Gregory Corso: up there with king, emperor, pope
Gregory had no visible means of support and managed to live in Paris on his wits [circa 1958-63], able to cadge a drink here, a meal there, to sell something or be given gifts, usually by women. My dear, he always had girls. Always had girls. He had one there called April, or was she November or September or something?... He always came up with something. He was always writing big manuscripts and annotating them and selling them as first drafts. Somebody else would find they had one too. He wrote a great deal when he was there...
Gregory Corso stuck with it indeed. He was a gifted lyric poet who in the words of Kerouac rose like an angel over the rooftops and sang Italian songs as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words. Yet even in the years when he flourished, he was generally considered a minor figure, and he flies somewhat under the radar to this day, as he loses his place on library and bookstore shelves to a new generation of poets with proper certification and credentials, trained in writer workshops and MFA programs, who could not hold a candle to his candle that burned on both ends, in the middle, around the side, and down the back.
I fondly recall coming upon Gasoline, Corso's second book of poems, in the City Lights Pocket Poets edition at Joyful Alternative in the Five Points district of Columbia, South Carolina, during the winter of 1971, my freshman year in college. That was a cold, clear afternoon, sunlight brilliant and bright through bare-limbed trees, as I walked back up Green Street to campus, warming my spirit with the poems of Gasoline while my breath fogged the air. I delighted in the book's epigram that expressed so perfectly my budding romantic sensibility: "It [poetry] comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within."
Ginsberg knew whereof he spoke in the introduction to that small volume: 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.' What Ginsberg is talking about is what first drew me, and still draws me, to Corso: the memorable line, the striking image, the phrase that stays with us, bounding through the mind like a puppy chasing butterflies in a wheat field, seared into memory.
I think of the opening lines to "I Held a Shelley Manuscript": "My hands did numb to beauty / as they reached into Death and tightened!" and from "Marriage": "Should I get married? Should I be good? / Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?" And how about "Discord":
The most archaic and obscure words flow from Corso's pen as naturally as the slang of the day. He explained that his vocabulary was obtained
from a standard dictionary of 1905, that big, when I was in prison. For three lucky years I just 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. (Michael Andre interview with Corso, Unmuzzled Ox, 1973)
The poet's youth was spent in reform schools, orphanages, foster homes, on the streets, and from the ages of seventeen to nineteen in prison. His formal education extended only through sixth grade. He educated himself in prison and speaks of that time as if it were almost a kind of idyll:
I had the best teachers. There were some guys in prison. I was seventeen when I went in and nineteen when I got out. You dig it? Those are big years. I was a problem in society. So you know what I got in Danamora?... Stendhal's The Red and the Black and my Shelley. That's a good thing in life to find Shelley when you're a kid, when they got you locked away for being a menace.... You make the time [in prison] your own. I used it to get the literary gems. (Neeli Cherkovski, Whitman's Wild Children, p. 251)
Anti-academicism was a Beat trademark, and Corso was no exception, yet he must have read voraciously, his interests ranging far and wide. His poems contain myriad allusions to classical Greece and Rome, Egypt, mythology, music, poets of the canon, Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Pound. He told Michael Andre (Unmuzzled Ox): [I]t's all in my head. I mean, if anyone were to ask me about Carthage or Phoenecia, or about the Bogomils or about Sumer and Gilgamesh, I know the shot. Anti-academic, undisciplined, and lacking in formal education Corso certainly was; unlearned he was not.
The gifts of lyricism, linguistic inventiveness, intellectual curiosity, and humor, what Corso called the "divine butcher" because it cuts through to the meat of things, are formidable arrows for a poet's quiver, and with them came an extraordinary capacity to express childlike wonder, a sense of what the Surrealists refer to as the marvelous.
While he may not stand with his Shelley in the first rank of poets, Gregory Corso embodies Shelley's characterization of the poet as hierophant of an unapprehended inspiration. Corso wrote poet is up there with king, emperor, pope. It is a serious thing to claim the mantle of poet. Corso laid claim to the mantle, and in the best of his poems he wore it well.
Gregory Corso's books include The Vestal Lady on Brattle, Gasoline, Long Live Man, The Happy Birthday of Death, Elegiac Feelings American, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, and Mindfield.
Gregory Corso: Writings from Unmuzzled Ox Magazine. New York: Unmuzzled Ox Foundation, Ltd., 1981.
Neeli Cherkovski, Whitman's Wild Children. South Royalton, Vermont: Steerforth Press, 1999.
Barry Miles, The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.