Biographical critics have proposed that artists always have in their background a psychological wound that explains why they choose (if it is a matter of choice) a vocation sourced in emotional displacements. If this is true, I can cite a fact that might qualify: the death of my mother on my second birthday, an event that could only have been traumatic even though I have no conscious memories of it. Art is made not solely with emotion, however. Knowledge and skill also come into the process, and, after that, the chances that bring us to the right place at the right time, where we meet the right people. It’s not possible to know how many artists having a suitably emotional psychology and an education sufficient to give them the knowledge and technical skill needed for artistic production even so did not emerge because they were in the wrong place or the wrong time, and therefore did not meet people who could help them find their way. I was lucky.
After a few years in elementary school, it became clear that I was unusually good at my subjects. From that time on, I expected to make and did make the highest grades given in my classes. I had learned to read a little from my older sisters and tended to follow along with whatever texts they might have in hand. I had a taste of Beatrix Potter, The Secret Garden, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series, and Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books. A bit later I discovered the Grimm fairy tales and Greek mythology. Still later I began reading Poe’s tales and reread them many times, even though some of them filled me with dread. I also read The Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels. This will sound quaint nowadays, but we had a family custom of reading “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve, just before we went to sleep; later on, I added to that an annual rereading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Of course there was Bible reading at church, and part of every Sunday School lesson was memorizing a few verses of the King James translation. Some of these I still have by heart.
In high school, I always looked forward to English classes and remember reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar during my freshman year with something like awe. We were required to memorize several passages from it and I still know them, along with several of his sonnets. In the next years I read Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, and these fascinated me as well.
Our English textbook also contained selections from English and American poetry, and I recall feeling special admiration for Keats, Emily Dickinson, and Whitman. At one point I even bought a little paperback of Whitman’s poetry, one of the “Laurel” series, under Richard Wilbur’s directorship. Poems rendering passional and sexual feeling made a deep impression on me, and, when I read the section from the second edition of Leaves of Grass that begins, “Hours continuing long, sore, and heavy-hearted,” a wild surmise shot through me: Was it possible that this poet, too….? One day our English teacher asked the students which genre they preferred, prose or poetry? I was the only class member raising his hand to vote for the chosen genre of Shakespeare and Whitman.
I soon found my way to Louis Untermeyer’s anthology of contemporary American verse (no longer especially contemporary by the time I got to it) and read through the selections with fascination. I liked almost everything indiscriminately–Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Edna Saint-Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Conrad Aiken, H.D., at least some of Eliot, very little of Pound, but all the selections from Wallace Stevens. Untermeyer’s was the early, quasi-Imagiste Stevens, and I’ve learned to value his later poems even more. Yet his stately cadences were, as soon as I read them, forever engraved in memory: “Beauty is momentary in the mind–/The fitful tracing of a portal;/But in the flesh it is immortal.” True, there were also poems in a lighter, more fanciful vein, “Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan/ Of tan and henna hackles, halt!” or “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The strange thing is that Stevens’s reputation in that day was relatively small. I don’t remember any poem of his being taught, a few years later, in my college English courses. The emphasis was all on Eliot, whom I sometimes liked (“The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”) and sometimes didn’t (“The Waste Land”). My love for Stevens stayed in hiding, like some embarrassing, childish enthusiasm.
I also read prose fiction: Silas Marner, David Copperfield, Vanity Fair, Of Human Bondage, East of Eden. There was no method to my reading. I would go to the small, local Carnegie Library and simply take out whatever was on the shelf. Exactly what percentage of these works’ content I grasped, who can say? Considering that I worked my way through the entire Bible, perhaps it’s also credible that, at age fifteen or sixteen, I read every page of War and Peace, which took a year, off and on. Again, I couldn’t follow the half its intentions, but characters like Natasha and Anatole made a lasting impression, and especially Pierre, with whom I identified as another well-meaning and intelligent but bumbling outsider.
I began foreign language study with Latin in my freshman and sophomore years, then French in my junior and senior years. There was something magical about reading another language; no one had to persuade me to make the effort. I would have liked to take more Latin, but our school only offered two years of it. On the other hand, I especially liked French because, in addition to reading, you could also speak it, which was a new form of entertainment. A piece of luck for me was that the local college, Valdosta State, engaged a native Frenchman, a Breton named Jean Guitton, who then came to address our class. He it was who taught me to get right the pronunciation of the French u and r, those stumbling blocks for most beginning students. My classmates regarded me with a mixture of disdain and envy since no one else could even come close; but then, to us Americans, foreign languages are so weird.
Lest this all sound too grand—the formative years of Little Lord Intelloroy—I should also report that I read my parent’s Book-of-the-Month Club (or was it Reader’s Digest Condensed Books?) selections, forgotten Fifties best-sellers like The Robe and Marjorie Morningstar and Peyton Place. As a good white southerner, I read Gone with the Wind, and (even at age eleven) understood all of it, though I hadn’t been sensitized to its fundamental racist assumptions. I thought Margaret Mitchell must have loved the character Mammy. Perhaps she did, but it was love unaccompanied by much understanding.
