‘Anatomy of a Rogue Wave’
Greyhound ran a bus out of L.A. to San Francisco that took fifteen hours to complete because it stopped at every bum-fuck town in California, the places time forgot. This was the Lost Soul Run, the Ghost Bus. It picked up young men who had to get away from the small towns they were born in. They went looking for jobs so they could get out of their parents home. They dressed them like dorks, made them wear dorky clothes so they would get hired and not come home. The Army and Navy wouldn’t take them, because there was something wrong with them. They would meet other rejects and losers on the bus. They would strike up a conversation, and move to the back of the bus. Young Mexican mothers clutching children to their bosom, shut their ears and eyes. Service men began to board. They were on leave. They had come home to their kinfolk, but, after loving embraces were exchanged, there was nothing to do. If there was a bar in town, it was full of angry old Oakies and Wobblies.
One could have a warm and engaging conversation on the Greyhound for the price of a ticket. For $6.50 cents, you could get companionship, and love, if just for a little while. You could buy a bottle of Gin for $1.25, and sneak it on board to share with your new friend. You arrived in San Francisco at 5:30 A.M. and have breakfast with your good buddy in the produce market. You could rent a room in a sleaze-bag hotel for $2.50 cents. Here, you could be yourself. For twenty bucks you could have the Bohemian experience of a life-time. Fuck France and Gay Paris!
This bus ride was soon titled ‘The Faggot Wagon’. Montgomery Clift and Ronald Reagan were faithful passengers. They preyed on the young men looking for a leg up in life, their first contact with the outside world. When Raymond Burr took a ride, he told spooky tales, he owning one of the largest collection of Occult literature in the world. It was like getting a college education. After the war, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso boarded the Faggot Wagon. ‘Howl was written, and first recited on the Ghost Ride.
Juan Carlos used to ride the dog, but he was no faggot. He was desperate to find a woman, a wife. There were very lonely young Mexican ladies on the bus. Many of them had born a child out of wedlock. They were abandoned Madonnas who moved from relative to relative only during the darkest of night….ashamed. Where does shame go? Where does it dwell?
Juan was a melon picker, a hunchback who was ugly as sin. Sometimes he would bring his guitar along, and sing. But, what really blew everyone’s mind at two in the morning, is the classic Flamingo guitar concert he put on. Some very classy men used to board, in disguise. The conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was a paying customer. His musical ear would get out of tune, and needed honing. Juan put a new edge on the great endeavor to master ones craft.
Juan had soul. No one could dispute this. Riders would testify they reached nirvana listening to Juan, he taking them on an inner journey as they watched the yellow lights come on in the kitchens of the farmhouses that passed like ships in the mystic night. Juan’s fingers were the cosmic engine that propelled the passengers forward, into the coming of dawn, when one could barely make out the silhouettes, stooped migrants in the fields, picking beats and lettuce. You could hear their thoughts in the oppressive monotony. How do they do it? How does anyone do anything?
In a short while, Juan would become the husband of the most beautiful women in the world, Irene Westhaven.
Sometime in his first year, Corso’s mother mysteriously abandoned him, leaving him at the New York Foundling Home, a branch of the Catholic Church Charities. Corso’s father, Sam “Fortunato” Corso, a gruff garment center worker, found the infant and promptly put him in a foster home. Michelina came to New York but her life was threatened by Sam. One of Michelina’s sisters was married to a New Jersey mobster who offered to give Michelina her “vengeance,” that is to kill Sam. Michelina declined and returned to Trenton without her child. Sam consistently told Corso that his mother had returned to Italy and deserted the family. He was also told that she was a prostitute and was “disgraziata” (disgraced) and forced into Italian exile. Sam told the young boy several times, “I should have flushed you down the toilet.” It was 67 years until Corso learned the truth of his mother’s disappearance.
