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Gregory Corso and the Belief in Poetry
On my seventy-first birthday I treated myself to some bookstore browsing at Powell’s City of Books. There on an upper shelf in the poetry section The Golden Dot: Last Poems 1997–2000 by Gregory Corso (1930–2001) caught my eye. Rumor of the book’s forthcoming publication in Spring 2022 came my way by chance in March of last year. Searches at Powell’s main store downtown, the Hawthorne branch in my part of town, and online as spring turned to summer proved fruitless. I had pretty much forgotten about the book when I checked to see if the store still carried anything by the Beat poet whose poems still make me want to write poems and was delighted to find it there, an excellent birthday gift for myself and welcome addition to the Corso collection on the Beat shelves in my bookcase.
More than fifty years have passed since I found a copy of Corso's Gasoline at Joyful Alternative, a bookstore and headshop a short walk down Green Street from the University of South Carolina campus. Allen Ginsberg wrote in the introduction, "Open this book as you would a box of crazy toys, take in your hands a refinement of beauty out of a destructive atmosphere." I did, reading as I tramped back up Green Street on a cold winter day bright with sunshine and wonderful discovery.
My introduction to Corso came by way of articles and books about the Beat Generation and fictionalized portrayals in Jack Kerouac’s novels (as Raphael Urso in Desolation Angels and Yuri Gligoric in The Subterraneans). In the spring of 1971 I did a deep dive into the Beats for a term paper in a sociology class, an excellent adventure and an education in how to do research in the reference department at USC's McKissick Memorial Library. I passed more than a few evenings hunched over bound volumes and scrolling through microfilm of back issues as I scoured popular magazines, Time, Newsweek, Life, and journals like Evergreen Review and Paris Review for articles and interviews that introduced an unsophiscated young fellow from the South Carolina countryside to an exotic cast of bohemians living for poetry and art. That was a joy.
Throughout my twenties I read and reread Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, and other major Beat figures, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, Bob Kaufman, whenever I could lay my hands on their books, which was not always easy in Columbia, South Carolina, at that time. I must have become a bit of a bore rattling on about them in bars and at parties by the time I landed in the midst of my own bohemian scene in Little 5 Points, Atlanta, toward the end of the 1970s. That sophomore’s enthusiasm and more than a soupçon of naïveté endured a ways beyond when most people move on into some semblance of adulthood and maturity. A touch of it may remain.
Of the Beats Corso was the one who brought the most pleasure. His deep and lasting influence was evident in my own early poems. I recall loaning one of his books to a young friend from Lima, Peru, I knew during my first years in Atlanta. Upon returning it she said he had my style. It was the other way around of course. Another time she told me she and her Greek friend Yannos did not think of me as an American. I cherished the compliment, as some years later I would cherish a compliment from another friend, as we yattered about Derrida, Foucault, the Frankfurt School, over coffee at Café Diem: “David,” she said, “you couldn’t be bourgeois if you tried.” Well. Maybe. I like to think so.
Corso’s friend and editor Raymond Foye writes in the introduction to The Golden Dot that Corso struggled through “countless visions and revisions, both textual and conceptual,” of the manuscript through the last twenty years of his life before pulling it together in the final three. In his will he left the rights to the book to his friends Roger and Irvyne Richards for their support in those years. Roger Richards died in December 2002. When Foye approached Irvyne Richards about obtaining a copy of the manuscript, she told him she wanted to edit the book herself. The manuscript remained in her possession until her death in September 2020. Foye then contacted her stepdaughter, who passed it on to him. The Golden Dot was accepted for publication by Lithic Press after being rejected by City Lights and New Directions, publishers of Corso’s earlier books Gasoline (1958), The Happy Birthday of Death (1960), Long Live Man (1962), Elegaic Feelings American (1970), and Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (1981). The title comes from a 1997 poem:
This is how it happened: At the end everything that was dwindled into a dot; the dot exploded into the void and the beginning began again—
The Golden Dot offers only glimpses of the exuberant wordslingery and tender melancholy that first attracted me to Corso. It is of more interest as a companion and complement to An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. The two books show there was considerably more to him than the public persona as Beat Generation enfant terrible, careless of his gifts, an alcoholic and heroin addict who stole from friends and behaved badly at poetry readings.
