Summer 1950. The
Pony Stable, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. Ginsberg
spies Corso at table with pile of fragment-strewn
papers. Poems, thoughts, images, loose lines waiting
for that jolt of electricity to re-animate them. Allen,
being busybody, evangelist of newly-hatched visionaries
and solicitor-in-general, picks up a page and reads:
"The stone world came to me and said, Flesh gives
you an hours life." Wow! At three oclock
in the afternoon, a new voice has arisen among us.
Avuncular Allen, only
four years older than Gregory, but alreadyat
24the budding swami, teacher, messenger. Allen,
asking questions, delving. You live on West 12th?
Oh, thats right near me. So, how long have you
been out of jail? (Jail-kids like Gregory Corso and
Neal Cassady were a continuing fascination for the
Beatsauthenticity, babe.) And then edging toward
the nitty-gritty (how did Allen pry this stuff
out of people?). His kindly old Father Flotsky routine.
What do you do with your nights, young man? Mostly,
I masturbate. From my fourth floor apartment, I watch
this woman come home, take a bath and make love to
her boyfriend, and I jerk off. Wait a minute... from
your fourth floor window?
The object of his erotic
fantasies turns out to be Dusty Moreland, Allens
girlfriend (Allen still in his heterosexual phase),
and the guy, her boyfriend, its Allen! Well,
fate had spoken. Sex, poetry, jail, voyeurism, masturbationand
coincidenceas if there is such a thing! Hey,
youve gotta join our society of outsiders and
anti-social scribblers, man. And Allen, the great
connector, introduces him around. Kerouac, Clellon
Holmes, et alia, Holmes, author of Go
(originally titled The Beat Generation), written
in 51, published in 52, has some great
Beat scenes and dialogue, but the heart, alas, is
not Beat. Corso (jail habits die hard) is at first
wary of this boho instant bonding business: "To
me, friends were very hard to make, especially in
prison. But coming out of prison, youre a poet
and the other guys a poet, automatically you
were friends, you see. I didnt see it that way.
It took a little while before I became friends with
Not that they treated
Corso as an equal exactly. What with Kerouac condescending
to him ("Ill teach you some words, kid"),
Perfesser Ginsberg pontifexing and assigning him reading
lists and Burroughs yelling at him for burning the
toast. They adopt him, and he remains "the Kid"
of the group.
Poet, voyeur, jail
kid, juvenile delinquent, dandy, radio thief, sullen,
broody attic-dwelling Chatterton and Shelley-like
scribbler in bars. If the three musketeers of Beatdom
were looking for their DArtagnan, here he was.
It was as if they summoned him up. "A Beat Christ-boy,"
Kerouac called him. The Big ThreeKerouac, Ginsberg,
Burroughsall came from upper middle-class backgrounds,
went to college, and werehowever much they protestedintellectuals.
But like good bohemians, they had rejected their despised
bourgeois backgrounds and now idolized the outcast,
the fellaheen of the earth, the orphan with his gunand
Gregory certainly qualified as that. He came from
a poor working-class familyhis parents were
both teenagers when they got marriedand his
formal education ended at sixth grade.
If you were looking
for a portrait of Gregory Corso, youd think
his friend Jack, King of the Beats, wouldve
painted us a brain-scan portrait of him in one of
his incestuously autobiographical novels. But when
you get to his sketch of Corso in The Subterraneans,
its a red herring. Kerouac describes Yuri Gligoric
(Corsos name in the novel) as a big, tall, blond
Yugoslavian "come down from apple-picking Oregon."
He has him looking more like a Grateful Dead roadie
than the street punk Gregory who was short and wiry,
with piercing eyes and brooding good looks. And no
But once the fake-out
is out of the way, Kerouac pretty astutely zeroes
in on Gregory/Yuri as a sexual claim-jumper and hit
man from the Anxiety of Influence Bureau: "Very
brash and, above all trying to cut Adam [Ginsberg]
and myself and Carmody [Burroughs], all the time knowing
us as an old revered trinity, wanting, naturally,
as a young unpublished unknown but very genius poet
to destroy the big established gods and raise himselfwanting
therefore their women, too, being uninhibited, or
unsaddened, yet, at least."
shambling and "kidlike," but a cunning street-smart
slyboots, hanging around, making eyes at Jacks
girlfriend, Mardou, and playing the waif-like young
Rimbaud of the streets to the hilt. "I dont
have a place to stay," he tells the Kerouac character
in The Subterraneans, "do you realize...
what it is not to even have a place to write? I have
not girls, nothing." How could the old softy,
Saint Jack, resist a line like that? Even though he
recognized a superior predator in Corso: "Yuri
having been in his own in fact realer way than mine
almost a hoodlum...."
