Gregory Nunzio Corso was an American poet, youngest of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers (with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs). He was beloved by the other "Beats".
“… a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the roof tops and sang Italian song as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words… Amazing and beautiful, Gregory Corso, the one and only Gregory, the Herald.” ~Jack Kerouac
"Corso's a poet's Poet, a poet much superior to me. Pure velvet... whose wild fame's extended for decades around the world from France to China, World Poet". ~Allen Ginsberg
"Gregory's voice echoes through a precarious future.... His vitality and resilience always shine through, with a light this is more than human: the immortal light of his Muse... Gregory is indeed one of the Daddies". ~William S. Burroughs
Corso's first volume of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle was published in 1955 (with the assistance of students at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes). Corso was the second of the Beats to be published (after only Kerouac's The Town and the City), despite being the youngest. His poems were first published in the Harvard Advocate. 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. Of his many notable poems are: "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, perhaps his signature poem. And later in life, "The Whole Mess Almost".
In "Marriage" Corso tackles the possibilities of marriage. It was among his "title poems", with "Power", "Army" and others that explore a concept. "Should I get married?" (1), the speaker begins. Could marriage bring about the results that the speaker is looking for? Coming "home to her" (54) and sitting "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" (55-57). Idealizing marriage and fatherhood initially, Corso's speaker embraces reality in the second half of the poem admitting, "No, I doubt I'd be that kind of father" (84). Recognizing that the act of marriage is in itself a form of imprisonment, "No, can’t imagine myself married to that pleasant prison dream" (103), Corso's speaker acknowledges in the end that the possibility of marriage is not promising for him. Bruce Cook from the book The Beat Generation illuminates Corso's skill at juxtaposing humor and serious critical commentary, "Yet as funny and entertaining as all this certainly is, it is not merely that, for in its zany way ‘Marriage’ offers serious criticism of what is phony about a sacred American institution."
Corso's sometimes surreal word mash ups— "forked clarinets", "Flash Gordon soap", "werewolf bathtubs" —caught the attention of many.
It was "Bomb" and "Marriage" that caught the eye of a young Bob Dylan, still in Minnesota. “The Gregory Corso poem “Bomb” was more to the point and touched the spirit of the times better— a wasted world and totally mechanized— a lot of hustle and bustle— a lot of shelves to clean, boxes to stack. I wasn’t going to pin my hopes on that.” ~Bob Dylan, Chronicles
In contrast to Corso's use of marriage as a synecdoche for a Beat view of women, postmodern feminist poet Hedwig Gorski chronicles a night with Corso in her poem "Could not get Gregory Corso out of my Car" (1985, Austin, Texas) showing the womanizing typical for heterosexual Beat behavior. Gorski criticizes the Beat movement for tokenism towards women writers and their work, with very few exceptions, including Anne Waldman, and post-beats like Diane DiPrima and herself. Male domination and womanizing along with tokenism by its major homosexual members characterize the Beat Literary Movement. Beats scoffed at the Feminist Movement which offered liberalizing social and professional views of women and their works as did the Beat Movement for men, especially homosexuals. Corso however always defended women's role in the Beat Generation, often citing his lover Hope Savage as a primary influence on him and Allen Ginsberg.
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 ..." It has taken 50 years and the death of the other Beats, for Corso to be fully appreciated as a poet of equal stature and significance.
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 Little Italy and its 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 identified with not only Gabriel but also the Greco Roman God Hermes, the divine messenger.
Corso's mother, Michelina Corso (born Colonna) was born in Miglianico, Abruzzo, Italy, and immigrated 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, also teenage, 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.
Sometime in his first year, Corso's mother mysteriously abandoned him, leaving him at the New York Foundling Home, a branch of the Catholic Church Charities. Corso's father, Sam "Fortunato" Corso, a gruff garment center worker, found the infant and promptly put him in a foster home. Michelina came to New York but was threatened for her life by Sam. One of Michelina's sisters was married to a New Jersey mobster who offered to give Michelina her "vengeance," that is to kill Sam. Michelina declined and returned to Trenton without her child. Sam consistently told Corso 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. Sam told the young boy several times, "I should have flushed you down the toilet." It was 67 years until Corso learned the truth of his mother's disappearance.