Unkempt, boisterous and ill-mannered—he’s been known to drunkenly insult his audience—Corso fulfilled the expectations of the 1950s mainstream media who assumed the Beats were primitive reprobates. Even within the Beat world, Corso has always been perceived as a difficult case: At readings and occasional symposiums, he alternates between being amusing and obstreperous. (Raubicheck, “Gregory Corso”)
Corso’s story as it comes through in The Golden Dot and An Accidental Autobiography is striking. Abandoned by his seventeen-year-old mother shortly after his birth, he was raised in a succession of Catholic foster homes and orphanages, unwanted and uncared for.
Nothing ever happened bad to me when I was raised Catholic except for the Catholic foster-parents 6 in all they just adopted me so they could get money from the Church ("Deep—deep—deep within…")
He thought his mother had returned to Italy and only much later found out she left because of domestic abuse by his father. In 1997 he learned that instead of Italy she had fled to Trenton, New Jersey, and met her for the first time in an Atlantic City gambling casino.
There's my mother she's vowed to care for me but I don't know her After 67 years of life I've finally met her —she lives far away in New Jersey I don't know what to do in the street where to go… ("I am frighteningly lost in the present")
One of Corso’s earliest letters was a brief note dated November 18, 1954, to Isabella Gardner, an associate editor of Poetry magazine, in response to her “beautiful helpful” rejection letter. Gardner was a poet herself, actress, cousin of Robert Lowell, great-niece of art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Corso continued writing to her from Paris when he lived there in 1957 and 1958. In a letter circa August–September, 1958, he provided an account of his background:
I left prison at 20, before that having spent my seventeenth to my twentieth year there, I lived in Catholic boys homes, and orphanages, a real institutional background; I had no conception of how and what it was like to “live” in the possible world; I found myself in it; just as confused and dreamy as when I left it to go to prison; but in prison I got something; there I learned. Before that, I only went to the 6th grade…ran away from home, lived on the streets from my 13th year to my 17th…sleeping on roofs, subways, stealing to exist…then when I was 21, I met Allen Ginsberg and he woke me up and showed me the way, and I stayed out of trouble and did no harm to anyone; we became the closet of friends, and poetry sense, had much in rapport, so the same with Kerouac…
He touched on these experiences again in a letter to Ginsberg in the fall of that same year:
Oh, Allen, you don’t know what it means sleeping for weeks and sporadic months on the subway, it was unbearable; no sooner I’d fall asleep I’d have to get up, the train having reached its stop; the cold empty lonely platform and the white tile walls…ah the loneliness of a last stop! And especially when you’re tired and cold and hungry! What a real perfect draggy situation to be in!…half awake, cold, itchy, stray people staring at you…you suddenly become very conscious of your appearance, your hair, your dirty face, clothes…
He alludes to those early years time and again in The Golden Dot.
As a child raised in houses without books living in closed rooms my only companions were color pencils and paper I'd draw and write what I felt in short lines When I reached prison (the Tombs) at 13 a man wheeled books around and wanting to learn English good I got a book on rhetoric … I'm good proof of two things One, you can be born a poet Two, when you're alone poetry can be your best friend ("I believe people are born…")
The stereotypical Beat was a grungy ne’er-do-well who consorted with hoodlums and petty criminals, a dropout with a taste for drugs and an aversion to work satirized by the Maynard G. Krebs character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a sit-com that aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963. Quite a few Beat notables were indeed dropouts, but of the college and grad school variety. Corso left school middle of the sixth grade.
