Gregory Corso

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Reuel Denney (essay date 1956)

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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 thing and another as he goes along, mostly himself, no time overtime on the craft. He fails a king-size assignment blowing a funeral “Saints” for Jazzman Bird Parker, but that's because the job is too big for his reed. His macaronic take-off on the innocent frontier of American whiskey-advertisements, in Central Casting Indian talk is a highly successful “scat” lyric entitled “King Crow”:

Old crow is King Crow
He know all there is to know
Like when corn is ripe or when comes time to snow.
Old crow he say: Skee-ack, like big
Thunder smack: and all crow
That is crow follow his long broken tail …

Catchy as it is, the jive-surrealist tone of voice raises questions. Is this poetry intended for settings analogous to those in which one hears jazz? Is there anything wrong with confusing the appeals of jazz music with that of poetry? Or trying to package products of one art (poetry) with atmospheric effects that might fetch glamor from the other (jazz)? Perhaps not. Perhaps he is only experimenting with the wider possibilities of a small-group jargon. But such fad-jargons of small groups are reassurances for insiders and rebuffs to outsiders, and if the newcomer takes them as meaning he is “in,” he is in; but if he takes them as meaning he is out, he is out. Would these poems sound interesting only if conveyed by a co-axial speaker into an audience already “far out” on jazz, done in the throw-away-the line style of Bebop styles of articulation?

As I've implied, criticism of poetry in the United States is still too studiously print-minded and exegesis-minded. A recent book on Poetry and the Age implicitly defines the poetic audience as being, insofar as possible, the extra-curricular analogue of a seminar. For example, Whitman is treated as if the problem were to distinguish him from what the copy-writers have stolen from him—to the neglect of the equally plain lesson that certain low-pressure documentary styles of radio and TV reporting have made some of Whitman's oratory and newspaper-print journalese more ridiculous than ever. What is often ignored in such approaches is the relation between what the poet can say, and how he defines whom it might get said to, and by what channel, and in what medium. Yet the way in which the poets of a cultural era “carve out” a relation, as Kenneth Burke might say, between the primary audience and the non-primary audience, can be crucial.

Under various impacts, the “primary” audience of the poet for the last one hundred and fifty years has been increasingly defined as a remote intimacy resembling the ear of God—perhaps the later poetry of Rilke is the next-to-rotten ripeness of this tendency. During the same period the “non-primary” audience of the poet—his “audience”—has been increasingly defined as a group of marginals to the core middle-class culture of industrialism. A tension about the way in which the “address” of the modern poem...

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works out from the ideal primary listenerto the coterie “audience” listener is one of the striking characteristics of contemporary poetry. Pound and Eliot were among the first English poets to make a sort of advantage out of the tensions of this process by self-consciously melodramatising them.

Now, the “ideal” primary audience is dying out with the decline of European hard idealism and American soft idealism. At the same time the coterie audience of marginals may be dying out, one major reason being, perhaps, that every year the core culture imitates them a little more and thus deprives them of their marginality. The mass media, whether used for “mass” programming or “quality segmental” programming, are hurrying the whole process by undercutting older, more naively “individualistic” notions of artistic production, and audience-impacts. The mass media have been indispensible, especially, in unsettling the cultural pieties by which older audiences expected to control and neutralize the art work by identifying it in this way or that before it had a chance to identify itself.

One result of our lag in catching up with these changes is a certain kind of poetic incongruence on the public air, especially the FM air. What could be more senseless in some ways than the Duino Elegies, for example, read over the radio? Good as they may be in print, or in the voice of a reader reading to a few, it may be generations before their manner will seem like anything less than arrogance over the air. The Four Quartets of Eliot run into some of the same problems in the transition from print-or-personal voice to audience-amplifying media. No matter how much quality is a major factor in reaching a wider audience, it is also true that quality rarely arises out of a mis-judgment of the possible audience. It does not seem that certain tones in the poetry of our contemporaries which are based on a hatred of the contemporary world, a distrust of sexuality, and a jealousy of competing media—tones that are found in Rilke and Eliot and in many of their followers in the U.S., are really rendered more acceptable by their gradual popularization through some mass media. It seems all the more important then, in approaching new poets, to conscientiously forget much of the newer criticism as being in contempt of audience, and the audience-concept.

Among these poets struggling for control over a tone-of-voice, we find one (it is a surprise that there are no more) whose Transition language is as universal as the style of The Reader's Digest or a Life caption, and his imaginary listener is someone in Paris in 1916. The French verse Ferlinghetti imitates has been as purposefully Veblenian and banal as a double egg-cup in recent years because the French poet is busy putting down his giant cultural past. It would be vanity on our part to think that because the architecture of French poetry needs a Le Corbusian answer to Versailles, American poetry needs a Dymaxion-House answer to Monticello! The audience of Ferlinghetti includes only those who want French poetry to influence American poetry in a way that most French poets would detest, and which most Americans have enough sense to see as irrelevant. Ferlinghetti is mis-using a real talent in order to write as if his problem, like Apollinaire's, was to achieve a workday vividness of language without the loss of the elegance of a language hand-polished by generations of French school-masters. This “problem” is now archaic, was always foreign to us. It simply distracts Ferlinghetti from carving out his own American audience in the 1950's.

There is one poet here, Ammons, whose imaginary audience, and whose tone-of-voice, remains elusive. If he is speaking to anyone, or anything, he seems, as I have suggested, to be holding converse with the language itself. The result is poetry that does not exactly seem to want to be listened to, not to say, “understood.” Yet, oddly enough, the rhythms of these poems seem more individualized than that of the poems by the other writers here—and at least one of his poems is compelling. In this experimental piece, he has taken the treacherous model of Whitman's style—building loosely declamatory additive sentence variations around a single visual symbol—and hammered out a potent poem. The general effect is like hearing a symphony orchestra in its shell, playing a resonant work from a great distance.

With ropes of hemp
I lashed my body to the great oak
saying odes for the fiber of the oakbark
and the oakwood saying supplications
to the root mesh. …

Quite in contrast with Ferlinghetti and Ammons is the poet who is the most impressive of them all. Layton, a Canadian, sounds as if he were speaking to an intelligent woman listener in the kitchen or in the car. Perhaps this is as much the result of his generally non-exotic themes as it is of his clipped use of language. In one of the best single poems in all these volumes, he adds a good exemplar to the increasing number of poems written in the 1940's and 1950's to children, including one's own offspring:

Mornings, I've seen his good looks
drop into the spider's mitre
pinned up between stem and stem …

In the succeeding twenty odd lines, he manages to dramatize the triangularity of family relations in an age in which children are culture heroes of a sort, and fathers are not. His connective-suppressing grammar, and his understatements, remind one occasionally of Auden's genius for copious demonstrations of reticence. It does not have the still-life atmosphere of most of Auden's poems involving social scenes, but it definitely does have the specifically British low-affect manner which has been driving American poetry to New Yorker verse distraction for some time now. This touch-me-not jargon is in part the language of the British upper classes, with all its deep meaning for British character development, and its irrelevance for ours. Let us admit that there are limitations on the degree to which a class speech pattern can undergo amplification. Yet Layton's work is superior to all except Cecil's in combining freshness and direction of language with an ability to convey to its wider audience the conviction that a real primary audience has been addressed, to say something that needed to be said. There are few groups of lines in all these books as good as the opening lines of Layton's First Snow: Lake Michigan:

No noise of rowlocks; no ecstasy of hands,
No sound of crickets in the inextricable air:
But a Roman silence for a lone drummer's call …

There are some signs here of a brewing disaffection against some currently baneful influences on American poetry: the new criticism, expedient religiosity, influences like Rilke, Eliot's veto on vulgarities, talk about small animals, the fauve Thomas, Francophilism, and anti-sexuality, to name a few. Yet the signs here are still enfeebled by the fashion of the day, and show how much leadership the young poet needs in order to break his chains.

Introduction

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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.

G. S. Fraser (essay date 1960)

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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 call a kindly man, but in England the tender side of his nature used to come out in keeping, in his rather shabby rooms in Earl's Court, a pet rat. His crisp, brisk, biscuity English voice offered, however, no crumbs of comfort to Ginsberg or Corso. The Beatnik soliloquy just went on and on, throbbing with a growing admiration and pity and love of itself, and when Carne-Ross did, once in five minutes, manage to break the flow with, “It does, rather, seem to me that …” the terrible flux would drown the dependent-noun clause, the relentless voice of Ginsberg or Corso would cry: “Don't break into what I'm saying.”

It was not an interview, in other words, it was abreaction: Carne-Ross ought not to have been the critic, “the questioner who sits so sly,” but the psychiatrist lying as exhausted on his companion couch (the flow of abreactive words was very exhausting) as his patient. The effect of exposing yourself full, bang on, to Ginsberg or Corso is in fact like the effect (which I have suffered) of letting a manic-depressive friend slowly exhaust all your constructive and helpful responses in the depressive phase. You reach a point where you scream, “All right, why don't you go and kill yourself?” and the friend, having secured a temporary breakdown of your bourgeois smugness, feels a little better. Corso's verse seems to me to show more talent than Ginsberg's, and he conducts his war against adjustment, moderation, the objective view, and what have you, with a passionate single-mindedness that is in some ways admirable. He is very cruelly whipping the same set of obsessions round and round the same ring, but the words do prance sometimes, and he cracks the whip stylishly. It is difficult, however, to criticize the poems as poems, in any old-fashioned sense. The long poem, “Bomb,” is shock-tactics, reminding one of Marinetti (the bombs in Ethiopia, flowering on the ground like great red roses, brown bodies frizzling at the edge of the petals) and partly of very smart advertisement copy writing; plug, project, repeat are, I would say, Corso's aesthetic rules. The deep psychological technique of adjustment is the White Queen's: scream all the time before it happens, and then what happens will be an anticlimax, which you can take quite calmly. I think it was the White Queen who also told Alice that you have to run very hard to stay in one place, and this I think Corso is doing. The revealing bits are where some “poetry” in an old sense creeps in, and seems often touchingly soft-centered:

Often, in some steep ancestral book,
when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples and torched mushrooms,
my cypressean skin outreaches the recorded age
and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
pour secrecy upon the dying page.

Some ear there, some sense of the shaping of a stanza: or. …

Men! let's bypass the city let us fly let us go jet
until we crash safely into snow from huge pink foundations—
gentle children await us.

The troubling thing with Mr. Corso is that he is such a Charles Addams character one doesn't quite know what he is going to do with these gentle children when he meets them. Rescue them, nourish them, comfort them? Boil them in a cannibal stew? The powerful, wobbly, eructative emotions of a volume like this seem above all eminently exploitable by men with harder heads, worse hearts and sharper purposes than Mr. Corso. Richards thought what a good reading of a good poem should do is leave you more open and alert for what happens next; I feel that full surrender to Mr. Corso (which I admit I have avoided, however) would leave you flat on your back waiting for elephants to trample on you. But I would by no means say there is no talent here, or that the individual has not a right to organize his suffering as a machine of self-projection and symbolic psychic aggression. One says, “Good, he is getting it out of his system!” And one's own system, as the defenses are one by one torn away, must take its chances.

Principal Works

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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

John Fuller (essay date 1961)

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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’, ‘remember’ and as ‘imagine’: the images of his poetry acquire that intensity which is perhaps an inheritance from surrealism, of an equal approval of both created and observed phenomena. If ‘Flash Gordon soap’ is a kind of objet trouvé (there is no satire intended) then ‘miles and miles of dead full-bodied horses’ is the poet's own assemblage (this from one of a series of ‘Mexican Impressions’, the syntactic form, ‘thinks + image’ is the same). In Corso's best poems these two implications of ‘think’ are inextricably bound together in the method of writing, as in this opening of ‘This was my Meal’:

In the peas I saw upsidedown letters
          of MONK
And beside it, in the Eyestares of Wine
I saw Olive & Blackhair

or no. V of ‘Mexican Impressions’:

In the Mexican zoo
          they have ordinary
American cows.

In his worst poems he tries to make the images stand self-consciously on their own, mostly with exclamation marks (as in ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’, a word-duel between two vagrant poets). One feels that it is this rather more evident verbal quality which led his friend Allen Ginsberg to write ‘Corso is a great wordslinger’ in an introduction to the collection Gasoline. There is this difference between them: Ginsberg writes with vocabulary while Corso writes with language. Ginsberg peps himself up into moralizing ecstacy while Corso simply ‘thinks’ his rare delight in things. One might almost say it is a kind of Shelley/Keats contrast: Corso's superiority is similarly something very much to do with harmony of sensation and language, not to mention wit and a real, if eclectic, absorption in art and ideas.

To pursue this distinction into a more concrete instance, one might take the two poets' use of the general ‘beat’ characteristics, vagrancy, sodomy and dope, in their work. Ginsberg's ‘Howl’ is a sort of litany whose extent and vigour nearly belies its supposed attitude; that is to say, the eloquence of certain key-phrases (‘saintly motorcyclists’, for instance, or ‘Everything is holy’) tends to provide opposition to what is overtly a moral attitude, an indictment of the stultification, criminality and decadence of society. The ‘confessions’ of William Burroughs are like this too: there is a muddiness, an ambivalence. Corso, on the other hand, uses these characteristics either autobiographically with a simple acceptance (‘Last Night I Drove a Car’) or self-awareness (‘Hello …’) which most beat poets are too hysterical ever to get down to, or he uses it artificially and rhetorically. For instance, in another long poem, ‘Greece’, a characteristic beat persona turns up merely as an image. Here Corso is typically making genuine poetic capital out of a currency largely squandered by other poets of his generation who are too egotistic to objectify their art:

                                                                                a French car
screeching in my ear how real it was!
Behind the wheel Death, a big sloppy
          faggot;
He opened the door I had to get in!

The climax of this poem is Corso's rejection of Death (‘Stupid subject! Old button! I unsalute you’) in favour of the power and eternity of the human imagination. It is again wholly typical that Corso could make this assertion in a poem which is a rapid and enthusiastic tour of Greece and the islands (think how pedantic an English poet would get). He is not afraid to be boyishly inspired or charmed by a new experience. He ‘thinks’ it all for us vividly:

Is that Poseidon running
flat on the bottom of the sea?
He's ten times the size of man
and though the waves break like fireworks
his long black beard is neatly flowed.

In a similar earlier poem, ‘Paranoia in Crete’, Corso had successfully used the persona of Minos in a fantastic monologue (… my wife! that wood-cow brothel!’). The monologue is not a mode much attempted by the beat poets, but already Corso has it to a witty perfection, whether he becomes Rembrandt (‘Get me the saddest man! … Get me gold linen! cold jewels!’) or an old yak, imagining himself about to be made into buttons:

Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my
                    uncle,
          he has a new cap.
And that idiot student of his—
          I never saw that muffler before.

Perhaps this bizarre humour is Corso's happiest mood. It is well illustrated by ‘Italian Extravaganza’, his best-known poem (it owes nothing to the sick joke, being not cruel but childlike: ‘wow’ gives the game away—and the clue to the tone of Corso's ubiquitous exclamation-mark):

Mrs Lombardi's month-old son is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo's funeral parlour,
A small purplish wrinkled head.
They've just finished having high
          mass for it;
They're coming out now
… wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.

This striking directness can be seen in other beat writers, for instance in Peter Orlovsky (whose poem ‘Morris’ in Beatitude Anthology is a notably moving, though naïve, expression of love for a fellow creature, here a bed-wetting mental case) and in this monologue (103rd Chorus of ‘Mexico City Blues’) by Jack Kerouac:

I'd rather be thin than famous
I don't want to be fat,
And a woman throws me outa bed
Callin me Gordo, & everytime
          I bend
          to pick up
          my suspenders
          from the davenport
          floor I explode
          loud huge grunt-o
          and disgust
          every one
          in the familio
I'd rather be thin than famous
But I'm fat
Paste that in yr. Broadway show.

At first glance the Orlovsky and the Kerouac could hardly seem further apart, the elegy and the satire, but both these poems seem to me expressions of that curious feeling which keeps the poet both near to his subject and detached from it; and above all the attitudes are lively, interested and focused on real life. The poetical area compassed by these poems is exactly where the best beat poetry lives, and is where Corso lives a good deal of the time. Not the misguided notions of Ginsberg (who began a poem in the Times Literary Supplement for November 6, 1959: ‘Poet is Priest’), nor the energetic mediocrity of William Margolis or Philip Lamantia, nor the highschool badness of Bob Kaufman, but the real world of humanity, art, sense and imagination.

Corso is not averse to the Ginsbergian manner, however: his poems ‘Bomb’ and ‘Power’ evoked an embarrassingly stern and critical response when read by the poet to a small audience of Leftwing intellectuals at Oxford two or three years ago. Indeed, he did almost make politics into so much Flash Gordon soap. But if he is not always a rational poet, he is at least not an ignorant one. He is fascinated by the European cultural tradition (there are several poems inspired by Italian Renaissance painters) though this is not to say that he does not feel such a tradition to be moribund. He is neither apathetic nor anarchistic about such a feeling, but it emerges as a sad assumption. How could he marry and have a child, he asks in ‘Marriage’, when all he could bring to it would be the fragments of civilizations, Roman coin soup, broken Bach records, the Greek alphabet, a roofless Parthenon? These fragments are interesting but ultimately crazy as the phrases he shouts in denial of honeymoon, or leaves in his imagination in a bottle for the milkman: ‘Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust—.’

It has been said that the beat cult of immediacy leaves no room for moral attitudes, that the drive for pleasure apparently typical of the post-war generation is rigorously anti-conformist. Corso provides some clues as to the real hopes and fears of this generation. Arrived in Rotterdam, in ‘Vision of Rotterdam’, with ‘Two suitcases filled with despair’ he thinks about the war, concluding not unexpectedly perhaps but nevertheless with a sentiment rarer than it might be: ‘Mercy leans against her favourite bombardment / and forgives the bomb.’ The poem ends with a future:

Alone
Eyes on the antique diagram
          I wander down the ruin and see
                    amid a madness of coughing
                                        bicycles
the scheme of a new Rotterdam humming in the vacancy.

This optimism is paralleled, I believe, by a yearning for social normality. The final lines of ‘Marriage’ are all the more significant if we take the poem as an allegory of the possibility of conformity not merely of one young poet to one social institution, but of a whole generation to a complete society:

Because what if I'm 60 years old and
          not married,
all alone in a furnished room with pee
          stains on my underwear
and everybody else is married! All the
          Universe married but me!
Ah, yet well I know that were a
          woman possible
as I am possible
then marriage would be possible—
like SHE in her lonely alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lover
So I wait—bereft of 2,000 years and
          the bath of life.

Carolyn Gaiser (essay date 1961)

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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 occasional cat but absolutely no telephone. Anyone who wants to get in touch with them quickly must resort to Western Union and piles of opened telegrams are scattered about the kitchen which is the most lived-in room in the apartment. There is a narcissus blooming on the refrigerator, prints of Michelangelo and Da Vinci on the walls and half-finished haiku in the typewriter unless Jack Kerouac has recently been there; then there is likely to be an equally half-finished manifesto stating the inadequacies of Christianity and the attributes of Zen Buddhism.

A visitor dropping in at any time of day is apt to find whoever is at home seated at the table drinking beer and eating, and someone is always remarking happily that this is the first good meal he has eaten in days. While Allen Ginsberg broods over The New York Times, planning a cultural trip to Moscow and reading aloud about the recent discovery of the spoons of Ape Men, Gregory Corso proclaims the advantages of taking a freighter to Greece, the Acropolis by moonlight, dreams of Alexandrian conquests, and Peter Orlovsky reads silently on in Dostoevsky. Or perhaps, someone suggests going down to the White Horse Tavern to see if Delmore (Delmore Schwartz) is there, and they all put on raggedy jackets and go out to look for a taxi. Though between them they may have just enough change for the cab fare, nobody would think of taking the subway. Since nobody seems to have a job, the question of their survival remains a mystery. The possible sale of an article on hoboes to Esquire and poetry readings at various Ivy League colleges keep them all in high spirits.

The readings at Yale, Princeton and Harvard were organized primarily by Allen Ginsberg who takes his role as prophet of the Beat philosophy more seriously than the other two. He has a kind of missionary zeal to save youth fram a trammeling bourgeois existence, to direct them toward the liberated life of sensation, while Corso, who is more of a clown, chooses to “jest Truth,” never losing sight of a certain ridiculousness in the human struggle toward the sublime. Of the three, Jack Kerouac, who has had the greatest commercial success, is the most detached from the movement. He lives in a house in Northport, Long Island, with his mother and five cats and only comes into New York occasionally. He has, in a sense, removed himself from the experiential fray, seems to have given up drinking and submerged himself in solitude.

Corso, on the contrary, never stays anywhere for very long, taking off periodically for wild jaunts through Europe. Two summers ago, he was at the Pamplona bullfighting festival with Art Buchwald and spent some time in Venice with Peggy Guggenheim; he has a facility for attracting the patronage of American art-lovers abroad. At present, he is in Europe again, having taken his dream freighter to Greece, and when last heard from was in Paris writing “a funny book” in which all of America gets high on marijuana. Corso, a small, thin and tousle-haired young man, is very much in the tradition of the enfante terrible, perhaps designedly so. If poets put on various masks in their poems, then this is the mask that is most distinctively Gregory Corso's; the mask of the sophisticated child whose every display of mad spontaneity and bizarre perception is consciously and effectively designed. It is the mask he wears most comfortably in private life and the one which produces the greatest charm in his poetry.

He says whatever comes into his head which is usually shocking, displays a studied child-like enthusiasm for everything from Venetian pigeons to blue camels, and at the same time, is excruciatingly sensitive to other people's opinion of him. He is likely to stop in the middle of a reading to ask a friend, “Do you love me, Bob? I gotta know if you love me.” He speaks his own incoherent New Yorkese in which certain fixed phrases are returned to again and again for security's sake: “Oh my illuminating angel,” “There must be a death and after the rose,” and “Man, please don't put me down.” He is beset by a dull awareness of beautiful unrealizable phantasy and a terrible down-to-earth irony. At one moment in the guise of the conspirator, he may confide, “Jack and Allen and I are plotting to take over the world in love's name; instead of streetlights we'll have Bach and Mozart and ‘rose, thou art sick’ will replace ‘the pause that refreshes.’” Or immediately after, tragically tugging at his hair, he may remark that “We are all clowns in the Woody Wood Pecker cartoon and when the truck comes and hits me in the chest, I'll die and hear Woody Wood Pecker's terrible ha-ha-ha still laughing in my ears.” The clown image is dominant in one of his new long poems appearing in a collection called The Happy Birthday of Death recently published by New Directions. Here the poet proclaims “The clown is dead! / Pass along the highways of 1959—all clowns are dead! / See the great dumps of them swarmed by seagulls” and yet he concludes with the assurance “But I am an always clown / and need not make grammatic / Death's diameter.”

About himself, Corso says wistfully, “I long ago put myself in the image of young Julien Sorel; held plans, schemes, great ways to devise Alexandrian conquests, a simple child's dream.” Emerging from a bleak slum environment, he learned to make life tolerable by embellishing it with grandiose fantasies, which, with the poet's imagination, he articulates as if they were real. He yearns for the lost gilt and velvet splendors of the Renaissance and one of his favorite possessions is a brilliantly colored, lavishly embroidered French courtier's costume which he bought in Paris. This affinity for grandeur can be even better understood after a closer examination of his background.

Gregory Corso's parents were poor Italian immigrants; his father though alive seems a very shadowy figure to him and his mother is dimly remembered with a painful sense of loss. Thinking of her, he becomes profoundly sad. “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.” When he was about eleven, he was sent to an orphanage. At thirteen, he spent a few months in the Children's Observation Ward at Bellevue. At sixteen, he and two friends devised the wild plan of taking over New York City by means of walky-talkies, projecting a series of improbable and complex robberies. Communicating by walky-talky, each of the three boys took up an assigned position—one inside the store to be robbed, one outside on the street to watch for the police and a third, the master-planner, in a small room nearby dictating the orders. According to Corso, he was in the small room giving the orders when the police came. Given Corso's imagination, it is difficult to know exactly how much of this story is accurate. At any rate, he was arrested and sent to Clinton Prison for three years. His second book of poems Gasoline is dedicated to “the angels of Clinton Prison who, in my seventeenth year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination.”

After being released from prison, he spent some time in Mexico and then went to Cambridge where he was summoned by his vision agent, a tall stoop-shouldered old man in a black cape who appears to him at decisive moments in his life and directs him. Though Corso had never finished high school, he read voraciously at the Harvard library and pursued a violent course of self-education. He was encouraged in his poetry by one of the editors of the Cambridge Review and in 1955, through the contributions of students, his first book of poems, The Vestal Lady of Brattle, was published. At about this time he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac who recognized in him a kindred spirit. After Cambridge, Corso went off to Europe where he wandered around for a year or so, patronized by kindly dilettantes. Meanwhile his poems were being published in Esquire, Partisan Review, Contact, and The Evergreen Review, a review that serves as the oracle for Beat literature. In 1958, Gregory Corso returned to America and the task of bringing the message to the American public began in earnest.

Corso is the youngest of the three Beat prophets; he is twenty-eight. Ginsberg is in his early thirties, and Kerouac in his late thirties. And of the three, Corso is also the most genuinely Beat; life as he found it from his childhood was truly hostile and he had only himself to rely on. It's not surprising that he should grow into a rebel. Kerouac and Ginsberg have more conventional backgrounds; both have strong family ties, Kerouac his French-Canadian mother, Ginsberg his father who teaches in a Paterson, New Jersey, school. Both finished high school and went on to Columbia University where they first met and where Kerouac played football. Yet despite disparities in background, the three share the same dissatisfaction with conventional American life, as they see it, its obsessive sense of responsibility, its unimaginative materialism, its monolithic conformity. They clamor for freedom, the freedom of the individual soul to experience all the sensations available in life, a spectrum that includes love, beauty, marijuana, alcohol, freight-hopping, art, cats, the Brooklyn Bridge, poetry, jazz, or more concisely, the absolute assertion of the ego. Very much in the tradition of Whitman, they too call on Americans to “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs!”

As a philosophy the Beat might be considered a brand of hedonism. While demanding the right to fully experience, the three exponents of the Beat are asking that their behavior be not only approved but applauded. And in the absence of universal applause, they applaud each other. Ginsberg says that Corso is “the greatest poet in America today,” Kerouac says “I think that Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg are the two best poets in America,” and Corso says that Ginsberg is the best poet and Kerouac the greatest novelist. When the three are together, each is accepted for the dream image he has of himself; each wish is fulfilled in this three-way friendship.

Ultimately, the Beat movement can not really be classified as a philosophy since it is not a rational position arrived at through a cool intellectual analysis of the human condition. Nor is it in any sense political. Though poems may be written about the evils of “The Bomb,” there are no prescriptions for altering the government or re-structuring society. The three spokesmen for the Beat are singularly disinterested in politics and, as for a socialist state, they would be very unhappy to see the hoboes disappear. It seems incredibly ironic that the Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union should praise Jack Kerouac for being the only novelist in America today writing anti-capitalistic novels. The evil they attack is nothing as specific as capitalism; the evil is defined in terms of whatever inhibits experience, or impinges on the spontaneity of the individual soul.

Essentially, the Beat reduces to an emotional attitude; it is the psychology of self-expression, an attempt to murder the superego and liberate the id. It is the desire to break out of the traditional forms for living, to rediscover the innocence of the natural man who lives by instinct rather than reason. Allen Ginsberg, in his prophetic role, speaks in the name of Beauty, saying “If you get interested in Beauty, then you've latched onto something mysterious inside your soul that grows and grows like a secret insane thought, and takes over completely when you die, and you're IT … Now it's weird enough to be in this human form so temporarily, without huge gangs of people, whole societies trying to pretend that their temporary bread & breasts are the be-all and end-all of the soul's fate, and enforcing this ridiculous opinion with big rules of thought & conduct, bureaucracies to control the soul, FBI's, televisions, wars, politics, boring religions … a false America's been getting in the way of realization of Beauty—let's all get high on the Soul” (excerpt from “Quo Vadis,” Mademoiselle Magazine, January, 1960).