Corso spent the next 11 years in foster care in at least five different homes. His father rarely visited him. When he did, Corso was often abused: "I'd spill jello and the foster home people would beat me. Then my father would visit and he'd beat me again— a double whammy." As a foster child, Corso was among thousands that the Church aided during the Depression, with the intention of reconstituting families as the economy picked up. Corso went to Catholic parochial schools, was an altar boy and a gifted student. His father, in order to avoid the military draft, brought Gregory home in 1941. Nevertheless, Sam Corso was drafted and shipped overseas.
Corso, then alone, became a homeless 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 streets. With "permission", he stole breakfast bread from Vesuvio Bakery, on Leroy Street in Little Italy. Street food stall merchants would give him food in exchange for running errands.
At age 13, Corso was asked to deliver a toaster to a neighbor. While he was running the errand, a passerby offered money for the toaster, and Corso sold it. He used the money to buy a tie and white shirt, and dressed up to see the film "The Song of Bernadette", about the mystical appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes. On returning from the movie, the police apprehended him. Corso claimed he was seeking a miracle, namely, to find his mother. Corso had a life long affection for saints and holy men: "They were my only heroes." Nonetheless, he was arrested for petty larceny and incarcerated in The Tombs, New York's infamous jail. Corso, even though only thirteen years old, 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 bond. With his own mother missing and unable to make bail, he remained in the Tombs.
Later, in 1944 during a New York blizzard, a fourteen-year-old freezing 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.
At age seventeen, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Corso broke into a tailor shop and stole an over-sized suit to dress for a date. Police records indicate he was arrested two blocks from the shop. He spent the night in the Tombs and was arraigned the next morning as an 18-year-old with prior offenses. No longer a "youthful offender", he was given a two to three years sentence to Clinton State Prison, in Dannemora, New York, on the Canadian border. It was New Jersey State's toughest prison, the site of the state's electric chair. Corso always has expressed a curious gratitude for Clinton making him a poet.
His second book of poems Gasoline, is dedicated to "the angels of Clinton Prison who, in my seventeenth year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination."
Interestingly, Clinton later became known as the "poets prison", as rap poets Tupak Shakur, Fifty Cent, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and others served time there.
Corso at Clinton Correctional
While being transported to Clinton, Corso, terrified of prison and the prospect of rape, concocted a story of why he was sent there. He told hardened Clinton inmates he and two friends had devised the wild plan of taking over New York City by means of walkie-talkies, projecting a series of improbable and complex robberies. Communicating by walkie-talkie, each of the three boys took up an assigned position— one inside the store to be robbed, one outside on the street to watch for the police and a third, Corso, the master-planner, in a small room nearby dictating the orders. According to Corso, he was in the small room giving the orders when the police came. In light of Corso's youth, his imaginative yarn earned him bemused attention at Clinton.
The Mafia wing of Clinton was under the direction of inmate Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Mafia Capo di Tutti Capos, the character on which Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola based "The Godfather". Richard Biello, a Capo, asked Corso who he was connected with, that is, what New York crime family did he come from, talking such big crimes as walkie talkie robberies... "I'm independent!", Corso shot back, hoping to keep his distance from the Mob inmates. A week later, in the prison showers, Corso was grabbed by a handful of inmates, and the 18-year-old was about to be raped. Biello happened in and commented, "Corso! You don't look so independent right now." Biello waved off the would-be rapists, afraid of Mafia reprisals.
Thus Corso fell under the protection of powerful Mafioso inmates, and became something of a mascot because he was the youngest inmate in the prison and he was entertaining. Corso would cook the steaks and veal brought from the outside by Mafia underlings in the "courts"— 55 gallon barrel barbecues and picnic tables— assigned to the influential prisoners. Clinton also had a ski run right in the middle of "the yards" and Corso learned to downhill ski and taught the Mafiosi. He entertained his mobster elders as a court jester, quick with ripostes and jokes. Corso would often cite the three propositions given him by a Mafia capo: "1) Don't serve time, let time serve you. 2) Don't take your shoes off because with a 2 -3 you're walking right out of here. 3) When you're in the yard talking to three guys, see four. See yourself. Dig yourself."
