On Frank O’Hara’s “Cornkind”

When people think of Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems (1964), no one thinks of “Cornkind,” but on a rainy day in divinity school when I was remembering the family at church who told me that if I came out, church people wouldn’t want me around their children, “Cornkind” helped younger gay me feel toward a future beyond compulsory heterosexuality. [1] I played hooky and walked through the park to memorize it.

O’Hara is known for his chatty, campy style, obscure references, and a frank approach to sexuality. “Cornkind” is a good example of all of this. Its speaker waxes pensive on fertility, futurity, pleasure, and intimacy, apparently inspired by corn. The self-interruptions, digressions, and dropped names conjure gay alternatives to procreative futures, as I will elaborate.

It begins:

So the rain falls
it drops all over the place
and where it finds a little rock pool
it fills it up with dirt
and the corn grows

The rain falls “all over the place,” but the corn grows only where the rain makes the rocky ground fertile: this is a faggier Parable of the Sower (see: the synoptic gospels). “A green Bette Davis” appears below the growing corn. Davis, camp icon, played the starring role in a 1945 screen adaptation of a play by Emlyn Williams called The Corn is Green, about an English school teacher in a Welsh mining town. According to one reviewer, “Miss Davis gives a clear and warm conception of the middle-aged spinster who throws her dominating zeal into the patient cultivation of the mind of a Welsh mining lad. . . . she conveys a finished impression of a woman of intellectual command whose deeper emotional responses are selflessly suppressed.” [2] Davis plays a “dominating” and “emotionally suppressed spinster”—an archetypical infertile woman—who nonetheless cultivates the mind of a young man. Gays of O’Hara’s era love a suppressed woman. (See: David Halperin’s How to Be Gay.) [3]

Davis is reading “[a] volume of William Morris.” Morris was, among other things, a poet and novelist. One of his novels, News from Nowhere (a Marxist, “utopian romance” published in 1890), contains a description of utopic motherhood. The disease of Idleness has been nearly eradicated from this Nowhere society, so “a mother has no longer any mere sordid anxieties for the future of her children.” It’s beyond speculative to suggest that this text was on O’Hara’s mind, but it’s a possibility that allows a relationship between Morris and what precedes (the growth of corn, Bette Davis as spinster) and what follows: the speaker’s sudden outburst in an apostrophe to fertility.

oh fertility! beloved of the Western world
you aren’t so popular in China
though they fuck too

Maybe O’Hara picked up a newspaper while flaneur-ing about and read a headline. Although the One Child Policy wouldn’t come until 1980, Mao Zedong began to advocate limiting reproduction in the late 1950s. [4] As the focus of the speaker’s musings on fertility moves from the botanical and agricultural to the human, the question of pleasure arises through the bifurcation of reproduction and sexual pleasure—a comparison cemented by alliteration: fertility vs. fuck. The splitting of procreation from sex is also, of course, the axe gays take to the Family and the Child. (See: Lee Edelman’s No Future or many works of moral theology.) [5]

The themes that emerge in the first stanza now become intimately located within the “I” of the speaker:

Do I really want a son?
to carry on my idiocy past the Horned Gates
poor kid                     staggering load

The Horned Gates are one of two gates found in the Odyssey (and, later, the Aeneid). The ivory gate is that through which false dreams travel—dreams, Penelope says, whose “message bears no fruit”; the gate of horn delivers dreams and shades “fraught with truth.”[6] The speaker’s “idiocy”—a distancing of himself from his legacy—is a heavy burden for the imagined heir. Through learning to bear this burden, the speaker imagines, the son will grow stronger and manlier until he can hoist all of his father’s idiocy and the Horned Gates themselves—the inherited dreams of his father—into “a future of his choice.” This is the dream, isn’t it? That your progeny carry forward your legacy while becoming who they want to be—do what they want to do—despite any ways your own legacy is unbearable? But…

but what of William Morris
what of you Million Worries
what of Bette Davis in

what of Hart Crane
what of phonograph records and gin

What of your favorite poems and songs? What of your pet anxieties? And most importantly, what of Bette Davis in those films you’ve been imagining her in? AN EVENING WITH WILLIAM MORRIS and THE WORLD OF SAMUEL GREENBERG are not real films. But imagine, the opening lines of the poem could also be an opening scene: Rain falls all over the place. Rock pool fills up with dirt. Thrilling corn growth montage. Bette Davis sits under corn, reading book with “Morris” on spine. The first stanza is not only a compact exploration of different shades of fertility, it is a film. The speaker is watching one of his favorite films when his mind begins to wander, and he thinks of his own future.