In Ginsberg's usage, the term “Beauty” suggests more than the aesthetic; it is a sense of the unboundedness, of limitless possibilities in life that can't be crammed into any religious, ethical or political dogma. Man is instinctively drawn toward beauty and only the unfettered soul is free to realize its own uniqueness. This belief in the primacy of instinct as the means of achieving true knowledge explains the attraction of the Beat toward Zen Buddhism. Basic to Zen Buddhism is the conviction that reason is insufficient for the attainment of truth. Man must transcend rationality, if he ever hopes to achieve wisdom. Or in Gregory Corso's words—“Man is great and mad, he was born mad and wonder of wonders the sanity of evolution knoweth not what to do.”

As a literary movement, the Beat is an attempt to free writing from the stringencies of stale academic form. Their distrust of form in writing reflects their equally profound distrust of formal codes for human behavior. For them, the criterion of good literature is automatic writing in which the emancipated consciousness pours itself forth on the page with no thoughts about revision. The danger in this rather extreme view is immediately apparent; the artist has no responsibility to structure his perceptions into an artistic entity. The distinction between what is life and what is art breaks down. However, this danger need not be fatal. The unconscious has a logic of its own, and in certain rare cases (the most notable being Thomas Wolfe) this logic can operate to produce genuine art. Gregory Corso's writing for the most part falls into this category; he seems to have a built-in sense of form that protects him from embarrassingly sloppy writing. This and his startling imagination enable him to avoid the tendency of many Beat writers toward undisciplined work. As might be expected, the poems of his which are most vociferously praised by Ginsberg and Kerouac are those which are the least disciplined and the least successful, such as “Bomb” and “Power.”

While bathing in sensation may be a fruitless undertaking in the context of every-day life, it may be of positive value to the poet if the raw intensity of his perceptions can be successfully translated into his poetry. Lyrical poetry speaks most eloquently in the grammar of feeling, and Gregory Corso has a talent for feeling. Although his poems impulsively avoid the limitations of rhyme and meter, they show, at his best, the sure control of a poetic intuition. His work is always intensely personal; his lyric sense combined with a Renaissance infatuation and an almost tragic irony gives his poems a strikingly unique tone.

Though he might not admit it, Gregory Corso is a poet in the true romantic tradition of Keats and Shelley. For him, art is not contingent on reality. It creates reality and the poet like a great magician or a Prince Charming comes to waken the sleeping world with the kiss of spring. In the poem “In the Fleeting Hand of Time,” he shows the failure of the poet's vision when reality intrudes. The poem is an extremely revealing one in terms of Corso's personality for it expresses his acute sense of the chasm between his Julien Sorel dreams of Alexandrian conquest and the actual world that confronts him. It is a poem about the birth of the poet, describing how, out of all the points in historical time that offer potential lives of grandeur, he is thrust forth into a small room on Bleecker Street to live a life totally devoid of the glory he himself would have chosen.

At the opening of the poem, the narrator is standing “on the steps of the bright madhouse” which symbolize the limbo of prenatal time. He hears the “bearded bell shaking down the woodlawn,” the bell that signals him into the inner room where the precise moment of his birth will be decided. He enters into the presence of a fiery gathering of knights who are going over “sheepskin plans,” the diplomas with which one graduates into life. The knights represent the master-planners whose decision will determine the time and place of his birth. The knight image, the mailcoated fingers suggest a mystic orderliness in their gesture—that all will be duly performed according to a sacred code. The fingers trace his arrival back to “the black steps of Nero lyre Rome,” the narrator whose birth is about to take place is engulfed in all the past history which has gone before. As part of humanity and even more important as the poet, he was present at the mad cataclysm that was Rome's destruction. The poet holds truth in his arms like a wailing philosopher who gives “the final call of mad history,” or who stands aside and watches the irrevocable marching of a society toward destruction and screams his prophecy.

Suddenly his presence is known; the curtains of past time fall away; the “great windows of Paradise open” to let in flocks of birds, “winged light” signifying the light of birth. Time leads him by the hand and abruptly the tone shifts to the colloquial—“born March 26 1930 I am led 100 mph o'er the vast market of choice” but “the vast market of choice” is irrevocably limited by “March 26 1930.”

Leaving his “orange room of myth,” the poet leaves the vast potential of history with no means of locking away his “toys of Zeus” or of safeguarding his dreams of power. “I choose the room of Bleecker Street”—from “the orange room of myth” he is plunged into the actual room on Bleecker Street where he was born. It is a “baby mother” who nurses him as opposed to the “Olympian mother” to whom he aspires and on whom he calls in desperation at the unexpected squalor he has been born into. The experienced life offers only drabness and sordidness—“Snows / Decade of icy asphalt / doomed horses / Weak dreams / Dark corridors of P.S. 42 Roofs Ratthroated pigeons.” In his new world even the horses are doomed and dreams are weak.

The poet sheds his “Hermean wings” when the glory he envisioned is replaced by the “all too real Mafia streets” of the poor Italian section. In shedding his “Hermean wings,” he is obliged to put aside his godly image of himself as Hermes, son of Zeus, and herald to the gods. Yet, in a sense, he will pursue his heraldic role as a poet.

Begging to be thrown beneath a “humanity of cars,” he appeals to Time to destroy him by the machinery of modern civilization, a civilization so grossly opposed to the others in which he might have lived. Ultimately, he is forced to “discard his lyre of Orphic futility” as he was obliged to shed his Hermean wings. Though Orpheus' lyre gained him entrance into the kingdom of death, he failed to bring Eurydice back to life with him. And so the narrator poet recognizes that the force of his art is insufficient to reverse the hand of Time.

The second stanza returns to the starting point where the narrator is climbing the stairs toward the room where his birth will be decided. He knows now that his birth will be a betrayal but implacable Time, like a dog chasing its tail in circles, comes and leads him “into conditional life.” And so Julien Sorel puts on a clown face and steps into the Woody Wood Pecker cartoon.

Despite all Kerouac's and Ginsberg's screaming against the sterility of form in literature, Corso, himself, isn't quite so certain. When speaking to someone outside the inner circle, he often confides, “They all keep telling me I gotta have form, putting me down because I don't have form,” and then looking bewildered, he demands, “Do you think I need form?”

On the steps of the bright madhouse
I hear the bearded bell shaking down the woodlawn
the final knell of my world
I climb and enter a fiery gathering of knights
they unaware of my presence lay forth sheepskin plans
and with mailcoated fingers trace my arrival
back back back when on the black steps of Nero lyre Rome I stood
in my arms the wailing philosopher
the final call of mad history
Now my presence is known
my arrival marked by illuminated stains
The great windows of Paradise open
Down to radiant dust fall the curtains of Past Time
in fly flocks of multicolored birds
Light winged light O the wonder of light
Time takes me by the hand
born March 26 1930 I am led 100 mph o'er the vast market of choice
what to choose? what to choose?
Oh———and I leave my orange room of myth
no chance to lock away my toys of Zeus
I choose the room of Bleecker Street
A baby mother stuffs my mouth with a pale Milanese breast
I suck I struggle I cry O Olympian mother
unfamiliar this breast to me
Snows
Decade of icy asphalt doomed horses
Weak dreams           Dark corridors of P.S. 42           Roofs           Ratthroated pigeons
Led 100 mph over these all too real Mafia streets
profanely I shed my Hermean wings
O Time be merciful
throw me beneath your humanity of cars
feed me to giant grey skyscrapers
exhaust my heart to your bridges
I discard my lyre of Orphic futility
And for such betrayal I climb these bright mad steps
and enter this room of paradisiacal light
ephemeral
Time
a long long dog having chased its orbited tail
comes grab my hand
and leads me into conditional life

“In the Fleeting Hand of Time”

Further Reading

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

CRITICISM

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 context of the Beat movement, praising his sense of form and compassion.

Ciardi, John. “Epitaph for the Dead Beats.” In Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album, pp. 252–60. Edited by Fred W. McDarrah. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.

A reminiscence of life among poets in New York in the 1950s.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Introduction.” In Gasoline, by Gregory Corso, p. 7. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1958.

Provides a glowing introduction to Corso's collection.

Harney, Steve. “Ethnos and the Beat Poets.” Journal of American Studies 25, No. 3 (December 1991): 362–80.

Compares the role of ethnicity in the writings of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, and Corso.

Howard, Richard. “Gregory Corso.” Iin Alone with America: The Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, pp. 57–64. Thames and Hudson, 1970.

Attempts to separate Corso's skill and success from the poet's self-promotion and excesses.

Levine, Rosalind. Review of Gasoline, in Poetry, Vol. 93, No. 3 (December, 1958): 183–84.

Levine finds that most of the poems in Gasoline evoke a sense of discovery.

Review of Mindfield: New & Selected Poems. Publishers Weekly 236 (10 November 1989): 57.

Favorable review of Mindfield.

Sayre, Nora. “The Poet's Theatre: A Memoir of the Fifties.” Grand Street, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Spring 1984): 92–105.

Discusses the Poet's Theatre, a group of poets in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1950s.

Skau, Michael. A Clown in a Grave: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, 272 pp.

Examines Corso's complex imagination, humor, and poetic techniques in dealing with America, the Beat generation, and death.

Thurley, Geoffrey. “The Development of the New Language: Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gregory Corso.” In The Beats: Essays in Criticism, pp. 165–80. Edited by Lee Bartlett, New York: McFarland, 1981.

Thurley compares the work of three Beat writers, praising Corso's creation of witty, surreal fantasy.

Additional coverage of Corso's career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors First Revision Series, Vols. 5–8; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 76; Contemporary Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 11; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.

Edward Seidensticker (essay date 1963)

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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 St. Francis in the strange and spendthrift “al tongue” he has made for himself:

I praise you your love,
Your benedictions of animals and
                    men,
When the night-horn blew,
And the world's property was disproportioned,
Where ere the winged children,
The rabbit,
The afterglow—
Good human tree, birds come to
                    rest;
Not only those which chirp
But also those that honk and caw …

The syntax is dubious; the when and where mere rhythmic pointers; the images dissolving the barrier between feeling and world; and the thought as simple and utopian as can be. What saves the poem as a poem is the very inability of language to deaden the jubilee spirit of the poet. For language, like the church, like law, all of which end in death,

Death is not man's property
Yet man has raised a vast Hilton
                    there—

tends to become to an antinomian like Corso something external to man, a piece of real estate detached from (to adapt one of his phrases) the “goodly compassionate mouth.” An utopian and oral poetry like his refuses to be an object and to be pointed at as I am now doing: it tries to be speech that does not know the negative, therefore adds instead of subtracts, and subsumes contraries in its affirmative sweep. It coins strong horizontal or vertical appositions that possess some of the weight of formal verse:

32 years old and four hard real
                    funny sad bad wonderful books
                    of poetry
Rikers Island, Ellis Island, Welfare
                    Island; there the demons, those
                    sad mad structures …

Yet in this book, which is not his best, Corso is too charming. He writes poetry but very few poems. The situations, that is to say, are trivial or not sustained; there is rarely a conventional “whole poem.” His high or didactic style is more easily recognized now as a debased version of what the Romantics stole from religious effusion, but then it was a Promethean act. His simpler or descriptive style, as in “A City Child's Day” or “Second Night in N.Y.C. after 3 Years,” is full of good spirits, yet also too easy in spirit. Why can't he shake off the boy-prophet? He is an authentic sayer, and not afraid of palpable statement, yet style and vision rarely rise above the aid of Capital Abstractions: “Man is the victory of life, / And Christ be the victory of man— / king of the universe is man, creator of gods …” Only here and there a true Blakean moment, and a genuine artifice:

Air his fuel, will his engine, legs
                    his wheels,
Eyes the steer, ears the alert …

This is putting first things first. Compare Blake's “The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands and feet Proportion.” That his thought is still reducible to a few proverbs of hell is no defect; but let him write more poems like “Phaestos is a Village with 25 Families,” in which the unity of man is affirmed by the most universal and reconciling act in the world:

Thus out into the pitch dark we
                    staggered
behind the taverna we went
where
beneath the starriest sky I ever saw
we all did wondrously pee

Robin Skelton (essay date 1963)

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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 course. Vernon Watkins, an elder member of the Bards, can become prolix and pretentious because of his interest in the tunes he plays. Norman McCaig can allow his fascination with the vividly metaphysical exploration of visual detail to produce poems that are so insistently lively as to appear frenzied. Thomas Kinsella, on the other hand, can slow down his poems with such deliberate Tennysonian richness, that they become petrified at the spectacle of their own technical authority.

Attacking these weak points of the Bards, the Belligerents would do very well indeed. Gregory Corso, though weakly Whitmanesque from time to time, and cursed with a fundamental inability to prevent his diction slithering uneasily from the literary to the vernacular without any control at all, does show a certain freshness of approach. His central images are often graphically cinematic. He has moved in his later work towards poems which express ideas as well as attitudes. And his lack of any real musical ability does make a man like Vernon Watkins seem pretentious. One could say much the same of Vernon Scannell, whose Sense of Danger leads him to portray, in vivid journalistic detail, and with audenesque strength and wryness, such important phenomena of our time as rapes, murders, dead dogs, coffee bars, psychopaths, incendiaries, and ageing schoolmasters. Set up against Norman McCaig's world of intellectual delight and mythical richness his direct passions seem importantly down-to-earth. And yet, if one looks closer, Mr. Scannell's language is undistinguished to the point of being commonplace; his rhythms are orthodox and rather dull: he has taken the technical discoveries of the old Yeats and of Auden and used them to good effect, but he hasn't adventured any farther on his own. But he does seem to be intensely sincere, and tremendously concerned; he's more upset about things than Mr. McCaig, that's clear.

Mr. Kinsella is also upset, but in a sort of hieratic fashion. His poem about Atomic Horror, and his poem about Ireland's bloody history, are much more measured and universal than D. J. Enright's bitter, level-voiced, “In Memoriam”. Mr. Enright, indeed, resolutely avoids all the effects for which Mr. Kinsella searches. His simplicities are different ones, and his angers are different. Sometimes only the sheer pressure of his statements, as being evidence we cannot ignore, prevents his verse from losing all pretention to poetry. And it is often when he is most nearly not writing poetry that he is most movingly, intelligently, and convincingly successful. Enright has great powers, and great control over them. His work has improved steadily over the years until now he is clearly one of the most interesting poets writing.

And yet, I would say the same of Kinsella, beside whose traditional rhetorics Mr. Enright's mean diction and acrid disputatiousness look petty. Kinsella, undoubtedly the leading Irish Poet of the post-Patrick Kavanagh generation, has gone farther than almost all his fellow-bards in solving the problems of making new structures which shall be simultaneously of our day, and of our history. He can set a “romantic” or a “metaphysical” image in a structure which can also contain the deft bathos we expect from poets of our own time. In ‘Mirror in February’ we get:

Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.

This contrasts sharply with Vernon Scannell's similarly gloomy reflection:

And now another autumn morning finds me
                    With chalk dust on my sleeve and in my breath,
Preoccupied with vague, habitual speculation
                    On the huge inevitability of death.

Neatly done, but no more than neatly. In other poems Scannell shows the same traits. One feels almost as if, though fascinated and troubled by life, he is not really interested in the art-form which he practises—he adopts such undistinguished modes of expression. Vernon Watkins, on the other hand, is clearly Proud of Poetry. He laments the death of Keats and pays tributes to Wordsworth, Heine, Holderlin, and Dylan Thomas. The fundamental laziness of Mr. Watkins's verse is shown over and over again. For example,

The barren mountains were his theme,
Nature the force that made him strong.
This day died one who, like a stone,
Altered the course of English song.

This, the opening verse of a poem on Wordsworth, is typical of Mr. Watkins's pedestrian moments. Other moments there are, of course, but not too many. It is a sad business, for Mr. Watkins clearly is an earnest and good man who is completely possessed by his poetic vocation. His language, however, is dead, his rhythms are mechanical, and his cadences, though carefully made, only superficially attractive. Enright's best poems cut deeper, but a lot of them are quick scratches at the temptingly pink-and-white complexion of some easy generalization. These make him sound, often, like a poetical Bernard Levin, and the cleverness, the dexterity of the language, can't conceal the self-approving gleam.

Run over by a car? Beg its pardon speedily,
Before you are charged with subversive leanings.
If drunken cops black your two eyes
Proffer them a third, to show your heart is in the right place.
Drop no coin in a beggar's bowl:
it suggests imperfect admiration for the country's standard of living. …

Norman McCaig is never as superficial as Enright, and never never never as dull as Vernon Watkins. His springs of Helicon have something of alka-seltzer about them; they effervesce and cheer without inebriating. They have great distinction, both in wit and wisdom. They have profundity of thought, and are often moving. In fact, on this showing (and on the showing of McCaig's last three books, come to that), I'd place him firmly in my all-England team against the Americans, alongside the best of the Belligerents. Take this for example:

Three heifers slouch by, trailing down the road
A hundred yards of milky breath—they rip
The grasses sideways. Waterdrops still drip
From the turned tap and tinily explode
On their flat stone. An unseen bird goes by,
Its little feathers hushing the whole sky.

McCaig is superb!

Much has been said about American poetry being ahead of ours at present. Certainly there are fine poets writing across the Atlantic, but those whose work is published over here are not always of the top rank. Gregory Corso cannot compare, for example, with Robert Creeley, Anne Sexton, George Starbuck, David Wagoner—to mention four only of the poets whose work is unknown in England. And why in the name of heaven are we still waiting for adequate editions or selections of William Carlos Williams? Poetry is, or should be, internationalist; more American poetry should appear over here, and more British and Irish over there. We need to have Weldon Kees, Irving Layton, Charles Reznikoff, William Stafford: they need to read, of the authors under discussion, Norman McCaig and Thomas Kinsella.

Bruce Cook (essay date 1971)

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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
market
                    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 Dos Passos in the prologue to U.S.A. who “walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough … he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the wantads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boarding-houses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough.”

Corso is Saul Bellow's Eugene Henderson, running through the frozen fields of Newfoundland, chanting “I want, I want, I want” to himself. But what is it that Gregory Corso wants? What does he thirst for so insatiably?

I want no song Power
I want no dream Power
I want no driven-car Power
I want I want I want Power!

He wants, in other words, what life has denied him, a sense of mastery, a feeling of achievement to match the hungry, restless desire within him. His has been a hunger of expectation, peculiarly American in its restless, all-devouring, urgent desire. Corso, the poet, is self-invented, a fantasy projection of his own John Garfield self, the slum kid who wants all, takes all, only to feel it trickle through his fingers as he grasps it tight in his hands.

The son of Italian immigrants, Gregory Corso was born in New York and grew up on Bleeker Street. His mother died when he was quite young, and his father remains a hazy figure even, apparently, to Corso. He was a street kid. He claims never to have attended high school; at thirteen, according to Carolyn Gaiser,1 he spent some time in the children's observation ward at Bellevue. At sixteen—again according to Miss Gaiser—he and two of his friends devised a fantastic and complicated master plan for robbery, involving the use of walkie-talkie radios on which Corso was to give orders to the other two. Evidently they put the plan into operation at least once, for what is certain is that Corso was arrested and at sixteen was sentenced to a term in Clinton Prison, Dannemora, New York, for robbery.

Far from embittering him, his prison years seem to be remembered by Corso almost as an enriching experience. He has remarked on the maturing effect that it had on him and went so far as to dedicate his second book, Gasoline, to “the angels of Clinton Prison who, in my 17th year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination.” He began to read in prison and even started in a rather tentative way to write.

Upon his release, he met Allen Ginsberg and started on the course that in less than ten years brought him national prominence. Perhaps, even probably, his life would not have taken the turn that it did had it not been for Ginsberg. Corso was young—only nineteen, he says—impressionable and eager; yet without knowing quite what he wanted nor what he was eager for. Ginsberg set him straight on that.

Through him, Corso was introduced to the whole New York Beat scene. He met Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and eventually William S. Burroughs as well. But at least as important to his development as a poet was his meeting with Mark Van Doren, also arranged by Ginsberg. The great Columbia teacher was the first writer with an established reputation that Corso had encountered until then. He was also a man of academic standing, and to Corso, who had none whatever, this was quite impressive, perhaps disproportionately so. Van Doren looked at Corso's jail poems, commented on them as tactfully and in about the same way he would to any of his students, and encouraged Corso to write more. Corso visited him a number of times and speaks of Van Doren as an important personal influence.

After hanging around New York and soaking all this in for something better than a year, he wandered off to the West Coast and lived for a while in Los Angeles. Returning east, he went to sea, shipping out through 1952 and 1953 on Norwegian vessels on cross-Atlantic runs. And then he settled down for a while without quite intending to, accepting an invitation to visit Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had wanted to see Harvard, and he had been told that it would be all right for him to read there in the library. He liked it. What he intended to be just a visit lasted the better part of two years:

In spite of voices—
Cambridge and all its regions
Its horned churches with fawns' feet
Its white-haired young
                    and ashfoot legions—
I decided to spend the night
But that hipster-tone of my vision agent
Decided to reconcile his sound with the sea
                    leaving me flat
North of the Charles
                                        So now I'm stuck here—
                                        a subterranean
                                        lashed to a pinnacle. …

But no, his testimony here notwithstanding, Corso wasn't left flat. He put his time to good use there, reading regularly and according to a plan he had worked out, writing his first successful poems, and making friends among the Harvard students and university hangers-on. He managed to get a few of these Cambridge poems published in periodicals of one kind or another, attracted some attention with them, and when his Harvard friends offered to publish a collection of them, Corso was delighted. Pledges were made, subscriptions taken, and in 1955 The Vestal Lady on Brattle was published.

The poems in the book, which include “In the Tunnel Bone of Cambridge,” whose first stanza I quoted, are an uneven lot—not surprising for a first book, of course. But it is not only that the quality of the individual pieces is rather up and down, but that the forms and the diction of his poems vary markedly as well. He will jump from rhymed and metered short lines on one page to sprawling Whitmanesque free-verse stanzas on the next. Short lines predominate, however; and these are more or less in the William Carlos Williams mode of the early Allen Ginsberg (see Empty Mirror). The diction of the poems is what is most original in them—sometimes awkward, occasionally leaden, even once or twice simply in error—but usually the words and the voice that speaks them are distinctive and recognizably Corso's own. He does, on a few occasions, however, indulge in a few flashing flights of language that ill suit the subject matter of his poems. The influence here would seem to be Shelley, whose ardent fan and loyal reader Corso had become.

Following the publication of The Vestal Lady on Brattle, which failed to attract any review attention to speak of, Corso began traveling again. He went to Mexico in 1956 and then out to the West Coast with Ginsberg and was there in San Francisco as Raphael Urso through the crazy scenes described by Jack Kerouac in Desolation Angels. But it wasn't long before Corso was wandering once more—to Europe this time where he kept on writing and sending the poems back to Ginsberg who was conscientious in getting them published. A few were brought out in various literary magazines, but the real triumph came when Ginsberg arranged for book publication.

Gasoline, as his second collection was called, is the eighth book in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets Series and the only one for which Allen Ginsberg has written an Introduction. In it, he eulogizes appropriately enough, though he seems unwilling to consider Corso's work at any level but its surface of language: “But what is he saying? Who cares?! It's said!” Corso is a poet with a limited number of themes which he tends to repeat with variations over and over again. The best of the Gasoline poems—or at any rate, the most successful—are the shorter pieces, most of them made up of bits of nostalgia and simple, though very precise, description. Sometimes, however, Corso's memories are of a darker sort—as in “Italian Extravaganza”:

Mrs. Lombardi's month-old son is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo's funeral parlor,
A small purplish wrinkled head.
They've just finished having high mass for it;
They're coming out now
… wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.

Corso shows an uncanny ability in some of these shorter poems to touch reality directly with language. In the descriptive section of his poem for trumpeter Miles Davis, “For Miles,” he comes about as close as any poet has to recreating in words the feeling created by music in the listener:

Your sound is faultless
          pure & round
                    holy
          almost profound
Your sound is your sound
          true & from within
          a confession
          soulful & lovely. …

Yet this one dithers off predictably into an I-remember-one-night bit of irrelevance that only detracts from the passage that precedes it. There are very few wholly good poems in Corso's first two books. Even in “Italian Extravaganza,” which I like very much, there is the willful discord of “… wow, such a small coffin!” It is there, of course, just as Corso intended it to be, as a fingernail scraped across the blackboard, a fail-safe device against the sentimentality lurking in its subject matter. And yet … and yet … Perhaps something a little less conventionally conversational would have worked better.

And while there are few wholly good poems in Gasoline, there is one that seems wholly bad, and that is “Ode to Coit Tower,” a bombastically affirmative jumble of mock-Shelley set out in the Whitman-style long lines that Allen Ginsberg had then lately adapted to his own purposes. There is a counterfeit quality, more or less apparent, in all the long poems in this collection. They are enthusiastic, energetic, and positive—and in this they are genuine enough—but the voice behind the words seems to be not quite Corso's own. Or perhaps it is Corso pulling ventriloquist's tricks, trying different voices from that vast market of choice. Refusing, ultimately, to choose his own.

Gregory Corso came back from Europe in 1957 for the publication of Gasoline and was on the scene at just the moment that the Beat Generation thing was beginning to explode. He completed the trio that posed for the photos and talked to reporters. In the beginning, at least, he gloried in the role of the bad boy. He made sure everyone knew he had served time at Dannermora, muttered non sequiturs and putons whenever he was interviewed, and told Life magazine's Paul O'Neil that he had never combed his hair, “although I guess I'd get the bugs out of it if I did.” Yet quite unexpectedly, he began to attract some real critical interest at the poetry readings he gave with Allen Ginsberg with a poem called “Marriage.” It is a long, 111-line work with no narrative thread to sustain it—only the dialectic of a rambling and delightful debate on the pros and cons of the matrimonial state. Quite fittingly—because it answers so few of them—“Marriage” begins by asking questions:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and
                    faustus hood?

And as the poem progresses, he asks more questions, examines all the possibilities, and imagines all the situations. Yet he does so in perfect comic detail and with genuine sympathy for all concerned:

O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou! …
And the priest! he looking at me as if I masturbated
asking me Do you take this woman for your lawful wedded                                                                                                     wife?
And I trembling what to say say Pie Glue!

He fantasizes on the honeymoon horrors of Niagara (“The whistling elevator man he knowing / The winking bellboy knowing”) and threatens to foil them all by becoming “the Mad Honeymooner / devising ways to break marriages, a scourge of bigamy / a saint of divorce—”

Yet as funny and entertaining as all this certainly is, it is not merely that, for in its zany way “Marriage” offers serious criticism of what is phony about a sacred American institution. That it was done with good humor and a sense of comedy throughout does not dull its sharp cutting edge in the slightest, for genuine wit and Corso's finest, most casually precise, use of language save the day. With what beautiful fluency it seems to pour forth! It is one of the best-sustained performances in the conversational style to come from any American poet of the post-World War II generation. And it is easily one of the two or three most important poems to come from the Beats.

Yet in it, characteristically, Corso manages to hedge. A poem pondering a choice—“Should I get married? Should I be good?”—concludes with no choice made. Ultimately, he seems to lack the courage of his convictions. Without really rejecting marriage, he manages to accept it only as an abstract notion, a possibility:

Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible
then marriage would be possible—
Like She in her alien gaud waiting her Egyptian lover
so I wait—bereft of 2,000 years and the bath of life.

Not to quibble, however, for in the writing of “Marriage,” Corso did make a choice, his most important, for the matter and form of it are distinctly his own. It was the first long poem entirely and successfully in his own voice.

It would be good to be able to say that all the other poems in the collection The Happy Birthday of Death, in which “Marriage” eventually appeared, were just as distinctive, just as certainly his. But reading through its pages will show you they are not. Some are, of course; the delightful “Hair” is certainly one of these. Yet in so many of the others he persists in straining after Ginsberg and Shelley, dropping classical allusions, and attacking subjects that do not suit his talents.

And the same might be said of Corso's next collection, Long Live Man, published two years later. There is an uneven quality to this one, too—yet with a few differences. The frenetic manner of “Power,” “Army,” and “Police” of the previous collection, which I would attribute to Allen Ginsberg's strong and persistent influence, is largely absent from Long Live Man. For the most part, it is quieter, more restrained, and alas, generally less interesting than the earlier Corso; somehow a bit of the zip is gone from his work. Yet, finally, a new quality is there. Gregory Corso, zipless though he be, has something more to offer:

I am 32 years old
and finally I look my age, if not more.
Is it a good face what's no more a boy's face?
It seems fatter And my hair,
it's stopped being curly. Is my nose big?
The lips are the same.
And the eyes, ah the eyes get better all the time.
32 and no wife, no baby; no baby hurts,
                    but there's lots of time.
I don't act silly any more.
And because of it I have to hear from so-called friends:
“You've changed. You used to be so crazy so great.”
They are not comfortable with me when I'm serious. …

The mood is valedictory. This poem, “Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday,” which is the last in the collection, is in the nature of a careful kind of summing-up, an inventory of his youth. There is an absence of bravado, an utter honesty to the poem that does more than charm: it invites our admiration.

