Prose Feature: “Love and Fame: A Review of Alfred Corn’s Tables (Press 53, 2013)” by Benjamin Myers

October 17, 2014

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. As is, he hasn’t been without acclaim—praise from Harold Bloom for his first book, a Guggenheim in ’86 —but Corn himself, at several moments in Tables, expresses a sense of having been passed over by those who bestow the laurels. In “Letter to Robert Pinksy,” Corn contrasts his own career fortunes with those of the former poet laureate, noting that the gods of fame have had only “offhand ways” with him but also expressing admiration for Pinsky’s poems and gratitude for the friendship. Corn is perhaps rueful of his own fate but doesn’t seem bitter toward the more “successful” poet. “We might have been mere rivals. Are long-term / Friends,” he says near the end of the poem. In another poem, “Window on the World,” the tone is a bit more bitter, though also wry, the poet confessing that “envy sometimes hissed, / Those years I spent cooling my heels outside fame’s shortlist,” and naming several other poets who, at the time of Corn’s debut volume, were “rated the latest star.” Sometimes caustic, sometimes resigned, Corn is as self-conscious of his own “rank” as John Berrryman was throughout his turbulent career but possessed of a better sense of perspective than Berryman perhaps ever managed to develop. For instance, Corn’s concerns about his career in “Window on the World” dissolve quickly when memories of the attack on the World Trade Center enter the poem. Corn is perhaps typical of our time in his obsession with fame, but he is rescued by a humane perspective and a sympathetic imagination from the self-absorption that usually comes with that obsession.

Corn, of course, has achieved a level of fame as the author of the The Poem’s Heartbeat, one of the best and best known of the various manuals on prosody and form. It is thus not surprising that Corn’s virtuosity in traditional meter and forms is on display throughout this book. He uses blank verse, couplets, modified forms of both the sonnet and the ghazal, elegiac quatrains, an approximation to classical hexameters, prose, and free verse. Such variety on its own may not be impressive, but Corn’s ability to sound natural and self-assured in so many different forms is very impressive indeed. He is, for instance, as capable of stately blank verse in “St. Anthony in the Desert”—“To be filled with that hallowed emptiness / The hermit sojourns in a desert cave”—as he is of fluid and graceful heroic couplets in “First Dictionary”:

That bedside ark, no tub or leaky dud,
offered warm shelter in the mounting flood.

Where Noah housed his couples, aardvark, zebu,
And—I think unpolluted—my kind, too.

Elsewhere in the book, Corn’s free verse is strengthened by his prosodic intelligence. For instance, “Horizontal,” the collection’s opening poem, works generally through a free verse minimalism evocative of Carl Phillips or perhaps Franz Wright, including extra spacing, but begins with a trochaic pulse to set an incantatory tone. Two lines later the poem slips into a line of perfect iambic pentameter as a sort of foil for the free verse that dominates the poem. Corn ends the poem with one more line of smooth pentameter, giving the poem a sense of closure that strains interestingly against the expectations of open-endedness established by the minimalist approach. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Gray light      stone light      light of      the middle ages
merged with the western rain
it softens curtain panels to a blank
canvas      I      silhouette
a hand against four fingers      veed
open      thumb elled
aside      opposable but not opposed
it won’t      not here next to
you untangle a place or time
or hold anything down
I mean when spoons match up as well as ours

Along with formal virtuosity Corn exhibits an even rarer virtue: awareness of the variety of occasions for a poem. The combined force of Wordsworth’s famous dictum about “emotion recollected in tranquility” and the broad appeal of confessional poetics has arguably left contemporary poetry with a flattened sense of occasion. Corn, however, offers us poems that spring from a number of occasions. For instance, he includes the much neglected verse epistle among the modes in which he demonstrates his virtuosity, composing one each to James Fenton, Grace Schulman, Robert Pinsky, and Marilyn Hacker. He also includes a poem for Joseph Brodsky that, while not explicitly an epistle, evokes the letter form in its cozy apostrophe to the other poet and in its focus on a shared memory with Brodsky. Corn accomplishes in these poems much that one expects from the personal lyric—reminiscences rueful and delightful, arresting imagery drawn from the details of a particular scene, meditations on the ego and its place in historical movement, declarations of love and regret—but the epistolary mode adds a certain sense of fresh and open air, of correspondence rather than mere monologue, despite the fact that we never hear the other voice. Perhaps this effect is achieved by the epistle’s assumption that there is another voice, another person outside the solipsism of much contemporary poetry.

