​​ All Roads at Once:
 “The poems in this beautiful first volume are meditations on time, in a contemporary urban       setting.  Alfred Corn tracks the elusive present through the forest of particulars of ‘daily’ life.  This is a  brilliant beginning.”
                                                                                                                                         —John Ashbery

 “As a coda I offer the best first book of poems this year.... Alfred Corn's All Roads at Once.”
                                                                                          —Harold Bloom, The New Republic

 “Airy, all‑seeing, a new window onto the world—this is an extremely beautiful first book.  Among Mr.  Corn's contemporaries I know of no poet more accomplished.”
                                                                                                                                    —James Merrill

 A Call in the Midst of the Crowd:

  “Alfred Corn's second book of poems goes well beyond fulfilling the authentic promise of his first.  The title poem is an extraordinary and quite inevitable extension of the New York tradition of major visionary poems, which goes from Poe's ‘City in the Sea’ and Whitman's ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’ to Hart Crane's The Bridge and Ashbery's ‘Self‑Portrait in a Convex Mirror.’  Corn achieves an authority and resonance wholly  worthy of his precursors.  I know of nothing else of such ambition and realized power in Corn's own generation of American poets.  He has had the skill and courage to confront, absorb, and renew our poetic  tradition at its most vital.  His aesthetic prospects are remarkable, even in this crowded time.”
                                                                                                      —Harold Bloom
[In the appendix to The Western Canon, Harold Bloom placed this volume on his list of twentieth century works that he regards as candidates to be included in the permanent canon of modern Western poetry.]

“Alfred Corn has enormous resources at work in his poems: wit, strength, sureness of touch.  The poems interweave the strands of a world touchingly recollected, and of a world jubilantly imagined.  The mesh of these, gathered in lively meditation, present a fabric of poetry wonderfully original, generous, warm, animated.  He belongs very clearly with the best of those poets—Williams, O'Hara, L.E. Sissman and Stevens—who have made first‑rate poetry out of the filth, confusion and steeliness of urban life.  I suppose Baudelaire belongs somewhere on that list, too.”
                                                                                                                    —Anthony Hecht

The Various Light:

“Corn’s prodigious gifts, evident from the beginning, have reached such a peak of articulation in his new book that it no longer suffices to describe him as a promising poet.  Potentiality has been swallowed up in the splendor of achievement....  Few poets of our time have drawn upon the wisdom of experience with such unaffected honesty and tactful skill.  If Corn continues to write verse of such resonance, he will be a very important American poet indeed; as it is, at the age of 37, he stands at the forefront of his generation.”
                —Robert Shaw, The Nation, November 8, 1980

“Alfred Corn's work fits well into the kind of poetry discussed by David Kalstone in Five Temperaments.  Its subjects are autobiographical, its methods reflective, its use of language literate and allusive.  The poems celebrate a sense of place and frequently have an autumnal air.... This book makes even clearer his artistic allegiance to the style that extends from Wallace Stevens to James Merrill, a style saved from debilitating nostalgia by a kind of philosophical sadness.”
               —Charles Molesworth, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 12, 1980

“Uniquely, Alfred Corn is a poet able to manage and merge two distinct and often contradictory instincts, namely, to articulate a sharp verbal discipline within the broader framework of a narrative posture.  As such, the consequence of Corn's poetry is immediate, attentive to both past and present, to emotional setting and physical event....  Moreover, the sensuous surface of Corn’s language is so smoothly polished that one rarely notices how much is going on.  Each phrase and contour of thought contributes to the lasting effect, but the effect never seems contrived or labored, only steadily delivered.”
               —G.E. Murray, Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1983

Notes from a Child of Paradise:

“Corn’s combination of sympathy and critical distance is an important perspective on a youthful, passionate age. If his portrait of the 1960’s is not all our romantic side could desire, it is nonetheless a vision we can use.”
                —Don Bogen, The Nation, July 7, 1984

“And what a poet he is! .... The poem is, by turns, learned, impassioned, touching, lyrical, and droll.  The poet's intention is ‘to find words that would fall in love with what they saw.’  He succeeds splendidly.  His poetry can be savoured line by line: it is poetry to read aloud.  With this book, his fourth, Alfred Corn establishes his standing as one of our finest poets.”
                —Joel Conarroe, The Washington Post Book World, August 5, 1984