Corso spent the next 11 years in foster care in at least five different homes. His father rarely visited him. When he did, Corso was often abused: “I’d spill jello and the foster home people would beat me. Then my father would visit and he’d beat me again— a double whammy.” As a foster child, Corso was among thousands that the Church aided during the Depression, with the intention of reconstituting families as the economy picked up. Corso went to Catholic parochial schools, was an altar boy and a gifted student. His father, in order to avoid the military draft, brought Gregory home in 1941. Nevertheless, Sam Corso was drafted and shipped overseas.
Corso, then alone, became a homeless child on the streets of Little Italy. For warmth he slept in subways in the winter, and then slept on rooftops during the summer. He continued to attend Catholic school, not telling authorities he was living on the streets. With “permission,” he stole breakfast bread from Vesuvio Bakery, 160 Prince Street in Little Italy. Street food stall merchants would give him food in exchange for running errands.
At age 13, Corso was asked to deliver a toaster to a neighbor. While he was running the errand, a passerby offered money for the toaster, and Corso sold it. He used the money to buy a tie and white shirt, and dressed up to see the film The Song of Bernadette, about the mystical appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes. On returning from the movie, the police apprehended him. Corso claimed he was seeking a miracle, namely, to find his mother. Corso had a lifelong affection for saints and holy men: “They were my only heroes.” Nonetheless, he was arrested for petty larceny and incarcerated in The Tombs, New York’s infamous jail. Corso, even though only thirteen years old, was celled next to an adult, criminally insane murderer who had stabbed his wife repeatedly with a screwdriver. The exposure left Corso traumatized. Neither Corso’s stepmother nor his paternal grandmother would post his $50 bond. With his own mother missing and unable to make bail, he remained in the Tombs.
Later, in 1944 during a New York blizzard, a 14-year-old freezing Corso broke into his tutor’s office for warmth, and fell asleep on a desk. He slept through the blizzard and was arrested for breaking and entering and booked into the Tombs a second time, with adults. Terrified of other inmates, he was sent to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital Center and later released.
At the age of seventeen, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Corso broke into a tailor shop and stole an over-sized suit to dress for a date. Police records indicate he was arrested two blocks from the shop. He spent the night in the Tombs and was arraigned the next morning as an 18-year-old with prior offenses. No longer a “youthful offender,” he was given a two to three years sentence to Clinton State Prison, in Dannemora, New York, on the Canadian border. It was New York’s toughest prison, the site of the state’s electric chair. Corso always has expressed a curious gratitude for Clinton making him a poet.
His second book of poems, Gasoline, is dedicated to “the angels of Clinton Prison who, in my seventeenth year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination.”
Interestingly, Clinton later became known as the “poets’ prison,” as rap poets served time there.
Corso at Clinton Correctional
While being transported to Clinton, Corso, terrified of prison and the prospect of rape, concocted a story of why he was sent there. He told hardened Clinton inmates he and two friends had devised the wild plan of taking over New York City by means of walkie-talkies, projecting a series of improbable and complex robberies. Communicating by walkie-talkie, each of the three boys took up an assigned position— one inside the store to be robbed, one outside on the street to watch for the police, and a third, Corso, the master-planner, in a small room nearby dictating the orders. According to Corso, he was in the small room giving the orders when the police came. In light of Corso’s youth, his imaginative yarn earned him bemused attention at Clinton. Richard Biello, a Capo, asked Corso who he was connected with, that is, what New York crime family did he come from, talking such big crimes as walkie-talkie robberies… ,”I’m independent!” Corso shot back, hoping to keep his distance from the Mob inmates. A week later, in the prison showers, Corso was grabbed by a handful of inmates, and the 18-year-old was about to be raped. Biello happened in and commented, “Corso! You don’t look so independent right now.” Biello waved off the would-be rapists, who were afraid of Mafia reprisals.
Thus Corso fell under the protection of powerful Mafioso inmates, and became something of a mascot because he was the youngest inmate in the prison, and he was entertaining. Corso would cook the steaks and veal brought from the outside by Mafia underlings in the “courts”— 55-gallon-barrel barbecues and picnic tables— assigned to the influential prisoners. Clinton also had a ski run right in the middle of “the yards,” and Corso learned to downhill ski and taught the Mafiosi. He entertained his mobster elders as a court jester, quick with ripostes and jokes. Corso would often cite the three propositions given him by a Mafia capo: “1) Don’t serve time, let time serve you. 2) Don’t take your shoes off because with a 2 -3 you’re walking right out of here. 3) When you’re in the yard talking to three guys, see four. See yourself. Dig yourself.”