Gregory had a brutal
childhood, a mudlark straight out of Dickens. Born
Gregory Nunzio Corso, March 26, 1930. When he was
six months old, his teenage mother, Michelina, left
him and went back to Italy. His father, Fortunato,
promptly put him in foster care. Age ten, after hed
been shunted between several foster homes, he came
back to live with his father. Ridiculed for chronic
bed-wetting, his two years with his father and stepmother
are not happy ones.
At twelve, he steals
a radio from a neighbors apartment and is sentenced
to four months in the Youth House. His fellow delinquents
were "terribly abusive," he wrote in an
autobiographical sketch. He is beaten so badly he
mutilates himself breaking a window and is sent to
Bellevue for psychiatric observation. When he gets
out, he lives the life of a feral child, living on
the street, sleeping on subways, tenement roofs, involved
in petty crime and, for food, grabbing schoolgirls
lunches. At sixteen, he masterminds a robbery of the
Household Finance officethe three young criminals
communicating via walkie-talkies. With his take of
the loot, some $2,300, Gregory buys himself some flashy
clothes and high-tails it to Florida. His accomplices
stay behind, go on a spending spree, get caught and
rat on him. A zoot-suited sixteen-year-old is not
hard to spot in Florida. He gets sent upriver for
three years at the Clinton State Prison.
written in the Beat Hotel in Paris. Heres Marianne
Faithfulls snapshot of Gregory in his attic
room there, circa 1964: "I went to see Gregory
with my husband John Dunbar. He was a grand old man
of the Beat generation by then, though all of 33,
I should think. He was living in his garret-like room,
very la vie boheme."
This is where Gregorys
story begins. In jail, while, as he says, "getting
educated in the ways of men at their worst and at
their best," he reads Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Shelley,
Christopher Marlowe. "Sometimes hell is a good
placeif it proves to one that because it exists,
so must its opposite, heaven, exist. And what is heaven?
Poetry." Fellow inmates from Little Italy tell
him to play the fool if he wants to make it through.
Released in 1950, and
shortly after the meeting of remarkable minds. At
first, Corso wrote mostly earnest, unremarkable verse,
but once introduced by the edifying Dr. Ginsberg to
the long, wheezy, Whitmanesque line that curled around
ideas and images like morning glory and was, therefore,
the ideal breath-length lasso for capturing the incommensurate
American thing (I contain multitudes) and hipped to
surreal word juxtapositions that spark meaning out
of inert language (I sing the body electric), he was
on his way to glory.
Wild nights in Greenwich
Village with Gregory, "Angel Yuri," drunkenly
wheeling Jack and Mardou in a peddlers pushcart
under the stars and tenement rooftops. And then, back
at Mardous place, Jack catches Gregory and Mardou
fooling around on the couch in their "othergenerationey"
playfulness "which I in my scowlingness and writer-ness
had not participated in and my old-manness about which
I keep telling myself, Youre old you old
sonofabitch youre lucky to have such a young
sweet thing (while at the same time plotting,
as Id been doing for about three weeks now,
to get rid of Mardou... without her noticing
it.)." Get the picture? Sure, Jack, we
When Kerouac confronts
Gregory about this pre-coital wrestling business and
tells him, "Keep away, youre such a lady
killer, they all fall for you," Gregory demurs,
"I dont want to make your girl, Mardou,
after all I have no eyes." And when he
naively relays to Mardou what Gregory said, she reacts
with, "Oh, so he has no eyes! A hell of a thing
Its all told
with mind-drenching sunumi prose in The Subterraneans.
