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Gregory Corso – Natural Born: Poet, Intellectual and “Boho Dancer” … An Extraordinary Southern-Italian American

Gregory Corso – Natural Born: Poet, Intellectual and “Boho Dancer” … An Extraordinary Southern-Italian American

Tom Verso (September 26, 2015)

Being profoundly poetry challenged – I simply can’t read the 'stuff '. A couple of lines of poetry in any form and my brain shuts down, I begin thinking about the Mets’ Bullpen or “True Detective”. Accordingly, I normally would 'have-no-truck' with Gregory Corso. However, the recent publication of “The Whole Shot”, a collection of interviews with him spanning the period from 1955 to 1982, got my attention. /// /// For a student of cultural history generally and southern-Italian Americana particularly, these interviews provide a unique ‘window’ into: (1) post-war American counter-culture, and (2) the mind of a brilliant and creative southern-Italian American who played a significant role in that movement. One particular interview is especially pregnant with both. /// /// In the 1965 interview “Conversation with Allen Ginsberg & Gregory Corso”, following the renowned Albert Hall poetry reading in London, when fifteen Beat poets, including Ginsberg and Corso, read before crowd of seven thousand; Corso and Ginsberg discussed their disappointment with the event generally and Corso’s lackadaisical reading in particular. While they posited various aesthetic and psychological explanations, to my mind, Corso, an intense student of history and contemporary culture, may have realized that the reading was de facto a ‘Last Hurrah’ event of the Beat counter-culture. For even as they read and the crowd wildly applauded, six thousand miles away the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angelus was replacing Greenwich Village as America’s center of avant-garde artistry, and the next generation of American counter-culture artistry was forming – musicians not poets. Music was replacing poetry as the voice of counter-culture. Out of that Canyon a virtual Tsunami of music would pour forth drowning the last remnants of the Beats. /// /// What poetic rhythmic Beat verses could compete with the likes of Janice Joplin’s mind-boggling driving rendition of “Ball 'n Chain”? How could Ginsberg’s “Howl” compete with Credence's raging “Favorite Son”? /// /// Corso would write much poetry after 1965, perhaps his best. But he would no longer be considered a voice of the counter-culture generation. He would be relegated to the margins of bourgeois college literary cliques and the philo-poetici. /// /// These “Whole Shot” interviews track Corso’s metamorphic evolution from a wise-ass Little-Italy kid with a sixth-grade education, who loved ‘words’ so much that he spent three years in prison reading a dictionary, to a wise-ass sage senior commentator on poetics and society. A natural born intellectual who taught himself how to read and transliterate Egyptian hieroglyphics. A natural born poet who said: “I did not know how to write a poem when I felt I wanted to be a poet – when I was thirteen years old” … “I am the substance of my poetry. I am the poetry I write.” A natural-born Boho dancer: who knew how to live off of the bourgeoisie, while not sacrificing his bohemian identity and not himself becoming bourgeois.



Gregory Nunzio Corso … Southern-Italian American

In as much as this blog is dedicated to the history and culture of the South of Rome people and their American diaspora, Corso’s southern-Italian roots are significant and the primary reason to write about him.
He was born in a Little Italy neighborhood in New York City. He says:
“I started life in Greenwich Village ... Born on Bleeker/McDougal Street which is the heart of Greenwich Village, which has a combination of Italian immigrants mixed with some Bohemian types. (WS p. 142)
Corso’s parents were “off-the-boat” southern-Italians. The Italian language Wikipedia biography reports:
Nato da madre pugliese e da padre calabrese”
(Google translation: “Born to a mother from Puglia and Calabrian father) see:
Corso says his mother abandoned him as a baby and returned to Italy (WS p 109). However, his father and grandmother spoke Italian. He says:
 “I can understand Italian.  I could understand my father talk it; my grandmother, I use to understand her. (WS p. 120)
He refers to himself as Gregory ‘Nunzio’ Corso (WS p. 90)
While in prison he was befriended by the Mafiosi. He says:
“Since I was Italian and the Mafiosi were running the shot, and I was the youngest (16 and half) – I was like a little mascot. I was protected. Man, their hearts where broken when I left prison. (WS 104)
Absence Italian motifs in Corso’s poetry
However, while his natural southern-Italianita is not in doubt, the extent to which that culture is manifested in his poetry is not obvious, if it exists at all. Significantly, to my mind, the discussions of his poetry in the “The Whole Shot” interviews, and various commentators in books and on-line articles, are largely devoid of references to any Italian aspects of Corso’s poetry.