I think I had a pretty weird 32 years.
And it weren't up to me, none of it.
No choice of two roads; if there were,
          I don't doubt I'd have chosen both.

It ends in a reaffirmation of his vocation as poet and offers—no, not wisdom, but the promise of wisdom to come. He carefully refrained from publishing anything anywhere until a number of years had elapsed.

And a marriage, too. In 1963 Corso met and married Sally November, then twenty-five, a schoolteacher from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Yes, as it turned out, she had heard of the Beat Generation and all that, but never of Gregory Corso until she met him, and he liked her all the better for it. When a reporter from Newsweek tracked down the couple on their honeymoon and chided Corso with the sentiments the poet himself has expressed in “Marriage,” Corso replied quite coolly, “Getting married means having a child. I have never denied life. One falls in love. Is that conforming?”

That first summer they were to spend counseling at a summer camp in upstate New York. And after that, well, he was working on a sort of travel book which would contain all that he had seen and experienced over the last several years. Yet somehow, that book never got written and money got to be a problem. Because of his jailbird background and his lack of formal education, and because of the unconventional, hand-to-mouth poet's life he had led until getting married, Corso soon found it difficult to earn a living in the straight world. He tried, all right, but somehow it seemed he was always unqualified or uninterested. Finally, after a couple of false starts, he agreed to go back to Cleveland to work in his father-in-law's florist shop. At that, too, he failed rather spectacularly. “He was honestly eager to make good,” a friend of Corso's told me, “but working for her father was a disaster right from the start. It was very, very sad for him, but at the same time very funny in its particulars. Gregory would get carried away and give away flowers, fail to ring up sales, and in general just failed to do the things a clerk in a flower shop was required to do.”

In what he may well have considered his final performance as breadwinner, Corso accepted an offer to come to the State University of New York at Buffalo as a teacher. He had hoped for years to find some sort of teaching job and now he was delighted at being given the opportunity at last. Not only was this a way to earn money in the present, it also offered the possibility of a rosy future of straight jobs. All that stood between him and a productive life in the straight world was the Feinberg certificate.

He knew about it when he took the job, all right—but somehow he supposed they would make an exception for him. After all, weren't there already five cases being pressed to test the constitutionality of the state law requiring the signing of the certificate? Didn't everyone agree it would never stand up in court?

The Feinberg certificate (named after the state legislator who had introduced the measure) was a written declaration to the effect that the signer was not then a Communist, and that if he ever had been, he had so informed the proper authorities. In this case the proper authority was understood to be the head of the university, for signing was required of all state university teachers in New York.

Gregory Corso came to the State University at Buffalo in January 1965 and began teaching a course in Shelley—his old favorite—two nights a week. But he delayed signing the certificate, and then—on principle—refused outright. He was dismissed on March 8. Students were outraged, rallied to Corso's cause, and began picketing the university. But somehow nothing ever came of it. Afterward, the students blamed the faculty for failing to come out openly in his support; if they had, students said, the administration might have backed down.

And yes, it was only a short time—before the Feinberg certificate was withdrawn. State university teachers no longer have to sign it. But that, of course, did Gregory Corso no good. By then, he had left America on his longest ramble, his marriage now broken beyond repair. He stayed away for over two years, shifting his scenery at will, but favoring the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean islands, and Greece. He felt closer to something important there. He had started writing again.

In the fall of 1967, when I met and talked with Gregory Corso, he had only been back to America a short time. He was living in the West Village then, far west, on Greenwich Street, a block of warehouses with a single corner tenement not too far from Sheridan Square. Corso was there on the ground floor of that tenement. “Ring the unmarked bell,” Peter Orlovsky had told me. “I'll tell him you're coming and when. He'll be expecting you.” I later heard that there was a little tension at the time between Corso and the members of the Ginsberg household, due to the fact that he was then financially semidependent on Ginsberg's Foundation for Poetry, Incorporated. I would never have guessed it, however, from the easy greeting I got from Corso and the warmth with which he spoke of Ginsberg.

It was a bare, makeshift sort of place with pillows, a sleeping bag, and a mattress for furniture. No pictures on the wall. No decorations of any sort. It occurred to me that Corso could have packed and left the apartment in five minutes flat. Still, there was a peculiar charm to it, especially when he showed me out the back way to a little overgrown garden. We sat there on deck chairs and talked at length in the autumn sun. There were cats around, two or three of them, as I recall. They wound their way in and out around our feet, coming and going indolently through the door into Corso's apartment. From time to time, he would pick up one of the cats and hold it in his lap, stroking it comfortably as he talked on. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald, I think, who suggested that all the world might be divided between those who were fundamentally canine and those who were feline. Gregory Corso, I discovered to my surprise, was pure cat.

Talk turned early to his teaching experience at Buffalo. He brought it up, wanted to talk about it, and betrayed no bitterness as he recalled what it meant to him. “Buffalo was a great experience for me. It really was. You knew I was fired? About the Feinberg loyalty oath and all?”

“Yes,” I said, “I heard something about it but I'd like to hear it from you.”

“Well, I was teaching a course in Shelley. Imagine that. Of all the people who wouldn't sign a loyalty oath it's Shelley! And of course the way I left was lousy, but the actual teaching I enjoyed. I was very socratic in my approach. I just kept asking questions and let the kids answer them and that way we managed to pick up all the major themes in his work. And so I was learning, too—from their answers. If you can have real rapport with twenty people in a class like that, well, it's just great. I'd say I approached that with them.”

Did he see a future for himself in teaching as he was doing there at Buffalo?

“I guess I must have thought so for a while,” Corso said. “Here were these great people like Charles Olson and Fiedler who were there, and sure, of course I wanted to be a part of that. Who wouldn't? But now that I'm away from it, I honestly doubt that I could do this as a regular pattern.”

He talked a little about his own self-education—his stretch at Clinton State Prison, his two years at Harvard (“It was a great ball. My friends would get me into classes or the library by day and I would write by night”), and his endless travels. “As for myself,” he said, “I've always had this great enthusiasm for things. Maybe too much. I don't know. I get excited by places I go, people I meet, things I read. And when I get excited, that's when I start to think and learn.”

From whom had he learned? From what? “The thing that hit me hard when I was starting out to learn was where you go to look for wisdom. And then the answer, who can a poet go to but to another poet?” He broke off, laughing, then added almost as an afterthought, “not to that Catholic God anymore! One man I read a lot and learned from was Randall Jarrell. He made me see things around me—fat ladies at the supermarket. Look at that, he says. What? you say, because you don't see anything great about them. But then suddenly you do! He illuminated me this way, got me to see.

“And of course you learn from experience. I've had a weird thirty-seven years, let me tell you. I could write a real potboiler about all the things that happened to me. I won't, but I might write a play.”

I asked about the sources of his poetry. What influence had his reading had on it? His experience? “Oh, well, it all plays a part. You know.” He shrugged. “As a poet, of course, I'm stuck with getting at it through language. That's the prime interest with some poets. Though some people would say I'm crazy on this I think that's McClure's prime interest—language. So sure, of course, I'm into that, but I'm also stuck with myself, with everything I was and am at the moment I write. So in that way, see, I've always written for myself. But poets who always inject themselves into their poetry usually have a lousy Yin.” Said at his own expense and in the manner of an embarrassed confession, although he did not bother to make his meaning explicit. (The idea was that the feminine, passive side of his personality was underdeveloped.)

“Today,” he continued, “if you can make it perfect here”—he tapped at his chest above his heart—“then it will be perfect on the page. But it's hard, you know? Death, life, and society are always pushing into your thoughts. Sometimes you can't clear them out of your head and take up the routine of writing. It takes certainty to really do it. That's the thing. Some pretend to have it. I don't. My friend Allen [Ginsberg] really had it, and I envy him. He knows where he's at, where he is all the time. I certainly don't.” Corso made a vague gesture of helplessness, and added as though to himself, “Does a bag of water have to go through all this?”

I was puzzled. “A bag of water?” I asked, having no idea, really, what he meant.

He shrugs, “Oh, that's what Burroughs says. He says we're all just bodies, just bags of water, so why worry about anything.” Corso suddenly assumed an attitude and began speaking in a nasal drawl that I realized must be an imitation of Burroughs: “You're on a sinking ship, man, you've got to have it now. Let havoc happen. Why worry about wars? They happen.” Then, suddenly, he was Corso again, pressing the point eagerly. “But myself, I question the idea that I'm just a bag of water. My body may be, but I'm not yet convinced that I am. I think I'm a reality greater than that. I remember once I was with Timothy Leary, and Burroughs, and Francis Bacon in Tangier, and I was trying to show Burroughs what I meant. And so I told them that I could get rid of them all with a single bullet, if I wanted to. Like this—” He made a finger-and-thumb pistol and raised it to his temple in demonstration—“Bang! They're gone, see, but I'd still be there.”

He had just brought up Burroughs and had mentioned Ginsberg a couple of times already, and so just touching base, I asked him about Kerouac.

“Jack? I'm occasionally in contact with him. I guess I saw him last about two years ago. He's a sweet soul. Really, he is. You know, he married a Greek woman, a childhood love of his—married her in his forty-third year. See? He's getting on. So am I. I'm thirty-seven years old now. None of us are young in the way we were when the mass media ‘discovered’ us.”

“When you became the Beat Generation?”

“That's right.” He leaned back and squinted up for a moment into the sunny September sky. “All it was was four people. I don't know if that's a generation. Can you call that a generation? That's more of a Madison Avenue thing. It was like here we were, speaking in our own voices, and the mass media couldn't control us, so they did the next best thing, they ‘discovered’ us.”

“But something did come of it all, didn't it?” I asked. “Didn't a kind of revolution take place?”

“Okay,” he waggled his hand indifferently, “maybe a kind of revolution, but a revolution without one drop of blood spilled, mostly a revolution in poetry. I'll grant you the hippie business, these kids you see today down on St. Mark's Place, that's right from us, out of our little bag of tricks. Did we influence them? Well, they don't write, so you can't tell that way, but just go down there and look around. The hippies are acting out what the Beats wrote. The whole thing worked out with us like a Madison Avenue ad campaign or something—you know, how they say something's going to happen, and suddenly it is there, maybe just because it was predicted.”

I asked Corso about the writing he had been doing. I had seen nothing for some time. “Maybe I just didn't look in the right places?”

“No,” he said with an emphatic shake of the head. “I haven't had anything published in the last four years.”

“Why not?” I asked. “You haven't stopped writing, have you?”

“Oh no, no. Come here. Let me show you.” He got up and led the way back into the apartment and over to the sleeping bag. From a kind of rucksack in one corner behind it, he pulled a thick sheaf of papers. “See these?” he said. “This is four years right here—or more than four years because some of these poems I held back from before to make sure they were right. There's a lot of work here, but I have to be sure in my own heart that it's right, see. I really feel like I have to be able to stand on these poems. There's too much written and too much said today. I have to be sure these poems matter at least to me for me to publish them.

“See, that's why I've been doing all this traveling. I've spent four years thinking, trying to get right back to the source of things. I had this scary feeling that all I know about is writing and poetry, and so I made up my mind to learn. I stayed in Europe—in Greece and Crete—and I read the oldest books—Gilgamesh, the Bible, the Book of the Dead, all the Greek literature—just trying to put it together for myself.

“That's what's in these poems.” He shook the sheaf at me. “And that's why I've got to be sure about them.”

In the next few months I looked for his new book of poems, but none appeared. I tried to reach him once again in New York, just to talk, but heard that he had just left for the West Coast. How could I reach him out there? Well, he was acting funny, I was told, wasn't talking to people much. If I felt like I had to get in touch with him, I could probably write in care of Ferlinghetti at City Lights. When a trip to San Francisco was imminent, I did write to him there, but I received no reply. When I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I asked him about Corso, and he just shrugged. “He's sort of bitter now,” he said. Did he get the letter I sent? “Sure,” said Ferlinghetti. “I saw him read it myself. He just shook his head and walked away.”

Years elapsed before the sheaf of poems he showed me that afternoon in the Village appeared as a book. When at last it did, I found myself smiling frequently in recognition of ideas, phrases, and bits of personal data that had come up in our conversation. I could have made out a travel itinerary from the place names mentioned in the poems that would have matched up fairly well with the one he outlined for me. And yes, there was evidence of his scholarship in “Geometric Poem,” the odd, long, hieroglyph-festooned work whose source is clearly the Book of the Dead. And in “Eleven Times a Poem”: “I think of Gilgamesh … Gil / astride on the redcedar bronze ramp-ed ziggurat / Of all those White Bull of Heaven energies. …” Names are named, particular anecdotes recounted. It is a book that looks back on a decade and sighs.

The tone is elegiac, and this is underlined by the title: Elegiac Feelings American, after the book's long first poem, a kind of requiem in verse “for the dear memory of John Kerouac.” That one is an outstanding piece, a solemn poem for a solemn occasion which I would judge to be Gregory Corso's finest. The real accomplishment of the poem lies in the dualism of its subject. He has written a poem that is at once an elegy for a dead friend and also a memorial to a dying America:

Yours the eyes that saw, the heart that felt, the voice that
          sang and cried; and as long as America shall
          live, though ye old Kerouac body hath died,
          yet shall you live. …

Kerouac's vision of America, his love of the country—how does Corso square these with the American reality?

The prophet affects the state, and the state affects the
          prophet—What happened to you, O friend,
          happened to America, and we know what
          happened to America—the stain … the stains.
O and yet when it's asked of you “What happened to him?”
          I say “What happened to America has happened
          him—the two were inseparable” Like the wind
          to the sky is the voice to the word. …

And again, it is also a deeply personal poem, one that bespeaks a certain sense of mission and a solidarity with the other Beat protagonists that he would never admit to in conversation:

We came to announce the human spirit in the name of beauty and truth; and now this spirit cries out in nature's sake the horrendous imbalance of all things natural … elusive nature caught! like a bird in hand, harnessed and engineered in the unevolutional ways of experiment and technique

These things it does and a good deal more, for it is a very long and complex work. I have quoted enough of it, I think, to indicate the beautifully sustained high seriousness of its diction. There is nothing of the bombast or facetiousness of his early work. “Elegiac Feelings American” is a poem of great maturity and (something never before felt in Corso's work) power. It is the work of a man who has at last made a fundamental choice, an artist.

Notes

  1. In her article “Gregory Corso: A Poet the Beat Way” in Thomas Parkinson, ed., A Casebook on the Beat.

Gerard J. Dullea (essay date 1971)

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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 gave vent to self-expression. These basic principles led the Beatniks naturally into the world of the arts, especially since a certain narcissicism and exhibitionism combined with the other elements of the movement's personality. The desire to display the expression of the Self led to essentially non-representational art, whatever its genre. The art of the Beatnik, whether musical, visual, or literary, is intensely personal to the point where an outsider finds it difficult or impossible to penetrate this world. But the world confronts him nevertheless. The abstract painting and sculpture and the tortured jazz of this group are outside the present concerns, but it is undeniable that their development and influence on later artists have been parallel to those of the poetry and the poets.

The Beat poet, like other Beat artists, was faced with a crucial problem when he sought his poetic voice. To be consistent with his philosophy, which was articulated mainly in his way of life, he had to be unconventional. But no art can be utterly original, totally divorced from all previous conventions and traditions. The dominant poetic mode of the early Fifties, the tightly structured and ironic forms of the academic poets, was certainly unsuitable for the Beat, both because it was established and “proper” and because of its inherent restrictions on the poet. “Form” would have to be as free and loose as possible; free verse was the inevitable choice, even though it had been made very respectable by the generation of poets that preceded those of the academies.

Philosophical predecessors were found in the Romantics, who had accomplished their own revolution against a classical and cerebral society—not unlike midcentury America's—years before. The appeal of the Romantics was primarily in their emphasis on the emotions, in their vision of a unified world rather than a fragmented one, and in their tremendous faith in the virtually unlimited powers of the imagination to shape, control, and enjoy that cosmos. Here, tailor-made, was the Vision sought by the Beatnik, the elements of the world held together by some sort of harness and just waiting to be driven by a poet of sufficient imagination.

The most representatives voices of the Beat movement, and the best, are those of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. The poems chosen for discussion here simply represent typical characteristics of their poetry; almost any of their “mature” poems would serve as well to illuminate what seems to be central to their conceptions of poetry and to demonstrate the similarities in their poetics.

Ginsberg's “Howl,”1 like most of his poems, is in part a tribute to Walt Whitman. From Whitman, Ginsberg derived his vision of unity and his role of American prophet and chanter of the disparate facts of American life and his method of spiritual transcendence through sensual indulgence. One of the few major differences between poems such as “Howl” and “Song of Myself” (aside from their idioms, which is an unavoidable accident of chronology) is Whitman's refusal to omit anything from his love and identification and Ginsberg's clear exclusion of The Establishment and the concrete and steel structures that typify the values of that Establishment (personified as Moloch in part II of “Howl”). This basic philosophical difference leads immediately to a stylistic one: Whitman's vision is eclectic, but at least it can be understood; many of Ginsberg's words and phrases, however, are either nonsense or their meanings are so intensely personal that they appear to be nonsense to the ordinary reader. This trait goes beyond the idioms of the times, though Whitman and Ginsberg both apparently felt a need to shock their contemporaries. (At least they succeeded in doing so, whether intentionally or not.) Such shock functions to set apart the poet from the ordinary man.

Aside from his Whitmanesque rhythms, which are somewhat beyond the present concerns, the most characteristic qualities of Ginsberg's poetry are his preoccupation with sexual and scatological subjects and language and his use of absurd and surreal phrases, composed by juxtaposing illogically connected words and concepts. Each of these qualities seems intimately bound with his idea of poetry and the poet. The former, the “dirty” element, can be explained by his desire to show himself alienated from the Establishment and all its middle-class values and by his insistence on singing the song of the Self, of which the body is as much a part as is the soul. And frequently he applies terms of the soul and of religion to very physical objects and actions, thus achieving an incongruous but very real unity in his cosmos. Among the more shocking examples of this technique are the following lines from Howl”:

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and
screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors,
                    caresses, of Atlantic and Caribbean love.

This violent yoking of the physical and the spiritual is only a part of the larger technique, however, which is explained by Ginsberg himself in the same poem:

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and a dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out of the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head.

All three of these who's refer to the first line of the poem, to “the best minds of my generation.” Obviously, these “best minds” include Ginsberg and others who believe in total immersion in all kinds of sensual pleasures and yet who are attuned to some mystical and universal force that is revealed through their imaginations (the makers of images), through “images juxtaposed” that somehow transcend the reality of the middle class.

The source of the transcendence is found entirely in the Self. Some early poems, collected in Empty Mirror (New York, 1961), shed valuable light on this aspect of Ginsberg's thought. One, untitled, demonstrates clearly the reason that so much of Ginsberg's work is autobiographical:

                    I made love to myself
in the mirror, kissing my own lips,
                    saying, “I love myself
I love you more than anybody.”

From this extreme egocentricity, it is an easy step to a larger concept of the cosmos, as described in “Metaphysics”:

This is the one and only
firmament; therefore
it is the absolute world.
There is no other world.
The circle is complete.
I am living in Eternity.
The ways of this world
are the ways of Heaven.

These two ideas, the importance of the Self and the totality of the here and now, are combined in the following fragment of a meditation on Baudelaire, significantly titled “Marijuana Notation”:

                    looking into the
                    middle distance
contemplating his image
                              in Eternity.
These were his moments
                              of identity.

Since Ginsberg names no second element to the identification, he is presumably saying that Baudelaire is by this process knowing, identifying, himself.

I call the title of this last poem significant because it is impossible to underestimate (or even to estimate, for that matter) the influence of marijuana, peyote, hashish, and other hallucinogenic drugs on the poetry, imagination, and vision of the Beatniks (and on their descendants of the Sixties). Their use of these drugs can be interpreted as both a defiance of society and an attempt to explore the Self in yet another way. And in both ways, the drugs contribute heavily to the poetry that emerges. No one is sure exactly how hallucinogenics work on the human system, but all are agreed they somehow break down inhibitions, including the idea that things must be logical, that they must make sense. And since the stimuli of thoughts are sense perceptions, these sensations are similarly changed so that the senses are, or seem to be, acting in an abnormal manner. Combined, these two effects result in a situation in which a “high” person may see two objects in a room, for example not as separate entities, but as parts of each other and of the room, and their properties become interchangable. The essence of the experience is the grasp of a new unity, not unlike the unity sought and found, in some way, by most mystics and Romantics. (A student recently told me, “Emerson and Thoreau just blew their minds on nature [as opposed to LSD], that's all!”)

The experience has had different effects on the poetry of the two men here concerned. For Ginsberg, it is primarily subject matter and possibly, though this is impossible to document, a “rationale” for the fragmented organization of his verse; if everything is the same, transitions become silly and superfluous. Cataloging Ginsberg's references to the drugs and what he considers their good effects would be a long and unnecessary task. Here, for example, is only a partial list of such references in “Howl, Part I” (with minimal context): “looking for an angry fix,” “a belt of marijuana,” “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares,” “Peyote solidities of halls,” “a room full of steamheat and opium,” and “a hopeful little bit of hallucination.” Ginsberg's obvious delight in these bits of irrationality (I am assuming the psychologist's norm of conformity) and his similarly frequent and happy allusions to madness and asylums and his various but constant reference to “visions” (another abnormality) all combine to emphasize beyond doubt that Ginsberg is working with a method that depends but little on ordinary logic. The method is instead one of emotion and association (almost stream-of-consciousness) and therefore one most difficult to discuss in ordinary terms.

The secret of any success that “Howl” has lies more in emotional response from its readers than in rational and intellectual assent. There is a perverse intellectual appeal, however, in the idea that intellectuality should be abandoned in favor of utter sensuality. But the poem is structured so that the mind is constantly bombarded by so many disparate images and their connotations that it must react instantly, impressionistically. Later analysis will support the original response, but the effect is hollow, like that of explaining a joke. The relatively straightforward opening lines should demonstrate this phenomenon adequately:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
          hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an
          angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to
          the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.

The first line is virtually self-explanatory. “The best minds of my generation” refers to his friends, and the absence of commas from the series of adjectives emphasizes the wholeness of their condition. The “negro streets” means the black streets as well as the streets of the blacks, and it suggests the slums and a place where the physically oriented person might get his kicks and anything he might wish to purchase illegally. The fix is angry first because it can't be angry or anything else emotionally, and second because it assumes this quality from its seekers, who are angry because they are rebels, because they don't have the fix, and because they know it will plunge them further into their madness. They are hipsters because they “know what's happening” and take drugs, angelheaded because they are “minds” and also “heads”—drug users—and because Ginsberg uses “angel” as a universally complimentary term, here emphasizing also that they are sanctified in their quest and way of life, and are more than priests of this cult. The night is or has machinery because the phrase makes a convenient metaphor at the moment, but also because the whole universe outside of these blessed few is mechanical to stress their humanity, warmth, and general vitality. The “starry dynamo” is thus the ultimate source of power for this universal machinery, and the “angry fix” becomes the “ancient heavenly connection” (the noun is appropriately mechanical and electrical), the medium of unity with the cosmic forces. This small sample should be ample proof that the poem is not to be paraphrased.

The corollary to this point is that the poem is constructed almost in defiance of the tenets of New Criticism in that its images and allusions are frustratingly unpatterned. True, there are the general patterns suggested above (drugs, madness, visions, religion), and others (geography and history, time and eternity), and many of the myriad details could be forced into one or more of these categories, but in general the details seem to work, like the various devices of Neoclassical poetry, more in their immediate context for an immediate effect than they do in the work as a whole, relying on mood and tone and general rhythmic structure for any unity that is achieved. But they do work by themselves, whatever their overall success might be. For example, phrases such as “the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality” and “the total animal soup of time” are partially explicable in themselves, and somewhat less so in the context of the whole poem, but their immediate effect is one of black humorousness. “Absolute Reality” is in itself a frightening concept, and it is made even more so by the idea that it contains not necessarily literally taxis (again the vision of the environment is mechanical), but at least taxis which seem to act without purpose. Whereas taxis are only a quality of Absolute Reality, time both is identified with and possesses “the total animal soup,” and men are the animals existing within this soup, waiting to be devoured, either by time or with time as it waits to be devoured by other and younger men. Both of these apparently absurd images reflect the poem's concern with the futility of attempting to live within the ordinary and mechanical world and the only possible escape from that world, the Self, the Imagination.

The concluding lines of “Howl, Part I” perhaps best summarize these many aspects of Ginsberg's poetics:

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown,
          yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after
          death,
and rose incarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz
          in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of
          America's mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani
          saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own
          bodies good to eat a thousand years.

Here is the essence of Ginsberg and his poetry: intensely physical and sensual, yet seeking a religious and mystical transcendence; separated from normal society, yet claiming a messianic deliverance into a new life for that same society that he sees as persecuting him; and, most important of all, envisioning life itself to be the ultimate poem, thus explaining the intensity and exuberance of the “verbal poetry” he shares with us.

If by some chance Ginsberg ever attains the stature of a major poet, Gregory Corso probably will be remembered as an associate and a more minor poet. Such an assessment will be only partially accurate. To begin with, Corso is not and has not been a social celebrity like Ginsberg. And artists have long recognized that social celebration does no harm to their artistic reputations. However, Corso, has neither the philosophical depth or breadth of Ginsberg, which is considerable, no matter what an individual's reaction to him might be. But in many ways, Corso's poetry is more pleasing than Ginsberg's, perhaps because it is more easily recognized as being within more major traditions, especially in the sense of the poetic line; we have come to expect lines that are shorter than a page is wide. Another more comfortable aspect of Corso's poetry is that he has more “negative capability” than does Ginsberg. Like Ginsberg, and most Romantics, his constant concern is with the Self, but he nearly always manages to distill turbulent emotions so that they “merely” inform the intellectual experience of the poem, instead of comprising the poem as do Ginsberg's in “Howl,” for example.

But Corso is not an intellectual poet. Anything but. He is, like Ginsberg, a poet of the senses and of the imagination. Ginsberg himself recognizes this quality in his friend's poetry; one of his most recent volumes, Reality Sandwich (New York, 1963), includes the following dedication:

                    Dedicated to
the Pure Imaginary
                    POET
          Gregory Corso.

In this high praise is included the most basic difference between the two: Ginsberg frequently seems to deliver immediate sensual experiences; Corso usually refines and alters those experiences through his very vivid imagination.

The exercise of this imagination is one of the most characteristic features of Corso's poems, and it works against some of the more objective features. Usually, it takes the form of an absurd, surreal, or illogical phrase such as Ginsberg's own “reality sandwich.” And the effect is frequently one of cleverness, of a poet playing his creative game to the utmost. But frequently he thus turns poetry almost into a game of solitaire, since the reader cannot fully understand or even appreciate the composition of a particular phrase because the connection is individualistic and private, apparently known to Corso alone. The connection between the elements of his phrasing may derive partially from hallucinogenics (as is obviously implied in the title of one poem, “Under Peyote”), as some features of Ginsberg's poetry may, but the source of the characteristic in either case is not so important as is its existence. And this existence presents a very difficult, if not impossible, critical problem.

Even Ginsberg, one of his closest friends and probably his staunchest admirer, is not sure exactly what Corso is doing, or more precisely, meaning, in his poems. There are few critical statements on Corso's work, and Ginsberg's introduction to an early volume, Gasoline (San Francisco, 1958), is perhaps the best:

Open this book as you would a box of crazy toys, take in your hands a refinement of beauty out of a destructive atmosphere. These combinations are imaginary and pure, in accordance with Corso's individual (therefore universal) DESIRE.

All his own originality! What's his connection, but his own beauty? Such weird haiku-like juxtapositions aren't in the American book. … Corso is a great word-slinger, first naked sign of a poet, a scientific master of mad mouthfuls of language. He wants a surface hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of his mind like “mad children of soda caps.”

This is his great sound: “O drop that fire engine out of your mouth!”