Based on Dostoevskys Notes From Underground,
its "a full confession of ones most
wretched and hidden agonies after an affair
of any kind," says sinner-sufferer Jack. Only
logorrheic, polysemous Jack could write an entire
book on the meta-muta-inferences and allusions associated
with your best friend stealing your girl with such
compassion, adolescent martyr fixation and pure mind-blown
lyricism. And in three days and three nights! "Three
full moon nights in October." A lot of Bennies,
According to Gregorys
version, he had only gone over to Mardous flat
just to wait for Jack. It was she who insisted on
a little friendly wrestling on the bed. "She
was rough and I was out of jail and she raped me.
I told Jack and he cried and I said, Oh shit."
This was the one true
love of Jacks life, although Mardou, being black
as well as stoned most of the time, was not exactly
the sort of girl he could take home to mémêre.
And polytropic Jack, in any case, was not all that
of a devoted lover, having so many things going on
in his head at oncewhereas Gregory just wanted
to get laid. As soon as he woke up after lovemaking,
Jack would split, rushing back to his mothers
house in Richmond Hill to get down what shed
said, the inflection of her voice, the way she said
thing with that Junkie lilt, as if he were
trying to recall a Charlie Parker solo.
And Gregory, meanwhile,
was irresistible, he was one of the subterraneans,
the coolest of the cool, as Kerouac, quoting Ginsberg,
described them: "They are hip without being slick,
they are intelligent without being corny, they are
intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without
being pretentious or talking too much about it, they
are very quiet, the
after a melodrama like thisBeat version
of Grand Opera as interior monologuethese two
guys would never speak to each other again, but youre
forgetting that the Beats were a buddy movie. And
it was all happening in real time. The Subterraneans
was written during and immediately after the
affair and probably the next day, Jack lugging that
roll of teletype paper into Manhattan on the subway
to get Gregorys opinion. What a pair! Originally,
the novel ended with Jack trying to kill Gregory by
picking up a table and throwing it at him. Gregory
thought the book was pretty truthfulexcruciatingly
sobut when he read that part, he said, "Ah,
Jack, Jack, that isnt you, Jack."
And maybe Gregory understood
that, like Judas, he was fulfilling a predestined
role in the life of Saint Jack. Jack and the
Buddha knew that all life is sufferinghe craved
martyrdom, pauvre Ti Jean! And what a miracle
came forth from the womb of that suffering: a great,
roiling, moebius strip of a book. And not just any
book, but a whole new prose style.
By the end of 53,
Burroughs, just back from Mexico with suitcases full
of yagé, was off again to Tangier and
Ginsberg to Mexico. Soon, Gregory would be hitting
the Holy Road himself. He set out on the Beat pilgrimage
across the U.S.A. (Beat equivalent of the Grand Tour
of Europe)America, that was the great subject,
what it was and what it felt like to be in itand
an outcast from it, and nobody has recorded this Quixotic
quest with more wit and anguish than Gregory. Working
as a laborer, a reporter for The Los Angeles Examiner
and as a merchant seaman, settling in Cambridge in
1954 for a spell, where he fell in with the poet Frank
OHaras crowd. He haunted the Harvard University
library, poring over the great works of the angel-cowboy
poets who had gone beforeShelley, Byron, Keats,
Blake, Whitman. All the "Secret Heroes,"
Dylan Thomas, Kenneth Rexroth, the madmen and outlaws
from the past generation.
He burrowed into the
Harvard library like some creature that can only sustain
itself on the nectar of old books. In "I Held
a Shelley Manuscript," which he wrote in the
Houghton Library at Harvard, he treats the ancient
page like a holy relic:
my eyes moved quickly
Sought for smell for dust for lace
reverend gaze becoming a balm to the brown mottled
as though tipping a pitcher of milk,
Pour secrecy upon the dying page.
poems were first published in the Harvard Advocate,
collected and printed in his first book, The Vestal
Lady on Brattle and Other Poems, financed by students
at Harvard and Radcliffe. In the same year,
1955, his macabre play, In This Hung-Up Age,
about a group of tourists trampled to death by a herd
of buffalo, was performed by Harvard students.