“Corn’s fourth book is a long autobiographical narrative poem.  With this work, he seals his position as one of the finest practicing American poets.  There are contrasts of the American and European experience, there is the historic setting with its changes and conflicts, and there is the splendid celebration of the American western landscape. The accomplishment is major.  Corn has created a fresh, moving, and very contemporary work that speaks both to and for our times.” 
                 —R.S. Bravard, Choice, October 1984

“Corn is the inheritor of a long tradition, that of the personal epic, with Dante, Milton, and Wordsworth as the leading figures to whom Corn alludes.... The reader will marvel at Corn's writing throughout.... It is an important work, a worthy heir to Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, to which Corn owes a good deal....  One puts down Notes from a Child of Paradise convinced, as Stevens says, that ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.’”
                 —Jay Parini, Boston Review, July-August 1984

“Few poets could sustain, as Corn does, both the fiery voluptuousness of the abstract oracular passages, and the broken simplicity of the late 20th-century voice, tentative, self-conscious, unheroic....  If Notes is a kind of religious poetry, then maybe love is its creed—or is it the poet's faith that consciousness will save, that through memory we may work redemption?  That Corn gives us such full draughts of soul in a poetry that never leaves behind the body is indeed cause for rejoicing.”
                —Wayne Koestenbaum, The New York Native, December 30, 1985

“It is only a poem sure of its powers of closure, successful in its final in‑gathering of all its moments of reaching, charged with the weight of its ways of seeing that can afford to surrender the last word like this.”
                —John Hollander, The Yale Review, Autumn 1984

 The Metamorphoses of Metaphor:

“In the background of Alfred Corn's fine essays, and serving to unify them, is a wide and deep knowledge of literary influence, and especially of the mutations of Symbolist poetry in Europe and America.  What happens in the foreground is fresh and acute interpretation of particular writers and their works.  Whether he is dealing with Hart Crane's notion of Atlantis, or two lines of Robert Lowell’s, or the whole shape of Stevens’ development, he gives us what he says the critic should give—‘something we did not know beforehand.’”
                —Richard Wilbur

“A distinguished poet himself, Mr. Corn is especially alert to the influence of the past on poets, how poems speak to other poems in a continuing conversation.... He is at his best on the modern American poets Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hollander and Hart Crane.... Like the best literary essays, these send one back to the originals.”
               —Barbara Fisher Williams, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 29, 1987

“What Corn offers is not so much a thesis as a lesson in sensibility and in the reflective power of the imagination.  Metaphors, he demonstrates, are images that yet fresh images beget.  Corn’s reflections on recent and contemporary American poets are particularly resonant.... his emphasis is, as it should be, not on tradition but on the individual talents who extend and sometimes subvert that tradition.  His interpretations of poems by Lowell and by Elizabeth Bishop are shrewd, persuasive, succinct.”
               —David Lehmann, Washington Post Book World, August 2, 1987

“Corn's elucidations have the spaciousness of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne—of the American Romantics he admires.... Corn's transcendentalist bent unifies the writers he treats.... The Metamorphoses of Metaphor is a profound work of criticism.”
                —Wayne Koestenbaum, The New York Native, May 3, 1987

“Writing on poets like Stevens, Dante, Bishop, Crane and Cavafy, he tracks the ‘metamorphoses’ of metaphor, the ways in which metaphors retain ‘Some of the fluctuant reality of life itself.’  Underlying each of these essays is a deep knowledge of the traditions of Romantic and Symbolist poetry, traditions that continue—if Corn is right—to inform much of the best poetry written in our time.”
                —Jay Parini, The Boston Sunday Globe, October 4, 1987

The West Door:
“No sensitive reader could fail to find significant rewards, certainly, in the work of this richly talented poet.  Page after page the intricate, loving fitting of word to word, of phrase to line, wins both admiration and delight.”
               —Vernon Shetley, Poetry, May 1988

“His expression here is so beautifully spare that the poems appear to have sprung from a precise moment of discovery or memory—the point at which something is felt for the first time, before an explanation of feeling or vision is attempted.  The poems are firmly grounded in emotional and physical reality and are tight with meaning and feeling.”
                —ALA Booklist, January 1, 1988

“Alfred Corn's poems, in his brilliant new collection, The West Door, are occasional in the best sense: they are provoked not by the poet’s mood but by calls from without, by promptings from nature, history, and art.... Because these poems are responses, they center around the experience of being summoned.... Despite his interest in reticence, Corn's most evident trait is his mastery of rhythm and sound...but this power is not deployed carelessly.  He strives for intricacy in order to embody his meaning, hoisting his language high because he wants to believe in ‘The interrelation of all things dead and living,’ and the page's grip on the sacred things it expounds.... He attains a calm in which our attention is drawn not to the individual note of brilliance but to the grace of the whole.”
               —Wayne Koestenbaum, The Village Voice, February 9, 1988

