Sharper than Words: The Poetry of Alfred Corn

by Equateur

To notions that modern verse is stern and inanimate stuff, the poetry of Alfred Corn is one hell of a rejoinder. With lines clear as kirsch and rollicking as fisticuffs, he reinvigorates the art form with the sort of heartfelt kinesis it fully deserves, even provoking a well-timed chuckle or three in the process. In celebration of his latest book of poems, Unions—not to mention his upcoming novel, Miranda’s Book—we asked Alfred if we might share a few of his poems. Lucky for us, he was kind enough to oblige. So order up another saucer of brandy and pull up a chair—this round is on the house.


Where do slackers go to get their jollies?
Where do they spend hours every day?
Where commit their most moronic follies?
In the Grünewald Café.

The dull-eyed types who sit alone? They’re boozers
Who dose their coffee with Grand Marnier.
No one ever tells them they are losers
In the Grünewald Café.

You hadn’t seen the mobster’s girlfriend. Tasty,
But are you sure her goon has gone away?
It’s not so wise to come on overhasty
In the Grünewald Café.

You sidle up and say, “Can I get you a drink?”
She’s shuffling cards and seems to want to play.
A smile means “Try your luck, guy,” don’t you think,
In the Grünewald Café?

Card game done, why not get down to cases?
Up close her blue-green eyes seem less blasé.
All around you fools are pulling faces—
In the Grünewald Café?

Yet when your hands touch, someone taps your shoulder.
It’s the waiter: “Sorry. Care to pay?”
A silence falls. Things suddenly feel colder
In the Grünewald Café.

The red-faced gangster, packing heat, approaches.
A rod’s blunt business end. You start to pray.
What made you hang out here with all these roaches
In the Grünewald Café?

How brief it is, that fiery burst of thunder!
Brief as life, brief as a winter day.
To croak because you made a stupid blunder
In the Grünewald Café!

And now this floating view down from the ceiling:
Blood soaks the spot where your dead body lay.
What song, what words express all that you’re feeling?
In the Grünewald Café.

First published in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014


Somebody keen on enterprise
Said naked was the best disguise.
Enterprise no one solvent loathes,
But truth and warmth begin with clothes.


Novocaine, novocaine,
Vladimir Dracula,
Bored with the nightshift and
Running up bills,

Opened a business called
“Family Dentistry,”
Flashing his pearlies as
Ads for his skills.

Alfred Corn’s tenth book of poems, titled Tables, appeared in January 2013 with Press53. He has also published a novel, titled Part of His Story; two collections of essays; and The Poem’s Heartbeat, a study of prosody. His work as a poet brought him the Guggenheim fellowship, the NEA, an Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and one from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught at Yale, Columbia, and UCLA. In 2014 Barrow Street Press published his eleventh volume of poems, titled Unions, and Eyewear will publish his second novel, titled Miranda’s Book.