Gregory Corso Corso, Gregory (Nunzio) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gregory (Nunzio) Corso 1930–-2001

American poet, playwright, and novelist.

Critics cite Corso, in conjunction with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as an essential founding member of the American Beat movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Corso's poetry reiterates the basic tenet of the movement: rejection of the established social order in favor of experimentation. Although Corso has not been a prolific writer, his poetry has increasingly been heralded by critics and the public, particularly his works Happy Birthday of Death (1960) and Long Live Man (1962). Building on personal experiences garnered as a result of his rough background and lack of formal education, Corso explores the meaning of life and death, employing a subtle humor and an element of fantasy. Through interviews with the popular press, Corso became a representative of the Beat movement to the American public, creating an avant-garde, anti-establishment, rebel persona. In addition to his poetry, Corso has written a novel and numerous plays.

Biographical Information

Corso was born March 26, 1930, in New York City, to two young Italian immigrants, Fortunato Samuel and Michelina (Colonni) Corso. His mother returned to Italy, abandoning her family before Corso was a year old. He spent his early years in orphanages and foster homes, as well as a brief period in the observation ward of the Bellevue Mental Hospital. Formal education played little role in his childhood. When he was a young teenager, he was arrested for theft and housed in the infamous New York City Jail as a material witness for several months. There, he learned the power of using imagination and fantasy to counteract the grueling, harsh aspects of reality—a theme that would play a paramount role in his poetry. At the age of sixteen, Corso was arrested again for theft and sentenced to three years in Clinton Prison. During his incarceration, Corso discovered the joys of literature, spending his time reading poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and studying an antiquated dictionary. Internalizing Shelley's message about the moral duty of poetry, Corso began to write his own verses. Upon his release, Corso was directionless, having spent most of his life in one institution or another. A fortuitous meeting with famed Beat poet Ginsberg inspired Corso to pursue a life of writing. Ginsberg introduced Corso to Columbia professor Mark Van Doren who read Corso's poetry, commented on it and encouraged the poet to keep writing. In the early 1950s, after spending a year as a seaman on a Norwegian freighter, Corso drifted to Harvard where he spent two years pursuing his self-education, reading and writing in the library, as well as befriending students. In 1955, a group of Harvard students offered to finance the self-publication of Corso's first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems. Through his ongoing friendship with Ginsberg, Corso was introduced to other members of the Beat movement, among them Jack Kerouac and Williams S. Burroughs. After his first book of poetry failed to attract critical attention, Corso traveled, spending much of his time in Europe and relying on Ginsberg to see that his writing was published. Ginsberg arranged for the publication of Corso's second volume Gasoline (1958). By this time, the Beats were garnering public and critical attention. Through interviews and public appearances, Corso gained recognition as an innovative poet, the quirky clown of the Beat movement. In 1960, Corso published Happy Birthday of Death, a collection that contains many of his best-known poems. Two years later, Corso published his most highly acclaimed volume Long Live Man (1962). He married the following year and accepted a teaching position at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Through the subsequent years, Corso traveled frequently, mostly in Europe, financed chiefly through the benevolence of patrons. He married three times, fathering three children. His publishing became increasingly sporadic as the social mood of the country changed and the popularity of the Beat movement waned. Corso died January 18, 2001, in Minnesota, of cancer.

Major Works

Corso's first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems, earned him no critical attention. However, with the publication of his next volume—Gasoline—he established his voice, identified the issues that would continue to interest him throughout his career and achieved greater critical attention, partially as a result of the rising public interest in the Beats. Corso's poetry is marked by a playfulness, sly wit and sense of humor. In such poems as “Hair” and “Marriage,” he infuses humor with poignant observations about society and humankind. Throughout his career, Corso was interested in the meaning of life and death, topics that play an increasingly important role in his later poetry. In addition, he pursued such issues as the conflict between the need for assimilation in society and the desire for individuality, the difficulties of making choices, and the conflicted nature of man. He advocates experimentation and exploration, portraying characters on the fringe of society and incorporating anti-establishment messages in his verse. His poems “Bomb” and “Police” indicate his views on contemporary subjects. While most of his poetry, particularly his earliest poems, is based on his own personal experiences, Corso uses them to discuss broader themes. The mood in this work varies greatly. Even in short works he can fluctuate between serious and maudlin, intense and carefree, outrageous and fantastic, and, at the same time, his work can be matter of fact. In such later volumes as Elegiac Feelings American (1970), Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (1981), and Mindfield (1989), Corso is increasingly critical of American society and exhibits an ever-more somber mood.