Crazier: “Dirty Ears aims a knife at me, I pump him full of lost watches.” …

He gets pure abstract poetry, the inside sound of language alone.

But what is he saying? Who cares?! It's said! “Outside by a halloween fire, wise on a charred log, an old man is dictating to the heir of the Goon.” …

All this is fine if “a poem should not mean but be.” But most readers are apparently not hip enough, and therefore expect and appreciate a semblance of meaning. Corso's work as a whole does have some meaning; his central theme is the celebration of life in the face of death. He does insist, however, as Ginsberg notes, on celebrating life, his life, in a way so personal that the rest of us are never sure just what or how he is celebrating. It seems that usually he celebrates the source of his most important life, that of his imagination. He considers himself to be a poet, and a poet to be a free spirit, unbound by conventions such as making sense when talking (writing) to someone else. Or possibly he is not writing to or for anyone but himself. He publishes and reads, to be sure, but always there is a nagging sense that the whole thing is a put-on, that he is willing to make money off the public if they are willing to consume his products. If such is the case, he must take great delight in the whole system (the University of Rochester, for example, honored him recently as Poet in Residence).

But this delight is meaningful in itself, whether or not it is at the expense of his public. Usually it demonstrates his tremendous sense of humor; in his most serious poem he is rarely surrealistic. And it shows also his concern for “pure” poetry in the sense that abstract painters seek “pure” visual art. The imagination is the source of the art, which rests primarily in the image. The less the image is encumbered by meaning, the better, because meaning is a function of rationalization, not of perception and/or imagination. Therefore, any meaning other than emotional response derives also from the use of imagination, this time the reader's. Often, the connection between a particular image and its context is clear enough in that half of it relates to what precedes or follows. But such connections are virtually always merely associative and nearly never truly logical.

A few examples: The “lost watches” that Ginsberg speaks of are the conclusion of “Birthplace Revisited.” The poem deals with a nostalgic return to the poet's birthplace, which is almost sentimentalized as he stands in the dark watching the strangers in the light within. But this sentimentality is balanced by the vision of himself as a tough gangster as he faces “Dirty Ears,” perhaps a vision of himself as a child, in the stench of garbage cans. He pumps Dirty Ears full of “lost watches,” not bullets. This image is obviously not to be taken literally. He could not even have watches that had been lost. Instead, the image seems to refer somehow to the time lost between birth or childhood and the present. But image cannot be too emphasized. Symbol would suggest meaning, and meaning is really not at issue here. Image, presentation, is.

This concept become more clear in “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway.” Here two poets are engaged in a duel of images. Meaning is utterly beside the point; the contest is to see which of them can make less sense. The outcome is a draw, and the weapons are interchangable: “Suppose the / strawberry were / pushed into a mountain”; “Lightning will strike the old oak / and free the fumes”; “Firestoves! Gas! Couch!” More examples would be (equally?) pointless.

Another poem is similar in structure, theme, and effect. “Dialogue—2 Dollmakers” tells also about men who create, but this time one of them has to be converted to the new—Corso's—vision of what art should be. The convert begins by calling the proselytizer a fool for suggesting absurdities such as using cans for the doll's eyes, a chair for its nose, and suitcases for its arms. But soon he too sees the fun to be had in the game of creating in a manner totally unbound by convention (except that the doll remains a doll, and a poem a poem), and his suggestions are as absurd as the other's: a meat truck for the dress, a wall for the hat, racetracks for the fingernails, and abandoned farms for the stockings. Meaning? None. But lots of fun.

Once this habit of imagery is seen as a game, either for the poet himself or with his readers, it is easier to reconcile its use in what are apparently more serious poems, such as “Marriage.” Here, despite the perfectly logical and probable consideration of marital possibilities, there is a regular occurrence of highly illogical and improbable images, such as “werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” and “Flash Gordon soap.” These serve primarily to assert the identity of the poet, who can think in extraordinary ways and who lives as much in an internal and private (Ginsberg's universal?) way as he does in the mundane and ordinary manner of his middle-class environment. These images are not only bizarre, but also surreal in that they assert a reality higher than the one perceived by the ordinary person, who is too concerned with meaning, which is a process of compartmentalizing the things of his world. The whole thrust of Corso's use of such images is to shatter these compartments, to unify everything in the cosmos by juxtaposing disparate elements in the melting pot of the poet's imagination.

Thus, the use of these images in “Marriage” keeps it from being like ordinary prose, which makes sense, which means. Usually, analysis can explain only the process of association, if that. For example, once the poet is in the cemetery with his girl friend, thoughts of monsters (werewolves) and devils (suggested by “forked”) are not unnatural. But “werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets” are unnatural and totally improbable and unpredictable. That's why they are there. They are not only funny images, but also imaginative ones, in the sense that they are fantastic, that they bear little relationship to the ordinary world. They are images that no ordinary person would conjure up. By their use, Corso manages a laugh from his audience while he asserts his identity as extraordinary man, poet, and lover. So too, “Telephone snow” and “ghost parking” are quieter and more peaceful images than the noises of the slums and the pressures of his creditors that precede these phrases. But no reality exists behind the words—except in the poet's imagination.

And so the attraction of Beat poetry is identical with its ultimate failure. The vision—and its expression—of Ginsberg and Corso is exciting and shocking and unpredictable because it is so personal. Reading it is seeing a dream on a page. But even dreams, thanks to Freud, make some sense because they have similarities, and their images can be seen as symbols, as representing something more real and logical and meaningful. There is also some sense to the poems of the Beatniks, because they must use language, which is of its nature logical and representative. But these men make what seems to be a conscious attempt to fracture that representation by dealing with a vision of the imagination that is so personal it avoids the common middleground so necessary for communication.

To be sure, the occasional absence of meaning—or at least its impenetrability—is functional and thematic in the poetry of Ginsberg and Corso. It serves to set them apart from ordinary men and to underline what they feel is the totality of personal experience and private vision. It makes their work sensational, in the double meaning of being titillating and of being sensuous. The technique is highly metaphysical in its yoking of disparate “concepts,” here frequently only sense impressions, but it differs from the technique of Donne's school in that analysis does not finally prove the justness of the juxtaposition. Such proof would depend too much on reason for these poets of the senses, the emotions, and the imagination. They trust “vision,” not analysis.

Ginsberg's ideal of “pure” poetry, then, is what others have called art for art's sake, a composition of elements designed to elicit visceral responses, but without regard for any social milieu. But such composition ignores the basic fact that language is the medium of poetry and that communication is therefore central to the purpose of poetry. Further, anything in the way of such communication is a defect in the art. At the moment, the poetry of the Beatniks thus seems radically flawed. But perhaps someday we will have a new Freud who will show us how these apparently absurd images are truly symbols of a deeper reality than we now know. Just imagine.

Notes

  1. “Howl” and other poems mentioned in this essay may be most conveniently found in Donald M. Allen, ed., The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (New York: Grove, 1960), unless otherwise noted in the text.

Bill Beyle (essay date 1973)

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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 poet.” Richard Brukenfield defended Corso's first book against critics by whose definition Corso was soon less a poet. Like Breton and the surrealists, Corso writes, often, a spontaneous poetry. In introducing his second book, Corso uses the analogy of jazz—

When Bird Parker or Miles Davis blow a standard piece of music, they break off into their own-self unstandard sounds—well, that's the way with my poetry. … Of course many will say a poem written on that order is unpolished, etc.—that's just what I want them to be—because I have made them truly my own—which is inevitably something NEW—like all good spontaneous jazz, newness is accepted and expected.

One context would be the fifties' debates on “conformity”; but artistically both the surrealist precedent and the analogy of jazz are misleading. Corso identifies, in such poems as “Mexican Impressions” and “Early Morning Writings,” with the impressionists. I would suggest impressionism as a better precedent and analogy for his writing, which, as he says in the interview, is less “spontaneous” in the manner of Kerouac or Breton than “rapid.” Painters have always sketched; the impressionist originality was in rejecting the time-consuming studio masterpiece for this “painted sketch.” Corso broke with the rhymed, metered “square” poems of both Tate and Ransom and the British After Auden.

Corso regards much of his work as prophecy. How curiously this relates to scholarship, the resolute study of the past; but it is merely the root meaning of “avant-garde.” Until the ancien/moderne controversy of the seventeenth century, Western literature in its highest” forms dealt, like scholarship, with the past. The realist originality, as Linda Nochlin points out, was an emphasis on the “present”: beginning with Stendhal and Daumier, art in its highest forms, not only satire and polemic, became critique of society. The “avant-garde” originality was a new separation of the artist from society so that the artist could experiment and offer society new alternatives.

Poetry has many “guards” of course, all regarding themselves as advance. Two of Corso's long new poems, “Mutation of the Spirit” and “Eleven Times a Poem,” assault the Aristotelian notions of beginning, middle and end; they are sequences that yet repudiate, like Cage, the developmental. “Ethnopoetics,” a partially anthropological re-statement of primitive or esoteric cultures by Schwerner, Tarn, and Rothenberg, would include another new piece, “The Geometric Poem.” His early comic work was linked for praise with Koch's as “late beat” by Michael Benedikt, whose own work, with Erica Jong's, I would call late counter-culture comic. Corso is of the avant-garde. But his relation to the other members is always special. The literary avant-garde, even when comic, resembles some massive post-doctoral program in the creative arts. All the ethnopoetic people have graduate training, as do the leaders of the New York School, Benedikt, Jong, and even the major beats Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Creeley and Burroughs. But Corso has less education than le douanier, Henri Rousseau.

It is difficult to recall a single creative artist of the twentieth century who does not, in some way, claim the “primordial.” But Corso is naive or primitive in the technical sense of Oto Bihalji-Merin's Modern Primitives: Masters of Naive Painting. To embody his dream landscapes, Henri Rousseau went, naively, to the Jardin des Plantes and painted what he saw. Corso, in the interview, says zoos, with museums, are main sources. Bringing the mandrill into the bedroom can be equated with bringing Jadwiga's couch to the jungle. Ginsberg's “The Lion is for Real” probably derives from such Corso poems. Neither Rousseau nor Corso are willing to be conventional artists. Because he was incapable of perspective or “tactile” drawing, Rousseau suggested much to cubists and surrealists. Corso, as we have seen, is within the avant-garde; but stylistically, of even the advanced “Mutation of the Spirit,” he denies the influence of the other members, in this case, Cage. Corso's free verse is free of Mr. Olson's confining elaboration. “I never pondered too deeply on that.”

Like Rousseau, and as in Lear, Corso is our “fool.” Notice how often in the interview he describes humor as his sole political tool. Yet “Power” “Mutation of the Spirit” “Geometric Poem” are a wisdom literature. The anticipations of cubism and surrealism in Rousseau were similarly less goofy than visionary. Corso's persona, as distinct from its activity, appears fully described only once, in “Clown”—

It is time for the idiot
to pose a grin and foot on the dead lion
(the embodiment of the clownless man)
No I shan't crowd your brainy grave
it's enough I climb your jolly ladder
and have planets kick dust in my eyes
And why do they say be a man, and not a clown?
And what is it like to be a man?

Corso is Ginsberg's ignu.

Much of Corso begins in laughing critique of society. “Marriage” and “Suburbia Mad Song” butcher, humorously, notions of courtship and marriage. “Three Loves” narrates the kinds of sorrow consequent to a renunciation of patience and fidelity. “The Love of Two Seasons,” weaker than these other poems, curiously wraps love in a fairy tale atmosphere:

When once in wildwood times
I'd aerial laughter my mischief
When once she opened her arms
And held me with excited tenderness. …

Corso even fails to address the poem, one of his few love poems, to the woman, but instead to an imagined child-like audience. “Sura” and “Ode to Sura” do use the second person singular address; Sura, as Corso says in the interview, was one of the very few early beat women, and consequently agreed with his critique of society.

Not the fly with your magnitude wonder why.
Yourself wonder but with silence and sly.
Watch you move from pot to pan—don't cry.
No thing can ever break your heart.
When your dreams are fullest the cruel hammer will blow
And die at your heart.
Too late! The sky is brown.

But the relation, and these lines are typical, was massively and mutually destructive.

“Police” and “Army” offer a critique of coercive authority in society much like “Marriage.” At times, Corso can involve authority in his own warped gentleness:

I was happy I was bubbly drunk
The street was dark
I waved to a young policeman
He smiled
I went up to him and like a flood of gold
Told him all about my prison youth
About how noble and great the convicts were
And about how I just returned from Europe
Which wasn't half as enlightening as prison
And he listened attentively I told no lie
Everything was truth and humor
He laughed
He laughed
And it made me so happy I said
“Absolve it all, kiss me!”
“No no no no!” he said
                              and hurried away.

“Second Night in N.Y.C. After Three Years”

“I depend on heroes for opinion and acceptance,” he says in the poem “Power”; notice how beautifully child-like he is, even in asserting the nobility of crime.

How powerless I am in playgrounds
Swings like witches woosh around me

Still linked to childhood, the opening of “Police,” “On the Death of the Lucky Gent” and “Beyond Delinquency” describe with delight anti-social criminality; to Michael Horovitz, Corso is a lovably American gangster; but then, Corso did spend three years in prison.

The child's point of view is probably Corso's commonest theme. Compensating for the poems of juvenile delinquency, there are the visionary poems; “No Doubt What he Saw” and “The Mad Yak” combine the child's point of view and the theme of animals. The yak is speaking:

That tall monk there, loading my uncle,
                              he has a new cap
And that idiot student of his
                              I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him!
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they'll do with his bones?
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that?

Similarly exotic, “The French Child's Sunday” takes its charm from the speaker's use of a formal pseudo-translated “we”; Ashbery with “you” and Creeley and Mailer with “he” have recently used similar pronoun masks. “The Last Warmth of Arnold” is a veiled funky little tale about a boy who dies, c. 1940, sniffing glue. Other poems such as “Doll Poem” live among the toys and symbols of childhood; but Corso's identification with the child, which seems angelic in “Second Night in N.Y.C.,” constantly breaks down into something more adult, or at least more violent:

          Confused I'd best leave wonder and candy and school
and go find amid ruin the peremptory corsair.

Corso, as he mentions in Dear Fathers and twice in the interview, is a drug addict.

The trait which led to the addiction is a foolish fearlessness:

Because of me narcotics are—
Useless you enforcers of safety
scheming ways and hows to keep out of me;
there is no out, there is only in,
and you are all in danger—
Useless to deface the world with
Beware, Do Not Trespass, Skullcrossbones
E Pericoloso Sporgersi—
My property is sorrow
No fence
No warning there—

“Danger”

In American Express, his novel, all the actors are on a quest to perform a “great act.” Sura, Corso's lover, is there; Burroughs, the other beat “addict,” is there; and Gregory is there, separated from the others because abandoned at birth. “On a Month's Reading of the English Newspapers” is about a girl raped and murdered (“fucking dead,” Gregory condenses in the interview). But in general Corso does not write about children abused by adults. Nor should my parallel with Rousseau be now used to dismiss Corso; though naive, Corso chose first heroin then methadone consciously to explore his psyche, to mutate his spirit. Why was he not the most important poet of the sixties? But his work now, though sparse, is still, to me, of the greatest importance.

“The great act” is Corso's theme, latent in most poems, even the poems of childhood, even the anthropological poems. He attempts to revivify greatness. Perceval, at least as Chretien de Troyes portrays him, begins as a fool nursed by only one parent, but, because of a capacity for growth which is ever in Perceval (and Corso) he evolves into the only visionary hero in the Arthurian tales. It's a question now if his vision, in this period, is of unrelenting negation or not. “Mutation of the Spirit” is a farewell to a golden age and I am frightened to think that to Corso my present is his past, his golden age.

As a child I saw many things I did not want to be.
Am I the person I did not want to be?
The talks to himself person?
The neighbors make fun of person?
Am I who, on museum steps, sleeps on his side?
Do I wear the cloth of a man who has failed?
Am I the looney man?
In the great serenade of things
                                        am I the most cancelled passage?

Corso's is an imagination locked into tunnels talking to itself. “What is he saying?” Ginsberg asks in the introduction, and answers “Who cares?!” He also says Corso is “probably the greatest poet in America.”

Gregory Corso with Douglas Calhoun (interview date 1973)

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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 I'm trying to say. Facing college kids, they don't know their sources. They go far backwards in time when they got some kind of illumination through music. Rock and things like that, they picked up. It's very odd.

“I had a more derogatory name than most kinds that are called “hippies.” I had the name “beatnik” laid on me. At least a Beatnik was an educated fucker. He knew what he was talking about. He laid the spoor. Then I can say he's your papa. What a funny father. See, I could read you “Ecco Homo” on a painting by Theodoricus2 but you wouldn't understand it because you wouldn't know who the fuck Theodoricus was. I might be presuming. Someone could tell me they do know, but I doubt it. Uccello?3 Do you know Uccello? He's the first man to hit prespective in painting.” He returned to this discussion at the end of the reading.

.....

When the readings are over, I always ask if there are any questions. That's a gas. I can have a ball that way; that's me now, you see, with the questions. Why did I put Kerouac up to that?4 Like, you know, well, he had a vision of America all right; I mean, I think he saw what it was but it wasn't there.

Calhoun: How close were you?

Corso: Close enough that when I came out of prison, he was the only guy that really dug me in a way—well, Ginsberg is the one that I met first, in 1950; but you see, Allen's gay; and I thought maybe you might have liked him for his gayness. Jack was straight. But I learned more from Allen than I ever did from Jack. Jack was always trying to give a technique course that I never wanted. I was a real arrogant little fucker. But I dug, I saw what he was going at.

Were you close with him toward the end?

I would say, being with all those Beatnik people were very different, they were different unto themselves. All spread out. No. The man I liked speaking most with was Burroughs. He obviously was a sharp fucking man. Well, his grandfather invented the adding machine, the computers, right? Well, that's the kind of head you want to talk to. Whereas the dreamer, Kerouac, I had enough of my own dreams, so I would get exhausted with Kerouac after a while. But I liked his dreams.

Did you like his writing?

I liked his dreams. That's hard, like that. But, God, he believed just let it come out as it comes out. I liked that. There's no play there. No, the only writing I like is Shelley, and Poe. It's weird. Rimbaud, of course, but I'm giving up on him now. I'm dwindling down now to Shelley and Poe.

And Allen?

Oh, I dig his metaphor, that's all I say about him. Allen really has got what I call the great, great, great head and beauty and he combines everything. I love Allen. But when I sit back to read something, what do I like? Yeah, it's Poe. Getting more and more Poe.

Why?

I think he hit it. When he had Agatha talk to Aeon, say, yeah I spoke that green planet; and they're fucked. Why? because they got it too soon. The whole tree, picking the apples; you got your knowledge too soon. So I studied that, and I got a clue from Poe, and I found out how they got their knowledge. I studied the missing link from the ape man to primitive man, until—how do you get it? So I studied the plants they ate in those days. Plants were divisional; they were born of themselves until the seed family came into it; and the first seed family was morning glory seed; and that happened just at the time that ape man became primitive man. So obviously he got high. He was a head ape. So all these archeologists are looking for the skull of the missing link. It's the brain. And you can't find it. It's melted away.

.....

Now that I'm into it, I look at it and I say, “Jesus Christ, look at what's this?” The bat man; silly things; batman, all that kind of—this is ridiculous. But then some very heavy things. In 1961, from 1961 college kids, youth was not doing a damn thing. And here's a line I wrote in 1961, about youth. And man, alive, and they did get it. It's called “The American Way,”5 but here's the line: “Educators and communicators are the lackeys of the / American Way / They enslave the minds of the young / and the young are willing slaves (but not for long),” 1961. Now, that's a heavy thought, you see. So I even got heavier in this thing here; which is 1959, saying Nixon would be the last president. In 1969, do you know what had to elect that Nixon? Death had to elect him. He had to get the two Kennedys killed. Not he, but they had to die; and that's how that poem ends; it's called “America Historia Politica,”6 published in Chelsea Review in 1959, saying Nixon would be the last president. But obviously he would be in a sense, not by America's going, but by complete change. They're going to find somebody very different for the presidency. ’Cause they've had it. People don't follow them as much as they follow themselves, today, with their heads. But I remember in 1954 at Harvard, it was very rare. I mean, they were supposed to be the smart ones there—nothing happening.

Lay something on me. Because right now, well, what's happening now? Do you know that it's a dead period now with the students? I realized this at Buffalo, at the Union, place where they all go to eat and things like that. It happened at Haight Ashbury when the flower kids came up there. It was all nice then. Then the police harrassed them and decided to come down on them and fucked up the kinds; and in came the people with the hard stuff—heroin, all the fuck-ups came in, and it seems dead. And that's just what's happening at the Union at the colleges now. You see, they came around, shit, they hadn't fallen, they said, yeah, we'll all demonstrate. That was a love that they had. They were all doing something. Something clicked, something went—I'm pretty happy for it; something went tired about that old subject of war. The only good thing Nixon said, I think that this one was the last one; what do you got after that? They're trying to lay on you pollution; they're trying to give you fucking kids—“yeah, we're against pollution”; you know, really get you to work. I would say get their heads so beautifully smart; get their sources. Obviously now, they're not jung on to look for God as their source. They're smarter than that. They're not going to say God is their source. So if God is not their source, what is their source? And that's where I think it's going. I think they're gonna really find out; and not end up like idiots looking up and discussing what we know, now, what's here, or what, and look up—no. They know how to handle themselves here. Imagine, I had a dream, I mean, John Wayne hitting Robert Mitchum in the jaw—pow!—it was like a nightmare to me, but it happens in movies. They do it all the time. What's the nightmare? But in a dream it was a nightmare to see a fist hitting a jaw so hard. Although that fight they just had recently was beautiful. Because it's becoming rarer and rarer with things now. You have two men meet—that's a rarity. But those heads? Great. Soon it will be a rarity. I think, poets getting up and rapping with you people. That's what I felt today. I had knots in my stomach. It was rare shit. It's not like in the beginning where you lay a poet's message. This is real shit. And lay something real on me.

What are the sources? Besides God.

Ah, I said not God. God is not the source. The source is so far, I would say, go slowly back now and look past and see who's made changes, and get your education that way, and see your daddies. Don't see it through, like say the Caveman, who go way back, paleolithic times, because a guy had a white head, and white hair, and they made him into a Zeus, because he was the man who ran the whole tribe in a race. And they'd say, “ah, that old man, he knows what I'm made of.” Look at Gilgamesh, the first thing, they say, supposedly, written. The Gilgamesh. What was his whole bit? Going to find out what life was about. How far back is that? Sit down, yeah, to look and to find out what it's about.

The way I can hit it is through the exact calendar. The Zodiac. This is the one where they use the two Jewish stars together (draws on board). And you get the twelve points. Here you have Ares, right? And here you got Pisces. How does the Pisces go again? Then count the stars this way: Ares first, Taurus second, you get the Aquarian age. Because the Piscean age opposite, here, the sun takes—the great house—the sun takes 24,000 years on the great trip—to go around the galaxy. 24,000. 2,000 an eon, makes twelve months, right? With 2,000 eons each shot, it took 2,000 years for the Pisce, Christ, to gather his fishermen; all right, 2,000 years. It took 2,000 years for the Alexanders, the Julius Caesar's. It took 2,000 years for the Cretes, the Mycenae, all the Western. It took 2,000 years for that great communication period of Gemini. I can't figure out how I did Gemini. I don't know about the symbol of Gemini, twins (audience, Roman numeral two). All right, Gemini and then Cancer; now the Flood, this is the Gilgamesh, this is the Bible, 8,000 B.C. get 2,000. All right? 2,000, 4,000, 6,000, 8,000, you got Crete, you got the worship of the Bull, you got Julius Caesar, you got Alexander, you got the Marx thing, this is the age of communication—Suma—6,000, Egypt and Suma when they start writing, their cuneiforms and their glyphs. It hits—it hits in a way like that. The Babylonians hit it right. But this I don't know what to say. That's Virgo. Now, that's earth. That started, how the hell do you get the Aquarian age today. How the fuck do you stay according to that? Because then you get Capricorn. You're coming to that funny Capricorn. That's (cardinal?). How do you hit there? The calendar's supposed to go this way. But it makes sense so far going up this way, doesn't it? Right? What I said was the flood, or communication, or worship of the bull, with the wars, with the Christ.

Now what have you got? Can you read your future? That's why I say your sources. Get your sources in all kinds of ways. You think this is cartoonery, all right. But man, too many old heads have got that—the whole Zodiac. I don't play a new world. You know that Scorpio is this, compared to that. That's not what I'm laying on you; I'm laying on you that there's a 2,000 year cycle and there's 24,000 years for all the sun to go around this circle—and it is a circle. Those twelve points, that's a circle, and to go around the galaxy. I don't know when it began. That's what I want to find out. You see, I'm a poet; I want to fuck, mind fuck, right. I'm masturbating with my own head. I want to know when it began, did it go from Libra? Was it here with the balance? What is capital and cardinal earth, obviously? Fire. Two fires make, two cardinal fires, there, might make a cardinal earth, and might make renewal. You might have renewal. Here's the earth, and we're back at the Aquarius. She holds two pitchers of starry water. What is he going to lay forth to you in your 2,000 years? The children you lay forth, women and men, and their children. What the hell is that going to lay them. More communication?

If you know, what would you know?

Ah! here you go. I don't want,—I say, a history has a future for sure. I know this. Why? I mean, I think it makes some sense. All right, if it doesn't this is the time that Caesar and Alexander and all them did live. This is the time of Mycenean Crete, the bull did live, this is the time Cancer affects the tide's water, right? The flood, that Noah and all that did live, in the Gilgamesh. Before that, Leo. Leo—lion. Kings, maybe just starting. But, I know 30,000 B.C. so why can't I put it on that map? That clock. Now, 8,000—yeah. 30,000 they had those beautiful, beautiful cave drawings, and that skull and all that … the Paleolithics. It's all Western shot. Well, yes, I always stick to the Western shot; if I go to the Eastern shot, and this planet, right? Well, I say, if you go to the East, you gotta have it before you go. I ain't gonna go to the East to get nothing to come back with. I felt like an asshole. I felt like a big fool. I went East and I came back with this. If they know I'm going with something, then obviously those holy men at the gates are going to say, “boys, here comes a live one.” I dig geometry in the Zodiac; I like it. I had three dreams of deer, which is amazing; the first one was of a man who wore the antlers and he took them off. And he said he was going in that house to die, and he handed them into a tree. And he said, not till the deer returns will everything be all right. So I figured well maybe it means get rid of the myth. The other dream of the deer was a she-stag dressed all beautiful, running along the snow, sparkling all over her body. And I got on top of her and she ran and I had orgasm. The deer is redeemer. It's the only way I can hit it. I never question dreams too much. But I tried to give information tonight: about morning glory seeds, plant was first divisional, and it became then suddenly sexual. And ape man ate plant. And a certain plant they ate, they got high, and their brain zapped out not their skulls. All right? That to me's the missing link. Now what other information can I give you? I would say that's a fucking ’nough for tonight.

Notes

  1. In Gasoline (San Francisco: City Lights, 1958), p. 27.

  2. See “Ecco Homo,” Gasoline, p. 28.

  3. See “Uccello,” Gasoline, p. 29.

  4. Reference is to “Elegiac Feelings American (for the dear memory of Jack Kerouac),” in Elegiac Feelings American (New York: New Directions, 1970), pp. 3–12; with which Corso had ended the reading.

  5. In Elegiac Feelings American, pp. 69–75.

  6. See “America Politica Historia, in Spontaneity” in Elegiac Feelings American, pp. 94–97.

Gordon M. Messing (essay date 1979)

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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.]

1.

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 with these topics for many years. Then came his famous lecture, ‘Linguistics and Poetics’, originally delivered in 1958 (Jakobson 1960), which laid down a unique program for the linguistic analysis of poetry. He raised the twin claims that (a) poetics, which is mainly concerned with the question, ‘What makes a verbal message a work of art?’, merits the leading role in literary studies, and (b) since linguistics encompasses the science of verbal structure, poetics is an integral part of linguistics. There followed a series of studies (conveniently collected in Jakobson 1973) in which he applied to specimen poems in a number of languages a technique which is uniquely his own, and which has served as a model for the new French structuralists.