Nevertheless, it may be that his work is a manifestation of what Professor Fred Gardaphe calls the “Narrative in the Philosophic Mode” (“Italian Signs, American Streets” – chap. 5).
Specifically, Gardaphe posits:
 “Italian American writers who, while abandoning the ethnic self as subject, retains fragile yet definite connections to their Italian Americana cultural conditioning. (p. 23)
It may be that Corso, in poetry “abandoned [his] ethnic self”; yet a careful reading will reveal definite connections to [his] Italian Americana cultural conditioning”.
For example, Kirby Olson, in his book “Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist”, posits:
“In the poem “Marriage”… The poem opens: “Should I get married? Should I be good?” The emphasis on “good” here, is crucial. It calls to mind Corso's Italian American Catholic upbringing. (p.6)
Also, I would note, what I would judge another example of what Gardaphe calls“Italian Americana cultural conditioning”.
Corso’s poem “Hair”, in Bill Tonelli’s “The Italian American Reader”, juxtaposed with George Panetta’s “Suit”, in the same volume. Both are ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comic commentaries on the post-war southern-Italian American male’s pre-occupation with ‘bella figura’. While, Panetta’s is specifically Italian Americana, Corso’s is tacit.
Corso Biography … “Beware the Poets and Tragedians”
While there is significant corroborating evidence supporting Corso’s southern-Italian roots, more generally, Corso’s biography is enigmatic.
Depending on what one reads (e.g. Corso’s reports in “The Whole Shot” interviews, or commentators), one gets different reports, albeit variations on the same theme. When reading Corso’s biographical material one is well advised to remember Plato’s admonition to “Beware Poets”, and to conjure a distinct historiographic sense of Cartesian doubt. There are many contradictions in the documents.
Thus for example, the writer of the very comprehensive and well-informed Wikipedia article on Corso posits:
“At age 13, Corso was asked to deliver a toaster to a neighbor. While he was running the errand, a passerby offered money for the toaster, and Corso sold ithe was arrested for petty larceny and incarcerated in The Tombs New York's infamous jail. (
However, Corso reports differently:
“I kicked in the restaurant window, went in and took all the food that I wanted, and while coming out I was grabbed … They put me in the Tombs… I was 13 years old. (WS p. 143)
Another, very interesting and cogent contradiction has to do with the ‘alleged stolen book of poems’. Corso reports that the manuscripts for a book of poems he planned to publish in 1974 was stolen. He says:
“It was stolen and that book was called ‘Who am I - Who I am.’ They knew it was a good f-ing book – 1974. It was in two suitcases … I was living in this f-ing Chelsea Hotel in New York City. A supposed friend, a women, who’s a very rich lady and all this shit, a poet named Isabella Gardner, got hold of it; once it was in her hands, it was gone.
“So there was a big gap – 1970-1974 – four years work gone” (WS p156)
The ‘pot thickens’ – Jarian Janssen’s article in “The Journal of Beat Studies” asserts:
“The stolen manuscript story was fabricated by Corso as an excuse for his non productivity and a possibility to extort a considerable amount of money from Gardner”(WS endnote #1, p.188.)
Again: Regarding Bruce Cook’s comments about Corso, in his book “The Beat Generation”; Corso flat-out calls him a “liar”. (WS p 114).
Apart from such “hearsay” contradictions in Corso’s biographical materials, more importantly are the obvious contradictions that virtually define his mentality, his life and his artistic milieu - the Boho Dancing contradiction.