“The poems in The West Door, Alfred Corn’s fifth collection, are remarkably finished.  They nearly shine from the page.  Reading them, it never seems that a better word might have been found, or the meter more refined.  There is always the sense that, as in Hart Crane’s poetry, every element—the etymologies, the syntax, even the spellings—will work in every possible way.  No potential has been left buried, no meaning unconsidered.  Corn’s poetry is clearly the result of rigorous craft.... His poems are resonant with their various sources, but they are nonetheless autonomous.  What gives Corn's work its force is that its elegance and control is never an end in itself.  His poetry is for poetry’s sake, no doubt, but it is more urgently concerned with life.”
               —Matthew Gilbert, Boston Review, April 1988


“As the processes of change continue to accelerate toward ever greater mobility and diversity, so does what amounts to a balkanization of poetry itself.  It is the brave exception who declines to hunker down in some enclave or other and ignore the rest.  Among those exceptions, Alfred Corn is notable for equanimity as well as bravery in taking on the challenge of thinking about America—which means thinking about Americans.  Seeing the very fact of mobility and diversity as an epic theme, he brings to it a discerning eye and ear, a marvelous memory for detail, and above all an exhilarating range of sympathy.  1992, the long poem in this book is a work to stretch the minds of every one of us, and therefore to be heartily recommended.”
                 —Amy Clampitt

“A wonderful new book.  In the long poem 1992, Alfred Corn has recuperated some of the energies of prose fiction, juxtaposing his own Ulyssean wanderings with a vast repertoire of peoples' lives he has invented to the point of psychic ventriloquism.  It seems to me that here is a work that can interest a much larger audience than is usually assigned to poetry.  The writing is accessible, but the focus is so loftily registered that there is never an effect of simplification.  The gossip of the gods!”
                 —Richard Howard 

“By turns mandarin and earthy, intricate and bold, Autobiographies is both an exploration of our variegated national culture and a significant contribution to it.  Sinuous and supple, his verse twines around our nomadic unease, rooting us in a poet's imagination.  Alfred Corn is a national resource, a bard of astonishing breadth.”
                —Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“The stunning 76-page poem that concludes Autobiographies is an apt illustration of Mr. Corn’s method of indirection. The poem 1992 is a series of two-part vignettes. The first part of each describes the speaker’s visit to a particular place in the United States, yet the second turns the reader’s attention away from that speaker and toward one or more locals: a Tampa waitress, a Mississippi truck driver, and so on. The last section of 1992 includes an update of each of these characters, and each update ends in mid-sentence: the poem is not really unfinished; the lives go on outside its boundaries.”
                —David Kirby, The New York Times Book Review

The Poem’s Heartbeat: A Manual of Prosody

“In the early days when I taught verse writing, I used to devote the first meeting to a discussion of prosody, partly because so dry a beginning led some students to drop the course, and thus trimmed the class to manageable size.  Alfred Corn’s The Poem’s Heartbeat triumphs over the dryness—or supposed dryness—of the subject, treating every aspect of it with precision, dispatch, and apt illustration.  His language is civil and jargon-free, and one is delighted by the articulate ease with which (for instance) he makes such a term as ‘stress’ fully intelligible.  This little book belongs on the same shelf with Jacques Barzun’s masterly little essay on French verse.  That it is sorely needed in the present footless state of things goes without saying.”
               —Richard Wilbur

“Not merely an introduction to verse form… this intelligent, user-friendly book guides readers through artistic conventions employed in shaping and measuring a poem…. Corn’s text is good-humored and accessible. His experience has deftly led him in organizing what may well be the finest general book available on prosody.”
               —Scott Hightower, Library Journal, April 1, 1997
“Eminently cosmopolitan, he is a stylist of the first order, both in verse and in prose … Erudite without being pedantic, Corn draws deeply from our cultural history to establish correspondences between the most disparate entities….  In verse the author’s tone ranges from the pedagogical to the personal, and the two occur together often enough to suggest that teaching what he knows both to his own students and to his unseen readers, is for him an act of love.”
             —William Ferguson, The New York Times Book Review, Nov. 30, 1997