Interestingly, 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. The cell was also equipped with a phone and self controlled lighting as Luciano was, from prison, cooperating with the U.S. Government's wartime effort, providing Mafia aid in policing the New York waterfront, and later helping in Naples, Italy through his control of the Camorra. In this special cell, Corso read after lights-out thanks to a light specially positioned for Luciano to work late. Corso was encouraged to read and study by his Cosa Nostra mentors, who recognized his genius.
There, Corso began writing poetry. He studied the Greek and Roman classics, and consumed encyclopedias and dictionaries. He credited the "Story of Civilization", Will and Ariel Durant's ground-breaking compendium of history and philosophy for his general education and philosophical sophistication.
Release and return to New York City
In 1951, twenty-one-year-old Gregory Corso worked in the garment center by day, and at night was a mascot yet again, this time at one of Greenwich Village's first Lesbian bars, the Pony Stable Inn. The women gave Corso a table at which he wrote poetry. One night a Columbia College student, Allen Ginsberg, happened into the Pony Stable and saw Corso... "he was good looking, and wondered if he was gay, or what." Corso, who was definitely not gay, was not uncomfortable with same sex come-ons after his time in prison, and thought he could score a beer off Ginsberg. He showed Ginsberg some of the poems he was writing, and some from prison, and Ginsberg immediately recognized Corso as "spiritually gifted". One poem described a woman who sunbathed in a window bay across the street from Corso's room on 12th Street. Astonishingly, the woman happened to be Ginsberg's erstwhile girl friend, with whom he lived in one of his rare forays into heterosexuality. Ginsberg invited Corso back to their apartment and asked the woman if she would satisfy Corso's sexual curiosity. She agreed, but Corso, still a virgin, got too nervous as she disrobed and he ran from the apartment, struggling with his pants. Ginsberg and Corso became fast friends. All his life, Ginsberg had a sexual attraction to Corso, which remained unrequited.
Corso joined the Beat circle and was adopted by its co-leaders, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who saw in the young street-wise writer a potential for expressing the poetic insights of a generation wholly separate from those preceding it. At this time he developed a crude and fragmented mastery of Shelley, Marlowe, and Chatterton. Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry" (1840), with its emphasis on the ability of genuine poetic impulse to stimulate "unapprehended combinations of thought" that led to the "moral improvement of man", prompted Corso to develop a theory of poetry roughly consistent with that of the developing principles of the Beat poets. For Corso, poetry became a vehicle for change, a way to redirect the course of society by stimulating individual will. He referred to Shelley often as a "Revolutionary of Spirit", which he considered Ginsberg and himself to be.
In 1954, Corso moved to Cambridge, where several important poets, including Edward Marshall and John Wieners, were experimenting with the poetics of voice. The center for Corso's life there was not "the School of Boston", as these poets were called, but Harvard University's Widner Library, where he spent his days reading the great works of poetry and also auditing classes in the Greek and Roman Classics. Corso's appreciation of the classics had come from the Durants' books which he had read in prison. At Harvard he considered becoming a classics scholar. Corso, penniless, lived on a dorm room floor in Elliott house, welcomed by students Peter Sourian, John Sedgwick (brother of Edie), and Paul Grand. He would dress up for dinner and not be noticed. Members of the elite Porcellian Club reported Corso to the Harvard administration as an interloper. Dean Archibald Macleish met with Corso intending to expel him, but Corso showed him his poems and MacLeish relented and allowed Corso to be a non-matriculating student— a poet in residence. Corso's first published poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate in 1954, and his play In This Hung-up Age—concerning a group of Americans who, after their bus breaks down midway across the continent, are trampled by buffalo— was performed by the esteemed Poets' Theater the following year, along with T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral".
Harvard and Radcliffe students, notably Grand, Sourian and Sedgewick, underwrote the printing expenses of Corso's first book, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems. The poems featured in the volume are usually considered apprentice works heavily indebted to Corso's reading. They are, however, unique in their innovative use of jazz rhythms— most notably in "Requiem for 'Bird' Parker, Musician", which many call the strongest poem in the book— cadences of spoken English, and hipster jargon. Corso once explained his use of rhythm and meter in an interview with Gavin Selerie for Riverside Interviews: "My music is built in— it's already natural. I don't play with the meter." In other words, Corso believes the meter must arise naturally from the poet's voice; it is never consciously chosen.