In his fond imaginings, through a small constellation of names, the speaker situates himself as the inheritor of a poetic tradition, a by-now familiar queer move. In an essay on Washington Irving and the bachelor, a proto-queer type like the spinster, Michael Warner says, “Literature will have to provide for ‘the after part of existence’. . . [i]t plays the role that Irving otherwise associates with marriage: it provides. . . the life-orienting horizon of futurity.” [7] “Cornkind” illustrates this in the interactions between the seemingly random names that pepper the poem. Lytle Shaw writes of O’Hara, “Unrecognizable references. . . can have a variety of functions other than providing for raw material for abstract identification.” [8] Here is one such function: through invocations of Samuel Greenberg and Hart Crane, the poem builds a literary form of filiation.

Greenberg was (and is) a fairly unknown poet. Born in Austria in 1893, he immigrated to New York as a child with his large family, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1912, and died in 1917. Greenberg was prolific, although he was never published during his lifetime. His poems are marked by strange syntax and spellings, infused with wonder. After Greenberg died, Hart Crane borrowed five of his forty notebooks filled with poetry and drawings. Crane reworked some of Greenberg’s language—occasionally good chunks of it—into his own poems. [9]

Greenberg’s cryptic poem “Immortality” begins and ends with these four lines:

But only to be memories of spiritual gate
Letting us feel the difference from the real
Are not limits the sooth to formulate
Theories thereof, simply our ruler to feel? [10]

Crane’s poem “Emblems of Conduct” rewrites Greenberg poems. It concludes: “But only to build memories of spiritual gates” (emphasis mine). [11] The spiritual gates reappear, moving from memory past in Greenberg to memory future in Crane. O’Hara continues this shared architectural project by placing Greenberg and Crane in his litany of what-ofs one after the other, in succession, while carrying on the very gates into a future of his choice—like the speaker’s imagined son. The gates are passed from poet to poet, poem to poem, into the present and the future. The brief life of an obscure poet becomes THE WORLD OF SAMUEL GREENBERG. It’s so haphazard and ornate and perfect that I wonder if I’m reading the poem too closely. But it’s all there.

The litany ends with a questioning of the logic of inheritance and belonging itself, moving from literature to flesh: “What of ‘what of’”. The speaker asks, does futurity through fertility render present pleasures futile? These concerns finally give way in the face of a previously unmentioned “you”:

you are of me, that’s what
and that’s the meaning of fertility
hard and moist and moaning

The poem begins with rain and ends with the fluids of lovers. Has this whole thing been a post-fuck performance? In his brief reading of “Cornkind,” Shaw writes, “the poem moves from fertility’s ‘of’ as heterosexual reproduction or filiation to ‘of’ as something like inhabitation, coexistence, or alliance.” [12] The poem’s payoff is a subtle shift in prepositional signification: fertility not as the promise of a future but as you and me, here and now, breeding.

The speaker of “Cornkind” isn’t, in the end, dying to have kids, and lest we forget, Jesus wasn’t either. He died a virgin, and was presumably also raised from the dead a virgin, unless the harrowing of hell was the first Rumspringa. O’Hara and Jesus agree: worry not about tomorrow, darling. Fish for men.


[1] Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems, The Pocket Poets Series, No. 19 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964), 42–43.

[2] Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; Corn Is Green,’ Starring Bette Davis in Role Played on Stage by Ethel Barrymore, Opens at Hollywood Theatre Colonel Blimp,” New York Times, March 30, 1945.

[3] David Halperin, How To Be Gay (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012). All of it, but particularly “Part Four: Mommie Queerest.”

[4] Wang Feng, Martin King Whyte, and Yong Cai, “Challenging Myths About China’s One-Child Policy,” China Journal 74.1 (July 2015), 146–49.

[5] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[6] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 19.630–38.

[7] Michael Warner, “Irving’s Posterity,” ELH 67.3 (2000), 784.

[8] Lytle Shaw, Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, Contemporary North American Poetry Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), 30. Shaw writes, “in O’Hara’s work… the thematization of temporary queer families in the present (positioned in a parodic relationship to more normative familial structures) often gains momentum from a reading of literary history that attempts to unsettle both the idea of ‘Lineage’ and the constellation of established literary fathers known as ‘The Tradition,’” 6. My reading follows Shaw.

[9] For an account of Greenberg and Crane, see Samuel R. Delany’s “Atlantis Rose . . . : Some Notes on Hart Crane” in Longer Views: Extended Essays (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 174–87.

[10] Samuel Greenberg, Poems by Samuel Greenberg, edited by Harold Holden and Jack McManis (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947), 62. With thanks to Grey Matter Books in New Haven.

[11] Hart Crane, The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Marc Simon (New York: Liveright, 2001), 5. See Allen Tate’s preface to Poems by Samuel Greenberg, in which Tate calls Crane’s borrowing from Greenberg “quite legitimate.” Tate says Crane “had turned against ‘Emblems of Conduct’ some time before 1926” and would not have published it had Malcolm Cowley and Tate himself “not talked him into including it. But he was not happy about it” (xiii).

[12] Shaw, 36.

Samuel Ernest lives in New Haven, CT. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at Yale and an assistant editor at The Yale Review. With David Trinidad, he is collecting the correspondence and prose of Tim Dlugos. His website is samuelernest.com.