He read his first book, a gangster book, at age thirteen while imprisoned in the notorious New York City jail known as the Tombs. At fifteen he spent six months in prison in Windsor, Vermont, where he read Les Miserables. At seventeen he was sentenced to three years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, in upstate New York, where the older Italian cons looked out for him, the youngest inmate to enter that prison and the youngest to leave.
During those years he “ate up the prison library,” learning archaic and obsolete words in the Standard dictionary of 1905 and reading Bulfinch’s Mythology. Those archaic words appear throughout Corso’s poems, always expressed in the most natural manner, never coming off as if plucked from a thesaurus, falling, rather, naturally from his tongue, simply part of his vocabulary.
A few weeks before my 17th year I heard in my cell voices which I wrote down; wasn't long before I received a book called Ideas & Forms in English & American Lit.— First came Beowulf; the Twa Sisters; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—they did nothing for me; it was when Smart; Herrick; Hood; Marvel; Milton, and the immortal Romantics, I came upon the other half of the duad: Poetry. ("IN THE END WAS THE WORD")
“I read all the books I could get my hands on / and endlessly wrote to myself.” These were the prison poems he would show to Allen Ginsberg on their first chance meeting at a lesbian bar called the Pony Stable in Greenwich Village where Corso had a friend who did caricatures there. One day Ginsberg walked in:
He had these eyes: deep black pools of light. I didn't know he was gay then, that he was out cruising. But he was looking at me, so I went up and hustled a beer out of him. We started talking and poetry came up…I had my prison poems with me and showed them to him. That was how we got to know each other. Then he introduced me to Kerouac and Burroughs; he said to them, “Look who I have found.” ("Memories of Allen, April 1997," Rolling Stone Book of the Beats)
Corso landed in Paris toward the end of the 1950s with Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, and a host of other down and out American writers and artists staying at the Beat Hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, said to be the cheapest and dirtiest hotel in the city. Jean-Jacques Lebel was a French painter staying at the hotel who spoke English and got to know the Americans, who at first had no interaction with their French counterparts because they did not speak any French. In the film The Beat Hotel (2012) Lebel recalls that he acted as a go-between, introducing his American poet friends to French poet friends like André Breton, Benjamin Péret, and Marcel Duchamp. He invited both groups to a party at his parents' house attended by some 50 or 60 people. Ginsberg and Corso showed up stoned and very drunk. At one point in the evening Ginsberg got down on his knees and kissed the knees of the seated Duchamp, who thought it was a little bit weird but did not say anything. Corso pulled a pair of scissors out of his pocket, having read that the dadaists used to go around cutting off people's neckties, and cut off Duchamp's necktie. Duchamp's wife screamed. Duchamp however took it in stride, saying to her, “No, no, no, c'est très dada.”
Corso went on to form friendships with the French poets. He wrote to Isabella Gardner, “In Paris I see often and have high talks with Tristan Tzara; we play a mad surrealist dada pinball game…[Henri] Michaux of course is dearest to me, when I speak with him I am elevated to that state I only receive in writing poetry; and he gives me that state in conversation."
The Beats frequented a Left Bank bookshop called Le Mistral when it was founded by George Whitman in 1951. The name was later changed to Shakespeare and Company in honor of Sylvia Beach and her original Shakespeare & Company (1919–1941). Whitman carried on the spirit of the earlier shop as a center for expat literary life. Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were among its habitués. According to Lebel, Corso would steal books and a few weeks later sell them back to Whitman.