In a review of The Vestal Lady on Brattle for Poetry, Reuel Denney asked whether "a small group jargon" such as bop language would "sound interesting" to those who were not part of that culture. Corso, he concluded, "cannot balance the richness of the bebop group jargon... with the clarity he needs to make his work meaningful to a wider-than-clique audience." Ironically, within a few years, that "small group jargon", the Beat lingo, became a national idiom: featuring words such as "man", "cool", "dig", "chick", "hung up", etc.
Despite Corso's reliance on traditional forms and archaic diction, he remained a street-wise poet, described by Bruce Cook in The Beat Generation as "an urchin Shelley". Gaiser suggested that Corso adopted "the mask of the sophisticated child whose every display of mad spontaneity and bizarre perception is consciously and effectively designed"— as if he is in some way deceiving his audience. But the poems at their best are controlled by an authentic, distinctive, and enormously effective voice that can range from sentimental affection and pathos to exuberance and dadaist irreverence toward almost anything except poetry itself.
San Francisco, Howl and the Beat Phenomenon
Corso and Ginsberg decided to head to San Francisco, separately. Corso wound up temporarily in Los Angeles and worked at the L.A. Examiner news morgue. Ginsberg was delayed in Denver. They were drawn by reports of an iconoclast circle of poets, including Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. An older literary mentor, the socialist writer Kenneth Rexroth, lent his apartment as a Friday night literary salon (Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams, an old friend of Rexroth's, had given him an introductory letter).
Wally Hedrick wanted to organize the famous Six Gallery reading, and Ginsberg wanted Rexroth to serve as master of ceremonies, in a sense to bridge generations. Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder read on October 7, 1955 before 100 people (including Kerouac, up from Mexico City). Lamantia read poems of his late friend John Hoffman. At his first public reading Ginsberg performed the just finished first part of "Howl". Gregory Corso arrived late the next day, missing the historical reading, at which he had been scheduled to read.
The Six Gallery was a success and the evening led to many more readings by the now locally famous Six Gallery poets. It was also a marker of the beginning of the West Coast Beat movement, since the 1956 publication of "Howl" (City Lights Pocket Poets, no. 4) and its obscenity trial in 1957 brought it to nationwide attention.
Ginsberg and Corso hitchhiked from San Francisco, visiting Henry Miller in Big Sur, and stopped off in Los Angeles. As guests of Anaïs Nin and writer Lawrence Lipton, Corso and Ginsberg gave a reading to a gathering of LA literati. Ginsberg took the audience off-guard, by proclaiming himself and Corso as poets of absolute honesty, and they both proceeded to strip bare naked of clothes, shocking even the most avant-garde of the audience.
Corso and Ginsberg then hitchhiked to Mexico City to visit Kerouac who was holed up in a room above a whorehouse, writing a novel, "Tristessa". After a three-week stay in Mexico City, Ginsberg left, and Corso waited for a plane ticket. His lover, Hope Savage, convinced her father, mayor of Charleston, S.C., to send Corso a plane ticket to Washington, D.C. Corso had been invited by Library of Congress poet (precursor to U.S. Poet Laureate) Randall Jarrell and his wife Mary, to live with them, and become Jarrell's poetic protege. Jarrell, unimpressed with the other Beats, found Corso's work to be original and believed he held great promise. Corso stayed with the Jarrells' for two months, enjoyed the first taste of family life ever. However Kerouac showed up and crashed at the Jarrells', often drunk and loud, and tempted Corso to carousing. Corso was disinvited by the Jarrells and returned to New York.