Interestingly, Corso was jailed in the very cell just months before vacated by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. While imprisoned, Luciano had donated an extensive library to the prison. The cell was also equipped with a phone and self-controlled lighting as Luciano was, from prison, cooperating with the U.S. Government’s wartime effort, providing Mafia aid in policing the New York waterfront, and later helping in Naples, Italy through his control of the Camorra. In this special cell, Corso read after lights-out thanks to a light specially positioned for Luciano to work late. Corso was encouraged to read and study by his Cosa Nostra mentors, who recognized his genius.
There, Corso began writing poetry. He studied the Greek and Roman classics, and consumed encyclopedias and dictionaries. He credited the The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant‘s ground-breaking compendium of history and philosophy, for his general education and philosophical sophistication.
Release and return to New York City
In 1951, 21-year-old Gregory Corso worked in the garment center by day, and at night was a mascot yet again, this time at one of Greenwich Village’s first lesbian bars, the Pony Stable Inn. The women gave Corso a table at which he wrote poetry. One night a Columbia College student, Allen Ginsberg, happened into the Pony Stable and saw Corso… “he was good looking, and wondered if he was gay, or what.” Corso, who was definitely not gay, was not uncomfortable with same sex come-ons after his time in prison, and thought he could score a beer off Ginsberg. He showed Ginsberg some of the poems he was writing, a number of them from prison, and Ginsberg immediately recognized Corso as “spiritually gifted.” One poem described a woman who sunbathed in a window bay across the street from Corso’s room on 12th Street. Astonishingly, the woman happened to be Ginsberg’s erstwhile girl friend, with whom he lived in one of his rare forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg invited Corso back to their apartment and asked the woman if she would satisfy Corso’s sexual curiosity. She agreed, but Corso, still a virgin, got too nervous as she disrobed, and he ran from the apartment, struggling with his pants. Ginsberg and Corso became fast friends. All his life, Ginsberg had a sexual attraction to Corso, which remained unrequited.
Corso joined the Beat circle and was adopted by its co-leaders, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who saw in the young street-wise writer a potential for expressing the poetic insights of a generation wholly separate from those preceding it. At this time he developed a crude and fragmented mastery of Shelley, Marlowe, and Chatterton. Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (1840), with its emphasis on the ability of genuine poetic impulse to stimulate “unapprehended combinations of thought” that led to the “moral improvement of man,” prompted Corso to develop a theory of poetry roughly consistent with that of the developing principles of the Beat poets. For Corso, poetry became a vehicle for change, a way to redirect the course of society by stimulating individual will. He referred to Shelley often as a “Revolutionary of Spirit”, which he considered Ginsberg and himself to be.
In 1954, Corso moved to Cambridge, where several important poets, including Edward Marshall and John Wieners, were experimenting with the poetics of voice. The center for Corso’s life there was not “the School of Boston,” as these poets were called, but Harvard University’s Widener Library, where he spent his days reading the great works of poetry and also auditing classes in the Greek and Roman Classics. Corso’s appreciation of the classics had come from the Durants’ books that he had read in prison. At Harvard he considered becoming a classics scholar. Corso, penniless, lived on a dorm room floor in Elliott house, welcomed by students Peter Sourian, Bobby Sedgwick (brother of Edie), and Paul Grand. He would dress up for dinner and not be noticed. Members of the elite Porcellian Club reported Corso to the Harvard administration as an interloper. Dean Archibald MacLeish met with Corso intending to expel him, but Corso showed him his poems and MacLeish relented and allowed Corso to be a non-matriculating student— a poet in residence. Corso’s first published poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate in 1954, and his play In This Hung-up Age—concerning a group of Americans who, after their bus breaks down midway across the continent, are trampled by buffalo— was performed by the esteemed Poets’ Theater the following year, along with T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral.”
