Gregory Corso met Allen GINSBERG in 1950 in a Greenwich Village bar; with Ginsberg and Jack kerouac, he formed the poetic nucleus of the beat movement, which would overhaul the form and content of American literature. Frequently living and traveling together internationally over the next few decades, these three and others unavoidably developed similar styles and methods concurrently, demonstrating marked influence on each other. Together they produced unrefined works of such immediacy that the energy and language of experience were, and still are, explicit and shocking in their poetic rejection of boundaries, such as appropriate subject matter, form, and vocabulary.
Corso was born in New York City's Greenwich Village. Abandoned as a small child, he was raised in a series of foster homes until he was 11, when he went to live briefly with his birth father. He was a runaway and a street kid, first arrested in early adolescence for stealing food. Corso's prison career included reform school, New York's infamous jail nicknamed the "Tombs", and a three-year term for armed robbery when he was only 17. Although his formal education ended after elementary school, Corso used his time in Clinton Prison to educate himself; reading voraciously from the prison library, he absorbed an eclectic assortment of writers, which established an idiosyncratic foundation for his own work. He also studied an old dictionary, which might explain an unusually dated language in some of his poems. Although widely hailed in the American intellectual underground, Corso never received any major literary awards.
Because of his poverty, street life, imprisonment, and lack of parenting and education, Corso grew into "a tangled man" (Skau 2), an undisciplined adult, with an unpredictable personality. He "didn't talk—he'd just blurt out or shout some sentence" (Cassady 281), as ill behaved as a recalcitrant child. Corso antagonized everyone, gambled, borrowed money incessantly, developed a 20-plus-year drug addiction, had at least one mental breakdown requiring hospitalization, married three times, and fathered five children. He was also a "poetic wordslinger ... a poet's Poet . . . Captain Poetry" (Ginsberg xii). For Corso, the duty of the artist was to be a site of resistance to everything negative (Stephenson 13).
One of his best known poems, "Marriage" (1960), is a light-hearted soliloquy on whether or not to marry, and whether to meet the parents with his disheveled appearance and lack of social graces. He envisions a wedding crowded with the bride's relatives and friends, but with only a token number of his friends because they are social outsiders. The poem makes very clear, though, that becoming an insider, through the respectability of marriage, is not without its appeal. He imagines a beautiful bride in domestic bliss, but a moment later he also imagines utility bills, crying babies, and television. He even fears that the lovely bride will be transformed into "A fat . . . wife screeching over potatoes Get a job." Bills and responsibility are a frightening spectre for a bohemian poet. He embraces the fantasy of family life but is wary of what reality might develop after the wedding.
Corso's poems are widely allusive, often imagistic (see imagist school) and surreal (see surrealism), and full of common speech alongside archaisms. "Bomb" (1960) is a poem shaped like a mushroom cloud, and it collapses geography and time (so we see the Greek god "Hermes racing [the American track star Jesse] Owens") to create multiple meetings of figures from history and myth. The poem marshalls the weapons of history from sticks to knives to guns and proclaims a love of the bomb, which was shocking in the 1950s; it also prophesies an ominous future, considering human nature. The obvious contradictions of humanity are made clear: He lists things that are at stake in nuclear struggle, from Goldilocks to Mozambique, and reminds readers that "earth's grumpy empires" would willingly sacrifice it all.
Nevertheless Corso's poems show a fervent belief in beauty and goodness. Although his poems have a raw, unsophisticated quality, as might be expected from an undisciplined poet, he is consistent—even while treating subjects of brutality—in that "the theme and element of delight are manifest in virtually every poem, every play and prose piece" (Stephenson 8). Living his life outside structured norms, Corso wrote poems that are rigorous in their rejection of formulaic predictability; there are no firm, fast rules or boundaries in his life or art. In Corso, as in the work of other Beat writers, there is the ever-present spontaneous impulse and joy in freedom. Corso wrote three short plays, a variety of short prose pieces, and a single novel (The American Express ), but it is as a poet, in eight books of verse, that he is most known.
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