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Sam Cornish

(b. 1935)


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(b. 1935), poet, essayist, editor of children's literature, photographer, educator, and figure in the Black Arts movement.

Born into urban poverty in Baltimore, Maryland, on 22 December 1935, Samuel James Cornish was the youngest of the two sons of Herman and Sarah Cornish. From his older brother Herman he learned early the lessons of the street, which he later would incorporate into a street-tough observancy in his poetry.

Cornish served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps (1958–1960), then returned to Baltimore, where he published two poetry collections—In This Corner: Sam Cornish and Verses (1961) and People Beneath the Window (1964). While working at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, he became part of Baltimore's political and literary underground, self-publishing a sixteen-page pamphlet entitled Generations and Other Poems (1964). A subsequent edition of Generations (1966) appeared when Cornish was editing Chicory, a literary magazine by children and young adults in the Community Action Target Area of Baltimore. Lucian W. Dixon and Cornish edited a selection from the magazine entitled Chicory: Young Voices from the Black Ghetto (1969). In 1968 Cornish won the Humanities Institute of Coppin State College Poetry Prize for his “influence on the Coppin poets” and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Soon poets as diverse as Maxine Kumin, Clarence Major, and Eugene Redmond would acknowledge Cornish's significance.

By 1970 Cornish was represented in the LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal anthology Black Fire (1968) as well as in the Clarence Major collection New Black Poetry (1969). He reconsidered his early poems of black historicized kinship, restructuring them into the Beacon Press's Generations (1971). After a brief stay in Boston, Cornish returned to Baltimore to work in secondary school and college writing programs. While there, Cornish published Sometimes (1973) with Cambridge's Pym-Randall Press. Teaching poetry in the schools led to several children's books: Your Hand in Mine (1970), Grandmother's Pictures (1974), and My Daddy's People (1976).

Returning to Boston in the mid-1970s, Cornish worked with the Educational Development Corporation and attended Goddard College in Vermont. He appeared in a host of new anthologies, from George Plimpton and Peter Ardery's American Literary Anthology (1970) and Harry Smith's Smith Poets (1971), to Ted Wilentz and Tom Weatherly's Natural Process (1972) and Arnold Adoff's One Hundred Years of Black Poetry (1972). Sam's World (1978) continued the historical and genealogical project of Generations.

Since the 1980s Cornish has divided his time between bookselling and teaching creative writing and literature at Emerson College in Boston. Songs of Jubilee: New and Selected Poems, 1969–1983 (1986) recasts earlier work into sequences of a historical and biographical nature. His autobiographical narrative, 1935: A Memoir (1990), blends poetry and prose into a montage of twentieth-century history. The poems of Folks Like Me (1993) offer political and cultural portraits of African Americans from the depression to the early 1960s. Current projects include the next volume of his autobiography, 1955, and a critical study of Langston Hughes.

Jon Woodson, “Sam Cornish,” in DLB, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 64–69.C. K. Doreski, “Kinship and History in Sam Cornish's Generations,” Contemporary Literature 33 (Winter 1992): 665–687.

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Subjects: Literature.


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