Gregory Corso

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Corso, (Nunzio) Gregory 1930–

Corso is an American poet, novelist, and dramatist. Early in his career as a poet he received encouragement from Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets, and both the style and themes of his work reflect their influence. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Allen Ginsberg

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Open [Gasoline] 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. Ah! but the real classic tradition—from Aristotle's description of metaphor to the wildness of his Shelley—and Apollinaire, Lorca, Mayakovsky. 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." (p. 7)

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."

This heir sometimes transcribes perfect modern lyrics anyone can dig: "Italian Extravaganza," "Birthplace Revisited," "Last Gangster," "Mad Yak," "Furnished Room," "Haarlem," "Last Night I Drove a Car," "Ecce Homo," "Hello."

A rare sad goonish knowledge with reality—a hip piss on reality also—he prefers his dreams. Why not? His Heaven is Poetry. (pp. 7-8)

What a solitary dignitary! He's got the angelic power of making autonomous poems, like god making brooks. (p. 9)

[Corso himself states:] "When Bird Parker or Miles Davis blow a standard piece of music, they break off into other own-self little unstandard sounds—well, that's my way with poetry—X Y & Z, call it automatic—I call it a standard flow (because at the offset words are standard) that is intentionally distracted diversed into my own sound. 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."… (pp. 9-10)

The mind has taken a leap in language. He curses like a brook, pure poetry…. We're the fabled damned if we put it down. He's probably the greatest poet in America, and he's starving in Europe. (p. 10)

Allen Ginsberg, in his introduction to Gasoline by Gregory Corso (© 1958 by Gregory Corso; reprinted by permission of City Lights Books), City Lights Books, 1958, pp. 7-10.

Gerard J. Dullea

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[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...

(This entire section contains 1155 words.)

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of the imagination…. 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 [see excerpt above]. (pp. 23-4)

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…. (p. 24)

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. (pp. 24-5)

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 … 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 Croso'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. (pp. 25-6)

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 imagaination. They trust "vision," not analysis. (pp. 26-7)

Gerard J. Dullea, in Thoth, Winter, 1971.

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