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This review is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.

BURNT OFFERING ALFRED CORN, Present (Counterpoint)

From the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1976, Alfred Corn has striven for mastery of both the long poem and the short lyric while evincing intelligence, sophistication, and technical competence. His efforts have yielded mixed results: the ambitious and brilliant 'A Call in the Midst of the Crowd', the uneven but groundbreaking '1992', the overly self-conscious 'Notes from a Child of Paradise', a handful of perfect lyrics, and a host of forgettable ones. But each new collection delineates Corn's trajectory as a poet, a progression marked in particular by his efforts at the long poem and poetic sequence.

In Present, Corn's seventh volume, he has purged his work of most of the weaknesses that inflicted otherwise healthy poems in his earlier books. The painful syntactical contortions, the heavy-handed allusions, the overt references to his elite education, and the relentless focus on the minutiae of his life have worked against him in the past. However, in this volume, Corn seems determined to write himself out of his shortcomings.

Corn's poetry makes for pleasurable reading in part because it is unpredictable - a refreshing quality in a literary environment where most poets learn and perfect one type of poem and then fill book upon book with its clones. Although Corn is not as unpredictable as poets such as Merrill or Lowell, Present reveals an attempt to grow into new forms and subjects. His long preoccupation with literature, music, visual art, history, and travel establishes ...


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