APPRECIATION: POET WAS EVER A SUBVERSIVE SPIRIT:
GREGORY CORSO DESPISED PRETENTION
Every year in high-school English classes all over the country, students open poetry anthologies on their desks, expecting a dose of literature with the same amount of pleasure that might accompany a dose of medicine. If their teacher is wise enough to assign a poem called "Marriage" by Gregory Corso, the kids get a surprise. They meet a new friend -- a hip, witty confidant who regards the mannered hypocrisy of adult society from as much of an outsider's vantage point as they do: "Should I get married? Should I be good?/ Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?"
Corso, who died of prostate cancer on Wednesday
night at a medical center near his daughter's home in
After Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in 1955, Corso and his friends became icons of a vibrant counterculture of "subterraneans" that centered on the cafes of North Beach and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore. Corso's best-loved books are "The Happy Birthday of Death" and "Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit." His collected poems were published in a single volume, "Mind Field," in 1989.
Witty and street-wise, Corso discovered the poems of his lifelong hero Percy Shelley while serving time in jail as a teenager. While Kerouac bragged of being inspired by the long bebop saxophone lines of Charlie Parker, Corso claimed as his primary inspirations British Romantics such as Shelley and William Blake, as well as the early Greek poets and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Corso was beloved by Kerouac for seemingly nonsensical utterances that contained some splinter of cosmic truth, such as "What are fish? Animalized water!" Corso was a more subtle poet, though, than his rough exterior suggested.
"Gregory was the most well-read and erudite of the Beats," says Rani Singh, producer of Harry Smith's "Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music" and a longtime friend of the poet's. "In the future his work will be linked with that of the old masters he loved."
Singh visited Corso in
Corso was perhaps the least known of the Beat group, in part because he despised any sort of pomp or pretension. He made a career out of publicly deflating the ego of his more famous, self-promoting friend Ginsberg, whom he referred to as "Ginzy." When the Beats became icons of retro-hip for the Starbucks generation, Corso turned scrappier than ever.
I was a student of Corso's at the Naropa Institute in
"Three" By Gregory Corso -- 1.
The streetsinger is sick
crouched in the doorway, holding his heart.
One less song in the noisy night.
Outside the wall
the aged gardener plants his shears
A new young man
has come to snip the hedge
Death weeps because Death is human
spending all day in a movie when a child dies.
-- from "The Happy Birthday of Death," (c) 1960, New Directions Publishing Co.