Daniel Nathan Terry interviews Alfred Corn
Daniel Nathan Terry: Although these poems are unmistakably Alfred Corn poems, you are so very well-versed, and you draw, throughout the collection, from many poetic sources. For example, Eliot, Blake, and Herbert are referenced in the first three poems in Tables, and there are also echoes, at least for me, of Ted Hughes in the first two poems. Is there a single poet you find yourself referencing, not only in your new book but over your life as a poet, more often than any other? And if so, what is it about his or her work that remains such a deep well to draw from?
Alfred Corn: Allusion isn't always conscious, Daniel. I'm not aware of alluding to Blake and Eliot, but, yes, I did even footnote the Herbert citation in "Resources." Specifically, his poem "The Collar," which seemed to fit in my own poem with its "ouroboros" format, where circular things like a necklace and a feather collar on a pigeon are noted. As for influence in general, my approach has been to try to be influenced by every poet possible. If you choose just one poet, you'll end up producing a replica of that poet's effort. If you are influenced by dozens of them, the result will come out as you. As you've seen, I sometimes mention a precursor poet, and in my early books that was often Dante. Or if not Dante, Shakespeare. It does seem now as though the poems are mentioning their precursors less often. Instead of embalming them, I'm digesting them.
DNT: I love that distinction, the way it keeps them alive and a part of you. You are someone I have gone to (as have so many students of poetry) on the page, for formal issues, for insight into prosody. There are those who feel that poetry should no longer be concerned with received forms, or meter, or, God forbid, rhyme--unless the poet is somehow subverting it. I have even heard teachers of poetry forbid the use of rhyme and meter in their workshops--and not just for a limited time as a way of reaching, but forever. Tables manages to be firmly rooted in all things poetic, including metrics, forms, and rhyme, and yet it never feels outdated. How do you manage to be both traditional and innovative? What advice do you have for poets and teachers who wish to experiment with, experience, and teach the full-range of poetic forms and prosody?
Alfred Corn: I believe that practicing an art should be a mode of freedom. So it doesn't sit well with me when someone usurps authority and says, "I don't allow you to do that with your poetry." By what right do they tell me I can't? If we're dealing with meter and rhyme, it is true that only a few people ever master it. I would say you owe it to yourself to give it a try during the apprentice phase, but if you can't be really, really good at it, then it's wise to take other approaches. I used to be a rather clumsy metrist. It's embarrassing to say how many days, weeks, years, I devoted to becoming comfortable with meter and rhyme. I somehow felt I must do this--if only to prove to Frost that I wasn't playing tennis without the net. I'm glad I did it. Though the majority of my poems don't follow verse patterns, they still have been affected by the study of meter. Practice, practice, practice. But if it isn't serving you, put it aside. You can always come back to it later if drawn to do so.
DNT: These are very emotional poems. There is loss here--both personal and public. There is humor, and there are moments of unabashed nostalgia. Many critics and poets believe poetry should tread very lightly, if not run in the opposite direction, when it comes to emotion, to anything that could be called, or misconstrued as, that most dreaded of words--sentiment. That wasn't a question; was it? Would you care to comment anyway?
Alfred Corn: I don't warm to sentimentality in art. I suppose because it seems rehearsed, willed, generalized. But to emotion, yes, I do. Was it Arnheim the critic who said, "In art, there is no accuracy without emotion."? Granted, the contemporary reader is hedged round with all sorts of defenses and doesn't want to be duped. Sneer and snark are likely to please the majority of the contemporary audience more than what is heartfelt. The problem is separating out true feeling from false, inflated feeling. Our concern as artists is not what we should feel, the standard emotions associated with nice, civic, progressive people, but instead what we actually do feel. If feeling is balanced by observation of the external world, by humor, by a detached perspective on oneself, and yes by some irony, it most likely won't come across as sentimental. Sentimentality is a risk in art and life, but then so is cold-heartedness. If we must err on one side or another, then I say err in the direction of feeling.
DNT: I will quote those last lines, Alfred. I mean, other than here and in the future. Speaking of the future, there are those who believe poetry is dead or dying. What do you think?
Alfred Corn: Ah, yes, the rote journalistic title: "Is Poetry Dead?" "Is the Novel Dead?" "Is Theatre Dead?" "Is the Teddy Bear Dead?" Really, it's the most awful cliché, and I'm shocked editors still allow it. I think those journalists must be projecting; they should check their own pulse. Just as the people who say, "Nobody cares about poetry," are really saying "I don't care about it." Well, we never said they had to. But why should they project their apathy on to the rest of us? Another frequent alarmist article we nowadays see is the Oh-my-gosh-the-MFA-programs-are-turning-out-MFAs-by-the-thousands-every year. Both of these assertions can't be true, I mean, that nobody is interested and that we are graduating too many MFAs. There's a heck of a lot of interest in poetry out there. I travel a lot, and everywhere I go, small towns, big towns, there are always poetry readings, poetry groups, little magazines and small presses. This January in London a reading by the nominees for the Eliot Prize was held in Royal Festival Hall, and 2000 tickets were sold. For every person present there were several who regretted not being there. Everything that could be done to destroy poetry has been done: putting it in the least accessible part of a bookstore, not reviewing it in the major media, not listing it in the "Best 100 Books of the Year," not paying people who write it, and so on. And it's still here, apparently invincible. Now if we look at contemporary serious music or choreography, there we do find small audiences and little interest. Many more people read a book of poetry last year than saw a new work of dance or heard a new piece of serious music. But people don't go around saying, "No one cares about modern choreography" or "Nobody listens to new pieces of modern music." Poetry has become the scapegoat of the arts, and I don't know the reason why.
DNT: "Poetry has become the scapegoat of the arts." Beautifully put, and I think you're right. I know several emerging poets who worry about poetry's future as much as they worry about their own. If you could offer emerging poets one piece of advice, what would it be?
Alfred Corn: I would say, Care about your art, but don't let it take over and run the show. Put life first. Don't ruin your life for the sake of your art. Living well (and by that I don't mean oysters and champagne at the Ritz) is the first priority. Value what is truly valuable. If you eat, sleep, drink, walk, run your career twenty-four/seven, something is wrong. Never sacrifice a loving human relationship for your career. Reserve some solitude and rest for yourself. If you don't, both the life and the work will suffer. Also, don't preach. (Chuckle.)
DNT: I think we should all have that tattooed somewhere. Well, maybe a shorter version of it. Brilliant advice. If you could pick only one poem from Tables to live on long after you and I, which poem would it be and why?
Alfred Corn: Never ask a mom or dad which of their children they love best. Sometimes it's the runt of the litter, just because they know that one needs love the most.
DNT: Fair enough, and I should have known better than to ask a question I would never answer. Then I'll quote one of my favorites, the opening poem:
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
So tender. It stays with me. I have no doubt that Tables will have a long and beautiful life. Thanks for writing it and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Alfred.
Alfred Corn: And thank you, Daniel. Is it all right if I offer congratulations for your book Waxwings? How do you like the sound of the term "colleague"? Or maybe "fellow salt mine worker"? Maybe that comes closer.
DNT: It is more than all right (glad there are no cameras--one of the many upsides of the page). And I'll answer, gratefully and happily, to both. Thanks again for your generosity, Alfred.
*"Horizontal" is reprinted here courtesy of Press 53, publisher of Alfred Corn's latest book, Tables.