Critical Reception

Throughout his career, critics have complimented the quirky, yet thought-provoking writing of Corso. They praise his sense of humor, his insight into human frailty, his unusual view of social issues as well as his advocacy of a re-examination of social values. Often, reviewers characterize his voice as refreshingly accessible, informal, and honest. They argue that his childlike wonder of the world and even naivete give his work power and resonance. In consensus, reviewers find Corso's writing is at its best when the poet is speaking in his own voice about common, personal events. That same use of the personal has led to criticism as well. Literary scholars argue that at times Corso's meaning cannot be deciphered from the intensely individual meaning of his references and nonsensical phrasing. In addition, scholars note that the quality of Corso's work varies widely. When he adopts a more formal and imitative quality he loses the power of immediacy in his voice. Critics have found that his work differs not only within a volume of poetry but within a single poem, ranging too widely across the emotional and ideological spectrum. Also, critics maintain that Corso's work suffered as a result of his reputed heroin addiction, which contributed to a meager output in the later half of his career. Increasingly, characterizing Corso's entire career, literary scholars describe the poet as an important voice in an influential movement whose voice and works carry less resonance as time passes.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems 1955

Gasoline 1958

The Happy Birthday of Death 1960

Long Live Man 1962

Selected Poems 1962

The Mutation of the Spirit 1964

Elegiac Feelings American 1970

Ankh 1971

Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit 1981

Mindfield: New and Selected Poems 1989

In This Hung-Up Age (drama) 1955

The American Express (novel) 1961

Reuel Denney (essay date 1956)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Vestal Lady on Brattle, in Poetry, Vol. 89, No. 1, October, 1956, pp. 48–52.

[In the excerpt below, Denney discusses the concepts of audience and interpretation in modern poetry, using Corso's The Vestal Lady on Brattle as an example.]

… The booklet of this urban-sounding author [Corso] comes from Cambridge and has the title of The Vestal Lady on Brattle. All of the poems have the air of having been preceded immediately by the hipster vocative, “Man!” Their one-man-Calypso of jive goes “far out” to work that interjectional, parenthetical, real-crazy style associated with bop discourse. Bopster Corso simply digs one...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)

G. S. Fraser (essay date 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Plug, Project, Repeat,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 27, 1960, pp. 746–47.

[In the following review of The Happy Birthday of Death, Fraser gives Corso's writing a mixed review, stating that Corso has talent but his views are extreme.]

I listened about a year ago, on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Third Programme, to a dialogue between either [Allen] Ginsberg or [Gregory] Corso, I forget which, and an old acquaintance of mine, now in the United States, Donald Carne-Ross. Carne-Ross looks rather like Sherlock Holmes, and has a gimlet-like intelligence; on this occasion, he was using it to bore holes in the sea. Carne-Ross is not what I would...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

John Fuller (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of Gregory Corso,” in London Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1961, pp. 74–7.

[In the following essay, Fuller argues that Corso's balanced and autobiographical treatment of reality sets his writing above other Beat writers.]

How else to feel other than I am,
a young man who often thinks Flash Gordon soap—

These lines from a long poem, ‘Marriage’, give us perhaps the essential Corso, not so much ‘the Dead End kid who fell in love with beauty’ as a natural idealist coming to terms with a real, if often absurd, world of human objects and behaviour. Thus he uses ‘think’ plainly and rather naïvely as both ‘notice’,...

(The entire section is 1585 words.)

Carolyn Gaiser (essay date 1961)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gregory Corso: A Poet, the Beat Way,” in A Casebook on the Beat, edited by Thomas Parkinson, University of California Press, 1961, pp. 266–75.

[In the following essay, Gaiser praises Corso's inner sense of form and imagination, which, she states, raises his work above the quality of other Beat writers.]

