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.
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.
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.
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.