An Accidental Appreciation:

A Few Pieces on Gregory Corso with a Nod Toward a New Sincerity

_________________________________________________________________________

 

by Matt Hart

 

 

 

 

 

[Author’s Note: I intended to end this appreciation after the second section—no doubt some will say I should have.  However, I felt there was more to say, so I kept writing.  And though the result is somewhat tangled and perhaps even repetitive, there’s something about the scattershot-ness of the pieces altogether that I think Gregory Corso himself might’ve understood.  With that in mind I have made no attempt to connect the various tissues, nor even to be particularly argumentative; I have only meant to be excited about something, as a means of getting others similarly excited.  Anyway, I hope that genuine excitement is the least of what this points to] 

 

 

 

“No one wants you to be a poet; in being a poet one is always disobeying society’s wishes… Society’s interest is in having everyone who has disobeyed reform.”  —Alice Notley (APR  Vol. 33, No 3. May/June 2004 18)

 

“I feel lonely for joy for the spur of joy.” —Donald Revell (from the preface to Apollinaire’s Alcools x)

 

“Poems show us how it feels to like trouble.”  —James Longenbach (The Resistance to Poetry 94)

 

“We will not force ourselves into any hand-me-down-inherited straight-jacket of all cast- off moral concepts mixed with beastly superstition derived from the primitive mythology which is found in the bible—not that I have any objection to mythology in its proper place.”  —Gregory Corso (“Variations on a Generation” Portable Beat Reader 184)

 

 

 

 

 

1.

 

It’s a little dispiriting to me that often when I bring up my great fondness for Gregory Corso’s work among poets of my own generation, the attitude isn’t one of either great passion or disdain, but rather something more along the lines of “Yeah, I haven’t really read him much” with just a tinge of astonishment and/or condescension thrown in for good measure.  This is, I think, largely because Corso’s poetry isn’t really being taught in MFA programs (and therefore, it isn’t being read).  I don’t think he was ever even mentioned to me in graduate school, and except for a couple of widely anthologized pieces it seems that his work has been relegated—and ever so wrongly—to the bottom of the heap of dead Beat Poets in pieces.  That said, I can see how part of the reason for Corso’s absence in academia is also due to his unflinching romanticism and sloppified popular accessibility.  As Allen Ginsberg wrote in the introduction to Corso’s 1991 new and selected poems Mindfield:

 

Corso is a poet’s poet… close to John Keats for our time, exquisitely delicate in manners of the Muse.  He has been and always will be a popular poet, awakener of youth, puzzlement and pleasure for sophisticated elder bibliophiles, “Immortal” as immortal is, Captain Poetry exampling revolution of Spirit, his “poetry the opposite of hypocrisy,” a loner, laughably unlaurelled by native prizes, divine Poet Maudit, rascal poet Villonesque and Rimbaudian whose wild fame’s extended for decades around the world from France to China, World poet. (xii-xiii)

 

In other words, to align oneself with Corso is to align oneself with outdated, naïve emotional exuberance—which as we all know is a way to look stupid in the world of contemporary ideas.  However, it’s also, I would argue (more importantly), to align oneself with exciting, excitable, readable poems, ones which burn with wit and intensity and all too human error, poems which are about things—big and small, ordinary and strange—marriage, hair, atomic devastation—“penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust” (Mindfield “Marriage” 63).  To put it plainly, and also to throw down the gauntlet, Corso’s poetry offers us an opportunity to remember what it’s like to read poems and to understand something about ourselves and the world—rather than to look at them as language for their own sake or as just another example of disintegrated hipster consciousness.