Another weekly item of reading was Life magazine, whose articles I scrutinized (or, at least, its famous photographs), sometimes shaking my head in disbelief at, for example, a piece on the Beat Generation. Which surely had to be exaggerated, no one could ever want to live like that, not really! I also remember a cover showing an explosion of the hydrogen bomb. That may be the point at which it was impressed on me that America had a mortal enemy in the Soviet Union; and that nuclear war could destroy us all. In a fundamentalist culture, this eventuality was conflated with the eschatology outlined in the prophecies of Revelation. The Bible said God would send a rain of fire to put an end to our sinful world, and here at last the means of doing so had become available. (Did that imply, then, that atheist Communism was ordained as God’s specially appointed servant and executioner? The question was never raised.) Around the same time, I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which made the actuality of nuclear destruction horribly and concretely available to imagination, the source of several nightmares and an underlying dread that ran through all my young adult years. Not only was I forced to know at an early age that I was going to die, I now knew that human civilization itself was mortally endangered.
Hollywood’s dream machines come even to the smallest towns, dispensing tragedy, triumph, and laughter. Hardly a week went by that we didn’t see whatever movie (we called them “pictures”) the Ritz theater was showing. When I was little, I went on Saturday afternoons by myself and got to hear Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yodel and see his animal-skin loincloth. I saw westerns with Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, and Roy Rogers, the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, Abbot and Costello, and the Three Stooges. When I was older, the family usually went together, say, on a Friday evening. We took in most of the classics of the decade, On the Waterfront, Marty, All About Eve, Sabrina, Written on the Wind, Picnic, Psycho, North by Northwest, The Seven Year Itch, East of Eden, Pillow Talk, Cinderella, How to Marry a Millionaire, High Noon, Bus Stop, and endless numbers of musicals, including Showboat and Singing in the Rain. The only movies I didn’t like were war pictures, excepting From Here to Eternity and Stalag 17, which lacked the bloody trench-warfare scenes I found so dull and undramatic.
In my high school you could be exempted from Physical Education courses if you signed up for the student chorus. Dreading four years of excruciating ineptitude at base-, basket-, or football, I took up music, one of the luckiest decisions of my life. Apparently I had inherited some of my mother’s musical talent; I could sing and soon learned to read music by sight, supplying sound for the notes with my somewhat underpowered baritone. I loved the sensuous, all-embracing quality of music, its quickening rhythm, its access to otherwise unreachable heights of ecstasy or depths of sorrow. I acquired a little portable record player and began checking out classical LPs along with books at the Carnegie Library. At one point, I asked my parents to sponsor piano lessons; they refused. It was expensive, you know, we had no piano, I would soon get bored with it, just as my sisters had. My father probably also thought that this was just one more “unmanly” pursuit that should be discouraged. I was bitterly disappointed, aware even then how paradoxical my situation was—instead of parents pleading with a child to learn to play the piano, here was a child begging his parents for lessons, and being refused.
So I made up my mind to see what you could learn on your own. Whenever a piano was around, I made tentative explorations among its keys; got books from the library about music and music theory; learned about meter, rhythm, key signatures and harmony. And I began to write little pieces, singing as much as I could of them, playing some of the notes on piano, when I could get near one. It was frustrating, since I couldn’t really perform any of my compositions, couldn’t give them the ear test. At one point my stepmother came into my room and, seeing a piece of staff paper with notes marked on it, asked me what I was doing. “Writing music,” I answered. “But how can you write music, when you can’t even play the piano?” “I hear it in my head.” (Which was partly true.) At this she gave me a puzzled, disbelieving look and left the room.
My curious occupation was reported to the rest of the family, who wondered what on earth it could possibly mean. I had my revenge: At some point I showed a keyboard piece to our church organist, who was also our choir director. She and I were friends because I also sang in the church choir. Just out of music school, she was pleased to find someone who adored the art as much as she did. So she made a few suggestions for revisions, came up with a series of organ stops to use for the piece, and played it as a prelude at church one Sunday morning. My parents were astonished; but it was an important step in their growing realization that I was not an average child, that I had unusual propensities. During my last year of high school, my father sponsored singing lessons for me, which made up for past denials to a degree. But I didn’t have a professional-quality voice, just a good addition to a chorus. Meanwhile, there was still no way for me to play the compositions I wrote.