Where other linguists differentiate between linguistic analysis of a poetic text and evaluation of its literary effectiveness, Jakobson firmly believes that his kind of minute linguistic exegesis of a poetic structure simultaneously lays bare its poetic raison d'être. “The poetic function,” in his often quoted epigram (1960: 358), “projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” That is to say, the poetic function of language is to focus upon the message for its own sake, and since the poet brings about appropriate foregrounding of his message through intricate language patterns (especially parallelism), an adequate examination of these patterns must reveal the underpinnings of his poetry. The linguistic medium, so to speak, is the poetic message.

In applying his method, Jakobson makes what seems to be an exhaustive inventory of the various distributional categories in his given text and claims that after completing this process he has thereby discovered, often to his own surprise, those very underlying symmetries and contrasts which account for the poetic effects at which the poet was aiming.

Almost from the beginning, this technique has been sharply criticized by literary critics, nor is this in itself astonishing. If the poet's craft reduces itself ultimately to a matter of quantification, however subtle—i.e. in a specific couplet, his use of more rather than fewer occurrences of verbs in the present tense of which the subjects are singular and animate—this would mean that a knell has finally been sounded for more traditional criticism. Fortunately for the continued livelihood of our colleagues in the literature faculties, the painstaking and unbiased accumulation of structural items, as prescribed by Jakobson, has itself been repeatedly challenged. First of all, as Riffaterre undertakes to prove (Riffaterre 1970: 191), a mechanical inventory of all structural features covers too much ground and offers far too much detail. It is unselective, since it includes indiscriminately both those features which are significant or may be so regarded, and those which are not.

How in fact can even a Jakobson decide which features to select? The number of structural units which might be chosen, while not infinite, is enormously large. No one disputes the ingenuity with which Jakobson has in each test case isolated only those which conceivably bear more or less directly upon his analysis. But Jonathan Culler has argued that in a specific example a great many others can be adduced in addition to those provided by Jakobson: “once one … undertakes a distributional analysis of a text, one enters a realm of extraordinary freedom, where a grammar, however explicit, no longer provides a determinate method. One can produce distributional categories almost ad libitum” (Culler 1975: 57).

Riffaterre (1970: 207) makes a further point that analysis of this sort deals in constituents that cannot possibly be perceived by the reader. Culler, it is true, rejects this argument with a counter-charge that “it is an extremely awkward strategy to point to a particular pattern and then to claim that it cannot be perceived” (Culler 1975: 67). I think that Culler's objection is overly ingenious: no doubt readers differ in their degree of discernment, but it is not overly daring to assert that even a very careful reading of a text will not uncover by immediate inspection many of the minutiae available only to a microscopic written analysis.

But if the number of available structural sets is so very large, and if, speaking in practical terms, we can never be sure that we have isolated all the key sets and nothing but the key sets, there are several momentous conclusions to be drawn. In the first place, the question naturally arises, are these structures and counter-structures present in all cases by deliberate intent? (To be sure, if we endorse Riffaterre's assertion that some of the structures are perceived only subliminally, we would have to add a qualification that the poet's intent is to some degree concealed even from his conscious self.) But the multiplicity of structures and their ubiquity suggest another consideration: some structures must be more important than others in carrying out the poet's artistic strategy and will be so interpreted by his readers. Still others might be marginal or even, if they fall outside the range of the key sets, not even pertinent.

In a closely related topic falling under the same general issue, the problem of sound symbolism, it is reasonable to suppose that the effects of repetitions or eliminations of certain sounds are not always significant, since they sometimes can be the result of chance sequence in a given random discourse. In the case of some of the structural patterns which Jakobson singles out, chance rather than a conscious or unconscious poetic plan may again be the factor which has, e.g. put two possessive pronouns in one line but none in another, or more generally, x elements in one place but y somewhere else.

It is possible also to turn this reasoning around and try to refute Jakobson's basic tenets by demonstrating that the same or similar structural patterns, entirely comparable to those he has identified in his poetic texts, also occur in prose texts which are presumably devoid of poetic or artistic motivation. Jakobson himself, it should be noted, is on record as having stated firmly (1973: 490) that the striking patterns he finds in his poetic texts are “quite distinct from every day language and from journalistic, legal or scientific prose.” Culler, however, like the Devil quoting Scripture for his Satanic purposes, analyzes part of an expository text written by Jakobson himself (Jakobson 1973: 485) to prove that “one can discover striking symmetries and antisymmetries which knit together and oppose the units in all the likely ways” (Culler 1975: 63).

Paul Werth, in what is perhaps the most devastating attack on Jakobson's method by a linguist up to the present time, goes much further in the same direction. He takes a prose text at random from a Sunday newspaper (Werth 1976: 45–54) and easily squeezes from it a wide sweep of structural patterning.

Inevitably, all of these various lines of argument lead us on to an even more fundamental objection, perhaps best stated by Roger Fowler: “Jakobsonian analysis is intimately in contact with the structure of language, but produces the paradoxical outcome that the language, reduced to spatial pattern, loses both meaning and movement” (Fowler 1975: 92). In other words, how can one ever make the jump from structure to poem? Certainly, if the very same sense of patterning can be found in subliterary prose texts, then it is highly questionable logic, to say the least, to argue that the mere identification of structural sets is tantamount to characterizing a text as poetic.

Even more damning, Werth has successfully performed a Jakobsonian analysis in considerable detail, using as corpus vile a piece of sheer doggerel almost completely devoid of literary merit, William McGonagall's ‘Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan’ (Werth 1976: 36–45). If his results are convincing, and I must admit they have convinced me, then it is at least safe to say that the mere occurrence in a text of recognizable structural sets does not guarantee artistic excellence. But if this principle can really be established, then Werth has knocked the props out from under all of Jakobson's analyses.

The reason why this should be so, it seems to me, lies in Jakobson's implied assumption that poetic excellence is in its essence the result of structural complexity. In fact, as Werth shows, structural complexity in any text needs only to be sought to be found. Within the exclusive terms of Jakobsonian analysis it can consort perfectly well with mediocre poetic achievement or with none at all. Jakobson's predilection for complexity per se reminds me of Cleanth Brooks' emphasis upon paradox and irony as prerequisites for serious poetic excellence. Confronted by poems usually thought quite simple but which have nonetheless found many admirers (like Tennyson's ‘Tears, idle tears’), this theorist of American New Criticism felt obliged to delve deep into his text and find paradox and irony there at any cost (Brooks 1947: ch. 9). Yet some artistic productions succeed miraculously with very little in the way of intricate organization—if a Bach mass moves an audience by its complexity, a solitary bugler playing taps under the proper circumstances may also arouse deep emotion.

In a special sense Jakobson may well be right, and his poetic texts do depend for their effects on a structural complexity, provided one extends the meaning of that term. I think it likely that Jakobson's basic misconception is to take only his own sort of structural patterning as making up that complexity. To my mind, this is just one component which may or may not contribute to the reader's artistic satisfaction. Other components related to intellectual and emotional content, memory and association, and much beside, also enter into the structure, often tending to decrease or completely eliminate those factors on which Jakobson places his sole reliance. Criticism of texts remains a difficult task, sometimes perhaps a hopeless task, because these other factors do not readily lend themselves to quantification.

In thus anticipating the results of the present study, I am obviously reformulating a position congenial to many linguists who continue to see a line of cleavage between linguistic analysis and the assessment of literary achievement. In this connection, without wishing to denigrate either Jakobson's skilful systematization of his chosen texts or his sensitivity to them as literature, I personally think that he has clearly failed to establish a sequence of cause and effect between the two realms.

2.

I should like to demonstrate the validity of this general point of view by taking apart a poetic text à la Jakobson and drawing some more specific conclusions from the process. To be frank, I had originally picked this particular text because I wished to dissect it for the benefit of a class in stylistics. I had in mind something very similar to the techniques of Culler and Werth as already indicated above, namely, to pile up numerous sets of structural contrasts, impressive at first glance but fundamentally misleading and really almost a parody of Jakobsonian methodology. My intention was to lead my students eventually to deduce that it was no great feat to accumulate these sets and that they did not in themselves add up to the total impact of the poem, if indeed they contributed to it at all. I purposely chose this informal poem in irregular format, not from any ulterior motive, but first, because it had neither rhyme nor meter (thus simplifying the analysis), and second, just because I liked it. Subsequently, however, when I reviewed my half-humorous experiment more carefully, I saw that I had overlooked some of its real significance.

In what follows I shall give first the text (a), then an analysis, or at any rate a partial analysis (b), and then explain why in my judgment this analysis is defective (c).

The poem is ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’ by Gregory Corso:1

(a)

Of course I tried to tell him
but he cranked his head
          without an excuse.
I told him the sky chases
          the sun
And he smiled and said:
          “What's the use.”
I was feeling like a demon
          again
So I said: “But the ocean chases
          the fish.”
This time he laughed
          and said: “Suppose the
                    strawberry were
                                        pushed into a mountain.”
After that I knew the
war was on—
So we fought:
He said: “The apple-cart like a
          broomstick-angel
          snaps & splinters
                    old dutch shoes.”
I said: Lightning will strike the old oak
          and free the fumes!”
He said: “Mad street with no name.”
I said: “Bald killer! Bald killer! Bald killer!”
He said, getting real mad,
          “Firestoves! Gas! Couch!”
I said, only smiling,
          “I know God would turn his head
          if I sat quietly and thought.”
We ended by melting away,
hating the air!

‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’

(b) For purposes which will be apparent presently, I propose to differentiate here between organizational structure and structural patterning. Under organizational structure I note that the poem falls conveniently into five obvious structural divisions: I Introduction, one sentence; II Dialogue, three sentences; III Transition, one sentence; IV Resumption of Dialogue, five sentences; V Conclusion, one sentence. There is a certain contrast between the more static I–III–V and the more animated II–IV. Quotations in direct speech alternate between speaker A (poet) and speaker B (his rival), but the order of presentation varies between II (AB) and IV (BABA + BA) where a final tense exchange is added; consequently, speaker A, who had been given the first word, by this strategem also obtains the last.

Under structural patterning I shall offer a restricted list of distributional features linked under a few main headings; I hope that my simulation of an analysis will not be discounted as shadow-boxing.

NATURE OF DIALOGUE

All the dialogue can be taken as direct discourse, and so more vivid, even if the very first remark (the sky chases the sun) has not been enclosed in quotation marks; a possible but less attractive interpretation would be to understand this statement as being introduced by a that which has been deleted. There are seventy-one words of this quoted dialogue, divided fairly equally between the two speakers until the final pair, when speaker A gets a decided advantage: II A5–B4, A6–B8; IV B11–A6, B3–A13.

USE OF PRONOUNS

While I and II join I and he, III switches from I to we; IV again links I and he; V reintroduces we. The pronoun him occurs only in I and (prior to discourse) II. The pronoun his occurs in I and recurs in the final remark in IV (where its lack of a capital letter is probably no more significant than in dutch). IV also contains two examples of I, the only ones to be found in direct discourse in the poem and both referring to speaker A.

USE OF VERBS

All main verbs outside the dialogue are in past time (natural enough since an episode is being recounted which happened in the past), while most of the main verbs within the dialogue are in the present tense. The final remarks, however, both in II and IV constitute a hypothesis, and there is one future expressed by a modal (lightning will strike … and free). In the penultimate exchange there is no verb, and there is none in B's final remark.

REPETITIONS OF SOUNDS, ETC.

There are conspicuous examples of alliteration (snaps and splinters, free the fumes), repetition of sounds (old oak), combinations of the two (like / lightning / strike), rhyme (without an excuse / what's the use), lengthier verbal repetition (the sky chases the sun / the ocean chases the fish or cranked his head / turn his head).

(c) It would be extremely easy to expand to considerable length the various samples of structural patterning just cited, but I think there is no real reason to do so, since I doubt whether even the ones given are at best more than tangential to the poet's purposes. On the other hand, what I have called organizational structure turns out quite unexpectedly to serve a useful function. Why should this be the case?

I think we have to look more closely at Corso's poem. In it, regular rhyme and formal meter have been ruled out from the start. Most readers will also agree, I believe, that those structural devices of which I have given the merest token account above are not of any overriding importance. It is not that kind of a poem, even though one may grant that the playful repetition of sounds and phrases does add a particular nuance of folksiness and good humor. The use of pronouns and verbs has some bearing, and the handling of the dialogue, particularly the allotment of words to the two speakers, has rather more bearing upon the organizational structure; these factors are therefore not to be neglected. If, however, the organizational structure obtained by my analysis coincides legitimately with the authentic subdivisions of the poem as intended by the author, this is no accident. Corso's intention—accessible certainly to more conventional criticism even if the structural analysis does offer a useful correlative—was to narrate an incident on the basis of a dialogue interspersed by short pauses and reflections. Despite his ultra-colloquial language, Corso has here revived or perhaps travestied a well-known tradition which reaches back to Theocritus and Vergil, the theme of the poetic contest. Formal analysis merely confirms what an acute reader senses at once, that the poet-narrator and his rival start out on equal terms but at the end, after each has said his piece, the rival is put to rout. The poet, having initiated the competition, triumphs in a final statement which is longer than any of the previous speeches.

But even supposing that our formal analysis can indeed manage with some success to match the formal organization of the poem against Corso's literary design, it will go no further than that. It will tell us how the poem is put together without telling us how it differs from others in the same genre. The formal ingredients, in other words, are insufficient to set this poem off in its subject matter from other poems which might describe how two poets strove to display their respective superiority in their art.

I take it that what is distinctive about this particular poem is that it is composed of a series of paradoxes, half-absurdist, half-surrealist; its obvious light-hearted charm and equally obvious silliness are both derived from these crackling pseudo-statements. The quintessence of the poem is quite simply its content, even when what is said is arrant nonsense. I strongly doubt, however, that this can be established by purely formal means. It is true that certain of the statements demonstrably contain semantic incongruities, e.g. the ocean [—animate] chases the fish [+animate]. Others violate no semantic rules and sound queer only because of the whimsical conjunction of particular lexical items (firestoves, gas, couch), and this procedure is at present hardly susceptible to formal accounting. A good example is bald killer: some killers indubitably have been bald, yet in this context it makes us smile; do we smile still more at the title of Ionesco's play, La Cantatrice Chauve, because women seldom lose their hair? Or in a universal lexicon does bald sometimes carry a feature [+comic]?

Logical considerations are applicable in varying degrees. The sky chases the sun, though odd (since chases implies an animate subject), seems less so because it at once evokes allegorical, especially mythological themes familiar enough to a modern reader. Suppose the strawberry were pushed into a mountain is more challenging: since pushed suggests a certain effort, it is at least unidiomatic to speak of pushing so small a object as the strawberry (which strawberry? or is the article generic?) into a mountain. The wildest flight of all is the rival-poet's remark about the apple-cart (again with an ambiguous definite article), but it is noteworthy that Corso risks extreme absurdism only this once. He is an old hand in this genre and knows that a little goes a long way. Significantly, the poet-narrator's rejoinder, lightning will strike the old oak and free the fumes (still another definite article—what old oak? which fumes?) contains only a mild nonsequitur. In fact, in what follows, although neither poet's utterance meshes with what his competitor has just said, Corso no longer tries to startle us by recourse to wild illogicality, and at the end his poets simply stop talking, thus ending their argument and the poem.

3.

Jakobson once told an interviewer (Mehta 1974: 190): “I hate to boast, but I have a knack for understanding poetry.” This is undoubtedly true, and his sensitive appreciation of poetry is confirmed by his choice of poetic texts. Nonetheless, the previously cited studies of Riffaterre and Fowler both raise the same question which I have touched upon in the preceding section, the adequacy of Jakobson's model. Riffaterre starts with a detailed critique of the famous joint exposition by Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss of Baudelaire's sonnet, ‘Les chats’; he finds it inexact in its assumptions as well as deficient in its scope and proposes an alternative and more comprehensive version of his own. Fowler, taking as his point of departure Shakespeare's sonnet 129 as analyzed by Jakobson and Lawrence G. Jones, criticizes their treatment as jejune and then launches himself into an explication, intended to be exemplary, of Shakespeare's sonnet 73. Both studies urge persuasively that Jakobsonian analysis does not suffice to show why a poem is what it is. I agree completely, having reached my conclusion by a somewhat different route.

What are we to say then of a still more resounding claim, that such an analysis can supplant the critic's evaluation of a poem? It is surely a delusion. Jakobson's methodology may facilitate close reading, may even corroborate the insights obtained by careful reading and study. It cannot tell us what makes ‘Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway’ a poem, and it can certainly not tell us whether or not it is a good poem, how it compares with other modern American poems in the same genre, other poems in English, other poems in world literature. Unlike Corso's rival bards, the literary critics will certainly not end by melting away!

Notes

  1. Gregory Corso, The Happy Birthday of Death. Copyright © 1960 by New Directions Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Works Cited

Brooks, C., 1947. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Culler, J., 1975. Structuralist poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

Fowler, R., 1975. “Language and the Reader: Shakespeare's Sonnet 73.” In: R. Fowler (ed.), Style and Structure in Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

Jakobson, R., 1960. “Linguistics and poetics.” In: T. A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in Language, 350–377. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Jakobson, R., 1973. Questions de poétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Mehta, V., 1974. “John is easy to please.” In: John is Easy to Please, 137–188. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. First printed by Secker and Warburg, 1971.

Riffaterre, M., 1970. “Describing Poetic Sstructures: Two Approaches to Baudelaire's Les Chats.” In: J. Ehrmann (ed.), Structuralism, 188–230. Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co. Repr. from: Yale French Studies 36(7), 200–242 (1966).

Werth, P., 1976. Roman Jakobson's verbal analysis of poetry. Journal of Linguistics 12, 21–73.

Michael Skau (essay date 1989)

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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 role has also been adversely affected. Seymour Krim describes the modern age as “a period when the terrifying bigness of society makes the average person resort to more immediate and practical oracles (psychiatrists, sociologists, chemists) than to the kind of imaginative truth that the artist can give” (126). For Gregory Corso, the poetic attack on the forces which obscure or deny the value of the individual is especially important: he recognizes that “the world is changing therefore man must change, and the poet, who sooner than most becomes aware of the changing, must blow the trumpet” (“Some” 177). His poetic voice celebrates whatever asserts the inviolability of the human spirit, subsuming strengths and vices, weaknesses and virtues. Like Walt Whitman, he glories in his self-contradiction, a quality which in Corso is most evident in the consistency of his vacillation. He sings the uniqueness of the human being in terms of the non-rational imaginative capacity and in terms of the indefinability of the human mind.

In an age in which the industrial criterion of maximum efficiency predominates, Corso deliberately extols the idiosyncratic imperfection of humanity. Those who disturb the smooth functioning of conventional society, the mad and the criminal elements, exert an especially romantic appeal for him because they resist assimilation by the standards and values of the established civilized world: they are round pegs which will not fit into square holes. Their unpredictability and amorality represent to Corso a refusal or an inability to surrender to the disabling and standardizing forces of modern times. Chandler Brossard provides a model in his provocative and influential 1952 novel, Who Walk in Darkness, when he describes a character whose “ideal is to look like a street-corner hoodlum and be the finest lyric poet in America at the same time” (74). Bruce Cook notices a similar disposition in Corso: “Corso, the poet, is self-invented, a fantasy projection of his own John Garfield self, the slum kid who wants all, takes all, only to feel it trickle through his fingers as he grasps it tight in his hands” (134). Kenneth Rexroth describes Corso as “a genunie naïf. A real wildman, with all the charm of a hoodlum Le Douanier Rousseau, a wholesome Antonin Artaud, or a ‘sincere’ Tristan Tzara” (194). In fact, Corso during his teens had served sentences in the Tombs and Clinton State Prison, so one might say he came by his reputation honestly. Jeff Nuttall points to the contrast between this background and the middle-class experience of the other Beat writers and observes that

… the delinquent came to be revered not only as a creature liberated of morality and superego but also as a person whose way of life served as a protection against the massive public guilt of the Korean war and the H bomb. He, like the hipster whose descendant he was, showed an alternative way of life to that of society. Gregory Corso and Ray Bremser, therefore, excellent poets though they both are by any standards, were both adopted by the group largely for their delinquency and the special frisson which it created.

(111–12)

This frisson of the dangerous and forbidden experience manifests itself in Corso's poetry in its spirit of daring recklessness and the trembling bravado of a dead-end kid who tweaks the nose of authority (national, social, or religious) and races around the corner: “Summoning Death and God / I'd a wild dare to tackle Them” (“Writ on the Steps of Puerto Rican Harlem,” [Long Live Man; hereafter referred to as Long] 77); “I care nothing for my blood / and dare the things I most fear / when I do not care if truth is forever—” (“Dear Villon, Dear Milarepa” 104). Corso has avoided direct attention to his prison experiences as poetic material: “If one must climb a ladder to reach a height and from that height see, then it were best to write about what you see and not about how you climbed. Prison to me was such a ladder” (“Some” 173). Nevertheless, risk, jeopardy, and danger are staples of his poetry, and he recognizes a constant attraction and vulnerability to forces of which he cannot intellectually or morally approve:

I know I'm one who
                    even if he does see the light
still won't be completely all right
                    and good for that.

(“Writ in Horace Greeley Square,” Long 84)

He goes on to suggest that this self-recognition, coupled, of course, with experiential knowledge of the world, results in inconsistent views of humanity: “… thus i know man as best i can, and thru myself i know him, and when i trust myself i trust him, but never held i complete faith in him, complete trust …” (Letter to Burroughs 160). In poetic form this uncertainty reveals itself as vacillation:

Yesterday I believed in man today I don't
                    and tomorrow
                    tomorrow's a toss-up.

(“Writ in Horace Greeley Square,” Long 84)

At times, he even prides himself on the discrepancy between his principles and his actions: “I am able to contradict my beliefs” (“Writ on the Steps of Puerto Rican Harlem,” Long 77). At its worst, this stance evokes the aggravating arrogance of Rumplestiltskin delighting in the fact that no one knows his name. At its best, it provides a valuable and probing comment on the tensions between individual integrity and the patterns, themselves often conflicting, prescribed by social convention. “Hair” and “Marriage,” two of Corso's more popular long poems, offer extended studies of these clashes and the erratic collisions of the narrator's attitudes with stereotypes and norms, like a pinball bouncing off stationary bumpers. In “Hair (Happy Birthday of Death; [hereafter referred to as Happy Birthday] 14–16), the persona begins by mourning the fact that he is balding. He recalls earlier days when he devoted careful and loving attention to his hair and regrets his baldness as an indicator of waning youth—“And when I dream I dream children waving goodbye”—and of the loss of the accoutrements of innocence and intensity: “Now how can old ladies cookie me? / How to stand thunderous on an English cliff / a hectic Heathcliff?” The second stanza of the poem concludes with tongue-in-cheek resignation: “Bald! I'm bald! / Best now I get a pipe / and forget girls.” The next stanza begins by linking the loss of hair with the loss of identity: “Subways take me one of your own / seat me anybody / let me off any station anyman.” The identification of hair loss and personal anonymity is made utterly clear. The narrator continues his regrets and then suddenly interrupts with a preposterous attempt to rationalize his plight: he exclaims, “Wrestlers are bald / And though I'm thin O God give me chance now to wrestle.” The syntactical ambiguity here conjures an image of the speaker wrestling with Chance for a prize of hirsuteness. However, he recognizes the absurdity of this projected career and in an exaggerated gesture of despair begs for “even a nose hair, an ingrown hair.” In the fourth stanza, he passionately pleads for the return of his hair, and again social values are evident as he betrays a self-consciousness regarding his image and appearance:

I thought surely this nineteen hundred and fifty nine of now
that I need no longer bite my fingernails
but have handsome gray hair
to show how profoundly nervous I am.

By the last stanza, his despair is transformed into a furious denunciation of the intrinsic value of hair:

Damned be hair!
Hair that must be plucked from soup!
Hair that clogs the bathtub!

The poem concludes with an ironic litany of hair-associated images: “Veronica Lake Truman Capote Ishka Bibble Messiahs Paganinis / Bohemians Hawaiians poodles.” The fact that these images are stereotypical and/or belonging to popular culture is crucial, for the theme of the poem concerns neither the desirability nor the undesirability of hair. Instead, the poem attempts to explore the situation of the narrator in terms of a superficial social signifier and follows the vacillating moods of the speaker caught in a blind alley of convention. In this sense the poem reaches no conclusion—it simply stops. One could well imagine the persona ricocheting interminably between helpless regret and defensive recalcitrance.

In similar fashion, “Marriage” (Happy Birthday 29–32) comprises variations on a theme, continually sliding from one assumed attitude to another, refusing to offer a definitive stance regarding its ostensible object. The opening line of the poem provides the thematic crux, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” and then takes off on a comical ride through the ritualized conventions to be encountered in such a decision: courtship, obligatory and uncomfortable meeting with the intended's parents, wedding and reception, honeymoon, housekeeping, childbirth. The speaker imagines himself with stock images of marital settings (rural Connecticut suburbs, bleak New York City apartments “seven flights up,” sophisticated New York penthouse) and rejects them all, while still recognizing their seductions: “No, can't imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream.” The narrator's reluctance stems from his inability to imagine himself forsaking the unpredictable and unconventional behavior and outlook upon which he prides himself. He conceives of himself in wildly imaginative and surrealistically disruptive patterns:

So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones' house late at night
and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
like pasting Tanna Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust—.

These projected actions become a non-violent assault on the equanimity of dull, routine modern life. The persona can only anticipate joining the mainstream if he can retain his penchant for roiling that stream, destroying its placid stability, investing it with an energetic unpredictability to prevent it from becoming stagnant. Thus, in a world estranged from classical culture and values, he imagines himself as an ideal father giving his child

… for a nipple a rubber Tacitus
For a rattle a bag of broken Bach records
Tack Della Francesca all over its crib
Sew the Greek alphabet on its bib
And build for its playpen a roofless Parthenon.

However, as Richard Howard points out, “the prospect of withholding himself from the common fate is just as painful for Corso as the doom of conformity …” (82). The rebellion against current standardized norms also threatens anticipated isolation for the rebel:

… what if I'm 60 years old and not married,
all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear
and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

Finally, yearning for a form of integration, yet unwilling to sacrifice his own values, the persona can only retreat into the dreamy safety of an idealized “SHE,” a timeless goddess whose integrity matches his own. The speaker finds himself unable to resolve in a practical, realistic manner his vacillation between assimilation by the human community and preservation of the idiosyncratic self.

Typically, disjunction and ambivalence are deliberately courted by Corso, who explains, “Their clarion-warnings discord / the rhythms I walk to hear” (“Cambridge, First Impressions,” Gasoline/Vestal Lady on Brattle; [hereafter referred to as Gasoline/Vestal] 97). Often this discord results in “Contradiction, that good virtue” (“Writ in Horace Greeley Square,” Long 84), a quality which is repeatedly invoked and celebrated by Corso. In his novel, The American Express, a character offers what is undoubtedly Corso's own praise: “What makes a man not dead, to me at least, is his ability to contradict what he a moment ago believed with all his heart” (161). The sources of this “virtue” lie in the poet's view of existence: “… that is why I admit contradiction, I am contradictory because I am of life and life is contradictory” (“Poetry and Religion” 123) and in his self-knowledge: “A drunk dreamer in reality / is an awful contradiction” (“Getting to the Poem,” Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit; [hereafter referred to as Herald] 34). What might at first seem schizophrenia is actually an expansiveness of vision which allows the poet to acknowledge both extremes. Thus, much as Corso desires to believe that “Man is the victory of life,” he is forced to admit that “The fall of man stands a lie before Beethoven, / A truth before Hitler” (“Man,” Long 10) and to endorse Rodger's evaluation in The American Express: “I think I know the makeup of man, and I feel he is both monster and angel” (218).

A similar double vision characterizes Corso's self-opinion. He portrays his mixed patriotic feelings about America, revealing an ambivalence characteristic of many of the Beat writers:

O whenever I pass an American Embassy I don't know what to feel!
Sometimes I want to rush in and scream: “I'm American!”
but instead go a few paces down to the American Bar
get drunk and cry: “I'm no American!”

