This Old Poem #108:
Gregory Corso’s Destiny
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/13/05


  Gregory Corso is 1 of the most disappointing ‘name’ poets in history. He is a man who could have been a great poet but chose to throw it all away because he was 1) lazy & 2) psychotic. The fact is that the ‘Beat Generation’, i.e.- the Beatniks- really just consisted of 2 real poetic talents & a lot of hangers-on. The 2 being Allen Ginsberg & Gregory Corso. Kerouac & Burroughs were really prosists- & mediocre, at best, LeRoi Jones a token, & Anne Waldman & Diane Di Prima bedwarmers. There were another couple dozen folk in their orbit who got things published but their literary significance was nil. Michael McClure & Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2 good writers who never reached their potential, were not really Beatniks. That left Ginsberg & Corso. Ginsberg did contribute a dozen or so great poems to the canon- from Howl through Wales Visitation. But, then he spent his last 30 years molesting bag boys & pissing his talent away. Corso, though, never reached the heights Ginsberg did, but had far greater long-term potential.

  Here’s an excerpt from his most famous picture poem, Bomb- next to Howl the most famous Beatnik poem. It mimics the shape of an atomic bomb:


That I lean forward on a desk of science
an astrologer dabbling in dragon prose
half-smart about wars bombs especially bombs
That I am unable to hate what is necessary to love
That I can't exist in a world that consents
a child in a park a man dying in an electric-chair
That I am able to laugh at all things
all that I know and do not know thus to conceal my pain
That I say I am a poet and therefore love all man
knowing my words to be the acquainted prophecy of all men
and my unwords no less an acquaintanceship
That I am manifold
a man pursuing the big lies of gold
or a poet roaming in bright ashes
or that which I imagine myself to be
a shark-toothed sleep a man-eater of dreams
I need not then be all-smart about bombs
Happily so for if I felt bombs were caterpillars
I'd doubt not they'd become butterflies
There is a hell for bombs
They're there I see them there
They sit in bits and sing songs
mostly German songs
And two very long American songs

  But, he could also write some lyrics in a neo-Classical vein:


I Held a Shelley Manuscript


My hands did numb to beauty
as they reached into Death and tightened!


O sovereign was my touch
upon the tan-inks’s fragile page!


Quickly, my eyes moved quickly,
sought for smell for dust for lace
for dry hair!


I would have taken the page
breathing in the crime!
For no evidence have I wrung from dreams--
yet what triumph is there in private credence?


Often, in some steep ancestral book,
when I find myself entangled with leopard-apples
and torched-skin mushrooms,
my cypressean skein outreaches the recorded age
and I, as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
pour secrecy upon the dying page.


  Note how this poem both uses & subverts many classical techniques & rhythms. This is something that Ginsberg, even at his best, was not that good at. This is why Corso had greater potential, if less accomplishment.

  But, too often, GC was content with mindless little throwaway poems of the sort that are scribbled on the back of diner napkins, like this:


Last Night I Drove a Car  

Last night I drove a car
not knowing how to drive
not owning a car
I drove and knocked down
people I loved
...went 120 through one town.

I stopped at Hedgeville
and slept in the back seat
...excited about my new life.

  Or this:

The Mad Yak 

I am watching them churn the last milk they'll ever get from me.
They are waiting for me to die;
They want to make buttons out of my bones.
Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my uncle, he has a new cap.
And that idiot student of his -- I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him.
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they’ll do with his bones?
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that!

  Are these bad poems? Not really. But, not good. In fact, they are barely poems at all. Just random thoughts & non sequiturs tossed together to approximate meaning. Then there are the bulk of his corpus, like the titular poem, which is banal, cliché-ridden, & often poorly constructed. But 1st, a word from our sponsors (I couldn’t resist tweaking the ultimate sell-out mentality of the Beatniks!):

  Gregory Nunzio Corso was born in New York's Greenwich Village on March 26, 1930, to teenage Italian parents. A year later, his mother moved back to Italy. After living in orphanages and foster homes, at age eleven Corso moved back in with his father, who had just remarried. After two years, however, he ran away; upon being caught he was placed in a boys' home for two years. He also spent several months in the New York City jail while being held as a material witness in a theft trial. He was returned to his father, but after running away again was sent to Bellevue Hospital for three months "for observation." At age sixteen, he began a three-year sentence at Clinton State Prison for another theft. While in prison, he read widely in the classics, including Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Shelley, Thomas Chatterton, and Christopher Marlowe, as well as the dictionary; it was there that he also began writing poems. In a Greenwich Village bar in 1950, the year of his release from prison, he met Allen Ginsberg, who introduced him to experimental poetry. In 1954 he moved to Boston, where again he devoted himself to the library—this time at Harvard University. His first published poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate in 1954, and the publication of his first book, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems (1955), was underwritten by Harvard and Radcliffe students. Corso worked at times as a manual laborer in New York City, an employee of the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner, and a merchant seaman on Norwegian vessels, and has had some acting experience, including an appearance in Andy Warhol's film, Couch.

