Authors: Gregory Corso

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American Beat movement poet.

March 26, 1930

New York, New York

January 17, 2001

Robbinsdale, Minnesota


Gregory Nuzio Corso is often regarded as a principal member of the Beat generation, along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Born on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, Corso was the child of a teenage mother who abandoned him. Corso’s father did not assume responsibility for the child, either, and Corso grew up in an orphanage and various foster homes. Eventually, he was placed in reform school and, for three months, a mental hospital. At the age of seventeen, he was sentenced to prison for robbery, but in prison he became dedicated to educating himself. Through a program of diverse and often eclectic reading, he acquired the foundation for what became his characteristic stylistic combination of archaic language and streetwise perspective.

When Corso was released from prison in 1950, he met Ginsberg, who took an interest in the young poet’s work and introduced him to Kerouac, Burroughs, and John Clellon Holmes. Corso traveled to the West Coast and Mexico, as well as Washington, D.C., where he met Randall Jarrell, and to Paterson, New Jersey, where he met William Carlos Williams. In 1957, Corso joined Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky in a journey to Tangier, where Burroughs lived at that time.

In 1954, Corso began to frequent the campus of Harvard University, where he interacted with students and eventually published a poem in the Harvard Advocate. The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems, Corso’s first book, was published through funding raised among students.

In the summer of 1956, as the Beat literary movement gathered force in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti took an interest in Corso’s work and offered to publish a volume by Corso in the Pocket Poets Series. In 1958, Gasoline appeared, which includes poems Corso wrote during his stay in Mexico City. In his introduction to this volume, Ginsberg notices in the poems "jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of [Corso’s] mind." The poems reveal Corso’s taste for surrealism, especially in the poem "Birthplace Revisited," in which time and criminal violence blend in a surprising image.

In 1960, the collection The Happy Birthday of Death appeared, which includes the poem "Marriage," for which Corso received the Longview Award. The speaker’s consideration of the possibility of marriage illuminates the contrast between bohemian and traditional thinking, often with humorous effect. Corso lamented that the poem was often misunderstood, asserting that the poem is not about his getting married to a particular person but more about his wedding "all of society." "Bomb," a shaped poem that is also included in The Happy Birthday of Death, extends Corso’s social commentary with a playful interpretation of the nuclear threat.

A number of poetry collections, as well as several plays and two novels, followed during the next two decades. The poems in Long Live Man affirm Corso’s faith in humankind, focusing not on destruction but instead on beginnings, invention, and accomplishment, but the collection received mixed reviews. Elegiac Feelings American includes an elegy for Kerouac, who died in 1969. Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit presents Corso in a retrospective mood, as he recalls the Beat era, but critics judged the work to lack the incisive wit and energy of the early poems. In 1989, Corso assembled Mindfield: New and Selected Poems, which collects many of his poems and through its sequencing serves as a poetic autobiography. Corso’s novels and several plays have drawn little attention. Corso’s career was marked by reduced productivity after 1962, which may be attributed in part to his renewed interest in reading, but an addiction to heroin also played a role. In 2001, Corso died of prostate cancer at the age of seventy.

The principal influences on Corso’s work were Percy Bysshe Shelley and Arthur Rimbaud, but his reading ranged over an impressive span. Much of the energy of his best writing comes from his having funneled his erudition through his flippant, bohemian voice. Comical and playful in front of an audience, Corso developed a reputation for clowning at readings. He was not encouraging to scholars interested in investigating his works, but as studies of the Beats expanded, Corso won his place as a central figure of the Beat generation.

Author Works Poetry: The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems, 1955 Gasoline, 1958 The Happy Birthday of Death, 1960 Minutes to Go, with Others, 1960 Long Live Man, 1962 Selected Poems, 1962 The Mutation of the Spirit, 1964 There Is Yet Time to Run Back Through Life and Expiate All That’s Been Sadly Done, 1965 The Geometric Poem: A Long Experimental Poem, Composite of Many Lines and Angles Selective, 1966 Ten Times a Poem, 1967 Elegiac Feelings American, 1970 Gregory Corso, 1971 Egyptian Cross, 1971 The Night Last Night Was at Its Nightest. . ., 1972 Earth Egg, 1974 Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, 1981 Mindfield: New and Selected Poems, 1989 Long Fiction: The American Express, 1961 The Minicab War, 1961 (with Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth) Drama: In This Hung-up Age, pr. 1955 Standing on a Streetcorner, pb. 1962 That Little Black Door on the Left, pb. 1967 Way Out: A Poem in Discord, 1974 Screenplays: Happy Death, 1965 (with Jaw Socin) That Little Black Door on the Left, 1968 Nonfiction: An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, 2003 Miscellaneous: Writing from Unmuzzled Ox Magazine, 1981 Bibliography Cook, Bruce. "An Urchin Shelley." In The Beat Generation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. Cook discusses the lives and works of key figures of the Beat generation. Corso, in a 1974 interview, charged Cook with lying about him in an interview that he conducted. Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. New Directions, 2003. Edited by Bill Morgan. A collection that concentrates on the critical years 1962–1967. Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. An extensive biography of Kerouac and his relationships with other persons of the Beat generation, including Gregory Corso. Under the influence of Kerouac, Corso put words together in an extremely abstract, apparently accidental manner. According to Corso, Kerouac was a "strong, beautiful man." Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, eds. The Beat Vision: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon House, 1987. This fascinating collection includes an interview with Corso as well as a letter from Corso to Gary Snyder. The book includes vintage photographs and critical discussion of the Beat poets’ place in American literature and the impact of their controversial ideas in shaping and defining American society. Masheck, Joseph, ed. Beat Art. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Some of Corso’s drawings were included in an exhibition of work by writers associated with the Beats, and although the catalog is not illustrated, the comments on the drawings are interesting and instructive. Corso’s drawings, which are also featured in Mindfield, are significant but often overlooked artifacts of the Beat generation. Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1958–1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000. A narrative account of Beat poets in Paris, where some of their most important work was done. Based on firsthand accounts from diaries, letters, and interviews. Selerie, Gavin. Gregory Corso. New York: Binnacle Press, 1982. The interview by Selerie is particularly provocative because of Corso’s comments on his books—such as Gasoline, The Happy Birthday of Death, and Elegiac Feelings American—as well as friends such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Corso also provides information on his youthful crimes and time spent in prison. Skau, Michael. A Clown in a Grave: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. An examination that covers the complete works of Gregory Corso and his complex imagination, his humor, and his poetic techniques in dealing with America, the Beat generation, and death. Includes a bibliography of Corso’s work. Stephenson, Gregory. Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso. London: Hearing Eye, 1989. A full-length study of Corso’s poetry, offering individual chapters on principal collections of poetry.

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