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 Minnesota, was one of the last of the original Beats, the generation of gifted, astonishingly original writers who first met in New York City in the late 1940s. This core group -- which also included Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg -- fled the stuffy New York literary scene in the mid-'50s and found a home in San Francisco.

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 Minnesota last week with Marianne Faithfull and "Saturday Night Live" music producer Hal Willner for a recording session, to be released on Paris Records later this year. For his last five years in New York City, Corso -- who had lived hand to mouth all of his life -- found a patron in Hiro Yamagata, a painter and businessman who adored the Beats' work. Singh said Corso was writing poems until his death.

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 Boulder, Colo. -- a Buddhist university where Ginsberg taught summer classes on the history of the Beat Generation. I remember seeing Corso one day on the street, wheeling his son Max in a stroller and carrying a Super-8 camera. He told me he had just thrown firecrackers into the meditation hall and filmed the results.

"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.