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Gregory Corso

Gregory Nunzio Corso (March 26, 1930January 17, 2001) was an American poet, youngest of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers (with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs).

Early life

Born Nunzio Corso at St. Vincent's hospital, (later called the Poets' hospital after Dylan Thomas died there), Corso later selected the name "Gregory" as a confirmation name. Within the Italian community he was "Nunzio", while he dealt with others as "Gregory". He often would use "Nunzio" as a short for "Annunziato", the announcing angel Gabriel, hence a poet.

Corso’s mother, Michelina Corso (née Colonna) was born in Miglianico, Abbruzzo, Italy, and emigrated to the United States at the age of nine, with her mother and four other sisters. At 16, she married Sam Corso, a first generation Italian American, and gave birth to Nunzio Corso the same year. They lived at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, the heart of Greenwich Village and upper Little Italy.

Childhood

In April 1930, a month after he was born, Corso's mother abandoned him, leaving him in New York. Corso’s father, Gary "Fortunato" Corso, consistently told his son that his mother had returned to Italy and deserted the family. He was also told that she was a prostitute and was "disgraziata" (disgraced) and forced into Italian exile.

Corso spent the next 11 years in foster care at at least five different homes. His father declined to visit him. Corso went to Christian parochial schools, was an altar boy and a gifted student. In order to avoid the military draft, his father brought Gregory home in 1941. His father was nevertheless drafted,.

Corso became a child on the streets of Little Italy. For warmth, he slept in subways in the winter, and then slept on rooftops during the summer. He continued to attend Catholic school, not telling authorities he was living on the street. With "permission", he stole breakfast bread from Vesuvio Bakery, in Little Italy. Street food stall merchants would give him food in exchange for errands.

Adolescence

At 13, Corso stole a toaster and sold it at a junk shop. He used the proceeds to buy a tie, and dressed up to see the film The Song of Bernadette, about the mystical appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes. Corso claimed he was seeking a miracle, namely, to find his mother. Instead, on returning from the movie, police were searching for him and he was arrested for petty larceny and incarcerated in the Tombs, New York’s infamous jail. Corso, just 13, was celled next to an adult criminally insane murderer who had stabbed his wife repeatedly with a screwdriver. The exposure left Corso traumatized. Neither Corso’s stepmother nor his paternal grandmother would post his $50 bail. With his own mother missing and unable to make his bail, he remained in the Tombs.

In 1944 during a New York blizzard, Corso broke into his tutor’s office for warmth, and fell asleep on a desk. He slept through the blizzard and was arrested for breaking and entering and booked into the Tombs a second time, with adults. Terrified of other inmates, he was sent to the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital Center and later released. Corso was again arrested in 1946 at 17, for stealing a used suit worth less than $50. He was tried, without legal representation, as a "Youthful Multiple Offender", which could receive penalties commensurate with adult offenders, and sentenced to 3 years in Clinton Correctional Facility, New York State’s maximum-security prison. Clinton, located in deep forest near the Canadian Border, was reserved for New York’s most hardened criminals and was the main location of New York’s executions by electric chair.

Corso at Clinton Correctional

At Clinton, Corso fell under the protection of powerful Mafia inmates, and became something of a mascot because he was the youngest inmate in the prison. Ironically, Corso was jailed in the very cell just months before vacated by Charles "Lucky" Luciano . While imprisoned, Luciano had donated an extensive library to the prison . Corso read after lights-out thanks to a light specially positioned for Luciano to work late.

Corso began writing poetry. He studied the Greek and Roman classics, and consumed encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Release and return to New York City

Corso was released in 1949 and his Mafia prison mentors arranged a job as a day laborer for him in New York's garment district. By night he would write poetry.

Meanwhile in uptown New York City, a group of Columbia College students, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucien Carr, along with an older, Harvard graduate, William S. Burroughs, envisioned themselves as future literary figures.

Corso met Allen Ginsberg in the Pony Stable Bar, one of New York's first openly lesbian bars. Corso, only 20 and recently released from prison, was supported by the women of the Pony Stable as an "artist-in-residence". Corso was writing poetry there the night Ginsberg arrived. Ginsberg, cruising bars, was immediately sexually attracted to Corso. Ginsberg later said, "The Pony Stable was I think a dyke bar... I just wandered in and I remember he was sitted at a table, and he was a very nice looking kid. Alone... So I thought, was he gay or what was it? Maybe not." Ginsberg was even more struck by reading Corso's poems, immediately realizing Corso’s talent. "One he showed me... blew my mind instantly... and it struck me instantly that he was... spiritually gifted." Eventually Ginsberg introduced Corso to the rest of his inner circle.

In their first meeting at the Pony Stable, Corso showed Ginsberg a poem about a woman who lived across the street from him, and sunbathed naked in the window. The woman turned out to have been Ginsberg's girlfriend during one of his forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg introduced the young and virginal Corso to the sunbathing woman, and in a panic, Corso ran from her apartment. Ginsberg and Corso remained lifelong friends and collaborators.

In later years Ginsberg’s initial assessment of Corso held. During a 1996 interview for the documentary film Corso – the Last Beat, Ginsberg claimed, "I think Gregory is the poet's poet. Certainly the one poet I learned from most now. Gregory, I think, in some respects is a poet superior to myself."

