Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Interview with poet Alfred Corn

TLY: Today we welcome Alfred Corn, poet, novelist, scholar and essayist.

To begin, Alfred, from interviews and discussions, one has the impression that you have led a marvelously errant existence—traveling throughout the States and abroad. What places do you return to most in your writing?

ALFRED:  I haven’t taken a census, but New York City plays a big part. In addition to many short lyrics set in Gotham, there is a long poetic sequence, the title poem of my second book A Call in the Midst of the Crowd, that depicts the city—partly through historical documents and partly through autobiographical lyrics. But I also have a long poem about London, titled “Eleven Londons,” recounting my stays there over a forty-year period. And the seventy-page poem “1992,” details travels to the four corners of these United States.

TLY: The following quote is attributed to travel writer Norman Lewis: “The words you know show the extent of your understanding of what’s going on in the world.” What are your thoughts?

ALFRED: That sounds plausible. To some degree language creates reality. I think of Wilde’s aphorism, “Nature imitates art.” Nature, reality, also “imitates” language.

TLY: You are a writer whose work has been translated and you are also a translator. There are writers who dislike having their work translated, among them Vladimir Nabokov. Contrary to received opinion—poets make the best translators—Nabokov speaks of the poet as perhaps the worst of all possible translators. He describes the process as an act of transvestitism, a form of literary cross-dressing. In fact, he uses the phrase “dress up.” After hearing remarks like that, one wonders that any poet is brave enough to translate at all—or, dress up in another language as it were. How do your respond to such arguments?

ALFRED: Nabokov enjoyed being outrageous, and he had the personal confidence to bring it off. But needless to say he is wrong here. Pasternak produced a wonderful Shakespeare in Russian, and Richard Wilbur has done brilliantly accurate and graceful versions of Molière, just to mention two examples.

TLY: Recently, the Spanish publisher Chamán Ediciones brought out Rocinante, a bilingual selection of your poetry. For readers who may not be aware of Rocinante, would you be so kind as to explain? Also, how did Rocinante become the title for the selected works?

ALFRED: Over a long period my friend the Mexican fiction writer and visual artist Guillermo Arreola voluntarily translated poems of mine. The superb Spanish poet Antonio Rodriguez Jimenez, after we began an email correspondence, asked if it would interest me to bring out my poems in Spain, mentioning that a new publisher called Chamán Ediciones might want to do it. Guillermo sent them what he had, and I added a few lyrics translated by others (including some that I had done). The volume came out a year ago under the title Rocinante, which I chose, somewhat over the publishers’ objections. Not everyone does, but you know that was the name of Don Quijote’s horse, an aging nag that is the equine equivalent of the Don himself. I was seventy-two when the book appeared, and I very much identified with Quijote’s noble and insane quest. There’s also the old metaphor of the horse and rider understood as the body and the soul. The Cervantes epigraph I used for the volume was “El supo obrar y yo escribir.” (“He was able to work and I to write.”) Human experience is effected through the body and the rider is the writer; or the soul.

TLY: When you chose the poems for the edition, did you do so with an ear as to which ones would translate best into Spanish? 

ALFRED: No, Guillerno chose those that interested him. Also, we added one translation made by the late Mexican poet Manuel Ulacia. And a couple that I had translated myself.

TLY: Rocinante includes a selection of poems by Alfred Corn written in Spanish. Do you consider these poems translations given that you are a native English speaker? Or, did the poems come to you in Spanish and should readers consider them original works in Castilian?

ALFRED: The poem “La Luz azul” was written in Spanish, with no intention of later translating it into English. But when I decided to include it in a book, I thought it would be a courtesy to readers with no Spanish to provide a translation. And once again there was the problem experienced by all translators: I wasn’t able to get absolutely everything in the original text into English, despite being both the author and the translator. The content of the very brief “Respuesta a Dario” I think comes through, but the Spanish text rhymes and keeps a syllable count I didn’t manage to reproduce in English. Such are the normal frustrations of the translator, rather more intense here because I was also the author.

TLY: Have you written poems in other foreign languages?

ALFRED: Yes. Several poems in French. One is incorporated into the book-length poem Notes from a Child of Paradise, but the others I never published.

TLY: Rocinante is truly a gem, just beautiful. TLY recognized many poems, and missed quite a few as well. What has the reaction to the book been in Spain? What were some questions you were asked during readings?

ALFRED: Strangely enough, some of the best reviews I’ve ever received for any book were those written in response to Rocinante. I think much of the credit must go to Guillermo’s very fine translations. As for questions, people asked me about the title, just as you have. I’ve come to see that it is a little disturbing, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

TLY: Again, we want to thank you so much for answering our questions. Before we let you go, could you tell us about any current projects you are working on?

ALFRED: Sure. For several years, off and on, I’ve been translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies. I now have a draft of all ten. I will need to revise a little, and provide an introduction, but the bulk of the task is complete now. I’ve also been working on short stories and should produce one or two more if they’re going to be brought out as a collection. At the same time, I’ve continued to write new poems, probably enough for a new book, but I haven’t yet attempted to assemble it. Over the course of the years you develop a sense of when it’s right moment, and no doubt that will come before long.