In 1961 I began my first year at Emory University. I elected French literature as my major, a degree requiring study of German and Italian language as well. A major discovery resulting from those studies was the poetry of Dante and Rilke, both important influences on what I would later write. Among other courses I enjoyed was an introduction to philosophy taught by John Wilcox, who took a friendly interest in me after he read a few of my assigned papers. At some point he invited me to dinner—an occasion to meet his wife Patricia, whom I soon learned to call “Pat.” She was a poet, if not much published then, and had known other published poets like James Dickey, Edgar Bowers, and Turner Cassity. We began to see each other constantly; she became a sort of mentor, an unpaid tour-guide to contemporary poetry. She had a special admiration for Roethke, and I came to share it. We exchanged poems, my few, haphazard efforts against her own more accomplished ones. She introduced me to Turner Cassity, who couldn’t, I’m afraid, muster much interest in a fairly callow undergraduate amateur, and I returned the compliment of polite indifference; but I did read the first book he had published in the Wesleyan series. For reasons unclear to me, my interest shifted to prose fiction more than to poetry. Possibly that was the result of reading masterpieces of prose fiction I hadn’t gotten to before, including Don Quixote, Austen, Melville, Kafka, Conrad, and Thomas Mann. It may also be that the fashion of the day was for Eliot and Pound, whose approach to poetry was uncongenial to me. I took a short fiction workshop with H.E. Francis—the only creative writing course I ever enrolled in. It would be nearly a decade before I returned to poetry.
For graduate studies in French literature, I was accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia. I settled on the last because it was located in New York, where I’d wanted to live for a long time. Why? Because it was the capital of the arts in America. During the years of graduate study my interest in an academic career began to fade, in proportion to an increasing devotion to the arts. My Fulbright fellowship for a year of research in Paris only served to firm up literary ambitions. The work I did there (on the influence relationship between Melville and Camus) never resulted in the dissertation I was meant to write, which would have completed the PhD. degree requirements. I abandoned my studies without it, and also with no concrete plan other than to try to be a writer.
In my second year of graduate school I happened to meet Edmund White, who, though he hadn’t yet published a book, was extraordinarily well read and actively engaged in writing. I found him fascinating, a brilliant and witty conversationalist. We formed an instant friendship, based partly on our shared sexual orientation. His recently completed autobiographical novel was being sent to publishers, but in the 1960s American LGBT literature was in its infancy and had to face considerable resistance. Edmund’s efforts amount to literary pioneering. He was the first person of intellect I’d ever met whom I couldn’t best in an argument, partly because in almost any discussion he always preferred to take the adversary position. He seemed to know arguments on every side of a question and had excellent debating skills. He became a sort of mentor, pointing me toward this or that writer, taking (to me) strange positions such as the idea that Joyce was overrated and the F. Scott Fitzgerald was a great novelist. As a convinced francophile, I urged him to read Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman, so that he would get beyond a “nineteenth century approach to fiction.” I was sold on the idea of a purely innovative or avant-garde approach to art—after all, hadn’t the greatest artists always been pioneers in their genres? He listened politely and offered counterarguments. Later on I would see that my rather doctrinaire opinions had nevertheless had an effect.
In October of 1969, Ed White had introduced me to the poet Richard Howard, who seemed willing to take on an apprentice—a service he has performed for scores of aspiring poets and novelists over the past decades. My efforts at writing fiction hadn’t come to much, so I took up poetry again. Richard was forbearing and receptive, offering suggestions for reading, including the work of James Merrill, which was unknown to me. Alone with America, Richard’s critical study of contemporary American poetry, appeared shortly after we met, a fascinating introduction to authors I hadn’t yet read, like John Ashbery and John Hollander. One evening in the spring of 1970 (not long after the announcement that his volume of dramatic monologues Untitled Subjects had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize), Richard took me to meet a professor-critic friend of his, who turned out to be David Kalstone. But we didn’t see each other again until much later, after Ed White had become a close friend of his. David was an English professor at Rutgers and a regular poetry reviewer for The New York Times. He knew a number of poets, including James Merrill, John Ashbery, and Adrienne Rich, all of whom I came to admire. We developed a warm attachment, with David acting as a sort of channel of sensibility and knowledge—not to mention worldly experience. I showed him new poems; he offered gentle reactions to them. We read Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens aloud and discussed their merits. We attended performances of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, about which David had expert opinions. Possibly we were reenacting the ancient Greek ideal of paideia, in at least in some of its aspects. On the poetry front, we agreed that Bishop was the greatest living American poet, with Lowell, Merrill, Ashbery and Rich not far behind. (David published a collection of essays about those very poets a few years later, using the Balanchinian title Five Temperaments.) If someone as knowledgeable as David liked me it seemed there was a faint possibility I might eventually become a writer myself. Also, it seemed that the quality of the poems I was writing had improved.
In January of 1974, Poetry magazine, under Daryl Hine’s editorship, published some poems of mine, which seemed a big step at the time. Later in the year, Howard Moss accepted a poem for The New Yorker. Maybe, just maybe, I was a poet after all. In fact, two years later, my first book All Roads at Once appeared. After that, I never looked back.
Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems, two novels and three collections of essays. 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. In 2017 he was inducted into the Georgia Writers’ Hall of Fame.