Gregory Corso  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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


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 attracted sexually 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 life-long friends and collaborators.

In later years Ginsberg’s initial assessment of Corso held. During an 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 abandoned San Francisco and 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 finished his epic poem Kaddish, Corso composed his poems Bomb and Marriage, and Burroughs (with Ginsberg and Corso'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", a neologism based on the Yiddish suffix "-nik".

Later Years

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

After Allen Ginsberg's death, Corso decided to go "on the road" to Europe and retrace "the Beats" early days in Paris and Italy and Greece. While in Venice, Corso expressed on film his life long 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 was 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. He is buried 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:

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


Gregory Corso was the first of the inner circle of "The Beats" to be published. His first volume of poetry "[[The Vestal Lady on Brattle]]" and other poems was published in 1952 (with the assistance of associates at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes) and quickly distributed by City Lights. This was the year before the publication of Allen Ginsberg's first collection of poetry, and six years before Kerouac's On the Road. In 1958, Corso had an expanded collection of poems published as number 8 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series: Gasoline/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), "Elegaic 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 ..."

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