Harvard and Radcliffe students, notably Grand, Sourian and Sedgwick, underwrote the printing expenses of Corso’s first book, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems. The poems featured in the volume are usually considered apprentice work heavily indebted to Corso’s reading. They are, however, unique in their innovative use of jazz rhythms— most notably in “Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker, musician,” which many call the strongest poem in the book— cadences of spoken English, and hipster jargon. Corso once explained his use of rhythm and meter in an interview with Gavin Selerie for Riverside Interviews: “My music is built in— it’s already natural. I don’t play with the meter.” In other words, Corso believes the meter must arise naturally from the poet’s voice; it is never consciously chosen.
In a review of The Vestal Lady on Brattle for Poetry, Reuel Denney asked whether “a small group jargon” such as bop language would “sound interesting” to those who were not part of that culture. Corso, he concluded, “cannot balance the richness of the bebop group jargon… with the clarity he needs to make his work meaningful to a wider-than-clique audience.” Ironically, within a few years, that “small group jargon”, the Beat lingo, became a national idiom, featuring words such as “man,” “cool,” “dig,” “chick,” “hung up,” etc.
Despite Corso’s reliance on traditional forms and archaic diction, he remained a street-wise poet, described by Bruce Cook in The Beat Generation as “an urchin Shelley.” Biographer Carolyn Gaiser suggested that Corso adopted “the mask of the sophisticated child whose every display of mad spontaneity and bizarre perception is consciously and effectively designed”— as if he is in some way deceiving his audience. But the poems at their best are controlled by an authentic, distinctive, and enormously effective voice that can range from sentimental affection and pathos to exuberance and dadaist irreverence toward almost anything except poetry itself.
San Francisco, “Howl”, and the Beat Phenomenon
Corso and Ginsberg decided to head to San Francisco, separately. Corso wound up temporarily in Los Angeles and worked at the L.A. Examiner news morgue. Ginsberg was delayed in Denver. They were drawn by reports of an iconoclast circle of poets, including Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. An older literary mentor, the socialist writer Kenneth Rexroth, lent his apartment as a Friday-night literary salon (Ginsberg’s mentor William Carlos Williams, an old friend of Rexroth’s, had given him an introductory letter).
Wally Hedrick  wanted to organize the famous Six Gallery reading, and Ginsberg wanted Rexroth to serve as master of ceremonies, in a sense to bridge generations. Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder read on October 7, 1955, before 100 people (including Kerouac, up from Mexico City). Lamantia read poems of his late friend John Hoffman. At his first public reading Ginsberg performed the just-finished first part of “Howl.” Gregory Corso arrived late the next day, missing the historic reading, at which he had been scheduled to read.
The Six Gallery was a success, and the evening led to many more readings by the now locally famous Six Gallery poets. It was also a marker of the beginning of the West Coast Beat movement, since the 1956 publication of Howl (City Lights Pocket Poets, no. 4) and its obscenity trial in 1957 brought it to nationwide attention.
Ginsberg and Corso hitchhiked from San Francisco, visiting Henry Miller in Big Sur, and stopped off in Los Angeles. As guests of Anaïs Nin and writer Lawrence Lipton, Corso and Ginsberg gave a reading to a gathering of L.A. literati. Ginsberg took the audience off-guard, by proclaiming himself and Corso as poets of absolute honesty, and they both proceeded to strip bare naked of clothes, shocking even the most avant-garde of the audience.
Corso and Ginsberg then hitchhiked to Mexico City to visit Kerouac who was holed up in a room above a whorehouse, writing a novel, “Tristessa.” After a three-week stay in Mexico City, Ginsberg left, and Corso waited for a plane ticket. His lover, Hope Savage, convinced her father, Henry Savage Jr., the mayor of Camden, S.C., to send Corso a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. Corso had been invited by the Library of Congress poet (precursor to U.S. Poet Laureate) Randall Jarrell and his wife Mary, to live with them, and become Jarrell’s poetic protege. Jarrell, unimpressed with the other Beats, found Corso’s work to be original and believed he held great promise. Corso stayed with the Jarrells for two months, enjoying the first taste of family life ever. However, Kerouac showed up and crashed at the Jarrells’, often drunk and loud, and got Corso to carouse with him. Corso was disinvited by the Jarrells and returned to New York.
