Corso, (Nunzio) Gregory

views updated

CORSO, (Nunzio) Gregory

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 26 March 1930. Family: Married 1) Sally November in 1963 (divorced), one daughter; 2) Belle Carpenter in 1968, one daughter and one son; 3) Jocelyn Stern, one son. Career: Manual laborer, 1950–51; reporter, Los Angeles Examiner, 1951–52; merchant seaman, 1952–53. Member of the department of English, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1965–70. Awards: Longview Foundation award; Poetry Foundation award. Address: c/o New Directions, 80 8th Avenue, New York, New York 10011–5126, U.S.A.



The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Richard Brukenfeld, 1955.

Gasoline. San Francisco, City Lights, 1958.

Bomb. San Francisco, City Lights, 1958.

A Pulp Magazine for the Dead Generation with Henk Marsman. Paris, Dead Language, 1959.

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

Minutes to Go, with others. Paris, Two Cities, 1960.

Selected Poems. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962.

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

Penguin Modern Poets 5, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. London, Penguin, 1963.

The Mutation of the Spirit: A Shuffle Poem. New York, Death Press, 1964.

There Is Yet Time to Run through Life and Expiate All That's Been Sadly Done. New York, New Directions, 1965.

The Geometric Poem: A Long Experimental Poem, Composite of Many Lines and Angles Selective. Privately printed, 1966.

10 Times a Poem. New York, Poets Press, 1967.

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

Egyptian Cross. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1971.

Ankh. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1971.

(Poems). New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1971.

The Night Last Night Was at Its Nightest. New York, Phoenix Book Shop, 1972.

Earth Egg. New York, Unmuzzled Ox, 1974.

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

Writings from Unmuzzled Ox Magazine. New York, Unmuzzled Ox, 1981.

Four Poems. New York, Paradox Bookshop, 1981.

Wings, Wands, Windows. Englewood, Colorado, Howling Dog Press, 1982.

Hitting the Big 5–0. New York, Catchword, 1983.

Mindfield: New and Selected Poems. New York, Thunder's Mouth, 1989.

Gasoline & The Vestal Lady on Brattle. San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1992.


In This Hung-Up Age (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1955). Published in New Directions 18, edited by James Laughlin, New York, New Directions, 1964.

Standing on a Streetcorner, in Evergreen Review 6 (New York), March-April 1962.

That Little Black Door on the Left, in Pardon Me Sir, But Is My Eye Hurting Your Elbow?, edited by Bob Booker and George Foster. New York, Geis, 1968.

Way Out: A Poem in Discord. Kathmandu, Nepal, Bardo Matrix, 1974.


The American Express. Paris, Olympia Press, 1961.


The Minicab War (parodies), with Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth. London, Matrix Press, 1961.

Some of My Beginnings and What I Feel Right Now. Portree, Isle of Skye, Aquila, 1982.

Poems, Interview, Photographs. Louisville, Kentucky, White Fields Press, 1994.

Editor, with Walter Höllerer, Junge Amerikanische Lyrik. Munich, Hanser, 1961.


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

Manuscript Collections: Columbia University, New York; University of Texas, Austin; State University of New York, Buffalo; University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Critical Studies: Riverside Interviews 3 edited by Gavin Selerie, London, Binnacle Press, 1982; Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso by Gregory Stephenson, London, Hearing Eye, 1989; "Ethnos and the Beat Poets" by Steve Harney, in Journal of American Studies (Cambridge, England), 25(3), December 1991; "Unleashing Language: The Post-Structuralist Poetics of Gregory Corso and The Beats" by Robert C. Timm, in Kerouac Connection, 27, winter 1995; "Una Testa Dura-On Being Gregory Corso and Being Italian" by Vincent Zangrillo, in Voices in Italian Americana (Chicago), 7(1), 1996; "On Gregory Corso" by Iain Sinclair, in London Review of Books, 18(11), 1996; 'A Clown in the Grave': Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso by Michael Skau, Carbondale, Illinois, Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Gregory Corso comments:

[I am a] mental explorer, un-Faustian.

[My verse is] hopeful—naive—strange—sweet—soon smart—why not.

*  *  *

Gregory Corso was one of the beat generation's most ardent apologists. But with the others—Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Snyder—he shared that antisocial, apocalyptic, love-centered, freedom-loving mystique that has become so familiar to us. With Ginsberg and Kerouac, Corso was part of a kind of beat triumvirate, each encouraging and supporting the other and his work. If Kerouac was the father figure and Ginsberg the rabbi figure, Corso was the child figure and the clown.

