Two strains pervade the poetry of Gregory Corso (March 26, 1930 – January 17, 2001): the Dionysian force of emotion and spontaneity, and a preoccupation with death. From Corso’s early poems to his later work, one finds the recurring persona of the clown as an embodiment of the Dionysian force, as opposed to the Apollonian powers of order, clarity, and moderation. The clown’s comedy, which has its root in the very fact of being “a poet in such a world as the world is today,” ranges from the mischievous laughter of the child to the darker, often somber irony of the poet-in-the-world. This exuberance is bound up with the rebelliousness and political activism of the 1960’s, as is evident in one of Corso’s early and most widely anthologized poems, “Bomb.” In this poem—typographically shaped like a bomb in its original 1958 publication by City Lights—Corso confronted the unalterable reality of the nuclear age and his inability “to hate what is necessary to love.”
A large part of Corso’s Dionysian spirit is romantic—and Corso is certainly in the tradition of Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He sees the child as a pure, spontaneous Dionysian being: always naturally perceptive, always instinctively aware of sham, pretense, and deception. Such perception runs throughout American literature, from the character of Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) to the child who “went forth” in Walt Whitman to Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novel of 1884 to Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Similarly, in Corso’s poetry, the child (particularly the self of the poet’s recollection) stands for pure Dionysian perception without the intervening deceptions of rules and conventions.
The other strain in Corso’s poetry is a passionate concern with the mystery of death, a theme that is more pervasive in his work than any other, with the exception of the pure experience of childhood. Indeed, the intermingling of these two motifs essentially characterizes the Dionysian spirit of Corso—as well as the art of theBeat generation in general. In a poem dedicated to one of his heroes, entitled “I Met This Guy Who Died” (Mindfield), Corso writes about a drunken outing with his friend Jack Kerouac. Taken home to see Corso’s newborn child, Kerouac moans: “Oh Gregory, You brought up something to die.” “How I love to probe life,” Corso once wrote in an autobiographical essay. “That’s what poetry is to me, a wondrous prober. . . . It’s not the metre, or measure of a line, a breath; not ‘law’ music, but the assembly of great eye-sounds placed into an inspired measured idea.”
In an early collection, Gasoline, Corso solidifies his poetic identity in a directly autobiographical poem, “In the Fleeting Hand of Time.” Here the poet casts his lot not with the Apollonian academics, who “lay forth sheepskin plans,” but with life in the “all too real mafia streets.” In another poem from this early collection, entitled “Birthplace Revisited,” the poet captures what Allen Ginsberg referred to as “the inside sound of language alone” by virtually overturning the expected or commonplace. This brief poem opens with a mysterious figure wandering the lonely, dark street, seeking out the place where he was born. The figure resembles a character from a detective story—”with raincoat, cigarette in mouth, hat over eye, hand on gat”—but when he reaches the top of the first flight of stairs, “Dirty Ears aims a knife at me . . . I pump him full of lost watches.” This is not exactly the kind of image one would expect to find in the language of the standard-bearers of Corso’s time, such as Allen Tate or John Crowe Ransom. In fact, in an act of Dionysian rebellion, Corso, in a poem entitled “I Am Twenty-five,” bluntly proclaims “I HATE OLD POETMEN!”—especially those “who speak their youth in whispers.” The poet-clown, in true Dionysian fashion, would like to gain the confidence of the “Old Poetman,” insinuating himself into the sanctity of his home, and then “rip out their apology tongues/ and steal their poems.”
The Happy Birthday of Death
The Happy Birthday of Death presents the best example of Corso as Dionysian clown. In the lengthy ten-part poem entitled simply “Clown,” Corso presents this persona more explicitly than he does in any other place when he asserts, “I myself am my own happy fool.” The fool or the clown is the personification of the “pure poetry” of Arthur Rimbaud or Walt Whitman, rejecting the academic Apollonian style of the formalists. “I am an always clown,” writes Corso, “and need not make grammatic Death’s diameter.”
Several of the poems of The Happy Birthday of Death, notably the award-winning “Marriage,” offer critiques of respected institutions of bourgeois society. This poem, perhaps Corso’s most popular, is structured around the central questions: “Should I get married? Should I be good?” In a surrealistic feast of language-play, Corso contrasts the social ritual of marriage (“absurd rice and clanky cans and shoes,” Niagara Falls honeymoons, cornball relatives) with the irrational and spontaneous phrases he inserts throughout the poem, such as “Flash Gordon soap,” “Pie Glue,” “Radio Belly! Cat Shovel!” and “Christmas Teeth.” In opposition to the conformist regimentation of suburban life, the speaker contrives unconventional schemes, such as sneaking onto a neighbor’s property late at night and “hanging pictures of Rimbaud on the lawnmower” or covering “his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books.”
Long Live Man
In his later work Long Live Man, Corso continued his Dionysian assault on established literary conventions. The poem “After Reading ‘In the Clearing,’” for example, finds the speaker admitting that he likes the “Old Poetman” Robert Frost better now that he knows he is “no Saturday Evening Post philosopher.” Nevertheless, Frost is “old, old” like Rome, and, says the poet, “You undoubtedly think unwell of us/ but we are your natural children.” What Corso intends is not to suggest that youth should respect age, but rather, as William Wordsworth wrote in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” that “the child is father to the man.” As Corso points out in his urban poem “A City Child’s Day,” the “Grownups do not go where children go/ At break of day their worlds split apart.”