To Paris and the 'Beat Hotel'

In 1957, Allen Ginsberg voyaged with Peter Orlovsky to visit Burroughs in Morocco. Corso, already in Europe, joined them and then led them to Paris, introducing them to a Left Bank lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur that was to become known as the Beat Hotel. They were soon joined by William Burroughs and others. It was a haven for young expatriate painters, writers and musicians. There, Ginsberg began his epic poem Kaddish, Corso composed his poems Bomb and Marriage, and Burroughs (with Brion Gysin's help) put together Naked Lunch from previous writings. This period was documented by the photographer Harold Chapman, who moved in at about the same time, and took pictures of the residents of the hotel until it closed in 1963. Corso returned to New York in 1958.

Return to New York - The "Beatniks"

In late 1958, Corso reunited with Ginsberg and Orlovsky. They were astonished that before they left for Europe they had sparked a social movement, which San Francisco columnist Herb Caen called, "Beat-nik", combining "beat" with the Russian "Sputnik," as if to suggest that the Beat writers were both "out there" and vaguely Communist.

Later Years

In later years, Corso disliked public appearances and became irritated with his own "Beat" celebrity. He did however agree to allow filmmaker Gustave Reiningerto make a cinema verite documentary, "Corso - the Last Beat", about him.

After Allen Ginsberg's death, Corso decided to go "on the road" to Europe and retrace "the Beats" early days in Paris, Italy and Greece. While in Venice, Corso expressed on film his lifelong concerns about not having a mother, and living such an uprooted childhood. Corso became curious about where in Italy his mother, Michellina Colonna, might be buried. His father's family had always told him that his mother had returned to Italy, a disgraced woman. Filmmaker Gustave Reininger quietly launched a search for Corso's mother's Italian burial place. In an astonishing turn of events, Reininger found Corso's mother Michelina not dead, but alive; and not in Italy, but in Trenton, New Jersey. Corso was united with his mother on film. He discovered that his mother at 17 had been almost fatally brutalized (all her front teeth punched out) and was sexually abused by her teenage husband, his father. At the height of the Depression, with no trade or job, Michellina explained the she had no choice but to give her son to Catholic Charities. After she had established a new life working in a restaurant in New Jersey, his mother had attempted to find him, to no avail. The father had blocked even Catholic Charities from disclosing the boy’s whereabouts. Living modestly, she lacked the means to hire a lawyer to find her son. Eventually she remarried and started a new family.

Corso and his mother quickly developed a relationship which lasted until his death, which preceded hers.

In Corso: The Last Beat, Corso claimed that he was healed in many ways by meeting his mother and saw his life coming full circle. Ironically, shortly thereafter, Corso discovered he had irreversible prostate cancer. He died of the disease in Minnesota on January 17, 2001. His ashes were deposited, just as he wanted, next to the grave of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Cimitero Acattolico, the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. He wrote his own epitaph:

Spirit
is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
endlessly
like a river
unafraid
of becoming
the sea

Poetry

Corso's first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle was published in 1955 (with the assistance of associates at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes). In 1958, Corso had an expanded collection of poems published as number 8 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series: Gasoline & The Vestal Lady on Brattle. His notable poems are many: "Bomb" (a "concrete poem" formatted in typed paper slips of verse, arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud), "Elegiac Feelings American" of the recently deceased Jack Kerouac, and "Marriage", a humorous meditation on the institution. A passage from that poem:

But I should get married I should be good
How nice it'd be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair
saying Christmas teeth! Radiant brains! Apple deaf!
God what a husband I'd make! Yes, I should get married!
So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones' house late at night
and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
grab her and tell her There are unfavorable omens in the sky!
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust--

Ted Morgan described Corso's place in the beat literary world: "If Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were the Three Musketeers of the movement, Corso was their D'Artagnan, a sort of junior partner, accepted and appreciated, but with less than complete parity. He had not been in at the start, which was the alliance of the Columbia intellectuals with the Times Square hipsters. He was a recent adherent, although his credentials were impressive enough to gain him unrestricted admittance ...

Quotes

"Other than Mr. Corso, Gregory was all you ever needed to know. He defined the name by his every word or act. Always succinct, he never tried. Once he called you 'My Ira,' or 'My Janine' or 'My Allen,' he was forever 'Your Gregory.'" — Ira Cohen

"...It comes, I tell you, immense with gasolined rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark arriviste, from a dark river within." - Gregory Corso, How Poetry Comes to Me (epigraph of Gasoline)

References

Other sources

  • Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0140151028 (hc);

Bibliography

  • The Vestal Lady and Other Poems (1955, poetry)
  • This Hung-Up Age (1955, play)
  • Gasoline (1958, poetry)
  • Bomb (1958, poetry)
  • The Happy Birthday of Death (1960, poetry)
  • Minutes to Go (1960, novel) with Sinclair Beiles, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gysin.
  • The American Express (1961, novel)
  • Long Live Man (1962, poetry)
  • There is Yet Time to Run Back through Life and Expiate All That's been Sadly Done (1965, poetry)
  • Elegiac Feelings American (1970, poetry)
  • The Night Last Night was at its Nightest (1972, poetry)
  • Earth Egg (1974, poetry)
  • Writings from OX (1979, with interview by Michael Andre)
  • Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (1981, poetry)
  • Mind Field (1989, poetry)
  • Mindfield: New and Selected Poems (1989, poetry)

External links

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