To Paris and the “Beat Hotel”
In 1957, Allen Ginsberg voyaged with Peter Orlovsky to visit William S. Burroughs in Morocco. They were joined by Kerouac, who was researching the French origins of his family. Corso, already in Europe, joined them in Tangiers and, as a group, they made an ill-fated attempt to take Burroughs’ fragmented writings and organize them into a text (which later would become Naked Lunch). Burroughs was strung out on heroin and became jealous of Ginsberg’s unrequited attraction for Corso, who left Tangiers for Paris. In Paris, Corso introduced Ginsberg and Orlovsky to a Left Bank lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, that he named the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by William Burroughs and others. It was a haven for young expatriate painters, writers and musicians. There, Ginsberg began his epic poem Kaddish, Corso composed his poems Bomb and Marriage, and Burroughs (with Brion Gysin‘s help) put together Naked Lunch from previous writings. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures of the residents of the hotel until it closed in 1963.
Corso’s Paris sojourn resulted in his third volume of poetry, The Happy Birthday of Death (1960), Minutes to Go (1960, visual poetry deemed “cut-ups”) with William S. Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles, and Brion Gysin, The American Express (1961, an Olympia Press novel), and Long Live Man (1962, poetry). Corso fell out with his publisher of Gasoline, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore, who objected to “Bomb,” a position Ferlinghetti later rued and for which he apologized. Corso’s work found a strong reception at New Directions Publishing, founded by James Laughlin, who had heard of Corso through Harvard connections. New Directions was considered the premier publisher of poetry, with Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Thomas Merton, Denise Levertov, James Agee, and ironically, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
While in Europe Corso searched for his lover, Hope Savage, who had disappeared from New York, saying she was headed to Paris. He visited Rome and Greece, sold encyclopedias in Germany, hung out with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Amsterdam, and with Ginsberg set the staid Oxford Union in turmoil with his reading of “Bomb,” which the Oxford students mistakenly believed was pro-nuclear war (as had Ferlinghetti), while they and other campuses were engaged in “ban the bomb” demonstrations. A student threw a shoe at Corso, and both he and Ginsberg left before Ginsberg could read “Howl.”
Corso returned to New York in 1958, amazed that he and his compatriots had become famous, or notorious, emerging literary figures.
Return to New York – The “Beatniks”
In late 1958, Corso reunited with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. They were astonished that before they left for Europe they had sparked a social movement, which San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called, “Beat-nik,” combining “beat” with the Russian “Sputnik,” as if to suggest that the Beat writers were both “out there” and vaguely Communist.
San Francisco’s obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Ginsberg’s “Howl” had ended in an acquittal, and the national notoriety made “The Beats” famous, adored and ridiculed.
Upon their return, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac and Burroughs were published in the venerable Chicago Review, but before the volume was sold, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins deemed it pornographic and had all copies confiscated. The Chicago editors promptly resigned and started an alternative literary magazine, The Big Table. Ginsberg and Corso took a bus from New York for the “Big Table” launch, which again propelled them into the national spotlight. Studs Terkel’s interview of the two was a madcap romp which set off a wave of publicity. Controversy followed them and they relished making the most of their outlaw and pariah image. Time and Life magazines had a particular dislike of the two, hurling invective and insult that Corso and Ginsberg hoped they could bootstrap into yet more publicity. The Beat Generation (so named by Kerouac) was galvanized and young people began dressing with berets, toreador pants, and beards, and carrying bongos. Corso would quip that he never grew a beard, didn’t own a beret, and couldn’t fathom bongos.
