Because he was often seen as a character in one of Kerouac’s writings, Gregory Corso has been given second billing from the main Beat pantheon of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, Burroughs. A new collection of his plays, published by Tough Poets Press on Jan. 4, reminds us that Corso deserves to be in the starting lineup. PKM spoke with Rick Schober, Tough Poets’ publisher, about Corso’s neglected legacy.
When Beat literature is mentioned, most people automatically fall back on familiar turf like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. However, the Beat umbrella was wider and more embracing than that. And if you don’t believe me, check out this chart that I made for the class I have taught at UConn called “Beatniks vs. Hippies? No Contest!”
The basic point of the class was to show that beatniks and hippies were not entirely different species, not mutually exclusive, either. Nor were what they were doing brand new. It was just that particular generation’s take on the same bohemian spirit of rebellion and creativity that dates back probably to the Stone Age, when the first cave man picked up a charred stick and began making images of animals on the wall. Or the Greeks who hung around the theater or sat at the feet of Socrates. I included all these ancient antecedents in a category called “Ancestors.” And then I concocted a category called “Floaters,” to delineate those Beat-influenced figures who jumped into the Hippie circus.
One underrated poet who sits solidly in the Beat Generation camp was Gregory Nunzio Corso (1930-2001). He was the original street punk, growing up in foster homes, jail cells and on the streets of Manhattan. His was a near feral boyhood, worse than any depicted in a Charles Dickens novel. To survive, he committed petty thefts and broke into homes to escape the winter weather. At 18, he was sent to Clinton State Prison, where he steeped himself in Greek and Roman classics and got his education by reading Will and Ariel Durant’s multivolume Story of Civilization.
By the time he met Allen Ginsberg in 1951, Corso had already published his verse and was hanging out at the downtown bars where the Abstract Expressionists and Living Theatre people hung out. His mentors were people like Dylan Thomas and Max Bodenheim, not the Columbia profs who influenced Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Nonetheless, he was quickly accepted into the circle that also included William Burroughs. He would, in fact, relocate to Paris in 1957 with Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in the so-called Beat Hotel. A novel, The American Express, loosely based on his experiences in Paris, would be published by Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press in 1961. He would appear as the character Yuri Gilgoric in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans, and he, along with Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, would ‘star’ in the Robert Frank-Alfred Leslie film Pull My Daisy (1959).
Corso is featured as one of the actors in this seminal Beat Generation film:
Arguably, Corso’s best book of verse was called The Happy Birthday of Death, published by New Directions in 1960. It contains his most frequently anthologized poem, “Marriage” as well as “Bomb,” which was published as a separate broadside in 1958. He continued to publish poetry, including Elegiac Feelings American (1970): “for the dear memory of John Kerouac”.
A recent publication by Tough Poets Press in Arlington, Mass., has opened a window on another aspect of Corso, the writer: playwright. Collected Plays, edited by Tough Poets’ founder Rick Schober, pulls together six short dramatic presentations, some written in rhyming verse, that were either performed during Corso’s lifetime or found, previously unpublished, among his papers. They span the years 1952 to 1968.
They are playful, entertaining, absurdist in spirit but serious in intent. And, most surprisingly, they are of a high quality, exhibiting all the best aspects of Corso’s skewed but clear and consistent vision of the world. Material like this, in a better world, would enhance Corso’s reputation as a serious writer, maybe even spark a reconsideration and rebirth of interest in all of his work.
The second play in the collection, Standing on a Streetcorner: A Little Play (1953) is a deceptively whimsical musing on trying to remain calm and innocent in a world that lives in the shadow of the Bomb. The “deception” is in how Corso makes profound observations playfully (“Too much thinking about the bomb seems to me like the bomb is doing its damage without having to fall”). Corso was obsessed with the bomb. This obsession runs through all of these plays, this sense of impending annihilation, but it is filtered through a lifetime’s worth of reading of the Greek and Roman playwrights.
He may have been united with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs through the spirit of the Beat Generation but, like each of them, he was wholly original in his writing.
We spoke with Rick Schober about Gregory Corso:
PKM: I’m surprised at how playful and entertaining these short plays are, almost Thurberesque with their absurdist twists and word plays. That same spirit can be found in some of his poetry, but he really let loose in these plays. Did he consider the writing of these plays as taking a break from his more serious poetry?
