Photo by Elsa Dorfman
Most poets are fortunate if they are remembered for having written one good line. Gregory Corso, a central poet of the Beat movement, is known for many great ones, in such lyrical and widely translated poems as “For Homer,” “Bomb,” “Marriage,” “Window,” “In the Fleeting Hand of Time,” and “Elegiac Feelings American,” written after the death of his friend and fellow Beat Jack Kerouac. Corso suffered from prostate cancer and died on January 17 in suburban Minneapolis, where he had been living for the past few months.
Born Nunzio Gregorio Corso to teenage immigrant Italian parents in New York’s Greenwich Village, Corso was a toddler when his mother abandoned the family. His father, struggling to earn a living at the height of the Depression, put Corso and his brother Joseph into foster care. Corso’s formal education ceased at about the sixth grade, when he started getting arrested for petty crimes. As a teen, Corso did time in “bad boys’ homes,” the adult mental ward in Bellevue Hospital, and the Manhattan jail known as “the Tombs.” While many books report that Corso started writing poetry in prison, he told me several times that he wrote his first poem, “Sea Chanty,” at the age of 16 in the New York Public Library Reading Room.
While serving three years in Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, for an insurance-company robbery, Corso discovered his great poetic hero, Percy Bysshe Shelley, studied Greek mythology, philosophy and history, and wrote reams of poetry. Shortly after he left prison in 1950 at age 20, Corso met Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar. The Beat triumvirate of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs now had a streetwise, darkly handsome, Orphic “natural” poet to help take their movement across the United States, and abroad. Alone among the misogynistic, phallocentric Beats, Corso wrote sacred-sounding, lapidary verses about women, children and domestic life.
In the early 1960s, Corso taught for one semester at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where his poetry classes were wildly popular. During this post–Joe McCarthy, lingeringly paranoiac era, colleges and universities in New York required professors to sign the Feinberg Loyalty Oath, a document promising that the signatory would stay clear of communism and otherwise remain law-abiding. Corso refused to sign and was promptly fired. “I couldn’t sign that thing because Shelley never would have signed that,” Corso told me once. His love of Shelley’s romantic oracular lines was closely followed by his love of Friedrich Hölderlin, the first great modern of European poetry, and of Emily Dickinson, the American poet whose pared-down stylistic influences he greatly admired, and transcended, by staying true to his muse. â
Corso’s work is intricately postmodern, shot through with a passion for multicultural and philosophical commentary, and pre-Warhol pop-cultural reverence for movie stars and other media icons. Read him and enjoy his urban soundscapes, masterful rhythms and transgressive, apocalyptic imagery. The Vestal Lady on Brattle, Corso’s first book, was published by subscription in 1955 by Harvard student Richard Brukenfeld, along with other Harvard and Radcliffe students. Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books published Corso’s breakthrough collection Gasoline (which also included the poem “The Vestal Lady on Brattle”) in 1958. New Directions brought The Happy Birthday of Death to print in 1960, followed by Long Live Man in 1970 and Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit in 1981. Thunder’s Mouth Press published Mindfield: New and Selected Poems in 1989. One of Corso’s most unusual works is American Express, the only novel he ever wrote, published in a 1961 limited edition in Paris by Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press.
Along with its Shelleyesque oratory, Corso’s art is also marked by a word and image hoard culled from the echo chambers of Western cultures. He deeply believed in the poetic power of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek mythology and ancient Roman histories; and the elliptical, epic and lyrical novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline thrilled him. The god he most identified with was Hermes, the winged messenger who also ferried people to the underworld and played the trickster. Along with Corso’s borderline blasphemous discourse (check out “God Is a Masturbator” in Mindfield), his oft-pained yet noble lines concerning his heroin addiction in poems such as “Columbia U Poesy Reading — 1975” and “Sunrise” color his art with eloquence rather than confessions, placing him in the lineage of drug-taking major poets such as Coleridge, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Edgar Allan Poe, whom Corso especially admired. In addition to his landmark 1950s poetry and visual art from the past five decades, Corso has left us a poetic account of one man’s experience of America’s war on drugs:
. . . morphia is poet-old,
an herbal emetic of oraclry,
an hallucinatory ichor divined by thee
as traditional unto the bards of the Lake,
theirs and mine to use at liberty
but I am not free to be at such liberty;
has put its maw
into the poet’s medicine cabinet . . .
—“Columbia U Poesy Reading — 1975”
Gregory Corso is survived by five children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.