Corso and Ginsberg traveled widely to college campuses, reading together. Ginsberg’s “Howl” provided the serious fare and Corso’s “Bomb” and “Marriage” provided the humor and bonhomie. New York’s Beat scene erupted and spilled over to the burgeoning folk music craze in the Village, Corso’s and Ginsberg’s home ground. An early participant was a newly arrived Bob Dylan: “I came out of the wilderness and just fell in with the Beat scene, the Bohemian, the Be Bop crowd. It was all pretty connected.” “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti… I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic.” –Bob Dylan in America.
During the early 1960s Corso married Sally November, an English teacher who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and attended Shaker High School, and graduated from the University of Michigan. At first, Corso mimicked “Marriage” and moved to Cleveland to work in Sally’s father’s florist shop. Then the couple lived in Manhattan and Sally was known to Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and others in the beat circle at that time. The marriage, while a failure, did produce a child, Miranda Corso. Corso maintained contact with Sally and his daughter sporadically during his lifetime. Sally, who subsequently remarried, resides on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has kept contact with one of the iconic females associated with the Beat movement, Hettie Jones.
Corso married two other times and had sons and a daughter.
As the Beats were supplanted in the 1960s by the Hippies and other youth movements, Corso experienced his own wilderness years. He struggled with alcohol and drugs. He later would comment that his addictions masked the pain of having been abandoned and emotionally deprived and abused. Poetry was his purest means of transcending his traumas, but substance abuse threatened his poetic output. He lived in Rome for many years, and later married in Paris and taught in Greece, all the while traveling widely. He strangely remained close to the Catholic Church as critic and had a loose identification as a lapsed Catholic. His collection Dear Fathers was several letters commenting on needed reforms in the Vatican.
In 1969, Corso published a volume, Elegiac Feelings American, whose lead poem, dedicated to the recently deceased Jack Kerouac, is regarded by some critics as Corso’s best poem. In 1981 he published poems mostly written while residing in Europe, entitled Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit.
In 1972, Rose Holton and her sister met Corso on the second day of their residence at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City:
“He sold us on the Chelsea and sold us on himself. Everything that life can throw at you was reflected in his very being. It was impossible for him to be boring. He was outrageous, always provocative, alternately full of indignation or humor, never censoring his words or behavior. But the main thing is that Gregory was authentic. He could play to the audience, but he was never a phony poseur. He was the real deal. He once explained the trajectory of creative achievement: “There is talent, there is genius, then there is the divine.” Gregory inhabited the divine.”
Corso’s first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle was published in 1955 (with the assistance of students at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes). Corso was the second of the Beats to be published (after only Kerouac’s The Town and the City), despite being the youngest. His poems were first published in the Harvard Advocate. In 1958, Corso had an expanded collection of poems published as number 8 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series: Gasoline & The Vestal Lady on Brattle. Of his many notable poems are the following: “Bomb” (a “concrete poem” formatted in typed paper slips of verse, arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud), “Elegiac Feelings American” of the recently deceased Jack Kerouac, and “Marriage,” a humorous meditation on the institution, perhaps his signature poem. And later in life, “The Whole Mess Almost.”
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
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky—
When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap—
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?
Should I tell them? Would they like me then?
Say All right get married, we’re losing a daughter
but we’re gaining a son—
And should I then ask Where’s the bathroom?
O God, and the wedding! All her family and her friends
and only a handful of mine all scroungy and bearded
just wait to get at the drinks and food—
In “Marriage,” Corso tackles the possibilities of marriage. It was among his “title poems,” with “Power,” “Army,” and others that explore a concept. “Should I get married?” (1), the speaker begins. Could marriage bring about the results that the speaker is looking for? Coming “home to her” (54) and sitting “by the fireplace and she in the kitchen/aproned young and lovely wanting my baby/ and so happy about me she burns the roast beef” (55–57). Idealizing marriage and fatherhood initially, Corso’s speaker embraces reality in the second half of the poem admitting, “No, I doubt I’d be that kind of father” (84). Recognizing that the act of marriage is in itself a form of imprisonment, “No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream” (103), Corso’s speaker acknowledges in the end that the possibility of marriage is not promising for him. Bruce Cook from the book The Beat Generation illuminates Corso’s skill at juxtaposing humor and serious critical commentary, “Yet as funny and entertaining as all this certainly is, it is not merely that, for in its zany way ‘Marriage’ offers serious criticism of what is phony about a sacred American institution.”