(“America Politica Historia, in Spontaneity,” Elegiac Feelings American; [hereafter referred to as Elegiac] 95)

Similarly, he seems unable to decide whether his vatic role is that of savior or conman: “I dark mad ah solace dreams grace miracle quack awful O!” (“Death,” Happy Birthday 41). Bruce Cook suggests, “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” (133); similarly, Richard Howard sees “Marriage” as a poem “about the impossibility of choosing” (82). One is reminded of the fabled Burinam ass, which starved to death because it could not choose between two equidistant stacks of hay. However, Corso's choices are hardly “simple,” and human complexity obviates easy decisions: “Mine the true labyrinth, it is my soul, Theseus; / try a ball of string in that!” (“Paranoia in Crete,” Happy Birthday 51); conflicting but equally powerful values and principles support each alternative. Corso's response sometimes has the earmarks of facile paradox: evoking Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken,” he suggests, “No choice of two roads: if there were, / I don't doubt I'd have chosen both” (“Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday,” Long 93); “If you have a choice / between two things / and cannot decide / —take both” (“Getting to the Poem,” Herald 34). During a symposium in 1973, Corso indicated that this response has folk roots: “And it's an old Italian expression, but I don't know it in Italian but I know it in English. If you have a choice between two things, and you can't decide, take both” (Symposium 59). However, Corso is apparently serious: for him, ideals can be realized, and, therefore, reality and dreams are not by necessity mutually exclusive. Mere accessibility cannot be the determinant if values are to remain intact:

And all around are apples ripe for the picking
but I go for that out of reach one
and quite make it.

(“There Can Be No Other Apple for Me,” Long 74)

For Corso, ideals are not unreal—they are simply not yet realized.

Most often Corso's choices lean in the direction of imagination. Ginsberg has noted that Corso maintains “A rare goonish knowledge with reality—a hip piss on reality also—he prefers his dreams” (“Introduction,” Gasoline/Vestal 8). Thus, a major objection to the very real responsibilities of “Marriage” is that the narrator feels it would be “Impossible to lie back and dream Telephone snow, ghost parking—” (Happy Birthday 31). This preference for imagination springs from a distrust of reality and a fear that modern society threatens to extinguish fantasy—and with it individuality. In “Mutation of the Spirit,” he makes his complaint explicit:

TRUTH ABOVE ALL the demand
I am a wreck of truth Damn such demand
I cried I would rather my value be true
than truth be my value.

(Elegiac 23)

His objection is that reliance on and subservience to abstract truth and reality can lock human beings into enervated acceptance of the status quo. Thus, he apostrophizes,

Truth why has man Frankensteined you
You are the big lie Truth
It is you who stops man from outstepping himself.

(“Greece,” Long 26)

The reality Corso endorses is a Keatsian truth in symbiotic relationship with beauty: “We came to announce the human spirit in the name of beauty and truth” (“Elegiac Feelings American,” Elegiac 5); “—beauties and the joys of them / superimpose their truth upon all the lies” (“Eyes,” Herald 37).

Corso believes that imagination, rather than reality, provides the vital key to understanding and perception:

Since I observe memory and dream
And not the images of the moment
I am become more vivid.

(“Power,” Happy Birthday 75)

However, Corso believes that the modern world discourages the tendency to indulge in imagination, to engage the world of dreams in any meaningful capacity:

Look at the babe born today in this age—as soon as he is able to walk, his Liberace loving parents wouldn't think of giving him Latin and Greek, no because that doesn't make money, so they send him off to school for a terrible knowledge. If once in school he dreams, if once he tires of trivial things, “lazy lazy!” the teacher screams, while all the while in his little heart an ocean sings … they're educating kids today to do anything but dream.

(“Hung-Up Age” 154)

Furthermore, he regrets that “THINK signs will never give way to DREAM signs” (“Power,” Happy Birthday 76), because he believes that an artificial world has already been imposed on humanity, and unfortunately it is one which does not spring from natural values:

[Louella Parson's] a dictator of the mind, that's why. She whores you off to a phony dream world that oozes over with a gush and a sentiment, a peaches and cream world that doesn't even have a john in it—when she shows you the moon she shows you an Alice Faye moon, not the moon.

(“Hung-Up Age” 152–53)

Obviously Corso puts his trust in a different quality of dream world. He considers the peculiarly modern, mass-produced false dream as dangerous and subversive and suggests that his friend Jack Kerouac was a victim of “that unreal fake America, that caricature of America, that plugged in a wall America” (“Elegiac Feelings American,” Elegiac 10): as Kerouac's visions began to be adopted by a generation which revolted against the artificial dream, Kerouac himself was absorbed by the very forces he criticized. To favor imagination over reality is not necessarily to prefer falseness over truth: “Though truth is no longer my master / I will not entruth lies” (“The Doubt of Truth” 127). Corso pleads “for that madness again that infinitive solitude where illusion spoke Truth's divine dialect” (“Ode to Coit Tower,” Gasoline/Vestal 13).

The “madness” of Corso's discordant mixture of “memory and dream” attributes considerable potency to the creative abilities of imagination. In “BOMB” he asserts that “if I felt bombs were caterpillars / I'd doubt not they'd become butterflies.”1 He immediately illustrates this tendency for image to evolve into illusion:

          There is a hell for bombs
They're there I see them there
                    They sit in bits and sing songs
                                        mostly German songs
          and two very long American songs
and they wish there were more songs.

An imaginative speculation has created its own setting and characters in a surreal poetic vision. In Corso's poetry, fantasy continuously spills over onto reality, altering its colors and shapes. In “The Sacré-Coeur Café” (Happy Birthday 66), the speaker's imagination transforms a bland scene into a setting thrilling with tension and excitement. The Venice of “I Where I Stand” (Long 41) is reconstructed as “The outskirts of a dreamed map.” In “Errol Flynn—On His Death” (Elegiac 86), the actor is totally and hopelessly confused with his cinematic roles. “Alchemy” (Herald 50) offers fantastically visual transformation:

A bluebird
          alights upon a yellow chair
—Spring is here

as the primary colors blend into a completely imaginary spring green.

For Corso, however, the power of the imagination is more than whimsically perceptual. It has been suggested that in the modern age men have dreams rather than visions, and Corso sees himself as trying to re-inculcate the visionary capability. In the footsteps of Blake, Shelley, and Whitman, he sees the poet as instrumental in the redemption of this lost aspect of humanity, the recovery of which will restore forgotten dimensions to life:

—What we are witnessing is a delicate shift of total consciousness in America. … The shift and new recognition can only be incarnated and commenced thru great works of Art (as Whitman rightly demanded from poets to come)—Art to stand beacon like Statue naked and courageous, individual statement of private actual, uncensored individual perception. …

—The total alteration, personal work social political poetic, emotive—demanded by alteration of consciousness—enforced by alteration of facts: the arrival on the world of the great bomb of the apocalypse, the journey from our world to others now unknown but visionarily reachable.

(“Variations” 50; 95–96)

For Corso, the visionary capacity promises human fulfillment. The surrender to it must be total in order to break the shackles of trivial self-consciousness and thereby attain a new level of consciousness, encompassing the marvel and delight of the mind's preoccupation with its own complexity and the surreality made possible when fantasy and imagination are viable lenses for apprehension, enabling the perceiver to witness an individual and unique reality too long denied to humanity. Thus, Corso is capable of applauding himself:

—O God! God!
I'll never see things as they are!
Debauched of dream,
I've an eye impure for sight.

(“On Palatine,” Happy Birthday 63)

The visionary propensity enables humanity to rise above its usually mundane existence and be liberated from customary human limitations. Corso suggests that the notion of circumscribed power is a relic of primitive times:

Poor caveman, so scared of the outside,
So afeared of its power and beauty,
Created a limit, and called that limit God—.

(“Man,” Long 9)

Continued belief still springs from anxiety and fear of the unknown:

The love one has for the God
                    sensed by all humankind
                    is unsure, by faith enjoined,
                    An answer to the impermanence
                              of things and oneself—.

(“Money/Love,” Herald 36)

However, as valuable as such a belief may once have been for the safety and health of human beings, the modern age demands an adaptation of the nature of divinity. Thus, in The American Express, asked by the Cardinal, “What will you do without God?” Carrol answers, “I will find a better representation of Him! I will find a God fitting for me! A God of the new consciousness! The Catholic Church is done—your God has not changed. Man changes, therefore God must change—” (31). In the twentieth century, a person no longer need bow to primeval beliefs:

Must I dry my inspiration in this sad concept?
Delineate my entire stratagem?
Must I settle into phantomness
and not say I understand things better than God?

(“1959,” Happy Birthday 91)

The syntactical ambiguity of the final line (i.e., better than God understands things, better than I understand God, or things which are better than God) underlines the obsolete nature the poet attaches to the concept. Corso sees the idea of God as inimical to the integrity of individual identity: “I can find nothing human about heaven” (“After Another Reading of Dante,” Long 73). In “Transformation & Escape” (Happy Birthday 19–21), the speaker arrives in heaven and finds “God a gigantic fly paper”; the poem describes the speaker's rebellion against the fragmentation and loss of self in an “oppressively sweet” heaven and his determination to assert his personal identity and preserve his spirit at all costs. The “new consciousness” that Corso finds imagination providing is dependent upon an expanded sense of freedom, the emancipated power of humanity recognizing the individual as God. In The American Express, Simon preaches, “All the consciousness is waiting for the Messiah to make a break. We are the God we always longed for,” and Carrol corroborates the message: “You long for God and don't know that you're already God! What's all this nonsense about looking for Power outside yourselves? It's in YOU!” (44, 45). Accepting traditional limits on the power of human awareness and consciousness becomes the equivalent of imposing those restrictions. The visionary capacity, on the other hand, offers limitless possibilities to man, for “His dream can go beyond existence—” (“Man,” Long 10) and thus can offer humanity a form of immortality.

The exploration of the complex regions of dream, imagination, and vision constitutes Corso's poetic mission:

There are no more lands to expore, to
conquer—Christopher Columbus must now traverse the sea
of the mind and who can doubt he'll not discover some
kind of wondrous continent there? … the wider the
expanse of the mind the greater our possibility to learn
and enjoy the adventures it holds for us.

(“Some” 180)

The image and thrust of Corso's statement parellel André Breton's comment that “the human explorer will be able to carry his investigations much further, authorized as he will henceforth be not to confine himself solely to the most summary realities. The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights” (10). The indomitability of the human spirit, the universal integrity of a personal and subjective response to beauty's truth, and the vast richness of the uncharted imagination—these are the lessons of the new art which Corso champions. In the midst of a society seemingly bent upon death, destruction, and despair, the visionary poet offers life, creativity, and hope, for “Only a poet can renew hope!” (“Hung-Up Age” 158). Corso suggests, “Something there is can sufficiently drench / All man in its gold vision splendour” (“Something There Is,” Selected Poems 56). This magnificence can only be attained by the recapture of the visionary capacity, “in order that consciousness grow ever more perfect, and man ever more human, and life ever more total” (“Some” 181).

Note

  1. “BOMB” is an unpaged leaf folded and bound between pages 32 and 33 in Happy Birthday.

Works Cited

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1972.

Brossard, Chandler. Who Walk in Darkness. New York: Lancer, 1952.

Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. New York: Scribner's, 1971.

Corso, Gregory. The American Express. Paris: Olympia, 1961.

———. “Dear Villon, Dear Milarepa.” Unmuzzled Ox 2.1 & 2 (1973): n. pag.; reprinted in Unmuzzled Ox 6.2 (#22) (Winter 1981): 104.

———. “The Doubt of Truth.” the unspeakable visions of the individual 10. Eds. Arthur and Kit Knight. California, PA: the unspeakable visions of the individual, 1980. 127.

———. Elegiac Feelings American. New York: New Directions, 1970.

———. Gasoline/The Vestal Lady on Brattle. San Francisco: City Lights, n.d.

———. The Happy Birthday of Death. New York: New Directions, 1960.

———. Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit. New York: New Directions, 1981.

———. “In This Hung-Up Age.” New Directions in Prose and Poetry 18. Ed. J. Laughlin. New York: New Directions, 1964. 149–61.

———. Letter to William S. Burroughs (1962). The Beat Diary (the unspeakable visions of the individual 5). Eds. Arthur and Kit Knight. California, PA: the unspeakable visions of the individual, 1977. 158–61.

———. Long Live Man. New York: New Directions, 1962.

———. “Poetry and Religion: An Open Letter.” The Aylesford Review 5.3 (Summer 1963): 119–26.

———. Selected Poems. London: Eyre & Spottiswode, 1962.

———. “Some of My Beginning … and What I Feel Right Now.” Poets on Poetry. Ed. Howard Nemerov. New York: Basic, 1966. 172–81.

———. Symposium on Jack Kerouac (with Allen Ginsberg et al.). Soundings/East 2.2 (Fall/Winter 1979): 1–89.

———. “Variations on a Generation.” Gemini 2.6 (Spring 1959): 47–51. Rpt. in A Casebook on the Beat. Ed. Thomas Parkinson. New York: Crowell, 1961. 88–97.

France, Anatole. The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. Trans. Lafcadio Hearn. New York: Dodd, 1918.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Krim, Seymour. Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. New York: Dutton, 1968.

Nuttall, Jeff. Bomb Culture. New York: Dell, 1968.

Rexroth, Kenneth. Assays. New York: New Directions, 1961.

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1989)

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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 inventiveness, the same zany humour and euphoria of metaphor that animated the poet's first volume, together with a greater fluency and deftness, a surer sense of shape and focus. A small book, 32 poems on 37 pages, Gasoline lives up to its title: it is a volatile and combustive collection.

The opening poem of the volume, “Ode to Coit Tower”, announces the nature and the terms of the conflict that informs and encompasses the other poems in the book, namely the conflict between imagination and the material world, between vision and the real. In Corso's ode, humankind's aspiration toward beauty and vision is emblemized by Coit Tower, while all that confines, represses, restrains and oppresses that aspiration is emblemized by the island prison of Alcatraz.

In a sequence of images the tower is associated with “illuminations” and “visions”, with children, with poetry and with sexuality, that is to say with the creative, the visionary, the innocent and ecstatic. The prison, by contrast, is seen to be the visible sign of the “petrific bondage” in which the sense and the spirit are held, and is further seen as a symbol of the destructive agencies of the world that seek to vanquish and subdue all dream and song, all manifestations of the visionary.

From the summit of the tower, the poet experiences a vision of Mercy herself crucified against the wind above the prison, “weeping … for humanity's vast door to open that all men be free that both hinge and lock die”.

The poet mourns not only the imprisoned state of humanity in the world but his own loss of vision and his consequent affliction by “reality's worm”. He grieves for the loss of his imaginative faculties, for “that which was no longer sovereign in me”, and longs to regain the “dreams that once jumped joyous bright from my heart”, together with “that madness again that infinitive solitude where illusion spoke Truth's divine dialect”.

In place of the mythic splendours, the grandeurs, the joy and the intense response to natural beauty that characterized the poet's youthful perception and imagination, he now experiences a vision of Death and can hear only “a dark anthem” of foreboding and fear.

There are, however, two sources of solace for the poet. The first of these consists of the “heroes” and “saints” of vision who continue to uphold and to affirm dream, delight, energy and imagination in the face of the tyranny of materialism. The second solace is the knowledge that the physical world is written in “Swindleresque ink”, that is disappearing ink. Material reality, the phenomenal world, are, then, ephemeral; they are illusions which will ultimately fade and vanish to reveal the true and eternal reality that they now obscure.

Corso's ode reverses the meaning of the imaginary, for the imagination is seen to be a mode of perceiving the Eternal, while what we consider to be reality, the world of the senses, is seen to be imaginary, a mere semblance with no substantial existence. The poem also proposes the essential premise of the poet's art: the universal struggle of the forces of spirit and matter, truth and falsehood, in which conflict poetry is a weapon in the arsenal of vision. The battle is waged at all levels, in the macrocosm of the world, and in the microcosm of each psyche, including, of course, that of the poet himself. This is Corso's grand theme, the essential context and argument of virtually all of his poems.

Both in structure and in theme, “Ode to Coit Tower” has affinities with certain poems of the English Romantics, including William Wordsworth's “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's “Dejection: An Ode”, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind”, (the latter of which Corso's poem alludes to in its concluding section). Certain parallels to the thought of William Blake may also be discerned in the poem. These likenesses and correspondences do not, in my estimation, diminish the achievement of Corso's ode, but rather serve to enrich and illuminate his poem, establishing also a kinship and a continuity of concern with the poet-seers of the past.

Stylistically, the ode is, perhaps, Corso's most uncharacteristic poem, blending echoes of Whitman and Ginsberg, and of Wordsworth and Shelley, with the poet's own wild imagery, his quirky syntax and diction. The long lines in which the poem is cast seem too dense, too heavy, working against Corso's quick, brilliant bursts of words, and overweighing the cursive character of his phrasing. Each stylistic component of the poem remains a disparate element, never really attaining coherence, equilibrium, integrity or significant interrelation with the other component elements. Yet, despite these technical flaws, the poem remains a forceful and cogent statement of the poet's vision, and serves effectively as an overture to the collection.

The motif of confinement, introduced in “Ode to Coit Tower”, recurs in separate poems throughout the volume, (e.g. “The Last Warmth of Arnold”) and provides the central image for “Puma in Chapultepec Zoo”. The poem begins with a description of the caged puma, emphasizing its grace and beauty, and contrasting the narrow closeness of the animal's present confinement with the expansiveness of its former freedom in the mountains. The predicament of the puma brings to the poet's mind the recollection of a distant friend:

I think of Ulanova
locked in some small furnished room
in New York, on East 17th Street
in the Puerto Rican section.

Despite the specificity of the poet's association, I think that by extension both the situation of the caged puma and of Ulanova, “locked in some small furnished room”, may be read as metaphors of the human predicament: the spirit caged in the material world, vision locked in the senses, beauty and grace held prisoner in a fallen world.

Similarly, the poem “Amnesia in Memphis” presents an unnamed speaker who may be seen to represent all humankind. The narrator of the poem lives in a twilight state between life and death, perhaps a posthumous existence in his own dead body. He cannot recall his identity but only vague images of his former life as he lies “half-embalmed” and helpless. His loss of life and identity seems to have coincided with a general failure of magical, divine and prophetic powers at this period, apparently the end of ancient Egyptian civilization. The final prophecy foretells calamity, collapse and dissolution:

The papyrus readers have seen the Falcon's head
Fall unto the Jackal's plate.

This prophecy would seem to relate to our own time, the post-mythic era, when that which was noble, celestial and airborne (the Falcon) has been overthrown and devoured by that which is ignoble, earthbound and base, (the Jackal). And, in a manner much like the state of the narrator of the poem, we are all of us only half-alive and unaware of who we are, oblivious to our divine potential. The poem reinforces the volume's theme of mankind's state of “petrific bondage”, and prefigures Corso's later interest in Egyptian mythology.

Further images of the confinement of the human spirit in the material universe are presented in “To a Downfallen Rose” and in “Sun”. In the first poem, the downfallen rose is an emblem of the plight of the spirit, which once existed in an Edenic state and is now caught in “the vast fixedness” of matter, and which is subject to “the hateful law” of the phenomenal world, to time, decay and physical death. Trapped and helpless, the rose screams in anguish, distress and despair. In the second of the two poems, the sun is celebrated for its life-giving qualities, for its divine character as “helion, apollo, rha, sol”, and it is seen to be not a material entity, not a giant ball of fiery gases, but, instead, an aperture. In the poet's mythopoeic vision the sun represents an opening to the realm of true life and light, a passage to the dominion of beauty and vision:

O constant hole where all beyond is true Byzantium.

A celestial realm of light and vision is portrayed in the poem “In the Fleeting Hand of Time”, which contrasts the state of non-material or astral being with life in the world. Corso invokes an intense, dreamlike atmosphere charged with supernatural beauty and solemn splendour to represent the celestial world, in contrast to which the physical world is depicted as stark, bleak and drab.

The poem records the poet's experience of a state of pre-existence (including the memory of a former incarnation) and his birth again on earth. From the radiant beauty and grandeur of the astral plane he descends to the raw, drear material world in which he feels acutely alien. Gradually, in the world's taint and stain he loses every remnant of grace and glory, and longs for death. Through death, he re-ascends and regains a “room of paradisical light”, finding renewal and truer life.

“In the Fleeting Hand of Time” bears, of course, a glancing resemblance to Wordsworth's famous “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” in its poetic treatment of the notion of pre-existence. The resemblance goes no further, though, than that of a shared idea, and Corso's poem is in no way imitative or derivative. The poem represents an important expression of Corso's personal cosmography and mythology, the essential metaphysic of his work, and it is characteristically (and appropriately) personal, visual, image-rich, proposing not a systematic theology but an inspired poetic vision.

In the poems of Gasoline we encounter again the motif of predatory devouring and destruction of innocence and beauty, already familiar from Corso's first collection. This motif is clearly and powerfully expressed in “Don't Shoot the Warthog”, where a child, personifying Beauty, is abused and devoured in a cannibal frenzy. It is appropriate that the child is first seen “swinging an ocean on a stick”, for this type of exercise of the impossible, the fabulous, is entirely in keeping with the poet's essential surrealist aesthetic. Similarly, it is fitting that when the other children in the poem hear the name of Beauty they respond by leaping with joy and running to see, while it is the adults who are the persecutors of and the predators upon Beauty.

Parallel sorts of unjust, undeserved injury and harm are inflicted upon innocents in “The Last Warmth of Arnold” and in “The Mad Yak”. In the former poem, the eponymous hero, Arnold, is a sensitive, shy, gentle boy whose interests include religion, literature, music and his pet pigeon. He is in love with a classmate, Eleanor, but his love is unreturned. He is a fearful child who hides under the porch and seeks out warm places in the cold world. Arnold is an alien, “from somewhere else / where it was warm”; an idealistic child in a sordid, hopeless environment of bookies and chicken pluckers, bums and sad old ladies who sit all day in the park. Arnold is rejected by the world (as is the cause to which he gives his allegiance, the Wilkie campaign). He is unfairly assaulted, after which he starves and dies, another innocent martyr in a cruel, ugly, uncaring world.

Another pitiful victim of human cruelty is the yak whose interior monologue comprises the poem, “The Mad Yak”. Here, Corso effects a reversal of the conventional connotations of the terms “human” and “animal”, contrasting the patient, compassionate yak to the callous and greedy human beings who exploit and slaughter the yaks. The humans are quite insensitive to both the beauty and the suffering of the animals, viewing them only in terms of products, such as scarves, caps, buttons and shoelaces. The yak, on the other hand, feels sorrow and compassion for its fellow creatures, and a deep sense of relatedness to them. It mourns the loss of its brothers and sisters, and feels pity for its uncle: “Poor uncle, … / How sad he is, how tired!” In short, the yak exhibits all the best qualities that we normally associate with human beings, while the humans of the poem (including the monk!) are base and “animalistic”.

“The Mad Yak” bears several themes. It is an expression of the poet's compassion for all sentient beings, and of his sense of man's ideal relation to nature and of the essential unity of all life. At the same time, the poem may be read as a criticism of man's disposition to sacrifice natural beauty and freedom (including his own) to mundane, practical ends. The poem also reinforces the theme of the world's brutal persecution of the innocent, its destruction of beauty.

The ultimate embodiment of the persecuted, innocent victims of mankind's vicious malice is the figure of Christ in the poem, “Ecce Homo”. Contemplating a painting of the crucified Christ by Theodoricus, the poet expresses his sense of grief and horror at the tortures inflicted upon this most gentle of all men, the very incarnation of divinity. Such is the fierce, fell quality of the cruelty that motivated the act that the poet concludes that the worst wounds “went thru the man to God”. As the title of the poem suggests, the figure of Christ is capable of being understood in two senses: it can be seen to represent the most ignoble and vile of all of man's acts, the torture and murder of the Prince of Peace; and, it can be seen as the symbolic embodiment of all of mankind's highest and noblest aspirations. Significantly, it is the artist, Theodoricus, and the poet who ally themselves with the sufferer, and thus with all victims, and who accuse and reprimand the perpetrators, and thus by extension all tyrants and bullies together with their supporters.

The conspiracy against joy and beauty by the forces of repressive cruelty and death is further instanced and elaborated in the poems, “Vision of Rotterdam” and “Paris”. In both poems the cities are metaphors for civilization in the best sense of the word, that is the cultivation of the mind and spirit. The armies that have attacked and occupied the cities during the past represent all that is barbarous, brutal and retrograde in man. Both poems celebrate the indominatable, irrepressible character of joy and beauty, in that the two cities have survived bombing and occupation, they have prevailed over their conquerors.

In “Vision of Rotterdam”, the poet envisions a bombardment of mercy and miracles, of gentleness and kindness that will rout the invisible occupying armies of anti-life, deliver the populace and regenerate the city. “Paris” asserts that the forces of uncreation and unlife have their collaborators among us, their fifth column of “informers and concierges” who aid and abet them and who attempt to enforce their dictates. But, at the same time, there are those who heroically oppose the occupying forces: “Spirits of angels crouching in doorways / … beautiful Baudelaire, Artaud, Rimbaud, Appolinaire”, and others.

Neither the occupation of the world by the combined forces of lifelessness, lovelessness, joylessness, banality, blandness and stasis, nor the domination of true life by matter, are stable, permanent conditions, Corso asserts. The victors are constantly at risk, ever vulnerable to harassment, ambush and sabotage by the resistance movement, the angelic underground of poets, artists, lovers, saints, clowns and children.

The poems “Botticelli's Spring”, “Uccello”, and “This Was My Meal”, treat the theme of the transforming power of the imagination. In the first of these it is the magical property of art to affect the external world that is manifested when Botticelli causes spring to appear in the physical world by the act of painting it on canvas. In the second poem, the poet praises the power of art to transfigure the disorder and even the violence and cruelty of life and to impose upon them, or discover in them, harmony, unity and beauty. The third poem celebrates the imagination in its purest and most potent form, as it is exercised by children. An ordinary, and indeed rather unappetizing meal of peas, cow's brain and milk, with a prune dessert, occasions in the fantasy of a child an extraordinary adventure in which wonders and marvels abound. In each of the poems the imagination triumphs over the material world, evidence that it is a powerful instrument of human redemption.

As in Corso's first collection, images of violence and death, especially the death of children, are frequent in the poems of Gasoline. In addition to the persecuted victims already discussed, there are the “young child—doomed by his sombrero” who is glimpsed in “Mexican Impressions”, and the dead month-old infant in “Italian Extravaganza”. There are the deaths of the streetsinger, the gardener and child in “Three”, and the murder of Kindness in “But I Do Not Need Kindness”. Further images of violence occur in “D. Scarlatti”, “Birthplace Revisited”, and “The Last Gangster”.

Closely related to the violence-and-death motif in Corso's poetry are the recurring images of alienation and loss. The windmill “alone, aline, helpless” among cacti in a windless land (in “Mexican Impressions”) is one such figure, the doll abandoned in the attic in “Doll Poem” is such another, together with the narrators of “On the Walls of a Dull Furnished Room” and “I Miss My Dear Cats”. These two clusters of images combine to create a sense of the barreness and terror of human existence.

The effect of such imagery is offset, however, by the poet's impish humour and by the energy and excitement and the magical lyricism of his poems. Gasoline presents a myth or metaphysic of a fallen world, a debased state of existence from which man can be delivered by means of the imagination and the faculty of vision. Thus, despite their preoccupation with suffering, persecution, alienation and death, these poems affirm man's potential victory over the external world.

Among the strategies enacted by Corso's poems to serve this end is their cultivation of a mythic, animistic sensibility, and their corresponding emancipation of language through a dissolution of syntactical restrictions and denotative lexical meanings.

In the poems of Gasoline Corso ascribes consciousness to windmills, flowers, dolls, trees, valleys, mountains and moonlight. He personifies Time, Mercy, Kindness, Beauty, Truth and Death. He alludes to Egyptian, Greek and Aztec mythologies, and invents his own myths. By means of such actions and processes, such feats of the imagination, the poet endeavours to lift the malediction of habit and limitation, to restore life to the inanimate and the abstract. He gives names and forms to the mysterious powers latent in the life of the world, returning them to their sacred status. He joins together again that which has been separated, aiding in the re-establishment of primordial unity.

In the poem, “No Word”, Corso declares his independence from the conventional uses and banal ends of language:

It is better man a word elongate
and eat up what another spake
It is better man give up his diction
become mouthless
it is better
than another man, myself
heed his restriction

Corso “elongates” and “eats up” words by means of copulative coinages such as “redsmash”, “joyprints”, “hungersulk”, “eyehand”, “rosefamed”, “sunbone”, and “wheatweather”; and by metamorphic fusions such as “eucharistic feet”, “ventriloquial telegram”, “brides of wheat”, “windless monkage”, “spider thirst” and “dome heirloomed”. He forms adjectives such as “swindleresque”, “visionic”, “vegetic” and “deathical”; and alters temporal, logical and syntactic relations among the components of his sentences to create ellipsis, associative connections, condensation, shifts of context, displacements, juxtapositions, or for rhythmic effect: “Sun misery sun ire sun sick sun dead sun rot sun relic!”