  The following year (1955) he went to San Francisco, where he performed readings and interviews with Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and became known as one of the major figures of the Beat movement. From 1957 to 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that became his book Gasoline, which Lawrence Ferlinghetti/City Lights Books published in 1958. From 1970 to 1974 Corso worked on a manuscript that was to be titled Who Am I—Who I Am, but the manuscript was stolen. He did not issue another major work until 1981's Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit. Among other notable books are Bomb (1958), The Happy Birthday of Death (1960), Long Live Man (1962), Elegaic Feelings American (1970), and Mindfield: New and Selected Poems (Thunder's Mouth, 1989). As a writer in the 1950's and 60's, Corso became a key member of the Beat movement. He pressed for social and political changes and Allen Ginsberg even called him an "awakener of youth".
  Even though he may have reached his apex in the 1960's, Corso today still continues to have an influence. According to American Book Review's, Dennis Barone, "despite doubt, uncertainty, the American Way, death all around, Gregory Corso will Continue, and I am glad he will."
  Like many other writers or notable persons, Corso has in his past, a rebellious period where he even experience incarceration. During his time in prison, where he was granted a three year sentence for stealing, Corso became familiar with many classical writers. It seems that this experience was quite an inspiration to a man who may have, under slightly different circumstances, gone astray.
  In an interview with Contemporary Authors, Corso spoke of his jail experience. "When I left, I left there a young man, educated in the ways of men at their worst and at their best. Sometimes hell is a good place - if it proves to one that because it exists, so must its opposite, heaven exist" .
  Corso's vocabulary has been described as eclectic. He is said to be a poet who has a well refined knowledge of the classics, classical diction and form, as well as a poet who possesses a street wise sense. One critic called him "an urchin Shelly"
  Although he did not participate in the infamous reading at the Six Gallery, the one in which Ginsberg read his well received poem, Howl, Corso quickly fit into the San Francisco Beat scene. He moved there in 1956 and was soon elevated to celebrity status and considered one of the major Beat writers.
Corso traveled extensively, and taught briefly at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and for several summers at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. (He was dismissed from the SUNY teaching position in 1965 for refusing to sign an affadavit certifying that he was not a member of the Communist Party.) He was married three times and had five children. Gregory Corso died on January 17, 2001, at the age of seventy.


  Yet, still, he left us crap like this:



They deliver the edicts of God
without delay
And are exempt from apprehension
from detention
And with their God-given
Petasus, Caduceus, and Talaria
ferry like bolts of lightning
unhindered between the tribunals
of Space and Time

The Messenger-Spirit
in human flesh
is assigned a dependable,
self-reliant, versatile,
thoroughly poet existence
upon its sojourn in life

It does not knock
or ring the bell
or telephone
When the Messenger-Spirit
comes to your door
though locked
It'll enter like an electric midwife
and deliver the message

There is no tell
throughout the ages
that a Messenger-Spirit
ever stumbled into darkness


  This is not the worst of his poems, but it is representative of the many poems he write which ultimately failed because he resorted to clichés & did not even attempt to tighten up the music. Let’s re-jigger this a bit:




They deliver the edicts of God without delay
And are exempt from apprehension from detention
And with their God-given ferry like bolts of lightning
unhindered between the tribunals of Space and Time

The Messenger-Spirit
is assigned a dependable,
thoroughly poet existence
upon its sojourn in life

It'll enter like an electric midwife
and deliver the message
throughout the ages
that ever stumbled into darkness


  In the 1st stanza we’ve made it 4 long lines, so that we reduce the pauses at endlines. The music of this section is improved tremendously. The rest of the poem is then condensed into 2 short-lined quatrains. If the 1st stanza serves as a de facto long-winded Argument then these 2 stanzas are a breathy answer.

  Destiny, now a Messenger-Spirit, becomes far more active than in the 1st take. When it enters its action (in the short line) is like what it professes to be (an electric midwife) coming out of nowhere. Also what stumbles in the darkness (still a cliché) is now the ages, not the spirit. Instead of Destiny being blind, however brief, it is the recipient of the message. This adds a bit of psychic tension.

  Of course, I would add elements & tease out the rhythms a bit more, but the poem is now a good start to something better, while the original is muted potential, much like its now dead author. In that way, I guess, doggerel often resembles its doggerelist- sort of like dogs & owners, eh?

Final Score: (1-100):

Gregory Corso’s Destiny: 50
TOP’s Destiny: 65

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