 

Of course, to be fair, another reason for Corso’s neglect these days is the fact that the great stories of his antics as a human being can be so provocative as to overshadow his achievement as an artist.  That is, unfortunately, what people do remember about Corso (when they remember anything at all) are the tales of his great excesses—his legendary drinking and heroin addiction, his cantankerousness, his pouting and over-the-top childish flailing about.  It seems everyone even marginally affiliated with the Beats has a story about Corso, from his tossing a lit firecracker into the meditation hall at Naropa to drunkenly cutting Marcel Duchamp’s tie in half at a party.  Corso, it seems, is better known for his willful unpredictable absurdity—which was at times disrespectful, pathetic and sentimental—than he is for his poems.  This is a shame, and something I hope here to write aright—though I admit that the focus on Corso’s exploits is also understandable.  Many of the stories are outrageous, cathartically entertaining and just plain fun.

 

Nevertheless, when Gregory Corso passed away into the Vast on January 17, 2001 at the age of 70, the world lost one of its best poets.  Sadly, however, it seems only a few people knew it, and I was not one of them.  At that time I was 31, fresh out of graduate school, and long finished with my “Beat phase”.  Only when I had to teach a class on the Beats a couple of years later did I come to believe that Corso was among the best of the New American Poetry poets, and perhaps one of the marvelous few great Poets we’ve ever had in America.

 

What I want to talk about in this appreciation is how Gregory Corso and his work can be seen as a precursor to a New Sincerity in poetry, one that I’m beginning to see in the work of many of the poets of my own generation—and which frankly I’d like to see more of—a poetry which thrives on the ideas that 1) capital-B Beauty and other aesthetic and human values are real and available to us both experientially and intellectually, 2) that language is so inefficient with regard to the expression of essentials that we need poetry to make it work significantly, 3) that as poets, we need to emphasize poetry as a means to an end, rather than merely as an end in itself, and 4) that poetry needs to utilize the experimental muscle of the last century to move beyond mere experimentation and instead start amounting to something—something fully beautifully human.  Corso did this brilliantly, perhaps at times in spite of himself.

 

 

 

 

2.

 

Rocker/poet Patti Smith, in a moving and eloquent Foreword to Corso’s selected letters, An Accidental Autobiography, called him “the flower of the Beat Generation” and described her first meeting with him this way:

 

I first encountered Gregory long ago in front of the Chelsea Hotel.  He lifted his         overcoat and dropped his trousers, spewing Latin expletives.  Seeing my astonished face, he laughed and said, “I’m not mooning you sweetheart, I’m mooning the world.” (xi)

 

It seems to me Smith’s remembrance praises Corso as he would’ve wanted to be praised—both for his virtues and his shortcomings—as a true poet, someone “who was called upon…and knew it” (Letters Foreword xi), but who struggled desperately, ridiculously and tragically (as we all do) with his humanness.

 

Corso clearly had an effect on Smith, which was not just personal, but artistic as well.  Sure, he pulled down his pants and threw up on people, but his real achievement is the poetry—imaginative, inventive, frothing at the mouth, soul crushing and life affirming.  His poems speak, by turns, kindly and violently to people’s hearts.  What’s funny is how this is the very thing that’s been used to marginalize his work.  As Michael Skau points out in his wonderful book A Clown in a Grave: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso, this seeming propensity of Corso’s for emphasizing/ romanticizing the life of the poet, has lead several critics (including Richard Howard) to argue that Corso wrote a lot of Poetry, but not so many poems (112).  Which is another way of saying that Corso got so caught up in the business of “poesy” as he liked to call it, that the quality of his work is spotty at best.

 

And while it’s true that his poetic output decreased as his lifestyle—drug addiction, etc.— spiraled out of control—and while also perhaps true that his poems are at times, technically speaking, somewhat hit and miss—when he hits he hits with all his might!  And that has to be good for a lot, especially in this day and age when so many poets and people don’t HIT at all.  Yes, Corso’s poems are sometimes formally inconsistent and sloppy.  Yes, his rhymes are sometimes forced and easy.  Yes, occasionally his poems seem slight and tossed off leaving a reader asking so what?  And yes, I will even grant that sometimes his emotional exuberance turns into recklessness and/or sentimental quicksand… [for a sympathetic but critical treatment of all of the above check out Skau’s book mentioned above].

