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Sam Cornish, Boston’s first poet laureate, dies at 82

Mr. Cornish was an emissary of poetry, expanding readers’ horizons.Globe Staff/File 2008

As Boston’s first poet laureate, Sam Cornish championed the poetry “of where you are” — poems that touched readers physically and emotionally, politically and spiritually.

During his nearly seven-year tenure, he visited schoolchildren and senior centers, encouraging all he met to embrace the poems they were drawn to, whether written by “poets of the six-pack” or giants such as T.S. Eliot.

Mr. Cornish, who was 82 when he died Monday of complications from a stroke, wanted nothing less than to bring “poetry to people who do not read it.”

Along with conducting his duties as poetry’s ambassador from his office at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, he had published numerous books and taught generations of students, primarily at Emerson College.


On his many walks from his Brighton home, Mr. Cornish traveled Boston’s streets, watching the world through his thick glasses, missing nothing.

“He’d have his little camera with him, taking snapshots,” said Doug Holder, a poet and a lecturer in creative writing at Endicott College. “In a way, that’s how his poetry worked — with little snapshots, and by noting everything that happened in the streets.”

Mr. Cornish wanted everyone to follow that example and marvel at how commonplace surroundings offer uncommon inspiration.

“I picture people carrying around a camera for recording visually what they see around them and a notebook to jot down lines about what they’re seeing and what they are thinking about,” he told the Globe in January 2008, a couple of days after Mayor Thomas M. Menino named him Boston’s inaugural poet laureate. “I want people to notice the ordinary things and see that there’s something more beautiful than a sunset.”

His own work often drew from African-American history and his own life. In his poem “The South Was Waiting In Baltimore,” set in the city of his youth, he wrote:


I was poor even

then my shoes were holes

held together

by threats & good luck but I read Camus

& listened to Martin

Luther King

“Much poetry is written for a few people, just as much music is. But Sam Cornish’s poetry is, like the blues, accessible to many: to children as well as adults,” the writer Fanny Howe said in a Globe review of his 1971 collection “Generations.”

Mr. Cornish’s time in Boston’s affluent suburbs inspired a poem that appeared under different names in more than one of his books:

in Brookline

in Newton

where the blacks are poor

and the bombs

fall in other countries

it is polite

to hide your mother

when she is old and walking

after midnight

in a thin nightgown

Despite the visceral personal nature of such poetry, Mr. Cornish insisted in 2008 that “95 percent of it is not me at all. I use my life as a source, I represent the story through people who resemble — but who are not — me.”

To the end of his life, Mr. Cornish was unusually prolific.

“He was always working on manuscripts that in Sam’s case were piled everywhere, because he was constantly writing,” said his wife, Florella Orowan.

Yet for all his writing, “I think what Sam liked more than anything else was to be known as an emissary of poetry,” she added.

He relished his duties as poet laureate, finding people “who had written and had a lot of talent, but didn’t have the confidence or contacts to promote themselves,” his wife said. His outreach, she said, inspired many would-be writers to find ways to publish their works.


“He was most proud of that, as well as his tenure at Emerson College, developing courses in all kinds of diverse types of literature,” his wife said. “It excited him to find new talent. That’s why he loved teaching so much. That’s when he was happiest.”

Though Mr. Cornish’s poems often featured iconic African-Americans such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Robeson, his reading and cultural appetites ranged widely.

During National Poetry Month in April 2008, not long after his poet laureate appointment, he wrote that he was revisiting “the films of John Ford, America’s foremost cinematic poet; immersing myself in the language and speeches of Martin Luther King (and their wonderful Southern cadences and idiom); and observing very closely my fellow Bostonians, as they are a source of inspiration and material for my poetry.”

He was as likely to send readers to a bar where poets who held day jobs as carpenters gathered as he was to remind fans to visit the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Harvard Square. He collected comic books and devoured Rachael Ray’s cooking programs. And in interviews, he spoke of his fondness for TV shows such as “Dallas.”

“He was very genuine and very much a poet of the people. He gave everyone hope,” said Holder, who published Mr. Cornish’s 2011 collection “Dead Beats.”


On his website, Mr. Cornish penned eulogistic tributes to Louis Auchincloss, a novelist famous for writing about New York City’s aristocratic rich (“May I write about my life and experience as well as you did your own.”), and to Mr. Butch, who was famous in Boston for his panhandling and rhyming entreaties for spare change.

Mr. Cornish was named Boston’s poet laureate in 2008.Wendy Maeda/globe Staff/1987

Mr. Cornish was born in 1935 and grew up in Baltimore, the younger of two brothers who were raised by their mother, the former Sarah Keyes, after their father died when they were very young. He was drafted into the Army and served two years in the late 1950s — the first extended time during which he ate three square meals a day, he would later say.

He recounted his upbringing in “1935,” a 1990 book that also blended poetry and fiction.

Mr. Cornish, whose first marriage ended in divorce, was largely self-taught. He attended Goddard College and Northeastern University and taught widely in and around Boston. He was an instructor at Emerson for more than two decades.

He also was long associated with the New England Mobile Book Fair, formerly ran a bookstore in Coolidge Corner with his wife for many years, and had worked at what is now Brookline Booksmith. Legend has it that he once alphabetized the Booksmith’s fiction section backwards in order to place the work of writers he favored closer to the front of the store.

In 1972, he met Florella Orowan, a graphic artist, at a party at the home of the store’s founder, Marshall Smith. They married in 1976, and he credited her influence on his writing and his life, telling the Globe in 2008: “My wife has raised me well.”


She is Mr. Cornish’s only survivor. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Brighton Allston Congregational Church in Brighton.

For Mr. Cornish, writing offered an avenue to the wider world and a way to discover one’s identity. He brought that message to everyone he taught, among them students at a Roxbury school in 1971.

“I love words: spoken, written, or coming out of my pen or pencil,” he told the children. “It is the love of words that tells me about myself.”

Marquard can be reached at