To Paris and the 'Beat Hotel'
In 1957, Allen Ginsberg voyaged with Peter Orlovsky to visit Williams S. Burroughs in Morocco. They were joined by Kerouac, who was researching the French origins of his family. Corso, already in Europe, joined them in Tangiers and as a group, they made an ill fated attempt to take Burroughs' fragmented writings and organize them into a text (which later would become "Naked Lunch"). Burroughs was strung out on heroin and became jealous of Ginsberg's unrequited attraction for Corso, who left Tangiers for Paris. In Paris, Corso introduced Ginsberg and Orlovsky to a Left Bank lodging house above a bar at 9 rue Gît-le-Coeur, that he named 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's Paris sojurn resulted in his third volume of Poetry, :"The Happy Birthday of Death" (1960), "Minutes to Go (1960, visual poetry deemed "cut ups") with William S. Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles, and Brion Gysin, "The American Express " (1961, an Olympia Press novel), and Long Live Man (1962, poetry). Corso fell out with his publisher of Gasoline, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Bookstore, who objected to "Bomb", a position Ferlinghetti later rued and for which he apologized. Corso's work found a strong reception at New Directions Publishing, founded by James Laughlin who heard of Corso through Harvard connections.
While in Europe Corso searched for his lover, Hope Savage, who had disappeared from New York, saying she was headed to Paris. He visited Rome and Greece, sold encyclopedias in Germany, hung out with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Amsterdam, and with Ginsberg set the staid Oxford Union in turmoil with his reading of "Bomb", which Oxford students mistakenly believed was pro-nuclear war (as had Ferlinghetti), while they and other campuses were engaged in "ban the bomb" demonstrations. A student threw a shoe at Corso, and both he and Ginsberg left before Ginsberg could read "Howl".
Corso returned to New York in 1958, amazed that he and his compatriots had become famous, or notorious, emerging literary figures.
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.
San Francisco's obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Ginsberg's "Howl" had ended in an acquittal and the national notoriety made "The Beats" famous, adored and ridiculed.
Upon their return, Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac and Burroughs were published in the venerable "Chicago Review" but before the volume was sold, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins deemed it pornographic and had all copies confiscated. The Chicago editors promptly resigned and started an alternative literary magazine, "The Big Table". Ginsberg and Corso took a bus from New York for the "Big Table" launch, which again propelled them into the national spotlight. Studs Terkel's interview of the two was a madcap romp which set off a wave of publicity. Controversy followed them and they relished making the most of their outlaw and pariah image. Time and Life Magazine had a particular dislike of the two, hurling invective and insult that Corso and Ginsberg hoped they could bootstrap into yet more publicity. The Beat Generation (so named by Kerouac) was galvanized and young people began dressing with berets, toreador pants, and beards and carrying bongos. Corso would quip that he never grew a beard, didn't own a beret, and couldn't fathom bongos.
Corso and Ginsberg traveled widely to college campuses, reading together. Ginsberg's "Howl" provided the serious fare and Corso's "Bomb" and "Marriage" provided the humor and bonhomie. New York's Beat scene erupted and spilled over to the burgeoning folk music craze in the Village, Corso's and Ginsberg's home ground. An early participant was a newly arrived Bob Dylan: “I came out of the wilderness and just fell in with the Beat scene, the Bohemian, the Be Bop crowd. It was all pretty connected”. “It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti... I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic." ~Bob Dylan in America.
During the early 1960s Corso married Sally November, an English teacher who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and attended Shaker High School, and graduated from the University of Michigan. At first, Corso mimicked "Marriage" and moved to Cleveland to work in Sally's father's florist shop. Then the couple lived in Manhattan and Sally was known to Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and others in the beat circle at that time. The marriage, while a failure, did create a child, Miranda Corso. Corso did maintain contact with Sally and his daughter sporadically during his lifetime. Sally, who subsequently remarried, resides on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has kept contact with one of the iconic females associated with the Beat movement, Hettie Jones.
Corso married two other times and had a son Nile, and daughter Cybelle and later a son Max. Throughout his life, Corso remained in touch with his children, and was fiercely protective of them, forbidding any access to journalists, writers and later his film biographer, Gustave Reininger.
As the Beats were supplanted in the 1960s by the Hippies and other youth movements, Corso experienced his own wilderness years. He struggled with alcohol and drugs. He later would comment that his addictions masked the pain of having been abandoned and emotionally deprived and abused. Poetry was his purest means of transcending his traumas but substance abuse threatened his poetic output. He lived in Rome for many years, and later married in Paris and taught in Greece, all the while traveling widely. He strangely remained close to the Catholic Church as critic and a loose identification as a lapsed Catholic. His collection, "Dear Fathers" was several letters commenting on needed reforms in the Vatican.