 

However, I would argue that this is in fact exactly the reason that his work is so marvelous and poignant.  Corso didn't see the point in writing poems—as well-made machines, coded messages, or language experiments—strictly for their own sake; he was after something bigger—the IDEA of POETRY—an idea capable of connecting people to each other and their world on an ever so human level—that level where we recognize how we're a lot more alike than we are different.  Poetry was not for him an end in itself, but a means to an end (before the final end), a diving board into the larger discourse on what it means to be human essentially—not theoretically, but actually.  As he said in his poem Power, "Since I observe memory and dream/ And not the images of the moment/ I am become more vivid."  And as the poet becomes more vivid, so do all of us—that is, if we are open to what the poet has to say.

 

Obviously, this is tricky.  So much of what contemporary poetry has to say, it seems, is so terribly difficult.  In a sense the poet’s job, at least as it has arrived on our doorstep in the here and now, is to make language as damaged and strange as reality itself—and yet, the question has to be to what ends?  My fear is that we’ve lost sight of the real reasons to ask this question (and also how to answer it significantly), and instead have become overwhelmed and/ or excited by  the images-upon-images confusion of things to the point that now we’ve contented ourselves (as I would argue so too have the visual arts) with an endless cycling of art for its own sake (I include myself full-throttle in this indictment, of course).

 

Corso, I believe, saw all of this coming a long time ago and decided that he would not be ripped off by it—would not have the experience and power of poetry (and life) stripped from either the poet or his poems.  To be a poet, for Corso, is to be essentially sincere (which is to be romantic—see below) and to make a body of work that reflects that sincerity—even if that means being sincerely fucked up, or ludicrous, or in love.  For Corso, poetry shouldn’t be primarily about language, but rather primarily about: language and feelings, the poet and people, the universe and heaven.  In other words, Corso’s project, along somewhat Beat party lines, is neo-Romantic.  As he said in a 1958 letter to Philip Whalen, “…to love fully is to laugh well, and both go into the making of Romanticism; almost goofy existence Romanticism” (Accidental Autobiography 172).  And later in the same letter he writes,

 

To be a poet is to be Romantic.  Be any kind of romantic you want; pick out its eyes and use them for cufflinks if you like; it makes no difference how you bear it; it’ll stick to you and itch you and bug you, little guardian flea, old romanticism, a pretty corny flea, at times, but then that’s where humor comes in, that good ole nurse of Romanticism.” (173)

 

Corso understood that poetry's power has always been to enliven us, and therefore it should be both human and accessible, and yet also deal as strangely as necessary with the poet and his audience alike—which, by the way, should be as wide an audience as possible.  Not that his poetry is dumbed-down.  On the contrary it's quite complex, quite infamously odd.  How is one to deal ordinarily with lines like: "A child came to me/ swinging an ocean on a stick," or "O Bomb I love you     I want to kiss your clank     eat your boom", or even better:

 

        October you fat month of gloom and poetry

        It's no longer your melodious graveyard air

        Your night yanked cypresses

        Your lovely dead moon

        It is October of me!  My Power!

        Alive with a joy a sparkle a laugh

        That drops my woe and all woe to the floor

        Like a shot spy

 

                                     (“Power” Mindfield 92)

 

Like Ted Berrigan and a few others, Corso considered poetry to be a natural and necessary human enterprise (one that has been and continues to be largely squashed by homogenized civilization and mass culture).  Poetry is our primary means of  expressing both the inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable life-force of shadows that we are essentially, and also the beauty inherent in the world and all of us.  Crispin Sartwell puts this sentiment brilliantly in his book  Six Names of Beauty when he writes:

 

...the experience of beauty is not bounded by the vocabulary one possesses.  Always our longings and what we long for are barely expressible or hover at the edges of our language, stretch our expressive capacities, or force us into using words oddly, devising new ones, or appropriating terms from other languages." [itallics mine] (xiii)