ROCINANTE, an excerpt

St. Anthony in the Desert

To be filled with that hallowed emptiness
The hermit sojourns in a desert cave.
Fasting and prayer will make seclusion safe,
His daily bread, each word the Spirit says.
Chimera stirs and rears her dripping head;
A slack-skinned reptile puffs and makes a face;
Vile, harrowing nightmares shimmer through long days;
The sun beats a brass gong and will not set.
Faint shadow on cave walls, you foretell grief
Or joy, not known till whose the profile is:
Love itself may corrupt and then deceive
Its object, hiding venom in a kiss.
Anthony kneels, embraces his fierce lot,
And hears: Be still, and know that I am God.

San Antonio en el desierto

Para colmarse de sagrada vacuidad 
se aísla el ermitaño en una cueva del desierto.
Ayuno y oración harán fiable el destierro.
La palabra que el espíritu dicta: su pan de cada día.

Menea y alza Quimera su cabeza alambicada;
un reptil de fofa piel resopla y brama;
bruñen los holgados días lacerantes y abyectas pesadillas;
pega el sol en un gong de latón, y no se ocultará.

Leve sombra en las paredes  de la cueva, si presagias
penuria o regocijo, se sabrá por el contorno que dibujas.
El amor mismo puede que corrompa, y así burlar
su objetivo, disimulado en un beso deletéreo.
Antonio se hinca, se ciñe a su feroz encierro,
y escucha: sosiégate, y entérate: soy Dios.


As if to move a flexible sphere from here
to there with unassisted head and foot
were natural and obvious. As if
a dance could always bow to resolute
constraint and never be danced the same way twice.
As if whistles and cheers, the hullabaloo
of fervent gazers were all the music needed
to keep its players’ goals in tune. So that
as they weave, dodge, collide, collapse in breathless
haystacks—and rise and fall and rise again—
we’re made, if not one, then at least whole.


Como si trasladar una esfera flexible desde acá
hacia allá con cabeza o pie por si solo
fuera natural y obvio. Como si
un baile se pudiera someter a reglas estrictas
sin bailarse dos veces de la misma manera.
Como si aplausos y silbidos y el revuelo
de los espectadores fuesen toda la música
requerida para sintonizar los goles
de los jugadores. Así que mientras
hacen eses, esquivan, chocan, se desploman en pilas
jadeantes (y suben y caen y de nuevo suben)
nos hacemos, si no en uno, al menos enteros.

                                       (Traducción de Alfred Corn) 

"A Poem Named 'Basho in the Genju Hut'"

A human life is measured
in a linked sequence of dwellings.
The Basho Hut gave Basho
both shelter and a name;
and then he burned to travel.

Genju (the monk whose name
translates as "Unreal") had died,
yet he left behind a hut
where, much later, Basho stopped,
tasting Genju's precept:
The world and those that dwell
under its roof are ... unreal.

Call it a hut, a name
transferred from hand to hand.
His poems sheltered Basho,
and poems translate the world:
Basho in the Unreal Hut.

Un poema titulado “Basho en la cabaña de Genju”

A una vida humana se le mide
en el orden secuencial de sus moradas.
La cabaña de Basho dio a Basho
un refugio y un nombre
y aun así él deseaba ardientemente viajar.

Genju (el monje cuyo nombre se traduce
como  “Irreal”) había muerto,
sin embargo dejó tras de sí una cabaña
que, tiempo después, Basho habitó
certificando la máxima de Genju:
El mundo y los que moran
bajo su techo son… irreales.

Llámalo una cabaña, un nombre
que pasa de mano en mano.
Sus poemas protegieron a Basho,
y los poemas traducen el mundo:
Basho en la Cabaña Irreal.

November Leaves

Morning finds them silver, quite a killing
At the trees’ expense. And, like the delicate milling
That seconds the die-cut dial of a dime,
The cold has etched each margin with shining rime.

Small change—but enough for what there is to buy:
Those white-sale blankets, woolens of the snows
Winter tosses down from its vault of sky.
Green copper silver time grows on trees; and goes. 

Noviembre se deshoja

Muertas, la mañana las encuentra plateadas
a costa de los árboles. Como el fino estriado
que el troquel sigue en las monedas
en cada imagen una rima el frío ha gravado.

Basta poco cambio para lo que hay que comprar:
mantas en saldos de blancos, lanas al nevar,
de la bóveda celeste el invierno reparte.
Verde cobre plata el tiempo en ramas crece y parte.

                              (Traducción de Manuel Ulacia)

More about Alfred

Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems, the most recent titled Unions (2015) and two novels, the second titled Miranda’s Book, which also appeared in 2015. His two collections of essays are The Metamorphoses of Metaphor and Atlas: Selected Essays, 1989-2007. He has received the Guggenheim, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, Connecticut College, The University of Cincinnati, and UCLA. In 2013 he was made a Life Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. In 2015 he was guest speaker at the new museum in Wuzhen, China, dedicated to the work of the painter and writer Mu Xin. This past April Chamán Ediciones in Spain published Rocinante, a selection of his work translated in Spanish, followed this year by its publication in Mexico. A new collection of essays titled Arks & Covenants appeared in May of 2017. This past October, Roads Taken, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Alfred Corn’s first book All Roads at Once was held at Poets’ House in New York City, and in November he will be inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame.

Critical Reception of Alfred's Work

“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


“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

“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


“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.

“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

“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


By the author

For Purchase Rocinante

For Purchase  Arks and Covenants

For Purchase Stake

For Purchase Unions

For Purchase Tables

For Purchase All Roads at Once

For Purchase The Poem's Heartbeat


  1. Thank you for arranging this, Kathryn.

  2. You are more than welcome. It is our pleasure and honor. It was great learning more about Rocinante, a wonderful collection.


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