For Corso language is an instrument of exploration and revelation. Words for him possess a magical, incantatory power. He is intoxicated with words, fascinated by their sounds and meanings, their strange conjunctions and disjunctions. Like that of Rimbaud, Corso's poetic enterprise is the alchemy of the word, the verbal transmutation of the world. His expressive, explosive, explorative utilization of language is at once destructive and constructive, subverting traditional modes of thought and conventional notions of reality, as it exalts desire, freedom and vision.

Gasoline is an urgent, audacious yet graceful collection that confirms an uncommon and an important poetic talent.

Dennis Barone (essay date 1990)

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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 next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? / Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries … take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone / and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky.” My brother actually did marry someone I introduced him to in the cemetery! During my first year in college I wrote a long poem with long lines in Ginsberg Corso Kerouac Ferlinghetti style attacking the college. Despondent over the injustices of which I wrote, I hitchhiked up to Dartmouth College, where I heard Ferlinghetti read in the chapel.

I have not read Corso in the intervening years. Perhaps I stopped reading him because of one of the charges brought against the Beats: spontaneity and its excess. In the essay “Art,” Emerson said that “art should exhilarate, and throw down the walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists.” As “awakener of youth” Corso has thrown down the walls a bit and made new artists, and I find in rereading much of his work, reading some of it for the first time, that he has done this precisely because of the spontaneity of the work. Just the other day I read that a young San Francisco poet weary of the extensive theorizing of his near-elders turned to the Beats for poetic inspiration and insight.

Mindfield, then, provides for new readers the opportunity to be awakened and for those familiar with Corso's work a chance to be reawakened. Thunder's Mouth Press presents ample selections from five previously published books and nearly sixty pages of previously unpublished poems, including an almost thirty-page poem written last year. The book also has brief forewords by Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs and drawings by Corso.

The selections from the first two books, The Vestal Lady on Brattle (1955) and Gasoline (1958), show a poet exploring form, technique, and voice. The voice that readers most associate with Corso emerges in Gasoline, but not yet as the primary sound for all the work. These early poems try various modes such as dream poem, automatic poem, requiem for four voices. They use a wide range of poetic devices—this is just the first forty-three pages: rhyme, repetition, list, allusion, rhetorical (metaphysical) question, neologism, analogy, alliteration, hyperbole, and different dictions. Through these different dictions it seems as if Corso arrived at his own: a self-consciously elevated one that declares and declaims, that at times mocks itself, as in “In the Fleeting Hand of Time”:

I climb and enter a fiery gathering
          of knights
they unaware of my presence lay
          forth sheepskin plans
and with mailcoated fingers trace
          my arrival
back back back when on the black
          steps of Nero lyre Rome I stood
in my arms the wailing philosopher
the final call of mad history
Now my presence is known
my arrival marked by illuminated
          stains
The great windows of Paradise open

This is the style readers think of as true Corso.

The assumed dictions in some early poems are not merely imitative of past poets, though. They are appropriate, not appropriated. For example, a poem entitled “Puma in Chapultepec Zoo” has lines that ring with the tune of Blake's “The Tyger.” A poem about art and war sounds like another poem of similar theme, Pound's “Canto XLV.” Corso: “not the shades of wolves recruit their hoard like brides of / wheat on all horizons” (“Uccello”). Pound: “seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines / no picture is made to endure nor to live with. …” A poem called “But I Do Not Need Kindness” beats out its lines Prufrock-like: “I have watched them, at night, dark and sad, / pasting posters of mercy / on the stark posts of despair.” Poems such as “Sea Chanty,” “The Wreck of the Nordling,” and “Don't Shoot the Warthog” have the epigrammatic style of Stephen Crane. The latter poem ends: “I screamed the name! and they came / and gnawed the child's bones. / I screamed the name: Beauty / Beauty Beauty Beauty.” These voices are always appropriate to the poem's subject.

The selections from Gasoline also establish the concerns that continue in Corso's writing up to the present. For example, the limits of knowledge: how people can be in the midst of something and not know it precisely because they are in it: “in the driver's seat, a young child / —doomed by his sombrero” (“Mexican Impressions”). Being outside has allowed Corso to see the unnaturalness of the taken-for-granted. In poems of other countries or in poems about America, he remains on the outside. This results in both the poet's loneliness and an urgent desire to assert the self. So on the one hand Corso writes, “what if I'm 60 years old and not married, / all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear / and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!” (“Marriage”—these lines echo in an early eighties poem, “Feelings on Getting Older”), and on the other: “I wanted to drop fire-engines from my mouth!” (“This Was My Meal”). This dual vision from a stance of alienation and bravado has allowed Corso, in “Italian Extravaganza,” to depict the hyperbole of the real:

Mrs. Lombardi's month-old son
          is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo's funeral parlor,
A small purplish wrinkled head.
They've just finished having high
          mass for it;
They're coming out now
… wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.

Changing “son” (person) to “it” (object) in the second line and juxtaposing the “small coffins” to the multiple large cars is another example of the insanity of what gets accepted as the rational, natural order of things. It is especially interesting that Corso demonstrates this in poems about Mexico and an Italian neighborhood in the U.S. Often in postwar art the ethnic represents some special nostalgic claim to the ethical. But here, and this is distressing, Corso shows the robot arm of dehumanization reaching beyond suburbia.

In these poems there are moments of transcendence of the banality that results from this dehumanization. In a poem “For Miles,” Corso names this transcendence “some wondrous yet unimaginable score. Sometimes Corso presents the quotidian and then some wondrous thing outside the ordinary, as in “Last Night I Drove a Car”:

Last night I drove a car
          not knowing how to drive
          not owning a car
I drove and knocked down
          people I loved
          … went 120 through one town.
I stopped at Hedgeville
          and slept in the back seat
          … excited about my new life.

The poems that follow in Mindfield either try to wake people up (rather than knock them down) or consider ultimate questions about death and the purpose of life. Most of these poems are in that voice that we most likely hear when we think of Corso. The selections from The Happy Birthday of Death (1960) include many of the poet's most anthologized poems, including “Notes after Blacking Out,” “Hair,” “Bomb,” and “Marriage.” (In his most recent poem Corso tells us, “so far I've earned 30,000 / from 1958 to 1988 / for my MARRIAGE poem / and to think I wanted to call it / EPITHALAMIUM.”) These poems want something even when there may be nothing, desire to continue even when over, desire to be present even when absent. “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway” ends: “We ended by melting away, / hating the air!” These poems fight against an intellectual existentialist nihilism as well as bourgeois complacency: “The threat of Nothingness renews. … Deny, I deny the tastes and habits of the age” (“1959”).

Of the one-word-title poems “Marriage” and “Bomb” remain my favorites. “Bomb” does not appear in Mindfield as a foldout that accentuates its bomb-like, mushroom cloud typographic shape. Nonetheless, in this time of possible disarmament (or destruction) the poem remains both comic and powerful. Like the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who in 2001 shows an ape's weapon of bone transform into a space station, Corso, too, believes that “Bomb you are as cruel as man makes you.” In other words, the bomb is within. It's not so much a change in technology that we need (disarmament) but a change in our system of belief (end the thought of war). When Corso writes “ye BANG ye BONG ye BING / the tail the fin the wing” the comedy is tragicomic. For the childlike playwords “bang bong bing” he pairs with an antiquated—perhaps from the time of Lockean rationality—“ye,” and the destruction reaches all of the land (“tail”), the sea (“fin”), and the air (“wing”).

The shortest selection of poems comes from Long Live Man (1962). These may be the weakest poems in a very strong collection. Though “Man” ably discusses the contradictions and uncertainties of being alive, and “Some Greek Writings” has wit and humor in an off-the-cuff tone, sometimes too many lines sound flat and flatly matter of fact: “Oh what responsibility / I put on thee Gregory / Death and God / Hard hard it's hard” or “I remember my 31st year when I cried: / ‘To think that I may have to go another 31 years!’ / I don't feel that way this birthday.”

Poems selected from Elegiac Feelings American (1970) include the title poem, a long elegy for Jack Kerouac, “Spontaneous Requiem for the American Indian,” and “The American Way.” These longer poems written from Europe looking back at the U.S. have flat, straightforward lines like those quoted above, but here they seem to make more sense, a very sad sense. In “The American Way”—and the title might read “The American Hegemony”—Corso says that neither Franklin nor Jefferson speaks for present-day America. Instead, “Bizarre! Frightening! The Mickey Mouse sits on the throne / and Hollywood has a vast supply.” Furthermore, he says all are caught, swept up in the hegemonic way:

The Beats are good example of this
They forsake the Way's habits
          and acquire for themselves their
                    own habits
and they become as distinct and
          regimented and lost
                    as the main flow
                    because the Way has many
                                        outlets
          like a snake of many tentacles

Corso says that “something great and new and wonderful must happen / to free man from this beast.” It is sad that it hasn't yet occurred. Instead, prime time ideology has flourished—even through baby's first Sony. Corso calls for justice and action in the world, not the pieties of formal religion nor the material things of this world. Though the elegy for Kerouac has him as the precursor of “the children of flowers,” the dawn of a new age, the America that Corso and Kerouac wanted is still “an America to be.”

The poems in the selection from Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (1981) turn more personal and less public than earlier ones. “Columbia U Poesy Reading—1975,” “Sunrise,” “Sunset,” “I Met This Guy Who Died,” “Earliest Memory,” “Wisdom,” “Proximity,” “When a Boy …”—there are many fine poems here, and, as some of the titles may indicate, the poems are still about ultimate questions and death but now from the perspective of having traveled much further along life's course. Let me quote one short poem in full, one of several about the origins of the poet and the poem:

When a boy
I monitored the stairs
altar'd the mass
flew the birds of New York City
And in summer camp
I kissed the moon
                                        in a barrel of rain

“When a Boy …”

This poet who says, “I long ago announced myself poet / long before the poem,” is still poet, is still poem making. His writing did not end with those pre-1960 anthologized poems. Nor will it stop with the present new and selected poems. The autobiographical, life-overview long poem, “Field Report,” that concludes this volume ends with the word “STOP,” all caps, but I think that that is “stop for now,” because at the bottom of the page appears the date “1989–90.” Yet the book was published in 1989. I take that as a sign that despite doubt, uncertainty, the American way, death all around, Gregory Corso will continue, and I am glad he will.

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1990)

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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”

I contradict the real with the unreal,” declares Gregory Corso in his poem “Power,” and some lines farther in the same poem, he announces, “I am the ambassador of Power.”1 Correctly understood, these two short statements represent a concise formulation of Corso's poetics and of his conception of the role of the poet, and of poetry, in human society and in the universe. In the following I want to explore the significance and implications of these statements and to consider how they are related to theme and technique in the poet's work.

Corso's poetic vision may well have originated in an incident from his childhood. An orphan, repeatedly institutionalized, Corso was, at the age of twelve, incarcerated in the New York City jail, the infamous Tombs, where he was beaten and abused by the other prisoners. Out of the loneliness and terror of this experience, however, he discovered an interior world of beauty and vision. “When they stole my food and beat me up and threw pee in my cell, I, the next day would come out and tell them my beautiful dream about a floating girl who landed before a deep pit and just stared.”2 This incident represents what may be Corso's earliest instance of contradicting the real with the unreal, the true inception of his vocation as a poet. This pivotal experience prepared Corso to receive and understand the “books of illumination” (see dedication to Gasoline), which he read some years later while serving a sentence at Clinton Prison.3

Corso's poetic imagination is, then, essentially a rejection of the tyranny of the real. It is an assertion of freedom from limitation and from causality, a mode of refashioning, reinterpreting, recreating the phenomenological universe, of imposing inner desire on the external world, and by these means a way of contradicting, counteracting, and countermanding the real. Corso's poetics, though he devised them independently out of his personal perceptions and necessities, are thus very much in the romantic tradition (ultimately the Platonic, vatic tradition). The poetic imagination for Corso, as for Coleridge and for Shelley, partakes of divinity as “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,”4 and as an agency that “marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension … and … redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man. …”5 In this manner the poet, through the act of imaginative creation, discovers and reveals the eternal, divine structures and principles underlying the “real” world, and he or she functions as prophet, messenger, or “ambassador of Power.”

Principal among the “books of illumination” from which Corso gained knowledge of the world and self-knowledge during his three-year sentence at Clinton Prison was “the 1905 Standard Dictionary … with all the archaic and obsolete words.”6 Words, language, became the vehicle of his imagination, the weapon to assault the prison of the real, and the instrument by which to discover and inhabit the deeper, truer realm of beauty and desire. For Corso words are not passive and inert but alive and potent. They possess mystery, associative richness, and revelatory power. They are capable of marriages and metamorphoses. Their properties are transmutative “like chemistry. You put iron and another element together and you get a third.”7

Language for Corso is plastic, animate beyond its syntax and grammar. It is not a fixed system but a process. The poetic use of language is for him a discovery of correspondences and conjunctions, a reconciliation of opposites. Corso's poetry, by joining incongruous, disparate elements and by generating new combinations breaks down traditional habits of perception, repudiates ontological clichés, and celebrates the unlimited possibilities of the eternal imagination. (“Nothing is so unjust as impossibility,” asserts Corso in “Power” [The Happy Birthday of Death; hereafter referred to as Birthday, 15].) The remarks of Gaston Bachelard concerning the process of the poetic imagination are particularly appropriate to the verbal transformation and recreation of the world as it occurs in Corso's poetry. “Imagination is always considered to be the faculty of forming images. But it is rather the faculty of deforming the images offered by perception, of freeing ourselves from the immediate images; it is especially the faculty of changing images. If there is not a changing of images, an unexpected union of images, there is no imagination, no imaginative action.”8

Another of the “books of illumination” read by Corso in Clinton Prison was a volume of the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose life and work have influenced Corso's poetry and whom Corso reveres as “the first revolutionary of the spirit.”9 Corso shares with Shelley a zeal for liberty and a passionate faith in humankind. An outlook very similar to Shelley's “mixture of Platonism and pantheism”10 can be discerned in Corso's work, as well as a Shelleyan aversion to “cruelty, tyranny, authority, institutional religion, custom and the formal shams of respectable society.”11 Corso also shares with Shelley a “deep interest in the ancient Greeks” and “a radical egalitarian approach to social and political questions.”12

I do not mean to suggest that Corso's thought and poetry are directly derivative of those of Shelley. Indeed, I am convinced that the impact of Shelley's thought on the young Corso involved to a high degree a recognition on Corso's part of a philosophy that he already embraced but that he had not yet formulated or articulated. I believe, with John Fuller, that Corso is “a natural idealist.”13 More to the point is that with its imaginative action, its alchemical, transmutative character, Corso's poetry also represents an expression of metaphysical-social-political prophecy.

Although Corso has never written out his credo or produced a manifesto of his beliefs as such, he has come closest to doing so in his article “Variations on a Generation” in which he expresses his own hopes for a revolution of the spirit. Corso prophesies “a delicate shift of total consciousness” in which process art is central to human enlightenment and evolution. Ultimately, there will occur a “total alteration, personal work social political poetic emotive—demanded by alteration of consciousness,” and there will be an end to “nationalistic madness … and to blindness and suicide, maniacal universal selfish competition.”14 Certainly, this is a utopian vision, no less sweeping nor less compelling than that of Shelley, to be embodied in poetic prophecy.

These two aspects, then, the imaginative and the prophetic, are the twin impulses of Corso's poetry, at once the poles and counterparts of his vision. The former aspect manifests itself as pure poetry, the poem as “Zeusian toy,” while the latter aspect is expressed in Corso's polemical, discursive, introspective poems, the poem as Hermean message. In certain poems, of course, both qualities are present, diametrically and complementarily. Together they represent the record of a poetic exploration of the world, of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the ideal and the real, the inner and the outer.

An important feature of Corso's writing is its innocent impudence, its ingenuous whimsy, its sly, surreal humor. This element of comedy is central to his poetic vision as it serves to discredit and subvert the real, to point up the ludicrousness and absurdity of our vanities and obsessions, and to affirm our essential innocence. Corso's humor is never malicious and is often self-mocking, self-deflating. For Corso, the poet and the clown are one, engaged in the ultimate struggle of desire against death, vision against objective, external reality: “Their happy light is forged phalanx, charge!” (“Clown,” Birthday, 55).

Corso's poetry constitutes an “Arcadian map” in that it insists upon our original and our final innocence. It informs us of where we have been, it acquaints us with where we are now, and it can serve to guide us to where we would wish to be. Like any reliable map, it represents all the features of the terrain, both the wonders and the dangers, both Arcadia and Hades. For, as Fredric Jameson suggests, if the real is by definition “that which resists desire,” then “it also follows that this Real … can be disclosed only by Desire itself, whose wish-fulfilling mechanisms are the instruments through which this resistant surface must be scanned.”15

Corso's central concerns may be discerned already in his earliest work, in the poems of his first collection, The Vestal Lady on Brattle (1955). The title poem announces the dominant theme of the volume: the destruction of beauty and innocence by the world. The aging, barren “vestal lady” of the poem inhabits a “grey ruin,” where she pursues her “despaired” and “sunless” life of custom.16 Daily, she drowns and consumes a child, nourishing, intoxicating herself on this cannibal fare. The poem suggests our daily murder of the child within us in order to maintain the habits of our ruined and sunless lives and it also represents the general hostility and inhospitability of the world to innocence and beauty with their inevitable annihilation by the real.

This theme is further explored and developed in other poems in the collection, such as “Greenwich Village Suicide,” where a sensitive lover of “Bartok, Van Gogh / And New Yorker cartoons” destroys herself (or more properly is “suicided by society” as Artaud phrases it), and whose death is met with a complacent callousness by the world: “They take her away with a Daily News on her face / And a shopkeeper throws hot water on the sidewalk” (5).

Another variation on the theme occurs in “A Pastoral Fetish” where the deliberate destruction of beauty is perpetrated by a perverse, storm trooper person, who revels in crunching lilacs and dandelions beneath his boots and exults in the sticky smell of the “green blood” of the “murdered” flowers (31). Similarly, the poem “In the Early Morning” depicts a predatory “drooling Desirer” in his “long greasy coat” and with his “bloodstained nails” who waits in hiding to assault “the runaway hand-in-pocket / whistling youth” (13). The poems “Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker, Musician” and “St. Lukes, Service for Thomas” both mourn the untimely destruction of two creative artists by those forces that Corso ultimately names as “uncreation.”

Despite their nursery rhyme, fairy-tale quality and their disarming childlike tone, these early poems present a terrifying vision of a perverse and vicious world wherein the destructive, negative forces are predominant, devouring and preying upon the forms of beauty and innocence. Their flaws and stylistic uncertainty notwithstanding, these early poems make a forceful and affecting statement about the nature of life and the world.

Corso's next collection Gasoline (1958) exhibits a clearer thematic focus, greater stylistic assurance, and more developed technical skill. Each poem in the volume seems to complement and clarify the other poems by reflecting on them and resonating with them. The collection thus forms a coherent whole composed of luminous, autonomous parts.

The first poem in the collection, “Ode to Coit Tower,” employs two central images, the tower and the prison (Coit Tower and Alcatraz), to symbolize the two diameteric tendencies of human consciousness: the aspiration for ascent and liberation, the striving for vision, versus the urge toward confinement, constraint, and restriction. The tower represents the creative drive in the human spirit expressive of the urge for love and beauty, for transcendence; the prison embodies all that is cruel, blind, limited, and retrograde—a heavy, dreamless, “petrific bondage.” Corso prays for “humanity's vast door to open that all men be free that both hinge and lock die” (12).

In the second part of the poem, the poet-speaker grieves for his own personal loss of vision. (There are direct parallels here to Wordworth's “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and Coleridge's “Dejection: An Ode.”) He mourns for “that which was no longer sovereign in me” and for the loss of “dreams that once jumped joyous bright from my heart like sparks.” In contrast to the young children he watches who still possess the “eucharistic” “treasures” of imagination and vision, Corso longs to repossess “that madness again that infinitive solitude where illusion spoke Truth's divine dialect” (11–13). The poem concludes with a desperate sense of irredeemable loss, a despair at the poet's inability to sustain vision in the face of the vicissitudes of adult life. And yet the poem is itself testimony that vision and the imaginative faculty do not disappear altogether, although they may be markedly diminished in power and intensity. Some ember of this divine fire remains latent in the spirit and must be nourished and cultivated. For though there are prisons in the world and in the mind, there are also towers.

There are echoes of Corso's “Ode” in other poems in the volume. In “Puma in Chapultapec Zoo” the poet again depicts the unnatural confinement of that which is by nature free and self-sovereign. The caged puma emblematizes the general condition of sentient consciousness in the material world, as does the poet's friend in a faraway city “locked in some small furnished room.” In “Sun” Corso views the universe itself as a confining prison into which the sun shines as through a hole in the enclosing wall of darkness. He celebrates the presence of light as the divine element that inspires humankind to reverence (as Helios, Apollo, Rha, Sol, etc.) and to transcendental aspiration. Like the prisoners chained in Plato's cave, we must liberate ourselves from the world of darkness and follow the sun's “beckoning finger” to that realm of being “where all beyond is true Byzantium” (26).

Other poems in Gasoline are more qualifiedly affirmative than “Sun” or are characterized by a more pessimistic vision. Images of violence, destruction, and death, of isolation and alienation are prevalent: a battlefield, gangsters, a dead Italian baby, the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam, the murder of kindness, the cannibal devouring of beauty, the downfallen rose, the miserable fate of the hapless yak, the rejection and death of the sensitive Arnold, the doomed Mexican child, the windmill “alone, alien, helpless” in a windless, cactus landscape (“Mexican Impressions,” 23), the tortures of Christ, wounded deer stalked by wolves. As in The Vestal Lady on Brattle, the dominant motif of these poems is the destruction, the devouring of all that is beautiful, innocent, kind, or sensitive by a cruel, benighted world that resists and rejects these qualities.

The disparity between the ideal world of the imagination, the realm of pure spirit, and the fallen, material world of physical existence is treated in the poem “In the Fleeting Hand of Time.”17 Corso employs images of light, radiance, illumination, warmth, and color, and of classical and medieval grandeur to suggest the ineffable splendors of the world of the spirit, while a grim landscape of “icy asphalt doomed horses / weak dreams Dark corridors” and “giant gray skyscrapers” expresses the graceless, hopeless, merciless character of the physical world. In such a world the poet (and the spirit) is a prisoner, an exile, and a victim (Gasoline, 15–16).

But just as the poet held by “the fleeting hand of time” eventually finds “conditional life,” so these poems in Gasoline seem to offer at least tentative hope (16). In such poems as “Ecce Homo” and “Ucello,” Corso affirms the transfiguring power of art that can be nourished by the sufferings and horrors of the world and that can transform them into beauty and truth. This is an important counterpart to the process that Corso depicts in so many of his other poems, where the opposite obtains.

Further evidence of such hope is provided by the language of the poems themselves with their zany humor, their vitality, and their immense energy—their enthusiasm, exuberance, and excitement. Characterized by unexpected usages and turns of phrase (“windless monkage,” “visionic eyehand,” “dome heirloomed,” “ventriloquial telegram”), wild juxtapositions and coinages (“seaharp,” “wheatweather,” “joyprints,” “hungersulk,” “deathical”), and an intoxication with words and a love of myth, Corso's poetic vision is itself a revivifying force, restoring language to innocence, celebrating wonder and mystery, remaking the world.

In The Happy Birthday of Death (1960) Corso presents the poet and the poetic imagination in a more vigorous, assertive role in the world. No longer simply a victim, the poet here assumes the authority of the power he or she serves, and the poet exerts force in opposition to the forces of “uncreation.” In common with Shelley's view of poets as “trumpets which sing to battle” and as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Corso affirms and exercises the power of poetry to censure and to incite against, to resist, and to sabotage the real.18

Corso's assaults on “uncreation” take the form of a series of long poems, which, by alternating rhetoric and wild bursts of imagery, are meditations on and explorations of aspects of human life. The subjects of these longer poems in The Happy Birthday of Death range from the seemingly trivial, such as “Hair” (about vanity), to the most solemn, such as “Death,” and include “Marriage,” “Bomb,” “Food,” “Clown,” “Power,” “Army,” and “Police.” By means of humor and an ability to present common topics in new and startling perspectives, Corso deflates our pretentions and exposes our fears; he mocks them and makes them ridiculous. He forces us to consider things we would prefer to ignore, and he compells us to look closer and more carefully at things with which we think we are familiar. His goal is to debewitch the reader and the world, to exorcise from the spirit the demons of the real, so that we can again perceive the essential magic and mystery of existence.

Together with the justifiably famous “Marriage,” the most successful (and for a time the most controversial) of the poems in the series is “Power.”19 This poem is central to Corso's vision. The poem turns upon Corso's special sense of the meaning of the word power, the definition (or redefinition) of which emerges in the course of the poem's development. Corso's understanding of the contradictory duality inherent in the word power is nearly exactly parallel to that proposed by Eric Fromm:

The word “power” has a twofold meaning. One is the possession of power over somebody, the ability to dominate him; the other meaning is the possession of power to do something, to be able, to be potent. The latter meaning has nothing to do with domination; it expresses mastery in a sense of ability. … Thus power can mean one of two things, domination or potency. Far from being identical, these two qualities are mutually exclusive. … Power in the sense of domination is the perversion of potency. …20

The very purpose and declared intention of Corso's poetic exploration of power is “wanting to change the old meaning of Power / Wanting to give it new meaning my meaning.” Corso celebrates creative power, the power of the spirit, the power of the imagination (Coleridge's “esemplastic power”); and he repudiates destructive power, refutes power as coercion, as oppression (cf. Mao's dictum that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”). “Life is the supreme Power,” Corso asserts, and “in Power there is no destruction.” The ultimate human powers are vision and laughter. The first can make the “awful blank acreage” of the physical world “pastoral” with myth; it can restore us to Arcadia. The second power permits us to triumph over the anguish and suffering of life: “a laugh / That drops my woe and all woe to the floor / Like a shot spy” (“Power,” 80).

Those who seek or who wield despotic, destructive power (as in “Army” and “Police”) are self-defeating and self-destroying in their ignorance of the real nature of power: “A thirst for Power is drinking sand” (“Power,” 78). Power in the physical world is not only mortally injurious to those who attempt to possess it, but it is finally completely illusory. The only true and ultimate power, the ground and source of all identity and existence, is the redemptive, transcendent power of love.

Of the shorter lyrics in The Happy Birthday of Death collection, there are celebrations, observations, poems of pure imagination, and cries of despair. In “Notes after Blacking Out,” the first poem in the volume, Corso proposes a form of Keatsian “negative capability”: “All is answerable I need not know the answer” (11); but in “1959,” the last poem in the collection, the poet expresses profound disillusionment with life, a sense of utter hopelessness and frustration: “There is no mystery” but only “cold history” (90). A similar vacillation of mood is evident between “How Happy I Used to Be,” which, like “Ode to Coit Tower” in Gasoline, mourns the loss of the childhood faculty for vision and imagination, and “Seaspin” or “Poets Hitch-Hiking on the Highway,” which are seemingly effortless exercises in pure imaginative creation and joyous invention.

The poems “Giant Turtle” and “A Dreamed Realization” honor the irrepressibility, adaptability, and persistency of the Life Force as it is expressed in the survival of particular animal species (and, by extension, in all life). There is a similar optimism in “1953,” which depicts a prison escape accomplished through a return to innocence and a cultivation and exercise of magic. There is a faith implicit in these poems, as well as in others in the volume, that the forces of life, the powers of laughter and imagination, are stronger than the forces of repression, destruction, and negativity and that they will ultimately triumph over them.

But a more sober, solemn note is struck in “Bomb,” which envisions the total destruction of the earth through nuclear warfare, the final victory of the agents of “uncreation.” And in other poems Corso expresses his dismay and despair at “this sad inharmonious weird predicament” of existence (“All Life Is a Rotary Club,” 72), where each man conceals a monster within and where “horned Reality its snout ringed with tokens of fear” reigns enthroned in human minds and hearts, “pummeling child's jubilee, man's desire” (“Police,” 86).