“Alfred Corn is one of our finest living poets. He works in the visionary tradition of Whitman and Crane, and makes bold new use of classical and European influences. besides artistry, Present contains urgent lessons for our time: presence, care, visibility…. Best of all, despite the largeness of his expectations, Corn is no softie. He eschews sentimentality.  He is humorous, observant, quick to see awkward details, human failings, ironic mishaps.”
             —Grace Schulman, The Nation, April 29, 1997

“Underpinning these [poems] is a poetic persona as distinctively affable (though less raffish) as those of Merrill or James Schuyler or (when he’s in flâneur mode) Frank O’Hara. It is not the regnant mode among poetry academics at the moment, but since at least the time of Byron and Wordsworth it has been the kind of poetry that most commends itself to readers of poetry.”
                   —Thomas M. Disch, Boston Review, December 1997

“Brilliantly crafted poems.”
                   —John Taylor, Poetry, January 1998

“A treat, the latest in a line of masterworks by one of our very best poets.”
                    —George Piggford, The James White Review, Winter 1998

“Alfred Corn’s poems are exquisite, formal. They show a rare breadth of experience, observation and perception … This may be the most distinguished small press book of poems published this year.”
                    —Jane Henderson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 29, 1998

“Musical, passionate, reflective verses.”
                       —Bay Area Reporter, April 1997

“Throughout Present Corn shows a true breadth of experience and knowledge. … Present offers much to savor and enjoy.”
                                 —Virginia Quarterly, Fall 1997

“Technically stunning and always entertaining, Corn’s poems are expansive and ambitious, drawing together varied strands from history, music, dance, literature, mythology, science and his own life.”
                                —Publishers’ Weekly [starred review], March 1997

“Whether writing in free verse or magically weaving in strict rhyme patterns, Corn combines memory and imagination into long, meditative poems that digress but never lose our interest.”
                       —Rochelle Ratner, Library Journal, April 1997

“[Kafka’s] genius was to choose these modern anxieties as his tortured subject, then turn them into limpid prose. No wonder he appeals to Corn—a poet who knows how to transmute the painful frustrations of an everyday present into expressive, graceful and thoroughly contemporary lyrics.”
            —Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader, September 8, 1997

“Corn’s formal range is everywhere apparent. He even attempts sapphics in English which closely resemble what might be accomplished in the Greek. But as he understands art to be ‘always more than technical virtuosity,’ his poetry never merely displays his considerable poetic skills, but rather becomes a mode of thought, an inquiry into art and passion, the limits of mastery, mortality, divinity, and the possible destiny of the human soul.”
                                 —Carolyn Forché, The Lambda Book Report, Spring, 1997.

Part of His Story:

“Award-winning poet Alfred Corn has delivered, with his first novel, a stunning, sensitive fusion of intelligent writing and shrewd storytelling…. Part of His Story is packed with literati and filled with the sorrow of loss, yet it avoids pretense and flowery writing. Instead, we get a graceful narrative with irony and insight.”
                            —R. L. Pela, The Advocate, March 18, 1997

“In his first novel ... Alfred Corn has tried to deal with the dilemma in several ways at once. His story of grief and love in the age of AIDS alternates between sadness and hope, between sensitive examinations of emotions and diverting observations about culture, theater and literacy history ... Part of His Story contains some insightful, elegant writing and succeeds in demonstrating that works dealing with AIDS can also deal with topics like love and art as well.”
                     —Edward Hower, The New York Times Book Review

 “Autobiographies, Alfred Corn’s 1992 book of poems, is to the nineties what John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975) was to the seventies and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1956) was to the sixties: an exemplary and durable attempt to connect the inner and the outer life, to intuit a map of the world from the geography of the self…. Given his interest in the nature and extent of human relationships, it is no surprise that Corn has at last written a novel, the title of which—Part of His Story—registers his sense that literary representation, whether in a novel or a poem, exists in a state of incompleteness…. {Corn}aims for something other than conventional realism: This novel is true to life in its scope and rhythm as well as in its characters and events. This means that, like life, it is sometimes boring, and often opaque; it means that the reader must work to wrest the intensity of experience from a narrator whose voice is numb with grief, and who is unflaggingly cerebral, as well as a bit solipsistic. . . . But the reader is likely to be won over by Avery's seriousness and sincerity. . . . {The novel} shows the daily work involved in sustaining the most basic and intimate individual relationships. It is a modest and unassuming book. I hope this doesn't sound like faint praise, because its modesty is what makes this novel a brave and necessary part of our story.”
              —A.O. Scott, The Nation

