ALFRED CORN: Two Poems and a Micro-Interview



Unions is Alfred Corn’s eleventh book of poems. He has also published a novel, Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), a study of prosody. For his poetry, he has received a Guggenheim fellowship, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. In 2012, he was a Visiting Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, preparing a translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and returned as a Life Fellow for a second residency in 2013. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, and UCLA.

[The following poems are reprinted from Unions by permission of the author.]


Poe Lucifer

The daylong dive of that aggrieved archangel:
Only those who’ve known defeat can fathom
Him, when he drops headlong from the ramparts—
Slippery rim of the abyss, engulfing
Wings of a vast nocturnal bird of prey,
The Morning Star’s dismemberment of mind.
Anarchy’s ruins, its fading trumpet calls,
Somehow evoke, when they become reflective,
A city’s darkened towers beside the water.

A city’s darkened towers beside the water
Somehow evoke, when they become reflective,
Anarchy’s ruins, its fading trumpet calls.
The Morning Star’s dismemberment of mind?
Wings of a vast nocturnal bird of prey,
Slippery rim of the abyss, engulfing
Him when he drops headlong from the ramparts.
Only those who’ve known defeat can fathom
The daylong dive of that aggrieved archangel.



for Mimi Khalvati

Why go? Partly because we had no reason
To, though, granted, Hastings’s on the Channel—
Which meant salt air and, that day, winter sun.
A zigzag swing from station down to shingle

To take in the cold light and arrowy
Jeers shrilled by veering scavengers overhead,
Who flirted, razzed, then flapped and rowed away,
Our tentative footsteps fumbling pebbles, dead

Shellfish, kelp, plastic bits…. A backtrack trek
To lunch should keep mild melancholy at
Bay, even if the random, Fifties-flick
Ambiance was what we’d come for. Or part of what.

Later, our huff-puff climb uphill for the ruins’
Majestic overviews, in guidebook blather.
One silver path across the waves to France,
And the long, incoming roar of faith from farther

East. (Or west: fanaticism’s viral.
Numbing to think about the human cost.)
Sunset. Time to unwind a dawdling spiral
Down to the mall—where it dawns on us we’re lost.

Suppose we ask this sporty adolescent.
“The station? Oh, no problem. Bang a right
Up there, then left, and on along the Crescent
About two minutes, and Bob’s your uncle, mate.”

You smiled, interpreted—but then you would,
Having yourself once been an “alien.”
(The conditional of ironic likelihood
Is hackneyed. Stop me if I use it again.)

Transit to London as night falls. First star.
Abrupt flashes of interrupting light
Light up your eyes, your lips and shimmering hair…
Friend. Nothing more. And Bob’s your uncle, mate.


Okla Elliott: There is a lot of debate about the effects of the internet on literature. I notice that you often make use of social media to raise philosophical questions about our culture and literature more specifically. And, of course, this interview and the poem reprints will be online. Could you offer readers a few pros and a few cons you see vis-à-vis the internet’s effect on writing and publishing?

Alfred Corn: The effect is enormous. Begin with the online presence of magazines devoted to poetry, blogs, the Gutenberg project, the Academy of American Poets websites, and Wikipedia, which gives you bios of new poets that might not be found in standard reference works. We’ve seen a mixed reaction to books of poetry published in e-formats, but I think more and more poetry will be read that way, as soon as Kindle and Nook learn how to avoid scrambling the lineation. E-books are convenient. Someone mentions a new book and makes it sound interesting, You acquire your electronic copy and begin reading immediately. It’s hard to beat the convenience of that.

As for social media, I only participate in Facebook, no Instagram or Twitter. But that one channel has brought me several real (as opposed to virtual) friendships I would not otherwise have had. Most of the three-thousand-plus Friends I have are online only, but a few I got to know there have become very important to me. Yes, I do initiate discussions on topics I’ve been thinking about—in politics, culture, history, literature and the other arts. I find it helps me clarify my thinking, and when there’s disagreement, it gives me the chance to strengthen my arguments or else abandon a point of view that has been shown to be false. Of course it feels good to carry the day when you are debating a contrary point of view, but, if the other argument ends up seeming truer, you’ve actually learned something you didn’t know before. And I have learned loads of things in these discussions. I have quite a few brilliant friends and am happy to benefit from their expertise. I’m not sure that participation on Facebook does much for book sales. So many people are advertising their books on the site, it gets to be overwhelming. A book ad per se doesn’t catch my eye. But if the author has said interesting things apart from the ad, I’m likely to look for the book.

OE: Politics seems to be something you care deeply about. How do you manage to bridge the gap between the aesthetic and the political? Do have any advice for younger writers trying to navigate those two minefields?

AC: I don’t see the two as being in conflict. Works of art are made with our passions and I’m one of those whose passions are stirred by, among other things, injustice. When I hear about something terrible that is happening to a person or to people, the anger becomes action in one or more forms: research into the facts, intense consideration of them, discussion with others, privately or in public; and sometimes all this leads to writing poems. Adrienne Rich’s assertion that “the personal is political” certainly seems true to me. If a woman or a person of color or someone Jewish or someone LGBT writes honestly about what their experience is, the result can’t fail to have political implications. I’ll go further: it often seems to me that forces in our culture work against our feeling anything very deeply, including pleasure. So any work of art that manages to encourage the non-superficial exploration of feeling, including the feeling of pleasure, is helpful to the body politic. There is so much unhappiness out there, witness our vast dependency on prescribed medication, alcohol, and drugs. If more people could learn how to get to their feelings and how to enjoy things, really find pleasure in them, it would have a political effect. So a political poem need not be the same thing as a placard. It can be much more subtle than that.

OE: Name several younger poets whose work you admire. What trends do you like and dislike in newer work you see?

AC: If you will allow it, I’ll do something mischievous. But also something fair and just! There is so much emphasis in our culture on novelty, on youth, who the new kid on the block is. With the result that very little attention is paid toward the seasoned veteran in the art. There are dozens of first-book prizes, but no seventh-book or tenth- book prizes. Think about the logistics. If someone has been working seriously for thirty or forty years, are they not more likely to have produced work that is more worthwhile than someone who’s been at it for three or four years? And yet the excitement always converges on the youngster. If you’ve been on the scene as long as I have, you’ve seen so many new kids on the block flare like a firework into temporary fame and then in five year’s time vanish, never to be spoken of again. So instead I’d like to mention the work of older poets you might not be familiar with: Marie Ponsot, Edward Field, Grace Schulman, John Matthias, Marilyn Hacker, Sam Hamill, Gary Soto, Marilyn Nelson and Doug Anderson. In the UK, Anne Stevenson, Danny Abse, Mimi Khalvati, Bernard O’Donoghue, Sean O’Brien, Don Paterson, Penelope Shuttle, Maurice Riordan, Gregory Wood, and David Constantine.

Now I’m feeling guilty, so I will name two first-book poets in the two countries whose poetry I’m familiar with. In the US, Lauren K. Alleyne and Will Schutt. In the UK, James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar. Am I off the hook?

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