In sum, the vision of The Happy Birthday of Death is predominantly affirmative and optimistic. The poems strive to restore wholeness and vitality to human life, to promote and effect a victory of desire over external reality, but it is evident that Corso's resolve, his urgency, and his dynamism are not achieved without considerable inner struggle, profound doubts, nor without occasional lapses into despondency. His innocence is not naïveté or ignorance but an achieved state of spirit that must be cultivated, nourished, and maintained.

Corso's vision reaches its fullest expansion and achieves its clearest expression in Long Live Man (1962). The poems in this collection represent a culmination of his art and of his apprehension of the cosmic process and of humankind's place in the universal order. An important clue to Corso's poetic perspective in the volume is provided by his personal creation of the photographic illustration that appears on the front cover of the volume. While seeming to depict a nebula or galaxy, this is, in fact, a magnification of the poet's own semen.21 This literal representation of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and their mutual identification, is fundamental to the poet's view of the mysterious but harmonious and coherent design of the universe.

The first poem of the volume, “Man,” provides a context for the poems that follow and presents a concise statement of the central themes of the collection. “Man” celebrates humankind evolving as a species, mastering the physical world, and evolving spiritually. To the poet language is of paramount importance in the evolutionary progress of the human mind and spirit. Chaos is primal and persistent, always destructively “groping behind” the scenes, manifesting itself in war and oppression, murder and madness. The evolutionary spirit expresses itself in creative genius, such as that of Beethoven, and in spiritual wisdom as embodied in Christ, “the victory of man.” The created world and the phenomenological universe are themselves stages in a cosmic spiritual evolution in which humankind plays a central role as the highest evolved consciousness, “the victory of life.”22 The world is “the factory of the soul / The soul putting on a body like a workman's coveralls” (9). (There is a parallel here to John Keats' conception of the world as “a vale of soul-making.”) Humankind is the agent and instrument of the Life Force, the evolutionary principle, but as such we are also the butt, the victim, the dupe, and the most effective implement of resurgent chaos.

Corso develops these themes in other poems in Long Live Man. In “Greece” he again defines the two opposing tendencies of human consciousness: the adventuring, explorative, questing spirit, as exemplified by the space program, and the destructive, annihilative impulses, as manifested by the “New York children … murdering each other” (20). The poet's journey to Greece is a pilgrimage in homage to, and in quest of, the original motive power of civilization—the mythic consciousness of the ancient Greeks. Amid the artifacts and landscapes of the now outmoded vision of the classical world, he senses the imminence of a new emergent vision. He hails a forthcoming “great event,” a new age, and exhorts us to heed the new divine message (“Hear! Hermes is at the door / —who will take the message?”) and to strive to realize it (22).

This new vision or cosmic myth (representing a rebirth of the most ancient myths) is articulated in this collection in “Reflection in a Green Arena,” “Sura,” “Gone the Last Danger on Earth,” “Eden Were Elysium,” “God? She's Black,” “Seed Journey,” and “Masterpiece.” In these poems Corso affirms his belief in the creative energy of life, which is transformed, multiplied, but never lost. All of creation, history, and each individual life is a “masterpiece,” an indispensible element in the greater “masterpiece,” the unfolding of the cosmic plan (“Masterpiece,” 60). Even death is a part of the life process, merely “a hygiene,” an occasion for regeneration and rebirth (“Man,” 9). Corso prophecies a joyful apocalypse, an end of all suffering and evil, “the clear distillation of night into dawn” (“Gone the Last Danger on Earth,” 45). In this ultimate victory of light and life, “light must return / And reprieve the earth with its merciful stain” (“Sura,” 42).

Doubt, however, is remorseless, and there are poems in the collection, such as “Writ in Horace Greeley Square” and “For—,” in which Corso confesses his own bewilderment, ambivalence, doubt, even disgust, and despair at the evil, the sorrow, and the horror inherent in life. Overwhelmingly, though, the tone of Long Live Man is ebullient and affirmative. Corso's earlier recurrent image of the persecuted child or the wantonly destroyed ideal may be found still in such poems as “Suburbia Mad Song” and “Death of the American Indian's God,” but a measure of Corso's more optimistic view of humankind and life is the series of five poems eulogizing the life and works of Saint Francis. He is celebrated as a true hero of the spirit, an ideal person who embodies the victory of compassion and love over selfishness and demonic destruction, the triumph of truth over chaos, of the Arcadian over the infernal.

“The agency of my sight darkens,” declares a mythological persona in “The Geometric Poem,” one of the central poems of Elegiac Feelings American (1970).23 The phrase might well serve to characterize the dark vision of the entire collection. Published eight years after Long Live Man, the two volumes could scarcely be more dissimilar. As the title of the collection indicates, the tone here is serious, sorrowful, even grave. There is none of the humor that characterized the poet's previous work to be found here, but rather there is fear, sadness, anger, and profound pessimism.

The title poem is an elegy for Jack Kerouac, who is seen by Corso to exemplify the poet-prophet, the innocent idealist, rejected, scorned, and destroyed by a crass, materialistic culture. Corso here reverts to the imagery of his earliest poems where children are abused and devoured by monstrously unfeeling figures. Kerouac, the “Beat Christ-boy,” is another child-victim. He is likened also to a tree that is first truncated, then starved in cold and foreign ground. The larger implications of the elegy extend to the fateful significance of this continuing rejection of beauty, truth, and vision by America and by the world. The poem has the solemn, ominous tone of a jeremiad (12).

In “Spontaneous Requiem for the American Indian,” Corso considers the historical roots of this hostility to idealism by the pragmatic, utilitarian elements of American culture. This poem mourns the child-like, nobly primitive, indigenous peoples of North America, who had achieved harmony with the natural environment but who were vanquished and decimated by a blind, rapacious, mechanistic-rationalistic culture. The consequences for American civilization of this and similarly destructive acts are enumerated in the poems “Lines Written Nov. 22, 23—1963—In Discord,” “The American Way,” and “America Politica Historia, in Spontaneity.” America, for Corso, was to have been the new Arcadia, but it has instead become merely another empire, mad with material greed, obsessed with military power, denying its own vision and ideals.

Extending the theme further still in “Mutation of the Spirit,” Corso explores the atrocities of human history from ancient Rome to the present “God-closed Age” (20), in which we witness “this piteous surrender of the spirit” (22). Again and again, throughout history the innocent and the joyful are destroyed; the “little white gowned rose girl” is “broken on the spoor” (19). The pastoral satyr with his syrinx is eradicated; “the Arcadian shepherd is famished thin” (24).

In “Immutable Moods” the poet reaches a nadir of despair and hopelessness, invoking the “old dead gods” to undo their creation, to “black out / blot out complete” the ruined, bloodstained world (116). Nor does “The Geometric Poem” offer any hope or consolation. The poem's central theme of a quest for a redemptive, transcendent knowledge, a “trismegistusian light” (43), a perfecting geometry, a “Sonic Eye” of vision (63), remains unresolved. The poem itself fails to cohere or to quicken to life; it forms only a jumble of mythological, historical fragments.

Appearing in 1981, eleven years after Elegiac Feelings American, Corso's most recent collection of poems is titled Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit. The poems in the volume bear the very distinct impress of the poet's experiences during the intervening decade, most particularly those of his addiction to heroin and his subsequent self-induced detoxification and rehabilitation. Though in comparison to Corso's early work, the mood of this volume seems subdued and regretful, there is also a new resolution apparent here, a renewed sense of purpose that informs his poetic vision and pronouncements with force and authority.

As the title of the volume suggests, the poet here reassumes and reaffirms his role as “ambassador of Power,” as Hermean messenger, as herald of the creative spirit of the universe that is immanent in every human, indigenous to every land. But Corso begins by confessing his remissness in the performance of his sacred office of poet. In “Columbia U Poesy Reading—1975,” the first poem in the volume, Corso records in allegorical form the story of his near capitulation to the forces of “uncreation” within himself, and to the struggle waged in his mind and his spirit between his urge for oblivion (heroin) and his urge to create. Summoned by the Muse, Corso is accused by her and her companions (Ganesha, Thoth, and Hermes) of dereliction of duty, of forsaking poetic creation for the anodynic languors of opium. Denying the charge, excusing and justifying himself at first, he finally succumbs under their combined indictment: “‘You have butchered your spirit!’ roared Ganesha / ‘Your pen is bloodied!’ cawed the scribe Toth / ‘You have failed to deliver the Message!’ admonished Hermes.” Realizing and admitting his fault, Corso vows to “expiate / all that's been sadly done … sadly neglected. …” He renews his commitment to poetry, his allegiance to beauty and truth. The implications of this victory go beyond the poet himself, representing a victory of the human spirit over the insidious, poisonous forces that would overwhelm and annihilate it from within.24

Corso celebrates his victory over these forces and the repossession of his vocation in the poems “Sunrise” and “Ancestry.” He approaches his poet's task with a new humility, describing himself as “an olding messenger boy in “Sunrise” (6), but he proudly traces the distinguished pedigree of his profession from earliest myth and history down to his own appointment in “Ancestry” (20). By a fortuitous correspondence, Corso's middle name, Nunzio, means “messenger,” so that his occupation seems foreordained and a fulfillment of his destiny and of his deepest self.

In “Return” from Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, Corso delineates the stages of his growth as a poet. This entails a cyclic development from his earliest efforts through his eclipse to his reemergence. At the outset, imaginative creation for him is natural, effortless, and innocent:

The days of my poems
were unlimited joys
of blue Phoenician sails
and Zeusian toys.

Then the fall occurs and the middle period is “poemless,” dreamless, a descent into a silent netherworld of opiates. This phase culminates in a long winter of struggle to rein in the runaway “wild horses” of the drug and to redeem his spirit from bondage. Through a sustained effort Corso recovers his powers and regains the “blue Phoenician sails / and Zeusian toys” of the poetic imagination. Thus, he completes his circular journey of self-discovery, returns to his original motive energy, and unites his past and his future (8–10).

The idea of a return to the origins and roots of one's being, to the true self, occurs again in “Poem Jottings in the Early Morn,” where Corso exhorts his children (and by extension, all of us) “to return to primal sources / and there reclaim / all our natural losses—” (55). A related theme is developed in “What the Child Sees,” “Eyes,” and “Proximity.” These poems argue for a return to original, pristine vision, the perception of children and mystics whereby the inner eye emanates and superimposes “truth upon all the lies” of the external world, the world of appearances (“Eyes,” 37). (There is a parallel here to William Blake's distinction between “Spiritual perception” and ordinary sight by means of the “Corporeal or Vegetative Eye” as expressed in his “A Vision of the Last Judgment”: “I look thro it and not with it.”) Corso has again resumed his tactic of contradicting the real with the unreal, of repugning the material world with the imagination.

Corso's poems continue to be informed by his acute awareness of the violence, destruction, and suffering of the world and by his sense of a malevolent force active in the human heart. In “Many Have Fallen” and “Bombed Train Station, 80 Killed,” he again probes the sources of human destructiveness, asking “Who knows what masks / bombers wear beneath their faces?” (“Bombed Train Station,” 27). But in contrast to the pessimism and disillusion that characterizes so many of the poems in Elegiac Feelings American, Corso is again able to express faith in an ultimate redemption of the world and in the inevitable and final victory of the spirit. This faith is reflected in “Inter & Outer Rhyme,” “Spirit,” “Destiny,” and “When We All. …” Though the tone of these last poems may seem somewhat chastened in comparison to the ardor of the poet's youthful idealism, it has gained the solidity and vigor of mature conviction.

Concerning his conception of the role of the poet in the world, Corso has written: “Someone must ‘Christopher-Columbus’ the mind, the great expanse of consciousness, and this the poet does. But unlike Columbus who discovered a new world a world that was there, the poet must make a new world—it is not there until he himself puts it there and discovers it for all peoples and time.”25

Corso's six volumes of poetry represent the log of his long voyage of interior discovery: the map of new continents of vision and desire, including the dangerous whirlpools and doldrums, the horse latitudes and sargasso seas that must be navigated in order to reach these new worlds and make landfall.

His poems not only inform us of the universal struggle of light and darkness, creation and destruction, but also embody and enact that struggle manifesting the ultimate victory he prophecies.

Out of the stricken landscape of our age, Corso has brought us a vision of Arcadia. Out of the Plutonian underworlds of prison and heroin addiction, he has delivered his Hermean message of hope and liberation.

Notes

  1. Gregory Corso, “Power,” in The Happy Birthday of Death (New York: New Directions, 1960), 75, 78. Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Birthday.

  2. Gregory Corso, “Biographical Note,” in The New American Poetry: 1945–60. ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove, 1960), 429–30.

  3. Gregory Corso, Gasoline (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1958). Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Gasoline.

  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, ed. J. Shawcross (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), 202.

  5. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. 7, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1965), 137.

  6. Gavin Selerie, The Riverside Interviews: 3, Gregory Corso (London: Binnacle, 1982), 23.

  7. James McKenzie, “An Interview with Gregory Corso,” in The Beat Diary, ed. Arthur Knight and Kit Knight (California, Pa.: The Unspeakable Visions of the Individual, 1977), 24.

  8. Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, trans. Colette Gaudin (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill Co., 1971), 19.

  9. Selerie, 43.

  10. Desmond King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 203.

  11. King-Hele, 367.

  12. King-Hele, 369.

  13. John Fuller, “The Poetry of Gregory Corso,” The London Magazine, n.s. 1 (April 1961), 74.

  14. Gregory Corso, “Variations on a Generation,” in A Casebook on the Beat, ed. Thomas Parkinson (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961), 95–96. Reprinted from Gemini 2 (Spring 1959): 47–51.

  15. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981), 183–84.

  16. Gregory Corso, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, facsimile ed. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1969), 1. Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Lady.

  17. For a close reading of “In the Fleeting Hand of Time,” see Carolyn Gaiser, “Gregory Corso: A Poet, the Beat Way,” in A Casebook on the Beat, 266–75.

  18. Shelley, 140.

  19. See McKenzie, 9.

  20. Eric Fromm, Escape from Freedom, (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1960), 157.

  21. See Selerie, 30.

  22. Gregory Corso, Long Live Man (New York: New Directions, 1962), 10. Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Man.

  23. Gregory Corso, Elegiac Feelings American (New York: New Directions, 1962), 37. Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Elegiac.

  24. Gregory Corso, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (New York: New Directions, 1981), 5. Further parenthetical references are to this edition; when necessary for clarity page references are preceded by Herald.

  25. Gregory Corso, “Some of My Beginning … And What I Feel Right Now,” in Poets on Poetry, ed. Howard Nemerov (New York, 1966), 175.

William Young (essay date 1998)

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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 juxtaposition of nature and machine as well as the juxtapositions of a vide range of subcultures creates an art of dreamlike displacement.

The spectacular and desolate curve of sky and land, of mountain and plain, and of high plains and desert has long contributed to making western American literature somewhat more otherworldly than the literatures of the eastern, central, and southern United States. Western American literature is derived from the sun and moon as much as it is from the earth and society: the cosmic or metaphysical dimension is strong, and a rootless, solitary, and reticent attitude prevails. The recent massive growth of the western U.S. has led to a confrontation between frontier attitudes and the necessities of a highly complex technological and multicultural society. This conflict encourages a derealization in the way the world is experienced and described, even in a writer such as William Stafford, who, as Robert Bly writes in an introduction to The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, “looks to the palpable and hearable” (x).

Poets as unlike as [William] Stafford and Gregory Corso, whom I use here as parameters of Sixties poetry styles in the West, inherit and develop a new geography. A brief listing of some of the West's more interesting poets—Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, Charles Bukowski, Ishmael Reed, Ed Dorn, John Haines, Diane Wakoski, Sandra McPherson, Norman Dubie—indicates the importance of a near-surrealist/neoromantic strain. There is a strong sense of the “wild” in all of these poets, and a strong sense of the significance of “wilderness” in most of them.

In discussing the early Sixties work of three Western poets—Corso, Richard Hugo, and, in particular, Stafford—I proceed from a discussion of an urban, “Beat” tradition, which is largely a product of New York and California, to a discussion of a wilderness, “Deep Image” tradition, which is largely a product of the Midwest and Northwest. …

I. GREGORY CORSO: BEAT SURREALIST

Many of the urban surrealists of the late Fifties and early Sixties who had gathered in New York found it necessary and profitable to shift the focus of their concerns to the Wild West, finding a center of activity in San Francisco. Although some stayed home—O'Hara, Ashbery—others, especially those associated with the Beat movement, headed west.

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac describes what they found.

It took exactly the entire twenty-five miles to get out of the smog of Los Angeles; the sun was clear in Riverside. I exulted to see a beautiful dry riverbottom with white sand and just a trickle river in the middle as we rolled over the bridge into Riverside. I was looking for my first chance to camp out for the night and try out my new ideas.

But at the hot bus station a Negro saw me with my pack and came over and said he was part Mohawk and when I told him I was going back up the road to sleep in that riverbottom he said “No sir, you can't do that, cops in this town are the toughest in the state.“ “This ain't no India, is it,” I said, sore, and walked off anyway to try it. … I laughed thinking what would happen if I was Fuke the Chinese sage of the ninth century who wandered around China constantly ringing his bell. The only alternative to sleeping out, hopping freights, and doing what I wanted, I saw in a vision would be to just sit with a hundred other patients in front of a nice television set in a madhouse, where we could be “supervised.” … I saw many cop cruising cars and they were looking for me suspiciously: Sleek, well-paid cops in brand-new cars with all that expensive radio equipment to see that no bhikku slept in his grove tonight.

(95–96)

Essential characteristics of the Beat surreal are revealed in this passage. Surrealism, generally defined, is the juxtaposition of elements from different space-times. Here Kerouac interfaces the open landscape of the vast west with efficient, and malevolent, machines of the new world. We also have references to several cultures, ancient and modem. The traditional American images of the “machine in the garden” and the “melting pot” are incorporated, but the emphasis is on the fear and loathing they represent and produce on the last frontier. Kerouac's swift-moving style enhances the effect of all these elements, here juxtaposed, passing before one's eyes as though part of a strange, unholy, dream. And finally, Kerouac's odd yet touching sense of humor —the Negro claiming that he is part Mohawk, the reference to Fuke the Chinese sage—gives the scene, however unholy, the feeling of surprising, wide-eyed joy that only the deepest melancholy can generate.

Like other surrealists, Kerouac has decided to “dig” rather than lament the strange and lonesome world he has come across.

The myth of the Beat hero is well described by Dorothy Van Ghent. The hero is the “angelheaded hipster.” He comes of anonymous parentage, parents who he denies in correct mythological fashion. He has received a mysterious call—to the road, the freights, the jazz dens, the “negro streets.” … His tortures—the heroic “ordeals” of myth—send him into ecstasy and he bursts into song, song filled with metaphors of destruction, an ironic invertedly apocalyptic Mollie Bloom paean of accent. (213)

If Allen Ginsberg, in “Howl,” wrote the quintessential poem of this myth as romantic anguish, Corso's “Marriage” has most clearly married the myth to the metaphysical tradition. And surprisingly, it is the relative impersonality (and impersonating) strategies of the latter tradition which prefigures surrealism. The (necessary) element of romantic agony is transformed, when clothed in metaphysical wit and flights of fancy, into modem surrealism.

“Marriage” leans toward the poetic practice of Donne, Marvell, et al., as well as Eliot in our own time. Corso's poem, it seems to me, is a direct take-off on “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Should I get married? Should I be good?” like Prufrock's “Do I dare” or “And how should I presume?” (26) But whereas Prufrock is at the mercy of his questions and his introspectiveness, the speaker in “Marriage” moves toward exclamations:

… and I get up from by big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!.
God what a husband I'd make! Yes, I should get married!

(Selected Poems, 38)

Yet the appeal of Corso's poem rests not so much with its outrageousness, but in its remarkable mix of outrageous and sublime. The inventive conceits of the poem as well as the swift shifts in tone recall the metaphysical poets. Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress” beautifully incorporates and juxtaposes such stunningly different tones as “But at my back I always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near” and “The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think do there embrace” (Collected Poems, 51); in similar fashion Corso shifts from a weird but sonorous opening stanza—“Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries / tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets / then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries” (36)—to the awkward, sardonic, yet touching questions of stanza two and three—“After tea and homemade cookies they ask What you do for / a living?” (37) to, in stanza four, exclamations like those above. Stanza five again picks up the melodic, sentimental vision of stanza one, shifting rather rapidly back to exclamations once again.

Corso's poem proclaims the inability of the poet/outsider to embrace the suburban social world, using the extended figure of marriage as a dramatic metaphor for acting out the allegory. The surrealist (and metaphysical) joy in assuming masks is central to the movement of the poem. Whereas Kerouac imagines himself and his friends as “holy goofs, like Fuke the Chinese sage,” and Ginsburg, in “A Supermarket in California,” from Howl, imagines himself walking through supermarkets with Walt Whitman as Whitman asks, “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my angel?” (23), Corso often takes the next step and becomes another person and another voice—one that plays off of and against Beatness (both in terms of “beatific” and “beaten down”). Both Corso and Ginsburg refer to ancient cultures in the last line of their respective poems, “Marriage” and “A Supermarket in California,” indicating, perhaps, what Van Ghent calls the “authentic archaic lines” (213) of the Beat myth. Yet the Beat myth has tended to obscure significant differences among Beat poets. Ginsberg works out of a tradition of exhortation and lament, Biblical in its orientation (despite the inversions of traditional good and evil), while Corso often becomes more of a clown than a seer, tending toward an “objective” presentation of the bare metaphysical facts that, more often that not, overwhelm man, Buster Keaton fashion.

Corso, much like his fellow New Yorker O'Hara, explores an urban wilderness, concentrating on social organization. Yet Corso's move to San Francisco signifies an important difference between the two poets. Corso, as is the case with other Beats, is usually in flight from something. Whereas O'Hara, in postmodern fashion, is more accepting of modem city life—and indeed delights in it—Corso remains more of an outsider.

O'Hara, in Selected Poems, asks is his laconic and domestic manner, “Oh Jane, is there no more frontier?” (25) while Corso, an apocalyptic comedian, states his misgivings more forcibly in a poem from Mindfield:

I am a great American
I am almost nationalistic about it!
I love America like a madness!
But I am afraid to return to America
I'm even afraid to go into the American Express

(144)

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

———. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1984.

Berryman, John. Stephen Crane. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1962.

Breslin, James E.B. From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry 1945–1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Corso, Gregory. Mindfield. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989.

Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Ginsburg, Allen. Howl. San Francisco: City Lights, 1956.

Hugo, Richard. Making Certain It Goes On: Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Viking, 1959.

Marvell, Andrew. The Complete Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Story Donno. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1972.

O'Hara, Frank. Selected Poems. Ed. Donald Allen. New York: Random House, 1974.

———. Standing Still and Walking in New York. Bolinas, California: Grey Fox, 1975.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. “Comment.” A Casebook on the Beat. Ed. Thomas Parkinson. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell 1961.

Stafford, William. The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems. Ed. Robert Bly. New York: Harper and Row, 1993.

———. Passwords. New York: Harper and Row, 1991.

William Horan (essay date 2001)

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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, at times, than either of them. In his book, The Beat Generation (Scribner, 1971), Bruce Cook calls Mr. Corso “the most avid nose-thumber of them all,” a man regarded as a nemesis by those who detested his “hip, easy, wiseguy manner and direct artless diction.”

A put-on specialist at poetry readings, Mr. Corso would delight his fans and inflame his critics by muttering into a microphone disconnected thoughts like “fried shoes,” “all life is a Rotary Club” and “I write for the eye of God.”

But he could also be a serious social critic, re-examining an institution like marriage, said Ann Douglas, a professor of American studies at Columbia University. The lines of his poem “Marriage,” for example, are wry and optimistic. The poet begins by asking playfully, “Should I get married? Should I be good?” and concludes constructively: “Ah, yet well I know that were a woman possible as I am possible then marriage would be possible.”

Mr. Corso's early work helped pave the way for the feminists of a later generation, Professor Douglas said. “Women looked at Corso and the other Beats,” she said, “and asked, ‘If these men can free themselves from constricted gender roles—getting married, working for a corporation and so on—why can't we?’”

Mr. Corso's finest poem, most critics agree, is “Elegiac Feelings American,” which is an elegy for his friend Kerouac and for dead notions of America and a new hope:

O and yet when it's asked of you 
          ‘What happened to him?’ 
I say, “What happened to America
           has happened
to him— the two were
           inseparable” Like the wind
to the sky is the voice to the 
          word. …

Like other Beat poets, Mr. Corso's work was less elegantly stylized than that of his predecessors, and closer to ordinary feelings. It was personal and candid in the expression of intimate feelings—sexual desire, despair and things that would not have surfaced in an earlier time.

While Ginsberg and Kerouac came from upper-middle-class backgrounds and got to know each other through Columbia University, Mr. Corso's upbringing was troubled.

Gregory Nunzio Corso was born on March 26, 1930, in New York, the son of teenage parents who parted when he was a year old. He bounced in and out of foster homes and jails and never made it to high school. At 12 he was caught selling stolen merchandise and sent to prison for several months while awaiting trial.

His fellow inmates were “terribly abusive,” he wrote years later in an autobiographical sketch. When acquitted, he spent three months under observation in Bellevue Hospital.

When Mr. Corso was 16 he returned to jail to serve a three-year sentence for theft. It was then that he read the classics Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Shelley and Christopher Marlowe among others but also became, as he expressed it, “educated in the ways of men at their worst and at their best.”

He once told an interviewer for Contemporary Authors: “Sometimes hell is a good place—if it proves to one that because it exists, so must its opposite, heaven, exist. And what was heaven? Poetry.”

Mr. Corso was released from prison in 1950. Soon after, at a bar in Greenwich Village, he encountered Ginsberg. Mr. Corso was then writing fairly conventional verse, and it was Ginsberg who introduced him to long Whitmanesque lines and surreal word combinations.

At this time in his life, Mr. Corso was traveling the country, working as a laborer, as a reporter for The Los Angeles Examiner and as a merchant seaman.

In 1954 he settled briefly in Cambridge, Mass., where he virtually took up residence at the Harvard University library, poring over the great works of poetry. His first published poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate, and his play, “In This Hung-Up Age,” a macabre drama about how a group of tourists are trampled to death by a herd of buffalo, was performed the next year by Harvard students.

His later poetry exhibited an eclectic vocabulary. Referring to his study of the dictionary, Mr. Corso told the critic Michael Andre that he “got that whole book in me, all the obsolete and archaic words. And through that I knew that I was in love with language and vocabulary, because the words and the way they looked to me, the way they sounded, and what they meant, how they were defined and all that, I tried to revive them, and I did.”

Mr. Corso moved to San Francisco in 1956, too late to attend Ginsberg's famous reading of “Howl” but in time to be recognized as a major Beat poet. In an introduction to Mr. Corso's early collection Gasoline (City Lights, 1958), Ginsberg called him “a great word-swinger, first naked sign of a poet, a scientific master of mad mouthfuls of language.”

Later, with Ginsberg, the two poets wrote a manifesto, “The Literary Revolution in America,” in which they announced their convention-bashing “discontent, their demands, their hope, their final wondrous unimaginable dream.”

While Mr. Corso was never as politically involved as some of the other Beats, in 1965 he was dismissed from a teaching position at the State University of New York at Buffalo because he refused to sign an affidavit certifying that he was not a member of the Communist Party.

In recent years, Mr. Corso continued to write, teach and lecture. He published 13 books of poetry, two books of plays and several collaborations. Mr. Corso's first marriage, to Sally November, ended in divorce.

In addition to Ms. Langerman of Minneapolis, he is survived by his second wife, Belle Carpenter of Santa Fe, N.M.; two other daughters, Miranda Schubert of Manhattan and Cybelle Carpenter of Minneapolis; two sons, Max Corso of Guam and Nile Corso of Hamden, Conn.; his mother, Margaret Davita of Trenton; a brother, Joe Corso of Long Island; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Mr. Corso often played the wayward child among his friends. The novelist Herbert Gold recalled sitting with him and other Beat writers in a Paris cafe when Mr. Corso impulsively snatched the check, exclaiming, “I never paid a check before!” Ginsberg, Mr. Gold said, “took the check from him and gave it to me with a reproachful glance at Gregory. It was assumed that Gregory would never be able to pay a check.”

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Corso, (Nunzio) Gregory (Vol. 11)