The lethal critic,
Randall Jarrell, then the Poetry Consultant at the
Library of Congress, is so impressed with his poems
that he offers to let him crash at his house. And
Jarrell sitting there day after day listening patiently
to the earnest young Corso talking about his idol,
Shelley, and how "Shelley, man, was a revolutionary
but he shed no blood," and Jarrell telling him,
"Gregory, your stuff is as good as Shelleys."
But after a few days of this, you can hear the contumacious
Jarrells eyeballs beginning to roll back in
his head as Gregory starts on his God-is-Van Gogh
rant. "God is like this beautiful painter, man,
who, like, painted a beautiful picture of a world
that man has painted over."
Soon thereafter, a
sozzled Jack shows up. More ranting, and speechifying,
and actual shameless bop preachifying, in which Rev.
Jack tries to convert Jarrell to his Church of First
Thought Best Thought. "In the sense, man, of
a, say, tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase
on his saxophone, till he runs out of breathsentences
as breath separations of the mind. . . ." And
they both get kicked out
In 1956, Gregory moves
to San Francisco, then the Beat center of the universe.
Ginsberg had read "Howl," that initiating
blast of the Beat rams horn, there only a few
months earlier. Still a year before the Beat bible,
Kerouacs On the Road, comes out, but
the Beat Movement was already getting coverage in
the mainstream media. Corso was one of the Beat elect.
Ginsberg had anointed him, calling him "a great
word-swinger, first naked sign of a poet, a scientific
master of mad mouthfuls of language." But with
fame came the end of a certain kind of innocence for
the Big Beat Four, and, consequently from then on,
their chance meetings in San Francisco, Mexico City,
the Lower East Side would have a frenetic and melancholy
cast to them.
Out there in the foggy
San Francisco Chinese-scroll nightGregory, Peter,
Jack, and the painter Robert La Vigne, hanging out
drunk on the sidewalk, all shouting at once in a blur
of words, skatting to car horns and generally speaking
in be-bop tongues, Peter Orlovsky peeing on the crowded
street, the neighbors complaining and the cops come
round in a prowlerthey get off with a warning.
Jack tells them, "I wanna instruct my bhikkus
to avoid the authorities, its written in the
Tao, its the only wayits the only
straight line, right through." Whadda way to
talk to the cops. Frisco, baby.
The next night, drunk
again at the photo shoot for Mademoiselle,
as they pose with arms linked, Jack, the old
jock, seeing them as an all-star baseball team. Allen
is "serious Lou Gehrig, who hits long homeruns
lefthanded," Gregory "the fair-haired DiMag
who can play faultless ball without appearing to try
or strain" and Jack himself "Ty Cobb . .
. Im crazy, nobodys ever liked my personality,
Im no Babe Ruth Beloved."
In September 56,
Allen and Gregory, the two most agit-prop of the Beats,
decided how their revolution will take off: "Well
go all the way out! Well take our clothes off
to read our poems." Well, thats one way
to start a revolution. In The Literary Revolution
in America, Ginsberg and Corsos Beat manifesto,
they declaim their disillusion with Americas
"Empire Sickness," its racism and materialism
and express their "discontent, their demands,
their hope, their final wondrous unimaginable dream."
Although not as overtly
political as Ginsberg, Corso wasnt the kinda
guy who was gonna stand for any bureaucratic claptrap
either, in 1964 refusing to sign an affidavit that
he was not, or ever had been, a member of the Communist
Party and got fired from his teaching job at the State
University of New York at Buffalo.
In 1958, Gasoline,
a collection of his early poetry, was published by
City Lights. That same year, his most famous poem,
"Bomb," was published as a broadside by
City Lights and included in his 1960 collection, The
Happy Birthday of Death. "One reason I dig
Gregory," Ginsberg said of him at the time, is
that "hell write about anything, socks,
army, food, Arnold, Looneyso he also now writes
the ONE GREAT POEM about the Bomb. Hes extended
the area of poetic experience further out than anyone
The great thing about
"Bomb" is that everything about it is bomb.
Its bomb shaped, mushroom-cloud shaped, neutrino-heavy,
blunt, menacing and sputteringas if the bomb
itself were speaking through him in some annihilating
baby-babblethe word itself, snub-nosed and insensate,
numbing explosions in the brain, as if the words themselves
are detonating as you read them: