Two strains pervade the poetry of Gregory Corso: the Dionysian force of emotion and spontaneity, and a preoccupation with death. From Corso’s early poems to his later work, one finds the recurring persona of the clown as an embodiment of the Dionysian force, as opposed to the Apollonian powers of order, clarity, and moderation. The clown’s comedy, which has its root in the very fact of being “a poet in such a world as the world is today,” ranges from the mischievous laughter of the child to the darker, often somber irony of the poet-in-the-world. This exuberance is bound up with the rebelliousness and political activism of the 1960’s, as is evident in one of Corso’s early and most widely anthologized poems, “Bomb.” In this poem—typographically shaped like a bomb in its original 1958 publication by City Lights—Corso confronted the unalterable reality of the nuclear age and his inability “to hate what is necessary to love.”
A large part of Corso’s Dionysian spirit is romantic—and Corso is certainly in the tradition of Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He sees the child as a pure, spontaneous Dionysian being: always naturally perceptive, always instinctively aware of sham, pretense, and deception. Such perception runs throughout American literature, from the character of Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) to the child who “went forth” in Walt Whitman to Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novel of 1884 to Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Similarly, in Corso’s poetry, the child (particularly the self of the poet’s recollection) stands for pure Dionysian perception without the intervening deceptions of rules and conventions.
The other strain in Corso’s poetry is a passionate concern with the mystery of death, a theme that is more pervasive in his work than any other, with the exception of the pure experience of childhood. Indeed, the intermingling of these two motifs essentially characterizes the Dionysian spirit of Corso—as well as the art of the Beat generation in general. In a poem dedicated to one of his heroes, entitled “I Met This Guy Who Died” (Mindfield), Corso writes about a drunken outing with his friend Jack Kerouac. Taken home to see Corso’s newborn child, Kerouac moans: “Oh Gregory, You brought up something to die.” “How I love to probe life,” Corso once wrote in an autobiographical essay. “That’s what poetry is to me, a wondrous prober. . . . It’s not the metre, or measure of a line, a breath; not ’law’ music, but the assembly of great eye-sounds placed into an inspired measured idea.”
In an early collection, Gasoline, Corso solidifies his poetic identity in a directly autobiographical poem, “In the Fleeting Hand of Time.” Here the poet casts his lot not with the Apollonian academics, who “lay forth sheepskin plans,” but with life in the “all too real mafia streets.” In another poem from this early collection, entitled “Birthplace Revisited,” the poet captures what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “the inside sound of language alone” by virtually overturning the expected or commonplace. This brief poem opens with a mysterious figure wandering the lonely, dark street, seeking out the place where he was born. The figure resembles a character from a detective story—“with raincoat, cigarette in mouth, hat over eye, hand on gat”—but when he reaches the top of the first flight of stairs, “Dirty Ears aims a knife at me . . . I pump him full of lost watches.” This is not exactly the kind of image one would expect to find in the language of the standard-bearers of Corso’s time, such as Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom. In fact, in an act of Dionysian rebellion, Corso, in a poem entitled “I Am Twenty-five,” bluntly proclaims “I HATE OLD POETMEN!”—especially those “who speak their youth in whispers.” The poet-clown, in true Dionysian fashion, would like to gain the confidence of the “Old Poetman,” insinuating himself into the sanctity of his home, and then “rip out their apology tongues/ and steal their poems.”
The Happy Birthday of Death
The Happy Birthday of Death presents the best example of Corso as Dionysian clown. In the lengthy ten-part poem entitled simply “Clown,” Corso presents this persona more explicitly than he does in any other place when he asserts, “I myself am my own happy fool.” The fool or the clown is the personification of the “pure poetry” of Arthur Rimbaud or Walt Whitman, rejecting the academic Apollonian style of the formalists. “I am an always clown,” writes Corso, “and need not make grammatic Death’s diameter.”
Several of the poems of The Happy Birthday of Death, notably the award-winning “Marriage,” offer critiques of respected institutions of bourgeois society. This poem, perhaps...
(The entire section is 2034 words.)