Stake: Selected Poems, 1972-1992:
“Like a journal kept in an exquisite hand, these poems from Alfred Corn’s early collections revisit such as the Quartier Latin to St. Mark’s Place, ‘in search of what it is that shaped/ one witness’s imagining of time.’ With retrospective glances, Corn follows his own story from the cliffs of the Pacific Northwest to the coast of Maine, always returning to his beloved Manhattan. In A Call in the Midst of the Crowd, a rumination on New York City, Corn confronts ‘everything/ Improvised, raw, temporary,’ while never abandoning his tutelary wit and decorum.”
     —David Yezzi, The New Yorker, March 13, 2000

“Culled from 20 years of voluptuous and sophisticated verse. Showcasing, especially, his tactful yet honest consideration of American diversity, this representation of one of modern poetry’s central figures is long overdue.”
     —Dennis Johnson, The Orlando Sentinel, Feb. 27, 2000

“For nearly three decades, Corn’s intelligence, command of craft, and extraordinary ear have shaped an impressive body of poems, and with Stake’s generous selection from the first twenty years, this reflective richly textured work—cerebral, playful, elegiac, and compassionate—shows itself to singular advantage. … Alfred Corn has kept a true course throughout his distinguished career: in poems elegant and inventive, he shows us a world it is a pleasure to revisit.”
     —Ned Balbo, Antioch Review


“…a faithful votary of ‘detail, the lost-and-found of deity,’ he’s equally at home musing on refrigerator magnets or Vermeer masterpieces. The compulsively eclectic poems in his new collection are a flaneur’s delight, ranging from leisurely travelogues and urbane meditations on art and scripture to intimate soliloquies and pithy studies in the psychology of everyday life…. Amid all this happy plenty, however, runs a current of pensive melancholy, a brooding sense of the vagaries of fortune and the frailties of the flesh that’s equal parts mandarin disenchantment, classical fatalism and restive American wistfulness.”
                   —David Barber, The New York Times, January 26, 2003


A review on Thethepoetry.com by Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles

"​Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.” 

A review on 32Poems.com by Benjamin Myers

Alfred Corn is a virtuoso, and with his new collection’s formal variety and impressive wit, Tables would have, in an earlier age, made an excellent appeal for patronage. It’s a shame that today’s great patrons of the literary arts, the universities, care little for virtuosity and much for credential and prestige, because, with the support of a Maecenas or a Can Grande della Scala or a Lady Elizabeth Carey, Alfred Corn could be the best known poet of his generation. 


A review on Shenandoah by Philip Belcher

 Just as there is no debate that Corn has a lyric gift—his focus on sound permeates even the most difficult poems in Unions, Corn’s eleventh book of poems—there can be little disagreement that Corn is “a thinker.” And it is Corn’s wide-ranging intellect that offers both the pleasures and the challenges—experiences that are not always incompatible—that characterize his most recent volume of poems. 

A review on popsublime by Jason Roush

Unions, Alfred Corn’s eleventh book of poetry, is his most accessible collection. The poems are still diverse and demanding in their references and allusions, as well as in their variety of forms, but those aspects don’t call attention to themselves, instead taking a relaxed approach and inviting the reader to follow suit.  It might also be because I’m currently twice the age I was when I first read Corn’s poetry as an undergraduate twenty years ago that the density of references ceases to distract me; now, I recognize and understand the majority of them.  I can better appreciate, too, Corn’s deft sleights of hand in slipping them discreetly into his poems.

A review in Literati Quarterly  by Christopher Cadra:
Harold Bloom has said of Alfred Corn, “He has had the skill and courage to confront, absorb, and renew our poetic tradition at its most vital.” After reading Corn’s Unions, the words “courage” and “tradition” stick out in the Bloom quote enormously. The word “skill” would too, but Corn’s skill is so apparent so early on that the use of the word in the Bloom quote is somewhat muted.

The title Unions is apt for a variety of reasons. Corn himself makes for a sort of geographical union in that he is an American who studied French literature (first at Emory and then at Columbia, where he received his M.A.) and has studied and taught around the globe. There are geographical unions that occur in his writing as well, the biggest being of that between the U.S. and the U.K.