 

Corso understood intuitively that the poet is someone who is forced over and over again to use words oddly as a means by which to express and communicate the beauty all around us and within us.  That said, there’s a fine line to be drawn here, and Corso drew it.  To use words “oddly” in a poetic sense does not mean “incomprehensibly” or “frivolously” or “just because.”  For Corso, poems are important only in as much as they participate in the larger ideological aims of poetry—which are namely, to point us toward ourselves, other people, and the world; and ultimately to make us more alive by bringing us closer to the absolute.   As James Longenbach says in his book The Resistance to Poetry,  "…poetry’s greatest power is to instill in us a craving for something other than poetry…" (107).  Or as Corso himself puts it in his poem “Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday”:

 

             I love poetry because it makes me love

                  and presents me life

             And of all the fires that die in me,

             there’s one burns like the sun;

             it might not make day my personal life

                  my association with people

                  or my behavior toward society,

but it does tell me my soul has a shadow

 

                                                                         (Mindfield 121)

 

Corso I would argue was the Coleridge of our age—brilliant, damaged, sorry, in love—in short, damned strange like the rest of us.  Nevertheless, as a poet he is almost always understandable, accessible, vivid.  Among other things, Corso’s poems remind us to make our Poetry matter, not just to poets, but to as many people as we can get to read and listen.  And to do that we have not only to give, but to receive—to engage with other people and the Vast by articulating the connective tissue of the universe, whatever that may be and by any means necessary.  Gregory Corso threw himself against the world over and over again, risking everything: sentimentality, absurdity, his own authenticity.  Sometimes he broke through, as he did in this passage from his fragment poem “Man,”

 

             When man sings birds humble into piety;

             What history can the whale empire sing?

             What genius ant dare break from anthood

             As man can from manhood?

             King Agamemnon!  Mortal man!

             Ah, immortality—

 

(Mindfield 102)

 

Still other times he woke up with a terrible hangover.  As he wrote in a 1963 letter to Allen Ginsberg,

 

…man o man, poetry is not something to toy with, to dance with.  Sorry, poetry is important like doctors are, and sickness is a serious business by god… I wish to hell those poets of power and in control of communication outlets were downright realer and gooder.” (An Accidental Autobiography 354)

 

In short, Gregory Corso showed us how not to be uptight and snobbish about art, while at the same time begging us to be deadly, ridiculously serious about it.  What his poems demonstrate—what they model—is not just a way of engaging with poetry, but of engaging with the world and other people poetically—vividly, charmingly, inventively, alive—as a means of making ourselves, and everything, better.

 

 

 

 

3.

 

One of the important things that sets Gregory Corso apart from many of his New American Poetry contemporaries—is that for all his spontaneous and unpredictable on-the-bottom-looking-up Beatness, he always acknowledged and applied the tradition of poetry, particularly that of  the Greeks and the Romantics, whom he loved and knew deeply in the way that others of his generation only seemed to know (as he knew, also) that America was a dispiriting jive dump.  Corso’s work is not as spontaneous, thoughtless and un-self-critical as it is often made out to be.  Corso was in fact an adept craftsman.  His musical textures and formal inventiveness, his frequent use of Romantic and Biblical language, his masterfully strange juxtapositions, and clear debt to the past mark him clearly as poet who knows his stuff.  For example, this passage from the Calligram-like “Bomb” a massive poem in the shape of a mushroom cloud:

 

O Bomb I love you

I want to kiss your clank     eat you boom

You are a paean     an acme of scream

a lyric hat of Mister Thunder

O resound thy tanky knees

BOOM     BOOM     BOOM     BOOM     BOOM

BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns

BOOM BOOM ye moons     ye stars BOOM

nights ye BOOM     ye days ye BOOM

BOOM BOOM ye winds     ye clouds ye rains

go BANG ye lakes     ye oceans BING

Barracuda BOOM and cougar BOOM

Ubangi BANG     orangoutang

BING BANG BONG BOOM     bee bear baboon

ye BANG ye BONG ye BING

the tail the fin the wing…

 

(Mindfield 69)

 

or these lines from “Feelings on Getting Older”:

 

             No, I don’t know what it’s like being old…yet

             I’ve a wife in her early 20’s

             And I’ve a son just two and a half

             In 20 years I’ll be 70

             She’ll be in her early 40’s

             And he in his early 20’s

             and it’ll be the year 2,000!

                         and everybody will celebrate

                         drink and love and have fun

                         while me poor me

                         will be even more toothless

                         and bony-assed

                         and inevitably stained with pee

 

             And yet, yet shall planes crash

             Popes, matinee idols, Presidents, yet shall they die

             And somehow with all this oldingness

             I see with vintage eyes, Life; Spiritus eterne!

             With all the comings come

             and all the goings gone

 

(Mindfield 205)

 

 

or, finally the first and last stanzas of Corso’s great address/ode poem “Hair”

 

             My beautiful hair is dead

             Now I am the rawhead

             O when I look in the mirror

             the bald I see is balder still

             When I sleep the sleep I sleep

             is not at will

             And when I dream I dream children waving goodbye—

             It was lovely hair once

             it was

             Hours before shop windows     gum-machine mirrors     with great

                                                                                               combs

 

 

                                                             *****

 

             Damned be hair!

             Hair that must be plucked from soup!

             Hair that clogs the bathtub!

             Hair that costs a dollar fifty to be murdered!

             Disgusting hair! eater of peroxide! dye! sand!

             Monks and their bagel heads!

             Ancient Egypt and their mops!

             Negroes and their stocking caps!

             Armies! Universities! Industries! and their branded crews!

             Antoinette Du Barry Pompadour and their Platinum cakes!

             Veronica Lake     Truman Capote     Ishka Bibble     Messiahs     Paganinis

             Bohemians     Hawaiians     poodles

 

                                                                                     (Mindfield 51-53)

 

In these pieces I think Corso more than demonstrates his ability to work both inside and outside the poetic tradition.  The poems range and have range while vibrating with an energy barely contained by the page.  They want to be shouted in the ruins, sung in the streets, and then tossed for their lives down three flights of stairs.  There is whimsy here and lightness, but underneath it all a kind of horrific gravity too—mostly prophetic—an atomic explosion, mortality, aging, cycle upon cycle into the dust and nonsense of images, the grave.  The poems are full as dreams are full.  And yet they aren’t dreams, they’re talking wide awake in broad daylight—excitedly, but soberly, strangely, but sure.  The work is at one and the same time completely comprehensible and simultaneously beautiful.  This is craft alright, but craft on the run from a poetry that’s too important to be stifled by it.  At the same it’s also wildly experimental (O my god it’s the avant-garde!) without being either pretentious or pompous, nor cold and ridiculous as an internet connection.

 

Corso’s poems have spirit.  He is our cheerleader, our drill sargeant, and even when he’s preaching (have I already mentioned Coleridge?) he still manages to hit most of the right notes.  Take for example his poem “The American Way,” which expresses both his overwhelming passion for the individualistic principles America was founded on and simultaneously an anxiety about the ways in which America has strayed from its ideals:  “I am a great American,” he writes, “I am almost nationalistic about it/ I love America like a madness/ But I am afraid to return to America” (Mindfield 144). And later, “I am telling you the American Way is a hideous monster” (145), “American rings with such strangeness” (147).  The poem is nothing if not passionate and conflicted (sometimes to the point of being didactic, simplistic and foolish). Yet, there are places in the poem when Corso really hits his stride, laying things out plainly and showing a penchant for real (even courageous) insight:

 

…those who seek to get out of the Way can not

The Beats are good example of this

They forsake the Way’s habits

             and acquire for themselves their own habits

And they become as distinct and regimented and lost

             as the main flow

            because the Way has many outlets

             like a snake with many tentacles—

There is no getting out of the Way

The only way out is the death of the Way

And what will kill the Way but a new consciousness

Something great and new and wonderful must happen

             to free man from this beast  (Mindfield 149)

 

Corso here seems resigned to the fact that there are forces (cultural, political, religious, etc.) in the world, which are larger than life—larger than the poet.  He is also demonstrating here an awareness and wariness of  group affiliations and alliances—including it should be noted any avant-garde—which by its very nature is group-oriented, and thus, suspect.  Furthermore, as much as anything else this shows Corso involved in a sort of self-indictment—as anyone reading this either when the poem was originally published or now would have known Corso as a Beat poet, i.e. a poet caught up in the tentacles of The Way.  For Corso, America is a land of “Replica production” (145) and members of the avant-garde as just as subject to this homogenization as anything else—worse, they make it fashionable.

 

Yet, I would point Corso seems anything but beaten in “The American Way.”  The poem ends in fact on a wildly triumphant note with salvation arriving/arising via Corso’s belief that, even in the midst of so much insidious replication, “Man is the victory of life/ And I hold firm to the American man” that is, to the power of individual(istic) consciousness and effort; “ I see standing on the skin of the Way/     America     to be as proud and victorious as St. Michael on the neck of the fallen Lucifer” (Mindfield 150).  And while I have some problems with the terms in which Corso speaks, I appreciate his urgency, not only his willingness to see himself as part of the problem, but also to see himself as part of the solution—if primarily imaginatively.  For Corso, the poetic imagination is primarily transformative; it is the soul of invention and vision, the driving force behind everything that has been, that is, or that will be.

 

 

 

 

4.

 

Through everything it seems to me that Corso felt poetry’s real power was in connecting one individual consciousness to another in terms of those things that make us essentially human.  And though he isn’t always explicit about what these “essentials” might be, it’s clear that he is no stranger to sadness and joy, expressiveness, beauty and the sublime.  Reading Corso, there is no question that absolutes do exist, that value in the old sense is possible.  Beauty, along with humor and death, is one of the great obsessions of his work, and not one that’s unsophisticated—nor for that matter unconflicted.  Take for example his treatment of Beauty in one of his later poems, “The Whole Mess… Almost”.  After (some might say) cavalierly tossing Truth, Love, Faith, God and Charity out the window to certain death in the street below, the Poet turns to Beauty:

 

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.”

                                     (Mindfield 199)

 

Thus, one might say, Corso recognizes the necessity of Beauty in the world, and even if it be the poet’s prerogative (or duty) at times to “kill” Beauty—as “Beauty kills!”—the poet mustn’t (can’t?) do it FINALLY.  Corso’s poetics are rarely of the “eye for an eye” sort.  But rather, they fall somewhere in between “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “You can do anything you want, as long as it doesn’t really hurt anybody else” (the key words being “really hurt”).  To actually kill Beauty and thus one of the supreme values and enlivening forces of Poetry is to kill not only the poet, but part of the human spirit itself.  For Corso, Beauty is intimately entwined with Being, the scaffolding of everything that is.  To do away with Beauty is to become the beast, to be merciless and destroyed, i.e. to be just like everyone else.  If Beauty dies, the possibility of significant individuality is lost, but with Beauty in the world, the possibility for salvation, for connecting with other people (and with oneself) in terms of an un/common and absolute pleasure is not only possible, but necessary.  Indeed, after sending Beauty on her way in the poem, the speaker returns to his room to find Death hiding under 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—

                                     (Mindfield 200)

 

Beauty makes the struggle against death (define “death” in as many ways as you can think of) (and having a sense of humor in the face of it) possible.  In Beauty one has something to live for—namely, to discover what makes a person both uniquely him or herself and also exactly (strangely) like everybody else.  And it’s in the speaker’s realization that humor is key that everything (the struggle, Beauty, Faith, God, the poet, etc.) is forgiven.

 

Of course, like everything else in Corso’s poetics his relationship to Beauty is complex, as is evidenced by his dropping “her” out the window, and then heroically rescuing her in the nick of time.  I would argue in fact that one useful way to think of Corso is as an avant-garde poet who was out to heroically rescue traditional poetic values (Beauty, Expressiveness, The Sublime etc.) for the avant-garde, while at the same time privileging the role of the poet as a sort of glue that holds the universe together (in the face of knowing better).

 

But why, however, rescue Beauty at all?  By the 1950’s and 60’s, when Corso was doing the bulk of his work, Beauty in the arts had become a largely discredited value, and—some would say—for good reason.  As Crispin Sartwell writes in Six Names of Beauty:

 

…beauty came in the twentieth century to seem like a flimsy and obsolete or even trivial value, a kind of frippery, perhaps nothing more than a particularly poignant or elaborate prettiness.  In a world dedicated to industrial production and its critique, in a world beset by war, genocide and nuclear holocaust, beauty as an occasion for pleasure seemed frivolous and politically suspect (13).

 

Thus, while Corso’s interest and belief in the transcendent power of Beauty and other values never flagged, his relationship to them wasn’t unambiguous.  Furthermore, the actual character of Beauty in his poems seems ever on the verge of falling away into the fog of individual un/dis/consciousness—or worse, of being literally (and literarily) destroyed (forgotten) by a culture increasingly obsessed with the surface appearances of things—and by a poet (and “poesy”) increasingly convinced of his (and its) omnipotence.   Nowhere is this better evidenced in Corso’s work than in his poem “Don’t Shoot the Warthog”:

 

             A child came to me

swinging an ocean on a stick

He told me his sister was dead,

I pulled down his pants and gave him a kick.

I drove him down the streets

down the night of my generation

I screamed his name, his cursed name,

down the streets of my generation

and children lept in joy to the name

and running came.

Mothers and fathers bent their heads to hear;

I screamed the name.

 

The child trembled, fell,

and staggered up again,

I screamed his name!

And a fury of mothers and fathers

sank their teeth into his brain.

I called to the angels of my generation

on the rooftops, in the alleyways,

beneath the garbage and the stones,

I screamed the name! and they came

and gnawed the child’s bones.

I screamed the name: Beauty

Beauty     Beauty     Beauty

                                     (Mindfield 34)

 

In this surreal and violent poem, beauty is definitely more than skin deep, but it’s also not something which strictly lives in the eye of the beholder.  One has to learn to tune in to Beauty’s frequency, to distinguish between the surfaces and the depths of things, and this is what poetry can help us to accomplish.  In “Don’t Shoot the Warthog” Beauty is a “child swinging an ocean on a stick,” a child kicked in the pants by the poet, eaten zombie-like alive by a “fury of mothers and fathers,” and finally even has its bones gnawed upon by “the angels” of Corso’s generation.  Meanwhile, through it all, the poet stands by, doing what I’m sure some people would argue, poets do best—screaming Beauty’s name in the face of visceral carnage and ugliness.

 

Perhaps what’s interesting here is that the poet doesn’t just split and run.  In fact he gives child-Beauty its first friendly (?) kick in the pants.  Beauty needs Poetry (and by extension the Poet) to proceed in the world, but the world is an ugly and terrifying place—one where Beauty and the (true) Poet are on their own, and no amount of screaming will change this.  In the event of Beauty’s brutalization by the powers that be, the poet is somewhat powerless to do anything, though what he can do is make himself heard—thereby giving beauty the last word(s): as monument and memorial and seed for fresh flowers—perhaps ones with teeth and the good conscience to use them.  The poet screams essences, and thus, speaking oddly, scrapes away appearances to expose the beautiful soul.  The warthog becomes a swan.  The shotgun becomes a rose. To quote again from Sartwell’s Six Names of Beauty, “Either beauty died around 1895, except to refer to movie starlets and chrysanthemums, or it became much more difficult and strange, kept developing in a subterranean way” (14).  Clearly Corso has in mind something strange when he speaks of Beauty, something subterranean and difficult, but which, nevertheless, must be brought to the surface and enunciated wildly.