On East Second Street where the Puerto Rican children are haunting the sidewalks looking for lost jelly beans, in a fourth floor walk-up apartment, Gregory Corso can usually be found whenever he's in New York or America. This tiny four-room, smoky-walled, ill-lit apartment belongs to Allen Ginsberg who shares it with a quieter Peter Orlovsky, and an...

(The entire section is 3759 words.)

Edward Seidensticker (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “No Marvelous Boys,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring, 1963 pp. 374–79.

[In the excerpt below, Seidensticker reviews Corso's Long Live Man, arguing that it is fragmentary and lacking in quality.]

I prefer, like Solomon, a live dog to a dead lion, and that may well exhaust my wisdom concerning Mr. Corso. He is approaching the christological age, the fatal age—l'an trentiesme de son age—but at least no square stanzas to celebrate the fact. The most he will do to recognize his condition is to give us even more bravado, to expand rather than retrench, to go to Greece and become Childe Corso among the Ruins or to Italy and speak to...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Robin Skelton (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Selected Poems, in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1963, pp. 189–91.

[In the review below, Skelton states that while Corso does not control his language, his approach is fresh.]

These six authors are neatly divisible into two teams, which we might well call the Bards and the Belligerents. The one group clearly believes that concern for poetry itself, for the shaping of language and the creation of cadence, is a valid reason for making poems. The other group, equally clearly, believes that each poem must arise from concern with the human predicament, and from observation of the phenomena of our time. Each group has its weakness, of...

(The entire section is 1274 words.)

Bruce Cook (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Urchin Shelley,” in The Beat Generation, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971, pp. 133–49.

[In the excerpt below, Cook provides an overview of Corso's career, stating that the quality of his work has been uneven.]

Time takes me by the hand
born March 26 1930 I am 100 mph o'er the vast
                    of choice
what to choose? what to choose?

For Gregory Corso, the simple act of choosing has always provided profound difficulties. It is a theme that runs through his poetry—decision-making or, alternatively, refusing to decide—and it can be read even more plainly in the record of his life. Corso is that young man described by John...

(The entire section is 6030 words.)

Gerard J. Dullea (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ginsberg and Corso: Image and Imagination,” in Thoth: Syracuse University Graduate Studies in English, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 1971, pp. 17–27.

[In the following essay, Dullea compares Allen Ginsberg and Corso, positing that while Ginsberg is the better writer, Corso exudes a greater sense of imagination and humor.]

The whole Beat movement must be understood as a revolutionary and a Romantic one, in the senses that it was, on the surface at least, completely anti-Establishment and completely pro-Self, reveling in anything that appeared to be against the traditions of society (even traditions so basic as eating, sleeping, and bathing) and in anything that...

(The entire section is 4726 words.)

Bill Beyle (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Introductory Shot,” in Unmuzzled Ox, Vol. 2, Nos. 1–2, 1973.

[In the essay below, Beyle describes Corso's point of view as childlike.]

Kirby Congdon, in his introduction to Corso's recent Dear Fathers, describes him as “the most important poet of the fifties.” This leads to a question: what happened in the sixties? And the questionable—those things crotchety fifties critics disliked—remains. In the interview, Corso answers many of the questions. Here, I will try to set up a preliminary context, both to introduce the interview and Corso's achievement.

“Corso, by some definitions, may not yet even be technically a...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)

Gregory Corso with Douglas Calhoun (interview date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gregory Corso: Sources,” in Athanor, Vol. 5, Winter 1973, pp. 1–6.

[In the following interview, Corso discusses the differences between the 1950s and 1960s, his opinions of other Beat writers, and sources for his writing.]

Gregory Corso gave a reading at SUC Cortland in the Spring of 1971. During the reading he made several references to the need to know sources. The following are side notes from the reading.

After reading “Boticelli's Spring”1 (which he called a childish poem because it had so many painters all together in it), Corso said, “See, you would all understand that poetry if you had your sources. That's what...

(The entire section is 2658 words.)

Gordon M. Messing (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Structuralist Analysis of Poetry: Some Speculations,” in Lingua, Vol. 49, No. 1, September 1979, pp. 1–10.

[In the following essay, Messing analyzes Corso's poem “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” in terms of Roman Jakobson's theories on poetics.]


