Jr. married Virginia Whitaker Macmillan, a young war widow. Five years later the couple had a daughter, but she died within a year from meningitis.
Young Alfred Corn attended public schools and distinguished himself academically at an early age. In 1961 Corn began studies at Emory University in Atlanta as a French major and later traveled abroad through a summer program during his junior year. While flying to France in 1964, he met Ann Jones, whom he married three years later. Corn graduated from Emory with highest honors and chose Columbia University for graduate study, in part because of its location in New York City. By 1972 Corn identified himself openly as gay, and he and Jones divorced amicably that same year.
Corn’s first book of poems, All Roads at Once (1976), drew high praise from the literary critic Harold Bloom, and his second book, A Call in the Midst of the Crowd (1978), with a long, accomplished poem about New York City, put Corn on the literary map. By the time of his third and fourth collections, The Various Light (1980) and Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), Corn was writing highly original, innovative poetry. Notes, for instance, while structurally modeled on Dante’s Divine Comedy, is an autobiographical piece that stands as the only long poem in American literature to record a history of intellectual life and the counterculture in the United States during the turbulent 1960s. This volume points the way to later work by Corn that demonstrates great social empathy and awareness.
In Notes Corn also explores his own experiences as a gay man, and by the 1980s Corn was writing poignantly about the AIDS pandemic and had begun to be recognized as a major voice in gay literature. One of his most striking later works is “1992,” an innovative long poem from his volume Autobiographies (1992), which chronicles several American lives over a period of more than twenty years. With the publication of Stake: Poems, 1972-1992 (1999), readers were reintroduced to the variety of Corn’s work. In 2002 Corn published the collection Contradictions.
Corn has received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets. He won the 1982 Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine and was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2017. He has taught at City University of New York; Ohio State University in Columbus; Oklahoma State University in Stillwater; the University of California at Los Angeles; the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Yale University. He lives in Rhode Island.