‘Contradiction’ – Corso’s Essence
If one were to use a single word to characterize Corso – the man – one could do no better than ‘Contradiction’; for example, the contradiction between the level of his formal education (six-grade) and the magnitude of his vocabulary. Interviewer Michael Andre notes: “You have a large vocabulary in your poetry”. Corso replies:
“My vocabulary that I obtained was from a standard dictionary of 1905, when I was in prison. For three lucky years I just got that whole book in me, all obsolete and archaic words. And through that I knew that I was in love with language and vocabulary, because the words and the way they looked to me, the way they sounded, and what they meant, how they were defined and all that, I tried to revive them, and I did. (WS p57)
Also, the contradiction between his sixth grade education and his overall knowledge of history and languages, he says:
“I only went to the sixth grade... I never went to study geometry or trigonometry or algebra ... Now I can speak French, Italian, Greek.
The Sumerians wrote the first books, before the Egyptians; Gilgamesh was the first thing written down. You know why it's important to me? Because I like to go back to the sources.  The way I learned that was through Tibetan. … been to the caves at Trois Freres.. Socrates was the wisest man on earth … (WS 64-67)
The contradiction between his life style and his intellectual pursuits, he says:
“In 1965 …all winter, I’d only go out to get my food and my junk, my dope, and back into my room.
I had a big book on hieroglyphics and studied geometry; I had a compass. I put the two together because ancient Egypt was very geometrical.
 When asked: “How is the Egyptian written character as a medium for poetry?
Corso replies encyclopedically:
“You see, I go backwards, like to Greece, right? Ancient Greece and Rome, and I go to Egypt, and from there to Sumer and wedges. I wanted to check into that because people say they don’t know what the ankh is, the symbol of life which Isis holds.
I found out what it was and it blows their minds when I tell them. The Egyptians used everything they could see; in other words, there was no abstract symbol. The anka is a sandal strap’ the big toe goes through that hole. (laughter). (WS p.65-6)
Note the idiom of this quote! The substance is professorial, the type of thing one might hear in a college lecture. But the idiom is ‘Street’. If Corso is anything, he is walking talking contradiction.
His mastery of hieroglyphics was such that he could transliterate Egyptian poems. See an example of one on page 66.
Another example of his contradictory character is the juxtaposition of his crass ‘Street’ modality of expression and the incredible knowledge of poetry:
“Shelley was a smart f--ker. He said, ‘Die if you want to be with that which you seek’ – forget it already. If you want that, then drop dead, go ahead and die” ( WS p 151)
Throughout these interviews, he pours forth with an amazing vocabulary, knowledge of history, art, poetry, museums, zoos, Gilgamesh, Buddha, etc. - yet, sounding like a kid from the old neighborhood.
Finally, the contradiction between his relationship with Beat poets and Beat poetry aficionados:
- Oxford Students: At a poetry reading, in the mid 1950’s, to about 100 students at Oxford University, a student threw a shoe at Corso. Unperturbed, Corso said: “It wasn’t even a good English shoe” (WS p 25).
Ferlinghetti: Corso reports: “I wrote a poem called ‘Power’.  He thought it was fascistic, he didn't understand I was changing the word power. So he wouldn't publish it” (WS 100)
- Ginsberg: Significantly, Corso met Ginsberg when he came out of jail circa 1950. Ginsberg brought him into the Beat group and they were close friends (some say unrequited sexual attraction on the part of Ginsberg) and travel companions, traveling Europe and the States. However, there were from time to time frictions. Corso says:
“Allen has a tendency, and he might be right - a tendency to care too much for me, to come on like a daddy, tell me. ‘'Well Gregory take care of yourself and all this bit.
I had to finally straighten him out and say, ‘Look, Allen, we're peers man. And if I live my way – you sit and meditate, that's good. I live my way. It’s the only way, man, otherwise, you know we’d break intercourse.” (WS 101)
“I stayed out of it in the Sixties and for good reasons, too. That's when Allen got to understand me. He was burnt up in the beginning, saying 'Gregory, where are you, man like, help us along.'