Another union that occurs is the union of the poems themselves. The poems range in length, subject matter, style, pretty much everything, yet there isn’t a single poem in the book that feels out of place. For example, “In the Grunewald Café”, a short poem, is so lyrical, so musical, that I actually had a melody going along with the words in my head the first time I read it. It’s proceeded and followed by poems hardly resembling it, yet, again, nothing feels out of place.

Yet another union, and this harkens back to the Bloom quote, is that of poetic tradition. Allusions to the Romantics, Eliot (who appears a great deal, perhaps due to his own American/English identity, or perhaps simply because the long poem he appears so frequently in, “Eleven Londons,” needs him), and many other canonical writers allow Corn to become a part of the poetic tradition. His courage allows him to cut out a piece out of that tradition and make room for himself, for his own vision. A vision that is sometimes far from happy and optimistic (see poems “The Great Pessimists”, “Best is Never to Be Born, and if Born…”, among others), but a vision that is distinct, and not just among contemporaries, but among the whole of the English poetic tradition itself.

At his darkest, Corn can get at dark as one can get. “The Great Pessimists”, which almost reads like a survey of the Western Canon’s greatest pessimists, beginning with a quote from Ecclesiastes, we go from Shakespeare’s Lear and Macbeth to Schopenhauer, Eliot shows up, as does Kafka, and the poem ends with a line, in italics, “Nothing puts and end to emptiness but nothingness.” Truly bleak, as bleak as Macbeth himself it seems. But throughout the book, I always sense here and there a light shining, even if a dim, dull light, a repelling of full on pessimism and/or nihilism. There’s always something, there are always these cracks of light, and maybe these are the unions, maybe these are what it is that keeps the poems together. Many poems seem to reflect the quoted Macbeth soliloquy in which life is nothing but a tale told by an idiot. But these poems are reflections of life, and Corn is no idiot, no poor player. What keeps this from dipping deep into pessimism for me is that even if life is nothing but a tale, it’s not just full of sound and fury, and it’s not told by an idiot, it’s (at least here) told by a virtuoso, and the beauty of the tale alone gives it meaning.

Perhaps as a counter to the darkness, whether intentionally or unintentionally, there is a good deal of colloquial language that appears throughout the book that seems to lighten the mood a bit when need be, e.g. the phrase “Bob’s your uncle mate,” used commonly (how commonly I’m not sure) in the UK to sum up simple directions or orders. I was not familiar with this phrase when I came across it (in the poem “Bob”), and though its meaning became apparent almost immediately upon reading, its oddness/foreignness caused me to crack a smile.

The poems, and the work at large, are sometimes elliptical, sometimes a bit unorthodox, but are always extremely readable and re-readable. There were a very few poems, during my initial reading, that I simply read through before moving on to the next. Sometimes this was due simply to an instant love of the read poem, but often this was due to a needed rereading to get a little closer to the intended meaning of the read poem. However, the mentioned ellipses of Corn’s poetry, and of Unions, never feels like a showing off, pomposity, or anything like that, but always rather feels like a sort of bravado, or perhaps said better, as Bloom did, “courage.”

Miranda's Book

A review by Jack Miller in The Gay & Lesbian Review 

You’ve made a killing. Going with your lover to retrieve a portfolio of art, you somehow manage to bring about the death of someone you dislike, someone the reader will no doubt dislike. What do you do? Call 911, or head out with your hot new lover on the open road? Fortunately for us, Miranda chooses the latter action.

Alfred Corn’s second novel is an olio: one part On The Road, two parts existential examination of life, with a dash of Iris Murdoch. One character’s choice leads to an inevitable clash and transformation of another. As novels go, Miranda’s Book employs a rather complex form to tell its tale. It is in fact a novel within a novel, but with a twist. 

We learn early on that a book called “Miranda’s Book” is being written by an accomplished African-American writer living in Brooklyn. His niece is in prison. Why she is there and the justification for her fatal actions are the subject matter of the book he is writing, a book to which we as readers are given privileged access. Mark Shreve is the writer and he appears in his own novel as Uncle Matthew. His niece is Marguerite and her fictional name in his novel is Miranda.

Not only does the novel within a novel provide us with a detailed, exquisite account of Miranda’s journey through three countries and her mental processes and feelings along the way; it also presents the author, her uncle, who has his own feelings and views about what led up to the killing and his niece’s flight after the deed. Consequently, Uncle Mark Shreve is as much on an existential quest as his niece, Marguerite, the Miranda of his novel.

