With the death of Gregory Corso at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale on Wednesday, January 17, another key figure in one of the most storied literary movements of the 20th Century moved from being cantankerously contemporary to being something more manageable: a dead poet. More specifically, he may end up as a historical footnote--and one senses he knew it. Chuck Workman's 1999 documentary about the beats, The Source, contains a series of unflattering scenes showing Corso throwing tantrums at various readings, demanding recognition for his place in beat history.
Why shouldn't he have it? The back cover of Corso's 1961 collection of poems titled Elegiac Feelings American identified Corso as one of the cofounders of the beat movement, but in the intervening years his status has drifted from the center to somewhere on the outskirts. There is little doubt that the beat canon is firmly set, and that canon is Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. The three appear side by side on the poster for Workman's documentary, and samples of their writing are read by Johnny Depp, John Turturro, and Dennis Hopper. When Corso appears, the author of some 20 volumes of poetry complains that he is not getting enough credit. In popular histories of the beat movement, Corso seems to exist on the fringes, an unseemly street urchin with a mop of shaggy black hair, a shaggier poetic soul, and a penchant for shouting wild comments at odd moments.
"He may be peripheral to pop culture," warns Ed Friedman, artistic director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York, which hosted Corso at numerous readings. "He is not peripheral to the literary world. There was a wry, trickster-like quality to his work--a streetwise and literary mix. You got a feeling of him as someone who is out on the block, as well as being a very sophisticated writer." In fact, Corso was a voracious student of history and the classics, and he will be buried in Rome near Percy Shelley, his proclaimed literary influence.
Roger Richards, a former rare-book dealer in Greenwich Village who lived with Corso for a dozen years, says that before meeting Corso he had "assumed that he was an academic, not that the guy had a childhood out of Dickens." Corso was born in 1930 in New York to a teenage mother who abandoned him after six months. At age 11 Corso composed a rhymed verse to the woman. What to call such prose didn't concern Corso: According to Richards, Corso "was a poet before he even knew what the word meant." Later he would come across an example of trite current-events doggerel in a local paper. "He read that and said to himself, 'Oh, so that's what I'm writing!'" says Richards.
Corso spent his childhood in and out of institutions, eventually educating himself while serving a three-year stint for robbery, reading classic poetry and memorizing the dictionary--intellectual experiences that frequently informed his writing, which fused rolling, run-on sentences with unusual diction choices and a broad, often comical approach to subject matter. His poem "Marriage," which is among the most anthologized pieces of beat verse, contains a surprising sequence in which Corso imagines going to a hotel after a wedding and realizing that everybody--the clerk, the elevator man, the bellboy--is looking at him and his bride and thinking lascivious thoughts. "I'd be almost inclined not to do anything!" he writes. "Stay up all night! Stare the hotel clerk in the eye! Screaming: I deny honeymoon!"
Corso was a screamer. "He used to scare the shit out of people, because he had a volcanic temper," Richards says. Friedman also recalls Corso's famous temper: "He was the only one who would yell at Allen Ginsberg." At poetry readings, Ginsberg often asked people to speak up. One day, Corso cried out, "You've been telling people that for 30 years--go clean your ears!"
Corso had been fairly quiet since moving to Brooklyn Center late last fall, where he joined his daughter Sheri Langerman. Now Death has silenced him, and one expects that he may slip further from the public consciousness, given that his raised voice can no longer insist on the recognition that he deserves. Corso himself seemed to comment on the end of his own yawp 31 years ago in his poem "Death." "Call death not a lesser name," he wrote. "Dead men I've known called death less/A stubborn roar is a sad error."