Gregory Corso, 1930-2001
To believe that life dies with the body
is to be spirit-sick
this is the great danger
to body-think the spirit an ephemeral thing…
“Window” Gregory Corso
A friend called from San Francisco to tell me the news of Gregory Corso’s death in Minnesota on January 17th from a bout of prostate cancer. Gregory had been ill and recovering in Minneapolis much of last year. Despite a couple of recent close calls, Corso was still working on a CD project of his poetry with Marianne Faithful, and working on a final book of poems in Minnesota, while being cared for by his daughter, Sherri Langerman. After a couple hours of pouring through his poems, it finally struck me that the last of the Beat Generation figures was gone. Memorials all over the U.S. were happening, and writings from close friends and colleagues appeared in a range of magazines and papers. To try to recap the last 40-50 years of events and breakthroughs the Beats discovered, is pointless. What stands is a deep realization of what the Beats represented in regards to challenging censorship and social and literary taboos. Corso took his “Bomb” and “Marriage” to America’s jugular in the same way Ginsberg did with “Howl” and Burroughs with his novel Naked Lunch.
A week after Gregory died, I left Colorado for a week trip to San Francisco. Steve Silberman called to invite me to a memorial Corso’s former wife, Lisa Brinker, was hosting at her home in Noe Valley. On Sunday, the 28th, we arrived late and found a gathering of local San Francisco poets and numerous friends of Gregory’s-Jack Hirschman, the Foleys, Kush, and many others. One by one, people got up and read from Gregory’s work and reminisced in song and stories while surrounded by photos of him over the years with friends and family. It was a celebration of Gregory; a living, fluid community of people who had been affected by Corso’s life and work. I spoke with George Scravani, a close friend of Gregory’s for over 30 years, as people read on in the living room. George eloquently sketched in some of those years with Gregory in New York at the Chelsea, dispelling some of the legendary rumors about Gregory. He spoke of Corso’s tenderness and ability to reach out to those he loved. At the end of the evening, Lisa Brinker walked Steve and I around the living room, telling stories about the photos- this so mirrors Corso’s own work- the poetry commanded the ear, but also the heart of the audience. The entire evening was a reflection of his devotion to poetry. Each reader shared a piece of why Gregory Corso was so unique to our American landscape- as poet and social critic.
I met Gregory in Boulder, Colorado at the Naropa Institute’s 1994 Summer Writing Program. It was the last time I saw him. After a panel discussion I asked him to sign a chapbook. As he signed it, crossing out errors and lambasting the publisher for mistakes, he read a few poems from it and added comments on where the poem had been written and how it was inspired. A small crowd circled him as he went on reading. He circled the tent with complete animation, working the crowd like a traveling salesman. He loved being the center of attention. The rancor was a foil for his greater intent- to draw the audience in a little closer. Eventually, Corso was herded off after he finished. Later that week, Corso read for the Allen Ginsberg tribute sponsored by Naropa, along with Joanne Kyger and Amiri Baraka. A charged Anne Waldman introduced Corso, touching on his writing as “news that stays news,” and as a legendary figure in American poetics. Later in the reading, Corso confessed his preference for some of the smaller, lyrical poems he had written over the longer oral poems, which brought him notoriety, such as “Bomb” and “Marriage”. He thought Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were the poets of the oral ‘shot’, as he referred to them. He went on to give a spirited reading while still toying with the crowd. The reading, half stand-up and half Shelley, surpassed anything I had ever seen of him on stage. His approach of difficult subjects through humor is what set him apart from his peers. He went beyond that of a ‘routine’, but embodied a deeper resolve. It played itself out much of the time through Corso’s idiosyncratic snapshots, underpinned by poetic quip and irony. The delivery had not changed at all from the impromptu reading under the tent earlier in the week. “Captain Poetry” as Allen referred to him in his introduction to Mindfield, had truly delivered, once again, “moustaches of gold.”
As he wished, Corso’s ashes are to be buried in Rome this May, in the same cemetery as his most cherished poet, Shelley. A benefit reading, organized by Patti Smith and others, will take place on April 26th at the Poetry Project. The benefit is to help raise funds to assist in the transportation of Gregory’s ashes to Rome.