Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
More than any of his contemporaries, Gregory Nunzio Corso lived the true Beat life. Brought up in the slums of New York City, with practically no formal education, Corso was, in the words of the poet-critic Kenneth Rexroth, “a genuine naif. A real wildman, with all the charm of a hoodlum . . . a wholesome Antonin Artaud.”
He was born in New York City to poor Italian immigrant parents, Fortunato Samuel and Michelina (Colloni) Corso. His mother died when he was a child, and about this loss Corso wrote: “I do not know how to accept love when love is given me. I needed that love when I was motherless young and never had it.” His unhappy childhood was marked by his being sent to an orphanage at eleven and to the Children’s Observation Ward at Bellevue Hospital when he was thirteen. At that time, Corso later wrote, “I was alone in the world—no mother and my father was at war . . . to exist I stole minor things and to sleep I slept on the rooftops and in the subway.” In summarizing his thirteenth year, however, Corso insists that although he went “through a strange hell that year” of 1943, it is “such hells that give birth to the poet.”
After three years on the streets of New York, having lived with five different foster parents, Corso was arrested with two friends while attempting to rob a store. Instead of being sent to a boys’ reformatory, Corso was sentenced to three years at Clinton Prison, where he began to write poetry. According to Corso, prison “proved to be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.” He even dedicated his second book of poems, Gasoline, to “the angels of Clinton Prison” who forced him to give up the often “silly consciousness of youth” to confront the world of men.
After his release from prison in 1950, Corso took on a number of short-term jobs, including manual labor from 1950 to 1951, reporting for the Los Angeles Examiner from 1951 to 1952, and sailing on Norwegian vessels as a merchant seaman from 1952 to 1953. He also spent some time in Mexico and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was encouraged in his writing of poetry by an editor of the Cambridge Review and where, with the support of several Harvard students, he published his first book of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems, in 1955.
Between that time and his departure for Europe in 1959, Corso attracted widespread attention with a series of poetry readings he gave in the East and Midwest. Following the 1955 publication of The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems and his meeting with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder a year later, his poetry began to appear often in such publications as Esquire, Partisan Review, Contact, and the Evergreen Review. In 1958, Lawrence Ferlinghetti first published Corso’s famous poem “Bomb” as a broadside at his City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, as well as the book Gasoline in the same year. After an extended tour of England, France, Germany, Italy, and Greece, Corso returned to the United States in 1961. During the following three years, he was hired to teach poetry for a term at New York State University at Buffalo. In November, 1963, he married Sally November.
For Corso, the 1960’s were marked by a divorce and more travel in Europe. After the publication of The Happy Birthday of Death in 1960, which included such celebrated poems as “Bomb,” “Power,” “Army,” and the award-winning “Marriage,” the work that he did in the following decade was very uneven, frequently bordering on flippancy and sentimentality, such as some of the poems in Long Live Man and The Mutation of the Spirit. Elegiac Feelings American and Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit were published a decade apart, appearing in 1970 and 1981, respectively. The increased intervals between offerings indicate a shift in Corso’s attitude toward the relationship between the poet and his poems. During the salad days of the Beat movement, Corso had taken his cue from his contemporaries (notably Kerouac) by rejecting any mode of writing except pure spontaneity, but his later poems are much more carefully revised and tightly crafted works. This can be seen in the newer poems that appear in Mindfield.
Corso traveled widely over the course of his lifetime, in Mexico and Eastern Europe as well as Western Europe, and in addition to teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he taught in Boulder, Colorado. He was married three times and had five children. In his later years, he became somewhat reclusive, taking part in the occasional tribute or event. He made an appearance at the funeral of Ginsberg in 1996 to say good-bye to his old friend. Ill health forced Corso to move from New York City to Minneapolis, where he lived with a daughter. He died in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, on January 17, 2001, at the age of seventy.
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