Corso’s sometimes surreal word mash-ups— “forked clarinets,” “Flash Gordon soap,” “werewolf bathtubs” —caught the attention of many.
It was “Bomb” and “Marriage” that caught the eye of a young Bob Dylan, still in Minnesota. Dylan said, “The Gregory Corso poem ‘Bomb’ was more to the point and touched the spirit of the times better— a wasted world and totally mechanized— a lot of hustle and bustle— a lot of shelves to clean, boxes to stack. I wasn’t going to pin my hopes on that.”
The poem “Bomb” created controversy because Corso mixed humor and politics. The poem was initially misinterpreted by many as being supportive of nuclear war. The opening lines of the poem tend to lead the reader to believe that Corso supported the bomb. He writes, “You Bomb /Toy of universe Grandest of all snatched-sky I cannot hate you [extra spaces Corso’s]” (lines 2–3). The speaker goes on to state that he cannot hate the bomb just as he cannot hate other instruments of violence, such as clubs, daggers, and St. Michael’s burning sword. He continues on to point out that people would rather die by any other means including the electric chair, but death is death no matter how it happens. The poem moves on to other death imagery and at time becomes a prayer to the bomb. The speaker offers to bring mythological roses, a gesture that evokes an image of a suitor at the door. The other suitors courting the bomb include Oppenheimer and Einstein, scientists who are responsible for the creation of the bomb. He concludes the poem with the idea that more bombs will be made “and they’ll sit plunk on earth’s grumpy empires/ fierce with moustaches of gold” (lines 87–8).
Christine Hoff Kraemer states the idea succinctly, “The bomb is a reality; death is a reality, and for Corso, the only reasonable reaction is to embrace, celebrate, and laugh with the resulting chaos” (212). Kraemer also asserts, “Corso gives the reader only one clue to interpreting this mishmash of images: the association of disparate objects is always presented in conjunction with the exploding bomb” (214). In addition she points to Corso’s denial that the poem contained political significance.
In contrast to Corso’s use of marriage as a synecdoche for a Beat view of women, postmodern feminist poet Hedwig Gorski chronicles a night with Corso in her poem “Could not get Gregory Corso out of my Car” (1985, Austin, Texas) showing the womanizing typical for heterosexual Beat behavior. Gorski criticizes the Beat movement for tokenism towards women writers and their work, with very few exceptions, including Anne Waldman, and post-beats like Diane DiPrima and herself. Male domination and womanizing by its heterosexual members, along with tokenism by its major homosexual members characterize the Beat Literary Movement. Beats scoffed at the Feminist Movement which offered liberalizing social and professional views of women and their works as did the Beat Movement for men, especially homosexuals. Corso however always defended women’s role in the Beat Generation, often citing his lover, Hope Savage, as a primary influence on him and Allen Ginsberg.
Ted Morgan described Corso’s place in the beat literary world: “If Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were the Three Musketeers of the movement, Corso was their D’Artagnan, a sort of junior partner, accepted and appreciated, but with less than complete parity. He had not been in at the start, which was the alliance of the Columbia intellectuals with the Times Square hipsters. He was a recent adherent, although his credentials were impressive enough to gain him unrestricted admittance …” It has taken 50 years and the death of the other Beats, for Corso to be fully appreciated as a poet of equal stature and significance.
In later years, Corso disliked public appearances and became irritated with his own “Beat” celebrity. He never allowed a biographer to work in any “authorized” fashion, and only posthumously was a volume of letters published under the specious artifice of An Accidental Autobiography. He did, however, agree to allow filmmaker Gustave Reininger to make a cinema vérité documentary, Corso: The Last Beat, about him.