Two short poems in the earlier Long Live Man, viewed together, seem to foreshadow the approach Corso later used to criticize the institution of marriage and, still later, in Elegiac Feelings American and Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, Corso maintains his Dionysian critique of Apollonian standards. The first poem is entitled “Suburban Mad Song”; the second, “The Love of Two Seasons.” The first asks how the wife will look at the husband after “the horns are still,” when the celebration is ended “and marriage drops its quiet shoe.” In other words, when the Dionysian passions of the first experiences become the frozen form, the institution of marriage, the once-happy couple “freeze right in their chairs/ troubled by the table.” The only solution for such stasis, Corso seems to be saying in the other short poem, “The Love of Two Seasons,” is “the aerial laughter [of] mischief.”
Elegiac Feelings American
In “The American Way,” a long poem from Elegiac Feelings American, Corsoworries that the prophetic force of Christ is becoming frozen by American civil religion. “They are frankensteiningChrist,” the poet says despairingly; “they are putting the fear of Christ in America” and “bringing their Christ to the stadiums.” Christ, for Corso, is the pure force of reality, while religious institutions are merely perversions even as love between two people is a pure and sacred force, while marriage is profane. “If America falls,” writes Corso, “it will be the blame of its educators preachers communicators alike.”
Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit
Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit suggests not only that the poet has not withered with age but also that he has mastered an ironic voice while maintaining his comic, childlike energy. In a simple poem, “When a Boy,” he remarks, first of all, how he “monitored the stairs/ alter’d the mass” in church, as opposed to the pleasure of summer camp, when he “kissed the moon in a barrel of rain.” Similarly, in the poem “Youthful Religious Experience,” he tells how he found a dead cat when he was six years old and compassionately prayed for it, placing a cross on the animal. When he told this to the Sunday school teacher, she pulled his ears and told him to remove the cross. The old, Corso maintains, can never comprehend the eternally young.
In another poem from this collection, “What the Child Sees,” Corso depicts the child as “innocently contemptuous of the sight” of old age’s foolishness. “There’s rust on the old truths,” Corso contends in “For Homer,” and “New lies don’t smell as nice as new shoes.” What the poet, like the child, perceives as pleasurable is the immediate, sensual experience, such as the smell of new shoes, not the abstractions of dried-up old lies. The sadness at the root of this pleasure, however, is a sadness that appears in much of Corso’s poetry, evoked by the perennial reality of death.
The 1989 collection Mindfield is a compilation of Corso’s favorite poems throughout his career, along with new poems. Here, one can trace the maturation of the poet across three decades. Particularly revealing are the seven poems written after the appearance of Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit in 1981 but previously unpublished. These poems illustrate the growth of Corso as a poet who, at the half century point in his life, had broadened the range and scope of his poetry while maintaining some of the themes that have dominated his work from the early 1950’s.
In the poem “Window,” written in 1982, Corso confronts the painful reality of his own mortality. The horror of death, however, becomes merely an evil invention of the older generation that, asserts the man-child Corso, is notoriously “unreliable.” Writes Corso:
. . . your parents your priest your guru are people
and it is they who tell you that you must die
to believe them is to die . . .
As a romantic, Corso draws his lessons from nature. Proclaiming his “contempt for death” and asserting that “the spirit knows better than the body,” Corso offers the reader lines of poetry as moving as many of Wordsworth’s in his assertion of immortality:
As the fish is animalized water
so are we humanized spirit
fish come and go humans also
the death of the fish
is not the death of the water
likewise the death of yr body
is not the death of life
So when I say I shall never know my death, I mean it . . .
To Corso, death is merely another limit or restraint that he challenges throughout his poetry. When he writes, at one point, “Death I unsalute you,” Corso illustrates his resistance to all limits that restrict what he sees as the limitless strength of the human spirit.
In the longest of the previously unpublished poems, “Field Report,” Corso confronts the inevitable approach of old age with words that are gentle and not fearful. That poem, like most of his other later works, seems to give support to the words of Corso’s contemporary and friend, Allen Ginsberg, who writes in his introduction to Mindfield (“On Corso’s Virtues”) words that, while written about a single poem (“The Whole Mess . . . Almost” from Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit), could be said about most of Corso’s later poetry: The poem is “a masterpiece of Experience, the grand poetic abstractions Truth, Love, God, Faith Hope Charity, Beauty, money, Death, & Humor are animated in a single poem with brilliant & intimate familiarity.”
In others of his previously unpublished poems from the 1980’s, particularly “Hi” and “Fire Report—No Alarm,” Corso grapples with such large metaphysical issues as God, mortality, immortality, and the identity of Jesus. Without God, Corso concludes ironically, the Reverend Jerry Falwell (leader of the conservative Moral Majority and the Christian Right) might well be putting onions on hamburgers. Such pithy, concrete insights are what give humor and vividness to Corso’s later poetry.
Long fiction: The American Express, 1961; The Minicab War, 1961 (with Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth).
Plays: In This Hung-up Age, pr. 1955; Standing on a Streetcorner, pb. 1962; That Little Black Door on the Left, pb. 1967.
Screenplays: Happy Death, 1965 (with Jay Socin); That Little Black Door on the Left, 1968.
Miscellaneous: Writing from Unmuzzled Ox Magazine, 1981.
Cook, Bruce. “An Urchin Shelley.” In The Beat Generation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. Edited by Bill Morgan. New York: New Directions, 2003.
Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
Hamilton, Ian. Against Oblivion: Some Lives of the Twentieth-Century Poets. London: Viking, 2002.
Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, eds. The Beat Vision: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon House, 1987.
Masheck, Joseph, ed. Beat Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Olson, Kirby. Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
Selerie, Gavin. Gregory Corso. New York: Binnacle Press, 1982.
Skau, Michael. A Clown in a Grave: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
Stephenson, Gregory. Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso. London: Hearing Eye, 1989.