In 1969, Corso published a volume "Elegiac Feelings American", whose lead poem dedicated to the recently deceased Jack Kerouac is regarded by some critics as Corso's best poem. In 1981 he published poems mostly written while residing in Europe, titled "Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit".
In 1972, Rose Holton and her sister met Corso on the second day of their residence at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City:
“He sold us on the Chelsea and sold us on himself. Everything that life can throw at you was reflected in his very being. It was impossible for him to be boring. He was outrageous, always provocative, alternately full of indignation or humor, never censoring his words or behavior. But the main thing is that Gregory was authentic. He could play to the audience, but he was never a phony poseur. He was the real deal. He once explained the trajectory of creative achievement: “There is talent, there is genius, then there is the divine.” Gregory inhabited the divine. "
In later years, Corso disliked public appearances and became irritated with his own "Beat" celebrity. He never allowed a biographer to work in any "authorized" fashion, and only posthumously was a volume of letters published under the specious artifice of "An Accidental Autobiography". He did however agree to allow filmmaker Gustave Reininger to make a cinema verite documentary, Corso: The Last Beat, about him.
After Allen Ginsberg's death, Corso was depressed and despondent. Gustave Reininger convinced him to go "on the road" to Europe and retrace the early days of "the Beats" 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, Michelina Colonna, might be buried. His father's family had always told him that his mother had returned to Italy, a disgraced woman, a whore. 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 reunited with his mother on film. He discovered that she at age 17 had been almost fatally brutalized (all her front teeth punched out) and was sexually abused by her teenage husband, his father. On film, Michelina explained that at the height of the Depression, with no trade or job, she had no choice but to give her son to the care of Catholic Charities. After she had established a new life working in a restaurant in New Jersey, she had attempted to find him, to no avail. The father, Sam Corso, 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. She worked as a waitress in a sandwich shop in the New Jersey State Office building in Trenton. She eventually married the cook, Paul Davita, and started a new family. Her child Gregory remained a secret between Michelina and her mother and sisters, until Reininger found them.
Corso and his mother quickly developed a relationship which lasted until his death, which preceded hers. They both spent hours on the phone and the initial forgiveness displayed in the film became a living reality. Corso and Michelina loved to gamble and on several occasions took vacations to Atlantic City for black jack at the casinos. Corso always lost while Michelina fared better and would stake him with her winnings.
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. He began to work productively on a new, long delayed volume of poetry, "The Golden Egg". Shortly thereafter, Corso discovered he had irreversible prostate cancer. He died of the disease in Minnesota on January 17, 2001. In the film, "Corso: The Last Beat" a dramatic scene was shot in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, at the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Off camera, Corso showed Reininger a small patch of open ground and said that this is where he wished to be buried. He had always sought good company and felt he couldn't top Shelley and Keats. Reininger was discouraging as the Cemetery had been closed to newcomers since the mid-century. After Corso's death, a Roman friend Vittorio Terracini and Reininger lobbied the Roman authorities for special permission. Corso's ashes were deposited, just as he wanted, at the foot of the grave of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Cimitero Acattolico, the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. He wrote his own epitaph:
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
"… a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the roof tops and sang Italian song as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words… Amazing and beautiful, Gregory Corso, the one and only Gregory, the Herald." — Jack Kerouac – Introduction to Gasoline
"Corso's a poet's Poet, a poet much superior to me. Pure velvet... whose wild fame's extended for decades around the world from France to China, World Poet. — Allen Ginsberg "On Corso's Virtues"
"Gregory's voice echoes through a precarious future.... His vitality and resilience always shine through, with a light this is more than human: the immortal light of his Muse. ... Gregory is indeed one of the Daddies." — William S. Burroughs
"The most important of the beat poets... a really true poet with an original voice" — Nancy Peters, editor of City Lights
"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)
"They, that unnamed "they", they've knocked me down but I got up. I always get up-and I swear when I went down quite often I took the fall; nothing moves a mountain but itself. They, I've long ago named them me." — Gregory Corso
Gregory Corso's Works:
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, visual poetry) 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)
Gregory Nunzio Corso was an American poet, youngest of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers (with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs). He was beloved by the other "Beats".