Until his death in January of 2001, Gregory Corso was one of America’s greatest living poets, but sadly very few people knew it. And now that he’s passed into the Vast he clearly should be immortal, but instead he’s been mostly relegated — and ever so wrongly — to the bottom of the heap of dead Beat Poets in pieces. This neglect, especially by poets and scholars — even of the Beat Generation — is unfounded and provides a real opportunity for us to reclaim and re-contextualize one of America’s truly great poets.
Born in 1930 to Italian, teenage, immigrant parents, Corso was abandoned rather unceremoniously by his mother, who having left his abusive father, couldn’t afford to care for him. From there, he was bounced around in various foster homes until the age 10 when his father, who had remarried, came calling for his prodigal son. Still, things were not good for young Gregory and he began to get in trouble with the law, mostly for theft. This behavior eventually landed him for a three-year stint in Clinton State Prison. He had stolen a suit worth less than $50 dollars — he had a date and wanted to look nice. He was 17.
As it turns out prison was his defining moment. There he read voraciously and was electrified — inspired by the Greeks and the Romantics, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley. Soon he was writing his own poems, and upon his release in 1950, he moved back to Greenwich Village to be a writer. It was there that he met a Columbia undergraduate poet named Allen Ginsberg, and the two of them, along with aspiring novelists Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, became in only a few years’ time the writers at the core of The Beat Generation.
Still, while Corso did achieve success as a poet during his lifetime, he certainly was never as successful as the other three. Why? Well, two reasons: 1) 40 years of heroin addiction and alcoholism — which devastated his human relationships and limited his poetic output — and 2) Corso’s poems don’t fit neatly into the Beat literary cannon. They seem simultaneously wholly of the Present and weirdly antique. Or put another way, he isn’t experimental enough for the avant-garde and too sloppy for the button-down traditionalists.
Indeed, unlike the other Beats, Corso wore the tradition of poetry on his sleeve. He loved and knew it deeply in the same passionately felt way that others of his generation knew (as he knew, too) that 1950s America was a dispiriting jive dump. As a result, his poems are a mix of antiquated high diction, “thee” “thy” thou” and “O” and a street-smart verbal tumult, a debacle of slang, invented words, literary allusion and musical wordplay, as in these lines from the end of his poem “Notes after Blacking Out”:
Nothing is a house never bought
Nothing comes after this wildbright joke
Nothing sits on nothing in a nothing of many nothings
a nothing king
Of course, for all its playfulness, Corso here also demonstrates how “nothing” can quickly accumulate into a something, an even regal something of great power — which is all the more poignant when one considers that he’s talking about the nothing of the after-life. Corso is ever a poet of big ideas, and as such his poems are always a matter of life and death.
His is simultaneously a poetry of muses, visions and oracles but with a wholly present alive-in-your-face, often off the cuff autobiographical freshness. Take, for instance, the opening lines of “For Homer,” a poem that appeared in his final published collection Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit:
There’s rust on the old truths
—Ironclad clichés erode
New lies don’t smell as nice
as new shoes
I’ve years of poems to type up
40 years of smoking to stop
I’ve no steady income
And because my hands are autochthonic
I can never wash them enough
I feel dumb
I feel like an old mangy bull
crashing through the red rag
of an alcoholic day
Yet it’s all so beautiful
What optimism, what resignation (he’s about to be skewered after all, and alcohol is the matador), what impulse toward inventiveness exists here. And no wonder when one’s so inspired, anything is possible, “The heavens speak through our lips” he concludes, “All’s caught what could not be found/All’s brought what was left behind.”
Whether it’s his more avant-garde impulses or his engagement with poetic tradition, Corso’s writing stands as a testament to the power of poetry to be both artistically challenging and wildly moving, even accessible, to people-not-poets. He understood intensely that the incursions, sabotage, and newness of the avant-garde always occurs via resistance to the established decorum, values and foundation of past artistic and cultural achievements.
What made him different from the other Beats was his obvious refusal to throw out the traditional baby with its avant-garde bathwater. His sense of humor, his linguistic inventiveness, his wild surreal electricity and belief that “poetry is feeling/the within brought without” all make him a poet to be reckoned with yet today. His poems sing with an American ferocity and joy that’s equal parts Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein.
But unlike many of his comrades who also came of age during the second World War, Corso had no problem asserting value in the world. “If you’re a poet you’re saved,” he was fond of saying. I take this poetic salvation to be a central theme of his work, yet I think it’s different in character than many of the other claims about “Beat-ness” as a sort of religious state of being, the root of “beatific,” and as such a search for value in the face of valuelessness and institutional bankruptcy.
While the other Beats and much of the rest of America/The World were rushing around searching for something to believe in, in the face of almost nihilistic atomic disbelief, Corso was writing poems of incredible beauty and believing somehow that they could save him and the universe in all of its horror. Thus, one might say, he could afford to party. Or to borrow from contemporary lingo: It was all good.
One might describe his aesthetic as one that is “hoarding both mess and measure” (a twist on Frank O’Hara’s “I am guarding it from mess and measure”). “O bomb I love you” Corso writes in his 1958 masterwork “Bomb,” a seven-page poem of unpunctuated fragments in the shape of a mushroom cloud and according to Allen Ginsberg, “The ONE GREAT POEM about the Bomb.” Of course, it’s also a love poem of apocalyptic proportions — a monument to one of humankind’s greatest achievements and simultaneously a memorial to its most catastrophic lapse in judgment.
In other words, Corso’s poems have a societal conscience even when the poet, and sometimes the speaker of the poem, doesn’t. I’m not sure what it means for a poem to have a societal conscience — except to say that such poems revel in the object and language strewn streets of our world. They reach out to people and things where they sleep and cry out and sometimes even drink themselves into the gutter in order to remind us who we are and why we should be better.
MATT HART will take part in “The Nightest Night,” a reading honoring the poetics and posey of Gregory Corso, from 7-9 p.m. Feb. 5 in the Reed Gallery at UC’s DAAP building.