Accompanying this avoidance of solipsism in Tables is a focus throughout on hospitality. Corn’s letter to James Fenton begins with what appears to be an allusion to Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper”:

James, transposing the stock opening
in which letter-despatcher invites
a friend to dinner, let me begin
with thanks for lunch at Long Leys Farm—and
for coming to fetch me at the steps
of the Ashmolean in Oxford.

Corn’s fine sense of occasion is exhibited as well in several other poems which, in classical style, take the shared meal as occasion for poetry. In “New England / China” Corn crafts a poem of homemaking, running from the “buds on Mother’s / Haviland china” which are “pink, flushed with excitement / At being propped in ranks along the plate-rail,” to a meal shared only in imagination with an unnamed “you,” to a fear that the dream of domestic bliss is really “insubstantial / Like all dream-castles based on greed.” The sonnet, “Dinner Theater,” takes a lighter, wittier approach to the shared meal yet makes of it a kind of communion in its closing couplet: “And now the attentive, worn-out Napkins, who move / Toward lips whose service, too, resembles love.” That Corn extends the penultimate line into hexameter emphasizes all the more the weariness and thus the virtue of the attentiveness, adding ethical weight to what would otherwise be a fairly frivolous poem.

There is, indeed, much high seriousness embodied in Corn’s virtuoso formal performance. Many of the poems touch on a spiritual yearning, maybe even a mystical desire for God. Interestingly, Corn often aims this yearning back into the past, a yearning for a God who once seemed present, “Back in the scriptural forties,” as he put it in “Coals.” In “St. Anthony in the Desert,” the poet must sojourn into the past as Anthony in the desert in search of God:

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.

Similarly, in the letter to Pinsky, “Destiny” is an “antique concept” and yet “unavoidable.” But Corn is not offering mere spiritual nostalgia. His backward yearning is complicated by a rueful awareness of time’s passing. “Mortality, box-cutter in hand, conquers all,” he says in “Window on the World.” Both “What the Thunder Says” and “Resources” convey an awareness of a fast approaching day of reckoning, the former poem ending with the fairly blunt statement that “Nothing holds off the thunderstone I am it says your death.”

This memento mori theme adds depth and wisdom to Corn’s preoccupation with poetic fame. If Corn understandably laments, in “Nemo,” that “Omitting’s one way to have included / put poorer than a nod, a spoken glance,” he also knows, as he says in “Hadrian,” that “Ambition even vast finds its limit. / But love goes undefined.” These poems do occasionally speak of love, from eros to agape, but more apparent throughout is the work of the virtuoso as an act of love, the genius as a procreative force. One is tempted to use for Alfred Corn the older English title for poet, “maker,” under which the early Renaissance poets sued for patronage. Such love is perhaps the true mark of a great artist, as it is the mark in The Divine Comedy of the divine artist, the supreme maker. If so, Alfred Corn has shown himself well worth your patronage and mine.

—Benjamin Myers

Benjamin MyersBenjamin Myers is the author of Lapse Americana (New York Quarterly Books, 2013) and Elegy for Trains (Village Books Press, 2010). His recent poems are forthcoming in The Yale Review, The New York Quarterly, and The Saint Katherine Review and have recently appeared in 32 Poems, Poetry Northwest, Measure, and many other journals, as well as on the Verse Daily website. His critical work may be read in Books and Culture, World Literature Today, and other literary and academic publications. He is a winner of the Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry and the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University, where he is the Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature.  

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