Gregory Corso, a Candid-Voiced Beat Poet, Dies at 70
January 19, 2001
By WILLIAM H. HONAN
Gregory Corso, a poet and leading member of the Beat literary
movement that shook American social and political life in the late
1950's and 60's, died on Wednesday in Robbinsdale, Minn., where he
lived with his daughter Sheri Langerman. He was 70.
The cause was prostate cancer, Ms. Langerman said.
To the literary world, Mr. Corso was considered less political than
Allen Ginsberg, less charismatic than Jack Kerouac, but more shocking,
at times, than either of them. In his book, "The Beat Generation"
(Scribner, 1971), Bruce Cook calls Mr. Corso "the most avid
nose-thumber of them all," a man regarded as a nemesis by those who
detested his "hip, easy, wiseguy manner and direct artless diction."
A put-on specialist at poetry readings, Mr. Corso would delight
his fans and inflame his critics by muttering into a microphone
disconnected thoughts like "fried shoes," "all life is a Rotary
Club" and "I write for the eye of God."
But he could also be a serious social critic, re-examining an
institution like marriage, said Ann Douglas, a professor of
American studies at Columbia University. The lines of his poem
"Marriage," for example, are wry and optimistic. The poet begins by
asking playfully, "Should I get married? Should I be good?" and
concludes constructively: "Ah, yet well I know that were a woman
possible as I am possible then marriage would be possible."
Mr. Corso's early work helped pave the way for the feminists of a
later generation, Professor Douglas said. "Women looked at Corso
and the other Beats," she said, "and asked, `If these men can free
themselves from constricted gender roles -- getting married, working
for a corporation and so on -- why can't we?' "
Mr. Corso's finest poem, most critics agree, is "Elegiac Feelings
American," which is an elegy for his friend Kerouac and for dead
notions of America and a new hope:
O and yet when it's asked of you `What happened to him?'
"What happened to America has happened
to him the two were inseparable" Like the wind
to the sky is
the voice to the word. . . .
Like other Beat poets, Mr. Corso's work was less elegantly
stylized than that of his predecessors, and closer to ordinary
feelings. It was personal and candid in the expression of intimate
feelings -- sexual desire, despair and things that would not have
surfaced in an earlier time.
While Ginsberg and Kerouac came from upper-middle-class backgrounds
and got to know each other through Columbia University, Mr. Corso's
upbringing was troubled.
Gregory Nunzio Corso was born on March 26, 1930, in New York, the
son of teenage parents who parted when he was a year old. He bounced in
and out of foster homes and jails and never made it to high school. At
12 he was caught selling stolen merchandise and sent to prison for
several months while awaiting trial.
His fellow inmates were "terribly abusive," he wrote years later
in an autobiographical sketch. When acquitted, he spent three
months under observation in Bellevue Hospital.
When Mr. Corso was 16 he returned to jail to serve a three-year
sentence for theft. It was then that he read the classics
Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Shelley and Christopher Marlowe among others
but also became, as he expressed it, "educated in the ways of men
at their worst and at their best."
He once told an interviewer for Contemporary Authors: "Sometimes
hell is a good place -- if it proves to one that because it exists,
so must its opposite, heaven, exist. And what was heaven? Poetry."
Mr. Corso was released from prison in 1950. Soon after, at a bar
in Greenwich Village, he encountered Ginsberg. Mr. Corso was then
writing fairly conventional verse, and it was Ginsberg who introduced
him to long Whitmanesque lines and surreal word combinations.
At this time in his life, Mr. Corso was traveling the country,
working as a laborer, as a reporter for The Los Angeles Examiner
and as a merchant seaman.
In 1954 he settled briefly in Cambridge, Mass., where he virtually
took up residence at the Harvard University library, poring over
the great works of poetry. His first published poems appeared in
the Harvard Advocate, and his play, "In This Hung-Up Age," a macabre
drama about how a group of tourists are trampled to death by a herd of
buffalo, was performed the next year by Harvard students.
His later poetry exhibited an eclectic vocabulary. Referring to
his study of the dictionary, Mr. Corso told the critic Michael
Andre that he "got that whole book in me, all the obsolete and
archaic words. And through that I knew that I was in love with
language and vocabulary, because the words and the way they looked
to me, the way they sounded, and what they meant, how they were
defined and all that, I tried to revive them, and I did."
Mr. Corso moved to San Francisco in 1956, too late to attend
Ginsberg's famous reading of "Howl" but in time to be recognized as
a major Beat poet. In an introduction to Mr. Corso's early collection
"Gasoline" (City Lights, 1958), Ginsberg called him "a
great word-swinger, first naked sign of a poet, a scientific master
of mad mouthfuls of language."
Later, with Ginsberg, the two poets wrote a manifesto, "The
Literary Revolution in America," in which they announced their
convention-bashing "discontent, their demands, their hope, their final
wondrous unimaginable dream."
While Mr. Corso was never as politically involved as some of the
other Beats, in 1965 he was dismissed from a teaching position at
the State University of New York at Buffalo because he refused to
sign an affidavit certifying that he was not a member of the
In recent years, Mr. Corso continued to write, teach and lecture.
He published 13 books of poetry, two books of plays and several
Mr. Corso's first marriage, to Sally November, ended in divorce.
In addition to Ms. Langerman of Minneapolis, he is survived by his
second wife, Belle Carpenter of Santa Fe, N.M.; two other daughters,
Miranda Schubert of Manhattan and Cybelle Carpenter of Minneapolis; two
sons, Max Corso of Guam and Nile Corso of Hamden, Conn.; his mother,
Margaret Davita of Trenton; a brother, Joe Corso of Long Island; seven
grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Mr. Corso often played the wayward child among his friends. The
novelist Herbert Gold recalled sitting with him and other Beat writers
in a Paris cafe when Mr. Corso impulsively snatched the check,
exclaiming, "I never paid a check before!" Ginsberg, Mr. Gold said,
"took the check from him and gave it to me with a reproachful glance at
Gregory. It was assumed that Gregory would never be able to pay a
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