Born into a poor immigrant family in Manhattan, Corso grew up as an underprivileged kid and became a juvenile delinquent. Before he was twenty years old, he had spent three years in prison for attempted robbery. Corso read widely and voraciously in prison. After his release he eventually found his way to the Harvard Library, where he continued his self-education and was taken up by local students and writers, who subsidized and saw through the press his first book of poems, The Vestal Lady on Brattle. It was at this point that Ginsberg and Kerouac "discovered" him.

Corso's poems are a mixture of powerful statement and bombast. He can be funny, maudlin, original, hackneyed, outrageous, and sentimental, sometimes all in one poem. His stance is that of the sophisticated child looking about him at a world gone mad and wondering why he is a part of it. But madness is also a virtue, since it is a response to and release from the sanity and conformity of the suburban 1950s against which the beats were reacting. As Corso put it, "Man is great and mad, he was born mad and wonder of wonders the sanity of evolution knoweth not what to do."

Corso thinks of himself rather self-consciously as a poet, which leads him into excesses of language, archaisms, "poetic" phrasing, and unusual words. As one might expect of an autodidact, he wears his learning somewhat heavily, scattering literary and mythological allusions through his work. He likes to use words like "swipple," "precocial," "spatchcock," and the like. He can use a word like "writ" without apparent irony, and he seems to want such lines as "Life has meaning and I do not know the meaning" to be taken at face value. We can see the strong influence of Kerouac at work here in the belief of letting it all hang out and writing without revision. This hitor-miss technique of composition sometimes results in powerfully expressed feelings and ideas, but it often falls wide of the mark. Corso is not afraid to take chances, and there is something both endearing and annoying about his mixture of prosy language and verbal excess. Here is a typical piece of fustian taken at random:

   O walking crucifixes hooded and bowed
   treking catacombic apothecaries
   Grains drams and ounces of aphasia
   Etherized Popes their desperado nods
   raise welts of confessional memories on my lips

Corso's subjects include large ones such as the plight of humanity and American society, Zen Buddhism, Egyptian religion, and art and smaller ones such as travel in Europe and Africa, his childhood, and the literary life. His most frequently anthologized poem, the funny-sad meditation called "Marriage," is his best. The famous "Bomb" poem, printed in the shape of a mushroom cloud, shows a richness of invention, which is one of his hallmarks, and an obsession with death, which is another. The title of one of his collections is The Happy Birthday of Death, a title ostensibly chosen from a long list of possibilities such as "Fried Shoes," "Gargoyle Liver," "The Rumpled Backyard," and "Radiator Soup."

Other good poems include "Giant Turtle," which describes a turtle laying eggs, "Hair," another repetitious but inventive verse, and "Seed Journey." Two long efforts in Elegiac Feelings American should be noted. The title poem, inscribed "for the dear memory of John Kerouac," is an attack on America and its destruction of Kerouac that is rather incoherent in its excesses and logical inconsistencies. "The Geometric Poem" is a facsimile reproduction of a long handwritten manuscript complete with cartoonlike illustrations and hieroglyphics drawn by the poet, an elaborate and not wholly successful evocation of Egyptian culture and religion.

Corso's best poems combine his original and zany humor with an innocent tenderness. He is also capable, however, of rage against AIDS, pity for the homeless, and a lingering distrust, typical of the beat generation, of such middle-class phenomena as cops, the suburbs, and literary agents. Many of these conflicting ideas and moods occur in the ambitious kaleidoscopic poem "Field Report," collected in the 1989 Mindfield. This is a report from the front lines of "poesia," a mythical but very real territory where Corso appears to feel simultaneously beleaguered, entrenched, and at home.

It is difficult not to like Corso as a person seen through his poems. He is the perennial bad boy, jack-off (a recurrent but minor theme), hipster, clown, rebel, poète maudit, and misty-eyed romantic. Yet some of these images seem rather dated and quaint. By the 1990s Corso had become an aging, but engaging, clown, a child-man in an aging body who looks in the mirror and cannot believe what he sees. Strenuously resisting death and aging, he humorously and half-seriously denies them both. As the father of two children and the husband of a woman much younger than himself, he has contemplated the grotesquerie of himself in the year 2000 at age seventy, his wife in her forties, his son in his twenties.

—Donald Barlow Stauffer