If all this sounds too convoluted to be readily grasped, it isn’t. The chapters describing the uncle/author’s point of view, misgivings, and thoughts about the ethics and the æsthetics of what he’s doing blend with the primary story, giving it an added dimension. In one of the uncle’s self-analysical chapters, he recalls Gore Vidal: “Gore, for his part, ridiculed me even to my face, saying I was a pathetic closet case who wrote about heterosexuals with no firsthand knowledge of the subject.” Is this true, or do we believe Shreve’s rebuttal? Are we reading about Shreve’s reflections, or author Alfred Corn’s?

Furthermore, when we read, for instance, that Miranda is on a long flight enjoying a novel by Trollope, we are simultaneously aware that it may be the real-life uncle who has read Trollope, not the real niece, Marguerite, in the fictional form of Miranda. One of the mysteries the reader is left to ponder is the degree to which what happens in the novel within the novel, Miranda’s Book, is true to the niece he is defending. Miranda is always also her uncle, the writer. As he says himself, “I could hardly tell Marguerite’s story without bringing in my own.”

Add to the mix that Miranda is half Jewish and half African-American, while her uncle is a well-to-do, highly intellectual, gay black writer living in Brooklyn, and you see how rich this novel is in its exploration of culture and love circa 1990. What is it like to be half black, half Jewish, and married to a bore of a WASP? Miranda early on sees the emptiness of her married life. Her husband is self absorbed, possessive, and cheating on her while nonetheless controlling her life. First engaging in her own affair with a bisexual man, Miranda ultimately leaves her vile husband and his mistress for art and Guillermo, a handsome, artistic Latin lover. Having broken from her husband and his ego, Miranda finds her own interest in art and love again. Meanwhile, she attends the opening of the controversial show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in her hometown of Cincinnati. Public discussions about Mapplethorpe and censorship, æsthetic ruminations by both Uncle Matthew and Miranda, and the ensuing trial that acquitted the gallery of obscenity charges all reveal more about Miranda as she embarks on her journey.

The novel within a novel takes us to Canada, the remote woods of Maine, New York, Ohio, and finally Mexico, where Miranda experiences the Day of the Dead. The reader is lavished with Alfred Corn’s poetic vision of San Miguel de Allende and the enchanted town of Pátzcuaro with its mystical lake high in the Sierras, where the veil between the living and dead is diaphanous. All along the way, Miranda’s character evolves and grows. Her revelations and her epiphanies coincide with the insights of her uncle both in and out of the interior novel. The uncle, living in Brooklyn and writing his novel, becomes so interesting that we begin to hope for a third novel about Mark Shreve.

In the mind of her gay uncle, a writer and cultivated man, Miranda confronts dilemma after dilemma. She looks at herself critically, realizing at times that she has had a privileged existence, more than enhanced by the generosity and the rescue by her uncle. Have her circumstances corrupted her? Is she the modern version of a liberated woman, or someone who deserves to be in prison? Is her uncle successful in defending her? Has she even committed a crime at all? If you’re looking for a novel with huge, archetypal characters making sweeping philosophical conclusions, as in Dostoevsky, or the paranoid and surreal visions of Kafka (also mentioned as among Miranda’s books), this may not be the novel for you. If you want a thought-provoking book filled with adventure, one that is expressed in poetic, evocative language, including some provocative sex scenes, and if you want a book that contains quandaries concerning life choices, justice, and ethics, not to mention a look at the creative process of writing itself, then by all means visit the pages of Miranda’s Book.

Jack Miller, The Gay & Lesbian Review,  May 1, 2015.

Comment on Lowell’s Bedlam

Lowell’s Bedlam
by Michael Gregory Stephens

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam, which had it’s world premiere on April 7, 2011 in London. The second part, by poet John McCullough, appeared afterward.
The poet Alfred Corn has written a marvelous, sharply observed, and brilliantly imagined play about Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital for his bipolar disorder. Corn includes the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the prose writer Elizabeth Hardwick in his dramatic tale, which is told from the point-of-view of one of the hospital’s denizens, a fellow who befriends Lowell over a card game. Pentameters is one of the oldest fringe theatres in London, famous for its relationships with poets, including Robert Lowell, so it was an equally apt venue to present the world premiere production of this work. Leonie Scott-Matthews, the artistic director at Pentameters for the past forty years, introduced the evening by giving the audience a thumbnail portrait of the theatre’s long history, including Lowell’s visit in 1974.

