Jack Powers on Gregory Corso 


Gregory Corso, was a poet and a central figure in the BEAT poetry movement. He was considered the most "shocking' of the Beat poets. Corso, expertly played the role of the wise guy hipster, thumbing his nose at the powers that be, and " busting the chops" of the self-proclaimed mandarins of the literary world. Corso was born March 26, 1930 in New York. His early history was marked by a litany of bad luck, orphanages and prison. While in prison he immersed himself in the classics, devouring the works of Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Shelley, to name a few. His education was furthered when he met Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar in 1950. Ginsberg, later to be doyen of the Beat movement, broadened the scope of Corso's writing. Until this time Corso wrote in a very conventional style. Ginsberg expanded his horizons, introducing him to eccentric word play and Surrealism. In 1956, Corso moved to San Francisco, and eventually became part of this legendary literary movement. With Ginsberg, he wrote the seminal Beat manifesto, The Literary Revolution in America. Over the years, Corso has written or contributed to more than 20 books of poetry, including : Gasoline, Bomb and other works.

DH: How did you first come into contact with Corso? What were your impressions?

JP: I had Corso read for Stone Soup Poetry in the mid-70's in Boston. There was a great deal of interest in the Beats then, and the audience was packed. It was two decades since the "pot started to boil," and some of the hip people were anxious to see him as well as the older poets from that era. I loved the natural music he had when reading his poetry, as well as his irreverence, which he expressed liberally on the page and in person.

There is an old story of a reading Ginsberg gave with Robert Lowell. Corso was in the audience, and he interrupted the poets in midstream, yelling to the tune of, " What are you doing Allen! ...Lowell is a murderer of Poetry!" He was to say the least, prone to public outbursts.

Corso stayed at my home on a couple of occasions. The first time he stayed, he shared a room and a bed with his girlfriend. My partner at the time was sleeping in the adjoining room. After I left for work, he lifted up the sheet where he and this woman lay nude and beckoned her...the guy was always on!

I remember once before a reading Corso wanted his money up front. I never had much money. I used a credit card to send him a 100 bucks as a retainer. He wanted 400 when he got in Boston. When he arrived in Boston, he told me he wanted the 400 before the reading. I was counting on using the proceeds from the gate, but I managed to come up with it. My bell rings, there is Corso. I hand him the 4 spot. He hands the money to a guy behind him. The guy gives him a package. Corso then asked, " Where is the bathroom?" He was wearing black pants, and low black shoes. When he came out there was a dime-sized blood stain on his white socks...need I say more?

He went on to do the reading that night. He pretended to be Corso. What I mean is, in spite of being wasted, high, he was able to go through the motions and put it over. He had an edge to his voice that was arresting. Of course I was from the projects like Corso, so I found it appealing. He was authentic. I saw his "authentic madness." (Continued)

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Corso: I can take the "Bomb," or I can take blue balloons. But it's not political at all. It's a death shot. You see, because people were worrying about dying by the Bomb in the Fifties. So I said, what about falling off the roof, what about heart attack. And I used the double old-age: old age I picked as being the heaviest--"old age, old age."

DH: In Corso's poem, Elegiac Feelings America, he writes of his deceased friend Jack Kerouac

"...O and when it's asked of you
What happened to America
has happened to him
the two were inseparable
like the wind to the sky
is the voice to the word..."

How do you think Corso linked Kerouac's fate with America, and the notions connected with it?

JP: Corso was writing that Kerouac was coming from the working class, with a "Joe six-pack mentality." Like many Blue Collars, he was essentially patriotic. He was buying into the life that America offered. The American dream of reinvention, limitless possibilities, hitting the road and starting all over again, died along with Kerouac. Kerouac died in his mother's house, a broken man. You can't marry your mother. What he believed America was, proved to be an illusion. Kerouac sought the geographical cure instead of the vertical one. Ginsberg told me if Kerouac learned to sit and meditate he would of still been alive. Kerouac bought into the material culture. He wore the badge of Eastern religion, but it didn't mean anything. In this poem Corso saw Kerouac tragically barking up the wrong tree.

DH: In 1954 , Corso lived in Cambridge, MA. At the Harvard Library he poured over all the great works of poetry. In fact, his first published poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate. He even wrote a play that was produced by Harvard students, " In This Hung Up Age" Did your paths cross at this time? Was Cambridge and Boston a nurturing place for the struggling artist, in the 50's?

JP: It was not. That's why I started Stone Soup, in reaction to this reality. I remember going into the Grolier Bookstore in Cambridge, and being treated like I literally stunk. The 50's were nurturing to the Yale Younger Poets, the academics, certainly not the struggling artist. I did not know that Corso was living in Cambridge at the time. This was a pre-HOWL, and not many folks heard of him and the others.

DH: Can you tell me about the Beat Manifesto Corso and Ginsberg wrote, The Literary Revolution in America?

JP: Its purpose was to shake the cage. America needed a blaze of raw energy . We were getting too complacent, fat and comfortable. When Eisenhower became president, we were saying, "This can't be our future." We were called around the camp fire, outside the castle, the government, and the academy. Eventually, one by one people joined us and that's how the 50's lead to the 60's. The manifesto's purpose was to drive a spike through complacency.

Personally, as a project rat it effected me. I quit my job and I jumped a bus to San Francisco. it was a great experience. It was liberating. I didn't care where the parachute let me down. It was the key to unlock my own cage.

DH: You told me the other day, that Corso outlived his expectations, and became a caricature. Can you explain this?

JP: I really meant the whole Beat movement. The Beat movement has become ritualized, rather than spontaneous. Nothing remains original.

DH: What was Corso's most notable contribution to the Beat movement?

JP: He brought us honesty, irony and satire. He was a great clown. The poet, Leo Connelon, called him the best of the bunch. I don't agree, but Corso was far less inhibited with a sense of form...you didn't know where he was coming from, or going to go. What he was saying was there is no rules with poetry. Just as long as you are using as much of your total self as possible.

Doug Holder, copyright: 2001, all rights reserved.

 

The Whole Mess ... Almost

I ran up six flights of stairs
to my small furnished room
opened the window
and began throwing out
those things most important in life

First to go, Truth, squealing like a fink:
"Don't! I'll tell awful things about you!"
"Oh yeah? Well, I've nothing to hide ... OUT!"
Then went God, glowering & whimpering in amazement:
"It's not my fault! I'm not the cause of it all!" "OUT!"
Then Love, cooing bribes: "You'll never know impotency!
All the girls on Vogue covers, all yours!"
I pushed her fat ass out and screamed:
"You always end up a bummer!"
I picked up Faith Hope Charity
all three clinging together:
"Without us you'll surely die!"
"With you I'm going nuts! Goodbye!"

Then Beauty ... ah, Beauty --
As I led her to the window
I told her: "You I loved best in life
... but you're a killer; Beauty kills!"
Not really meaning to drop her
I immediately ran downstairs
getting there just in time to catch her
"You saved me!" she cried
I put her down and told her: "Move on."

Went back up those six flights
went to the money
there was no money to throw out.
The only thing left in the room was Death
hiding beneath the kitchen sink:
"I'm not real!" It cried
"I'm just a rumor spread by life ..."
Laughing I threw it out, kitchen sink and all
and suddenly realized Humor
was all that was left --
All I could do with Humor was to say:
"Out the window with the window!"

 

 

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