Gregory Nunzio Corso (March 26, 1930 – January 17, 2001) was an American poet, the fourth member of the canon of Beat Generation writers (with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs).
Corso's mother, sixteen years old when Gregory was born, abandoned the family a year later and returned to Italy. Corso spent most of his childhood in orphanages and foster homes. His father remarried when he was eleven years old, and he had his son stay with him, but Corso repeatedly ran away. He was sent to a boy's home, from which he also ran away. His troubled adolescence included a stint of several months in the Tombs, the New York City jail, for a case involving a stolen radio, and three months of observation in Bellevue. At seventeen, he was convicted of theft and sentenced to Clinton State Prison for three years. Incarcerated in Dannemora for burglary in 1947, Gregory Corso dove into literature in the prison's library and began writing poetry. He returned to New York City after his release in 1950 and met Allen Ginsberg in a bar in Greenwich Village (the Pony Stable), where in the course of their initial, though long, conversation Ginsberg (and Corso) found out that Corso had unwittingly been spying on Ginsberg and his then girlfriend having sex from the apartment window across the street. Ginsberg then introduced Corso and his poetry to other members of the beat literary scene.
Corso died in Minnesota of prostate cancer 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's first volume of poetry was privately published in 1955 (with the assistance of associates at Harvard, where he had been auditing classes): The Vestal Lady on Brattle and other poems. This was the year before the publication of Allen Ginsberg's first collection of poetry, and two 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 most notable poems are Bomb (formatted as typewriter-art in the shape of a mushroom cloud) 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 (in Literary Outlaw, the Life and Times of William S. Burroughs): 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 ...
Other than Mr. Corso, Gregory was all you ever needed to know. He defined the name by his every word or act. Always succinct, he never tried. Once he called you "My Ira", or "My Janine" or "My Allen", he was forever "Your Gregory". — Ira Coehen