Allen Ginsberg readily acknowledged Corso’s influence. In a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, he wrote,
Our writing is similar, tho his line is shorter; but he has influenced me in the last two years—"Ignu" for instance; the Vachel Linsdey poem imitates his shorts in Gasoline (elliptical jump)—and other things in the mad phrasing I try to learn from him…I see him as having a rich Shakespearean line…Like, I think he's a more imaginative poet than I am, in his phrasing, more free, and that's why I study him, and that's loosened my own phrasing. (February 17, 1959)
In his introduction to Gasoline, Ginsberg singled out “O drop that fire engine out of your mouth!” and “Outside by a Halloween fire, wise on a charred log, an old man is dictating to the heir of the Goon” as examples of the phrasing that captivated him. He described a surface “hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing” like “mad children of soda caps,” which comes from the poem “Ode to Coit Tower,” written in long lines that on the page resemble those of Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. An example: “Enough my eyes made you see phantasmal at night mad children of soda caps laying down their abundant blond verse on the gridiron of each other’s eucharistic feet like distant kings laying down treasures from camels.”
Ginsberg poses the obvious rhetorical question: “But what is he saying? Who cares?! It’s said!” and concludes with typical Ginsbergian hyperbole, “We’re the fabled damned if we put it down. He’s probably the greatest poet in America, and he’s starving in Europe.” Ferlinghetti for his part thought Corso was more original but Ginsberg the more important poet.
“Marriage,” from The Happy Birthday of Death, perhaps Corso’s best-poem known poem, begins with these lines which have a slightly different flavor:
Should I get married? Should I be good? Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood? Don't take her to movies but to cemeteries tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
Ferlinghetti published Gasoline and a broadside of the poem “Bomb,” which was controversial because some nuclear disarmament activists throught it glorified the atom bomb. Ferlighetti expressed reservations about “Bomb” and another poem, “Power,” in which he and others found fascist overtones, in a letter to Ginsberg dated September 12, 1958:
What I am saying is that his “position” is not exactly clear to the reader who only has the text to go by and doesn't know Gregory himself. In other words, there is an unintentional ambiguity in the texts of both “Power” and "Bomb.” OK, so you and I and everybody who knows Gregory knows there is no ambivalence in his attitude on these subjects, but it seems to me that the poems themselves have an ambiguity of meaning in them which the “outside reader” wouldn't be able to unravel. Now you are liable to say any ambiguity is actually intended…And that anybody who cannot comprehend just where the poet stands must be stupid and the whole question laughable. Still I think there is something to my point. The poem is going to be read by a lot of stupid people as well as by the hip and the informed and the swinging. That's all I meant. Pass this on to Gregory."
Both poems were included in The Happy Birthday of Death, published by New Directions.
In 1962 Ferlinghetti complained to Ginsberg about a “put-down from Corso, among others, not to mention earlier ones from most of the mob who consider me a businessman with a loose pen and very drooly” (letter dated July 1, 1962). Ginsberg defended Corso, as he was often called on to do, while admitting that his friend was “a narcissistic put-down artist” who claimed it as a right “to preserve his own independence.” Corso did it to Kerouac and Burroughs and even Ginsberg, though rarely, “because I got him by the balls in some other way, like hold his head and dry his tears when he gets hysterical like when we all arrived on Tangier dock last year and his passport had expired and they wouldn't let him off the boat for forty-eight hours” (letter dated July 5, 1962).
Ferlinghetti broke with Corso for good in 1979 over ongoing thievery at City Lights. On April 25 Ferlinghetti wrote that Corso had broken into City Lights and stolen about $400, with at least three witnesses who saw him do it. Almost $3,000 disappeared during the previous year, $300 to $400 every few weeks, attributed to Corso. The police had fingerprints on top of the witnesses. Ferlinghetti advised Corso “he'd better get out of town fast before one of his enemies squeals on him and gets him busted.” Ferlinghetti went on to report that City Lights was in “terrible financial shape, partly on account of the robberies.” Nancy Peters, managing director and co-owner of the bookstore (also a poet and editor, married to Philip Lamantia), had to cut her salary in half.