I said No, this is where you've got to understand Gregory. This is what I do now. If I'm going to go towards dope, if I'm going to make babies like I did and all that, that's my shot (WS p. 107)
However, Corso's biggest contradiction is not peculiar to him. It’s the general characteristic of counter culture in the twentieth Century: the contradiction of rejecting bourgeois values, while at the same time dependent upon the bourgeoisie and living bourgeois life style.
In this sense, Corso is a window to the hypocrisy of twentieth century counter culture.
Boho Dancing “the art mating ritual”
(Note – Boho: American Slang for bohemian i.e. non-conformist, unconventional. 1975 Tom Wolfe “Boho Dance” and Joni Mitchell  song “Boho Dancing.”
Also Boho is obverse of Hobo, itinerate workers especially in 1930s depression. Originally short for migrant agricultural workers called “hoe-boys”.)
In his truly amazing critique of twentieth century art, “The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe describes what he calls the art mating ritual – the process whereby bohemian artists are joined with bourgeoisie art facilitators, promoters and financial supporters. He writes:
“The art mating ritual developed early in the century— in Paris, in Rome, in London, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, and, not too long afterward, in New York.
The ritual has two phases:
(1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist shows his stuff within the circles, coteries, movements, isms, of the home neighborhood, bohemia itself [e.g. Greenwich Village], as if he doesn’t care about anything else; as if, in fact, he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world uptown.
(2) The Consummation, in which culturati [bourgeoisie] select those who seem the most exciting, original, important, by whatever standards— and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity. (e-book Location L-160)
Wolf goes on to extend the Boho dance metaphor of the “art mating ritual” with an “Apache Dance” metaphor as it was called in Paris during WW I days. He writes:
The artist was like the female in the act, stamping her feet, yelling defiance one moment, feigning indifference the next, resisting the advances of her pursuer with absolute contempt … more thrashing about … more rake-a-cheek fury … more yelling and carrying on … until finally with one last mighty and marvelously ambiguous shriek— pain! ecstasy!— she submits … (L-168-172)
Wolf characterizes the artist “payoff” in the “mating ritual” in Freudian terms:
“The artist’s payoff in this ritual is obvious enough. He stands to gain precisely what Freud says are “The goals of the artist: fame, money, and beautiful lovers.”  (L 173)
In turn, the bourgeois mates of the bohemian artists are rewarded vicariously ("experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person"), the sense of not being bourgeois. Wolfe writes:
“Today there is a peculiarly modern reward that the avantgarde artist can give his benefactor: namely, the feeling that he, like his mate the artist, is separate from and aloof from the bourgeoisie, the middle classes … the feeling that he may be from the middle class but he is no longer in it… the feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines.
This is a peculiarly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation (from the sin of Too Much Money) and something quite common among the well-to-do all over the West, in Rome and Milan as well as New York. (L 177-182).
In this sense, Corso is a quintessential example of a twentieth century Freudian artist. He attained fame, money, and beautiful lovers” from bourgeois women at the same time repeatedly saying: I don’t kowtow! (e.g. p. 164).
When asked if he makes a living off poetry, He responds:
“No, I get money from girls. Every time I meet a girl I ask her now much money she has and then I demand half of it.” (p24)
Consider an interesting anecdotal parallel between Corso and Jackson Pollack, and their “Boho Dance” bourgeois relations.
Peggy Guggenheim picked Pollock. He was a nameless down-and-out boho Cubist [in Greenwich Village]. She was the niece of Solomon (Guggenheim Museum) Guggenheim and the center of the most chic Uptown art circle in New York in the 1940s. (L 399-400)
In 1943, Peggy Guggenheim met Pollock ... gave him a monthly stipend … setting him up on Fifty-seventh Street. (L 403-404)
“Here was the archetypical Pollock gesture: one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people. So he takes off his clothes in another room and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace. (L 482-483)
Violet “Bunny” Lang, who Camille Paglia characterized as “madcap heiress from Boston” (“Break, Blow, Burn”, p. 182), attended the bourgeois University of Chicago and was editor of the bourgeois Chicago Review.
“She met Gregory at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in Greenwich Village [just after he came out of prison]. Impressed with his charm and promise as a poet, she installed him in room, which cost her $5 week.