During his long and active career Roman Jakobson has always maintained that linguistic and literary studies were closely related. In several publications from his Russian Formalist and Prague School days he dealt with such problems as the formal features of poetic language and the analysis of versification. After leaving Prague, however, he did not concern himself specifically...

(The entire section is 3916 words.)

Michael Skau (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘To Dream, Perchance to Be’: Gregory Corso and Imagination,” in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer 1989, pp. 69–78.

[In the following essay, Skau explores the relationship between social conditions and Corso's response as a writer, particularly the conflict between assimilation and individuality.]

“To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything.”

(France 113)

The increasingly personal and confessional quality in contemporary poetry is, in part, a reaction to the diminishing role of the individual within society. Artists attempt to reassert the primacy of individual worth, for the artist's...

(The entire section is 4669 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gasoline,” in Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso, Hearing Eye, 1989, pp. 21–30.

[In the following excerpt, Stephenson describes Corso's seminal work Gasoline as a conflict between imagination and reality.]

Gasoline, published in 1958, is the book that established Gregory Corso's literary reputation both in the United States and internationally. It is a seminal work of what has been called “the new American poetry”, interjecting a spirit of wild, improvisatory freedom of creation and unbridled vision into the literature of the postwar period. We recognize in the poems of this collection the same vitality and...

(The entire section is 3428 words.)

Dennis Barone (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Awakener to the World,” in American Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, September 1990, pp. 17, 27, 29.

[In the following review, Barone cites Mindfield as an excellent means to discover or rediscover the spontaneous and thought-provoking voice of Corso.]

In one of the two brief forewords to Mindfield Allen Ginsberg calls Corso an “awakener of youth.” Corso, along with Brautigan and some kindred souls, was the awakener to the word, to the muse in my life. I worked as a landscaper (I cut the grass) in a cemetery. I would recite lines from Corso's most anthologized poem, “Marriage”: “Should I get married? Should I be good? / Astound the girl...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘The Arcadian Map’: Notes on the Poetry of Gregory Corso,” in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 74–89.

[In the following excerpt, Stephenson investigates Corso's “poetic vision,” contending that the poet rejects reality in favor of the possibilities of imagination.]

                                        the Arcadian map
our only anthem'd direction

Gregory Corso, “Ode to Sura”

The songs of one who strove to play
the broken flutes of Arcady.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Ballade of Broken Flutes”


(The entire section is 6448 words.)

William Young (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Traveling Through the Dark: The Wilderness Surrealism of the Far West” The Midwest Quarterly, Winter, 1998 Vol. 39, No. 2, p.187–202.

[In the following excerpt, Young examines the work of Corso as a poet of the American West.]

In the last three decades, as an outgrowth of the I Sixties and in response to the influx of people and translations from all comers of the world, a particular kind of symbolist literature became prominent, the surreal. Some form of surrealist literature has found a home in an regions of the country. Yet an American surrealism, or, more accurately, “near surrealism,” has primarily been developed in the West, where the stark...

(The entire section is 1861 words.)

William Horan (essay date 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gregory Corso Dies at 70; A Candid-Voiced Beat Poet,” The New York Times, Vol. CL, No. 51,638, January 19, 2001, p. C-13.

[In the following obituary, Horan recalls Corso's life and career.]

Gregory Corso, a poet and leading member of the Beat literary movement that shook American social and political life in the late 1950's and 60's, died on Wednesday in Robbinsdale, Minn., where he lived with his daughter Sheri Langerman. He was 70.

The cause was prostate cancer, Ms. Langerman said.

To the literary world, Mr. Corso was considered less political than Allen Ginsberg, less charismatic than Jack Kerouac, but more shocking,...

(The entire section is 1135 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Wilson, Robert A. A Bibliography of Works by Gregory Corso, 1954–1965. New York: The Phoenix Book Shop, 1966, 40 pp.

Citations of Corso's complete publications through 1965.


Birnbaum, Henry. Review of The Happy Birthday of Death, in Poetry, Vol. 97, No. 2 (November 1960): 119–20.

Birnbaum finds The Happy Birthday of Death “boring” and a “disappointment.”

Challis, Chris. “The Fabulous Wordslinger.” In Quest for Kerouac, pp. 183–94. New York: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Places Corso's career in...

(The entire section is 397 words.)