Last reviewed: June 2018
American Beat movement poet.
March 26, 1930
New York, New York
January 17, 2001
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.