“At a party, Gregory started yelling and threw his glass against the wall. (WS p 12)
Both scenarios illustrate the contradiction between the Boho artist who rejects bourgeois materialism ("feigning indifference ... absolute contempt"yet is dependent upon the bourgeoisie for a "fame, money and lovers". The contradiction causes them to periodically symbolically attack the bourgeoisie ("Apache Dance"). Like the drug attach who hates what he’s become, yet is dependent upon the drug.
The whole of “The Whole Shot” is laced with Corso’s magnificently perfected and executed “Boho (Apache) Dancing”.
Following is a list of anecdotal comments from the text; the sum of which represents Corso’s contradictory bohemian/bourgeois life style:
- After Bunny Lang passed way, bourgeois Harvard students supported Corso. They let him clandestinely live in their dorm rooms and provided him food. "Gregory was a refreshing antidote to the rigity of our world. We had come to Harvard via the conventional path of prep and high school. Gregory was a graduate of the streets of New York's Little Italy and Dannemora prison..." (p 12)
- 1958 “Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, have been traveling around Europe reading their poems and preaching the gospel of the new American poetry" (p23) Who paid?
-1958 Ginsberg and Corso were invited to read at bourgeois Oxford University. (p 24) Who paid?
- Corso meet Picasso in southern of France (p25) Who paid?
- At a party Corso met the painter Marcel Cuchamp and the photographer/painter Man Ray
- Corso at various times insulted Picasso, Duchamp and Ray
- 1957-58 lived in Paris (p55) Who paid?
- 1960 in Luxembourg garden in Paris. Who Paid?
- 1960 Successful tour of American bourgeois universities.  (p27)
- 1965 International Poetry Incantation at the Royal Albert Hall in London. (p 43) Who Paid?
- lived in Tangers (p112) Who Paid?
Asked: “How do your books sell?”
Response: “Not much … I think from these three books  maybe two thou, something like that (p77)
“I go to Rotterdam” (p 83) Who pays?
When interviewed by Fred Misurell in 1976, Corso was living in an apartment in one of the most elite sections of Paris with a women Jocelyn Stern (p123)
When interviewed by Bruce Cook, he was living with “a DuPont lady” in the most elegant f-ing house” (p 114 )
“Where did you live in France? … “Hotel behind the Git-le-Coeur behind Boulevard Saint-Michel. (p.130)
“I was living in this f-ing Chelsea Hotel in New York City. A supposed friend, a women, who’s a very rich lady.” (p.156)
In short, Corso was a world traveler and high-liver who was supported by some of the world’s richest of the rich bourgeoisie and yet says he does not “kowtow” a Boho Dancer par excellence.
In Sum: Gregory Nuzio Corso - Nowhere Man
Again, Corso describes the Greenwich Village of his day, as a dichotomy between Italians and Bohemians. He says:
I started life in Greenwich Village ... Born on Bleeker/McDougal Street with is the heart of Greenwich Village, which has a combination of Italian immigrants mixed with some Bohemian types. (WS p 142)
For the first part of his life, Corso was of the Italian Greenwich Village. At about age twenty (ca 1950) when he met Allen Ginsberg, he crossed over to the Bohemian side. Ostensibly, he left his southern-Italian Americanism behind and embraced the bourgeois/bohemian culture. It may be that his southern-Italian ‘nature’ is tacit in his poetry a la Gardaphe poetics. However, the thirteen interviews recorded in “The Whole Shot” provide little evidence of southern-Italian Americana.
The southern-Italian American culture is a product of the blue and white-collar working classes. There is little if any evidence that Corso ever knew the physical pain of work, the psychological anguish of work or the anxiety of being out of work – all manifestations of working-class life – all part of the southern-Italian culture - all absent from bourgeoisie life.
He was southern-Italian American, but not part of the southern-Italian culture.
He was living a bourgeois life style, but not part of the bourgeoisies.
He was a brilliant intellectual, but not part of the intelligentsia
He was part of the Beat counter culture, but not part of its Hippie transformation.
A very interesting fellow … No?

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