One of my favorite poets
, and—until January 18th
of this year—one of the few surviving members of the so-called Beat Generation
. His style was unmistakable; unflinching and clever, with a quickness and sense of humor that put his friend and rival Alan Ginsberg
When I heard he had died, I could nearly feel a large chunk of literary history break loose and tumble away. Corso was a genius. Granted, he was a bitter, competitive bastard, but he was still a genius. He will be missed not for his shining personality, but for the large stamp on the voice and feel of American poetry he and his work have left.
Below is Gregory Corso's New York Times Obituary.
Gregory Corso: Clown prince of the Beat Generation who survived a tough New York childhood to become the friend and rival of Keroac and Ginsburg
Photo: Poet who left chaos in his wake: Gregory Corso in 1965
The Beat Generation has lost the last of its heroes. the death of the poet Gregory Corso effectively brings to a close the ear of drug-fueled literary protest in the US once dominated by Jack Keroac and latterly presided over by Allen Ginsberg.
Corso had in the later stage of his life begun to withdraw from the world he had embraced so fiercely for so long. When he appeared in public he preferred to engage in quiet, off-stage dialogue with his audience rather than deliver in his distinctive New York drawl the free-form verse for which he was famous. It was not that he rejected his former persona. He continued to lecture on Beat poetry and even engaged in a collaboration with the singer Marianne Faithful. But, indisputably, he could not live as he once had.
Perhaps he felt he had little to say in the new, technologically-driven America of the Clinton years. Shelly—one of his heroes—was barely thirty when he drowned; Keroac went at 45; Ginsberg, the movement’s patriarch, died in 1996, to a muted farewell that ran, in its entirety, “Toodle-oo.”
As the last of the big-name “Beats”, Corso became, inevitably, distanced from the world that had sustained him in a kind of ossified celebrity since the 1950s, preferring to let his old words speak fro him. “If we are writers, our words do not die,” he once said—whether in hope or certainty it is impossible to know.
His literary legacy us difficult to gauge. The vision of Corso and Ginsberg (if not the prose of Keroac) is very much imprisoned in its period. That, and Corso’s reluctance to take himself seriously (or at least to behave as if he did) must undoubtedly color the reception of his work.
Nevertheless, he showed at best a mental and verbal discipline in his poetic exuberance that the better-regarded Ginsberg could not always match. BOMB, for instance, Corso’s famous 1958 paean to atomic destruction, jokily printed in the shape of a mushroom cloud, is manic, mocking, frightened and resigned at once, oddly and dangerously nuanced at a time when nuances were usually howled down: “O Bomb/ They’d rather die by anything but you Death’s finger in free-lance/ Not up to man whether you boom or not Death has long since distributed its/ categorical blue I sing thee Bomb Death’s extravagance Death’s jubilee/ Gem of Death’s supremest blue.” When Corso read the poem in Oxford, an audience of undergraduates threw shoes.
Gregory Corso was born in New York. His parents, both Italian, were teenage lovers who separated within a year of their child’s birth. It was a painful childhood—in and out of foster homes—hard in every way imaginable. At the age of 17, after years of exposure to the grim institutional poverty of postwar New York, Corso was convicted of theft and sent to prison for three years.
On his release in 1950 he worked as a laborer before moving to the West Coast, where he secured work as a junior reporter for the Los Angeles Times. This was a stroke of luck, but Corso could not settle and was soon employed as a sailor, plying the routes to Africa and South America.
Throughout his adolescence, Corso proved a voracious reader. While working as a stacker in the library at Harvard, he discovered Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Shelly and Christopher Marlowe, and on his arrival in San Francisco in 1956 it was perhaps fitting that he should run into Ginsberg and extend his range once more, this time in the direction of experimental poetry and prose.
Ginsberg, in spite of his avowed anarchism, was middle-class, hard-working and a creature of habit. Thus he had to struggle to endure the chaos that Corso invariably left in his wake. The younger man was, according to Michael Skau, author of a 1999 study of Corso, A Clown in a Grave, “very disruptive, whether it was a social setting or a literary setting... very antagonistic even toward his closest friends. Gisberg tolerated behavior from Corso that made Ginsberg look like a saint.”
Others were already on the scene. Keroac, having published On the Road in 1957, was well advanced on his own iconic journey; William S. Burroughs, 16 years older, had produced Junkie and was well into Naked Lunch. Corso missed Ginsberg’s famous reading of his poem Howl! However, he missed very that followed and was quickly accepted as an alternative alternative voice, younger and less predictable, funnier and less hectoring than the rest.
He traded shamelessly on his hard upbringing and untutored career. “They, the unnamed ‘they’. They knocked me down but I got up,” he wrote. “I always got up.” He played the field with both friends and lovers. Married three times, produced five children and ended up with seven grandchildren and one great grandchild. In his wry, self-questioning poem Marrige, he confessed to his weakness:
O but what about love? I forget love
not that I am incapable of love
it’s just that I see love as odd as wearing shoes—
I never wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother
And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible
His output—always aiming at the rhythms of real speech—was prodigious. His more than a dozen collections included Gasoline, Elegiac Feelings American and, in 1997, Minefield: New and Selected Poems. There was also some fiction and two plays, as well as his joint manifesto with Ginsberg, The American Literary Revolution.
Gregory Corso, poet, was born in New York on March 26, 1930. He died in Minneapolis on January 18, 2001, aged 70.