 

 

 

 

 

5.

 

 

Thus, one might say that unlike many of his comrades, who also came of age during the second World War, Corso had no problem asserting value in the world, “If you’re a poet you’re saved,” he was fond of saying.  I take this notion of poetic salvation, along with Beauty and Humor, to be a central theme and value of his work, yet I think it’s different in character than many of the other claims about Beat value as a sort of religious state of being, the root of beatific, and/or an existential search for value in the face of valuelessness and institutional bankruptcy.  While the other Beats and much of the rest of America/ The World were rushing around searching for something to believe in the face of an almost nihilistic (Cold War, Atomic Bomb, Suburban) disbelief, Corso was writing poems of incredible human beauty (both formal and imaginative) and believing somehow that they could save him and all of us from our various and numerous horrors—Death, being chief among them.

 

All is answerable I need not know the answer

Poetry is seeking the answer

Joy is in knowing there is an answer

Death is knowing the answer

 

(“Notes after Blacking OutMindfield 47)

 

In other words, the charge of the poet is to live and to believe that there is a meaning both in the here-and-now and in the there-after.  But it’s in the poetry itself that the poet must demonstrate this life and belief.  Thus, Corso’s work is often an earnest disaster, but one that’s hoarding both mess and measure, and thrives on poetry as a medium for getting to something truly essential, transformative, transcendent.  His poems always proceed as if the grounds for them are given, his footing sure.  And why not?  The grounds—the poet’s parameters—are derived from two places: 1) the poetic choices he or she makes and 2) from the life stuff that makes us the contradictory, twisted and beautiful clowns we are in our pajamas our hearts.  Step up to the summit or through thin ice, but have your reasons and do it like you mean it with feeling.  What happens next, happens next.  What could be more marvelous?

 

******

 

 

Clearly I feel that Corso’s work, as a positive (re)generative force in poetry should be a lasting one and far more universally lauded than it is.  With equal parts craft, audacity, humor and love, Corso returned poetry to its roots in Truth and Beauty, Beauty and Truth.  His work reminds us that poems are art, but that Poetry is the unacknowledged savior of the universe.  And with it we have the potential to re-orient ourselves (and everything that is) within and against the limits of our language, which are, in fact, the limits of our world.  As Frank O’Hara wrote in “Gregory Corso: Gasoline” his poem/ review of Corso’s second book, “Thanks for the not-memory of choosing a world…// …and the poet takes up the knives of his wounds to catch the light” (Collected O’Hara 315-316).

 

 

 

 

 


Works Cited/Consulted

 

Corso, Gregory.  An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. Ed. Bill Morgan.  New

Directions: New York, 2003.

 

Corso, Gregory.  Mindfield: New and Selected Poems.  New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

 

Corso, Gregory.  from Variations on a Generation.”  The Portable Beat Reader.  Ed. Ann Charters. 

New York: Penguin, 1992.  182-185.

 

Longenbach, James.  The Resistance to Poetry.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

 

Notley, Alice and Claudia Keelan.  “A Conversation September 2002 – December 2003.” American

Poetry Review.  May/ June 2004.  Vol.33/No.3.  15-20.

 

O’Hara, Frank.  “Gregory Corso: Gasoline.”  The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. 

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971.  315-316.

 

Revell, Donald.  Preface.  Guillaume Apollinaire.  Alcools.  Trans. Donald Revell. Hanover, CT:

Wesleyan University Press, 1995. ix-xiii.

 

Sartwell, Crispin.  Six Names of Beauty.  New York: Routledge, 2004.

 

Skau, Michael.  “A Clown in a Grave”: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso.  Carbondale,

IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

 

Trilling, Lionel.  Sincerity and Authenticity.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.