Ginsberg responded from New York about three weeks later that Corso was there in New York, admitted to breaking the window and took responsibility for the money stolen but denied taking it himself. Ginsberg took Corso at his word. Ferlinghetti replied almost immediately, “I'm glad you're so fair-minded about Gregory, though I can't resist straightening you out on the facts of what actually happened,” affirming that there was no doubt that Corso took the money and had behaved abominably in other respects:
You have no idea how Gregory upset the people working at City Lights or the store in general…over the past six months or so. And it wasn't just the missing money…He browbeat everyone who worked there—or at least those he dared to—and you can't imagine the language he used on Nancy and other women—etc.—a stone drag, to say the least. (letter dated May 19, 1979)
Ferlinghetti pronounced himself done with Corso, saying to Ginsberg, “It's a good thing I hate cops or he would be behind bars right now…A fine friend he turned out to be after all these years.”
Two decades earlier Corso had defended himself in a letter to Kerouac: “What I stole, I stole out of fear and not being able to cope with a situation” (Paris, ca. Aug 21-25, 1958). William Burroughs provided some perspective (I cannot find the source but recall reading this somewhere): Corso stole to survive because that is what he learned growing up on the streets and in prison with hoodlums and petty thieves as role models.
Conduct at poetry readings was another aspect of Corso’s all too human flaws. In The Golden Dot he speaks of recourse to alcohol to deal with the pain of “reading aloud / poems to an audience of strangers” (“It sneaks up on you”). And in “I have grown up, haven’t I?”:
The thought of getting up on stage and read my most private inner feelings to an audience I believe hates me urges me to get plastered and most of the time I can't hold my mud For the life of me I read only light funny poems get them laughing then run
The death of friends hit him hard as the end of his own life approached. Ginsberg and Burroughs died within four months of each other in 1997.
From birth to '8o no one I knew died Kerouac, an aberration— From 1980 to 1998 relentless! They were dropping like angels (can't say flies) No one is hardly left My nearess dearess oldest friends in life: Bill B; Allen G; Anton R; Herbert H; All gone…in a matter of one year ("From birth to '80 no one I knew died…")
To my taste this would be better without the parenthetical “(can’t say flies).” Foye left the spellings “nearess” and “dearess” as they appear in the manuscript.
Poems in the The Golden Dot as in previous works reflect an extraordinary range of interests. Corso read widely and cared deeply about poetry. References to ancient Sumer, ancient Egypt, Greek myths, phenomena of physics and astronomy, contemplation of time and eternity, the Big Bang, the Steady State, and a large chunk of the Western canon crop up repeatedly. He finds himself wondering if when his time is up he will be welcomed at the Mermaid Tavern, evoking the “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen,” a London drinking club that included some of the Elizabethan era's leading literary figures. Corso sees Joyce standing at the bar, Keats alone “looking dejectedly down upon his death mask,” Andrew Marvell conversing with Milton, Auden whom he knew, and as he moves away from the door, looking at the Blakes on the walls, Whitman says to him, “My vote got you in / That shit Poe had a fit, I tell you.”
I had learned it had nothing to do with poetry whether it was major or minor The important thing was one's belief in oneself as poet
Poetry and belief in himself as a poet who belonged among those gathered at the Mermaid Tavern sustained Gregory Corso. The sentiment is expressed across a lifetime of poems and letters and seems to me sincere. Poetry did not save Corso. Nor did it redeem irresponsible and inexcusable conduct. Poetry does not save anyone. It will not make us good people. It does though make life richer and fuller. As I write this I think of the great critic and teacher Harold Bloom, who in almost every respect could hardly have been more different from Corso yet shared with him a profound, an immense love of reading and poetry that is contagious, and enriches the lives of those touched by it.
Keep the faith. Stand with Ukraine. Yr obdt svt
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An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, ed. with commentary and introduction by Bill Morgan, New Directions, 2003
Gasoline, City Lights Books, 1958
The Golden Dot, Lithic Press, 2022
The Happy Birthday of Death, New Directions, 1960
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955–1997, City Lights Books, 2015
Water Raubicheck, “Gregory Corso,” in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, Rolling Stone Press, 1999