Robert Lowell, besides being a pre-eminent poet of the postwar years in America, also wrote well-received plays, as well as having a long association with Britain. (He taught for many years at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.) A so-called confessional poet, his mental disorders were handsomely chronicled in his poems. That being the case, what purpose a play about this one aspect of his life? Well, Alfred Corn makes eminently clear that when a life is dramatized, often very different things are revealed than in the poems or in a biography. For one thing, the life unfolds before our eyes—not the poet’s exterior world, but the turmoil of his inner life. We experience Lowell at the moment he reveals himself to us on the stage, and because Lowell is such a complex person, it takes an equally deft poet to evoke him. That is what Alfred Corn succeeds in doing so dramatically.

This is not just any bipolar patient in a hospital—the play is set in September 1949 in the recreation room for patients at the Pitney Akins mental hospital in New York City—it is the blueblood Robert Lowell. As he tells his newly met friend on the ward, he has just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Of course, the other patient thinks that Lowell is being delusional. After all, this other patient has literary illusions, too, and all he’s wound up doing is story editing in film. This Nick Carraway-like character, whom Corn calls Dick Jaffee, is as talkative as Lowell, and perhaps that is where the two make a human connection. The two Elizabeths, Lowell, and Jaffee are all thirty-somethings.

The stage is a great place for unfolding events, the slow revelation of a characters inner life. Invariably characters reveal themselves by what they say about themselves, about others, and what they do. Bipolar patients are famously verbal, but also physically animated during mania. I have heard psychiatrists and therapists describe the manic cycle as one of verbal brilliance, though usually followed by a crash. Lowell was not at Pitney Akins for being verbally brilliant, though, but rather for being mentally ill. He was famously not on the planet when he entered such bouts in his life. Alfred Corn is a poet of considerable verbal skills, too, so that he is able to portray these effects on stage, sculpting them into dramatic moments that reveal so much about Lowell’s inner state. Lowell is guilty and full of shame for leaving his first wife after a car accident that nearly kills her. Then he takes up with Elizabeth Hardwick, his soul mate. Or is Elizabeth Bishop his soulmate?

Bishop is the character with the most to hide, and thus is one of the most revealing characters as a result of that dramatic tension. She clearly loves Robert Lowell—but not that way. He is smitten as well. But she needs to make clear that she is not interested in romance. They are fellow poets. She loves his poetry, and she appreciates his attention to her poems. They are not so much soulmates—that role remains in Hardwick’s orbit—they are kindred spirits. They both love words, are made drunk on their effects. There is a wonderful scene, not dramatized in Alfred Corn’s play, but in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, in which a line from Racine’s Phedre which Lowell has translated actually comes out to mean the opposite from what the French dramatist intended. Lowell keeps it anyhow because he feels it is a better line of poetry now. That willful, confident poet is in evidence on the stage, but so is the wreck of a person, a man hearing voices, possessed by demons, wracked with guilt and shame, two corrosive emotions that seem to chip away at Lowell’s ironclad New England temperament.

Finally, here is why Alfred Corn’s play is such an important work. It gives us an inner portrait of Robert Lowell that is not found in either the biography or the poetry itself. Robert Lowell the poet is a persona, while Robert Lowell the man is a suffering human being, one ridden with an emotional wound that seems to rend him into two or more personalities. The Ian Hamilton biography, good as it is, gives us details of a life, its comings and goings, the surface narrative. The poems present us with Robert Lowell’s literary obsessions, his lineage with more formal poets like Robert Frost and his 20th century obsessions which align him more with a poet like William Carlos Williams. Towards the end of his life, Lowell once told Allen Ginsberg that both of them were the children of WCW.

If I have a criticism to make about contemporary American playwrights—I am thinking of writers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard—it is how one-dimensional and weak their women characters seem to be. Conversely, I have found so many women playwrights create the most stereotypical male characters. Yet being able to create full-blown characters of the opposite sex is almost a hallmark of great playwriting. Certainly Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov created women characters that dominated their stages with their complexity and humanity. Alfred Corn’s women are witty, verbal, real, and daring. Towards the end of this wonderful play, Elizabeth Bishop reads one of her poems aloud to Robert Lowell. But, almost like a play within a play, she reads a poem by Alfred Corn. The moment is luscious, and it reveals the character of Bishop to us, while also suggesting why a poet in the theatre is such a dynamic possibility for drama. This stage tableau becomes even more complex and fabulous, a truly dramatic fete.

Lowell’s Bedlam
by John McCullough

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

 Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

 Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.

Poet, novelist, critic

Alfred  Corn