Rick Schober: Four of the six plays in this collection, and most of the play fragments I came across in my research, were written before 1955, when his first book of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, was published, so I don’t see them as being a break from his poetry. Just a concurrent but different form of expression from a developing writer. I’m sure once he gained a little notoriety with his collections Gasoline (City Lights) in 1958 and The Happy Birthday of Death (New Directions) in 1960, he shifted his focus to poetry.
PKM: It’s easy to breeze through the absurdist ones with the childlike drawings and dismiss them as frivolous. But the goofiness of some of the dialogue really makes the serious themes—particularly about the bomb and the atomic age—stand out more starkly. It’s sort of like he’s saying, ‘if you don’t laugh at this, you’ll just start crying and go insane’. Am I misreading his intentions here?
Rick Schober: No. I think that’s exactly what his intentions were. Corso was really good at mixing humor with serious social commentary. Take his poem “Marriage,” for example. Bruce Cook, in his 1971 book The Beat Generation, wrote “. . . as funny and entertaining as all this certainly is, it is not merely that, for in its zany way ‘Marriage’ offers serious criticism of what is phony about a sacred American institution.” Corso does the same thing with his plays, especially Standing on a Streetcorner, In This Hung-Up Age, and JFK.
PKM: In some ways, the poetry and drawings echo those of an earlier poet, Kenneth Patchen. Are you aware as to whether Corso ever mentioned Patchen’s work as an influence? Did he know Patchen?
Rick Schober: Corso was definitely aware of Patchen as a fellow poet but I don’t know if they were personally acquainted. In An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso – great book, by the way – he only mentions Patchen once, in a letter to City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He wrote “Patchen … is like Puccini: I can’t give any opinion, can only like.” For what it’s worth, Allen Ginsberg once wrote that “Patchen and Cummings had NO influence on 1) Kerouac 2) Corso 3) Burroughs 4) Myself.”
PKM: Who did Corso perhaps more openly claim as his influences, particularly among the playwrights?
Rick Schober: Among the playwrights? Maybe Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of whom he mentioned in a reading of Sarpedon, his take on an ancient Greek play, which is included in this collection. I’m not aware of any modern influences.
PKM: Did Corso expect, or hope, that these plays would be performed? Were any of them performed in his lifetime?
Rick Schober: I think most playwrights write with the intention or, at least, hope of having their plays performed. In This Hung-Up Age was performed by Harvard and Radcliffe students at the New Theatre Workshop in Cambridge, Mass., in 1955, and was considered a “minor triumph” by a reviewer at the Harvard Crimson. As far as I know, only one other of his plays, Way Out, A Poem in Discord, was ever performed. That was in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1974.
PKM: What took so long for these plays to see the light of day? Wasn’t City Lights going to publish a collection in the 1980s? What happened to that project?
Rick Schober: A few online sources list “Collected Plays, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1980” among Corso’s writings, but it was never published. According to Raymond Foye, who was an editor at City Lights at the time, and working with Gregory on the book, “he was in such bad shape and broke into the store one night by smashing a window, they decided to put the book off, because they just didn’t want him coming around.” Apparently, he had broken into the store twice already that year.
PKM: “Bomb” and “Elegiac Feelings For America” are major poems, along with the most-often anthologized poem, “Marriage.” Do you think that because some of his lesser poetry was uneven that it’s easy to consign Corso to a lesser standing than the other main Beats?
Rick Schober: I wouldn’t consign Corso to a lesser standing. I think he’s right up there alongside Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. In fact, Ginsberg once wrote that Corso was “a poet much superior to me.” He just wasn’t as prolific as the other main Beats, which might be why he’s not as well known.
PKM: Corso also wrote The American Express, a novel published by Olympia Press, Maurice Girodias’s imprint, the same one that also published The Story of O, Marquis de Sade, Candy, Naked Lunch. Why was it published by Girodias? Was it too “dirty” to attract an American publisher?
Rick Schober: It’s probably 40 years since I read The American Express, so I don’t remember much about it, but I don’t recall anything obscene about either Corso’s language or the book’s subject matter that would have turned off an American publisher or made the book unpublishable in the U.S. Not everything that Girodias published was erotic. Some of it was just experimental or avant-garde literary fiction. Corso, by the way, met Girodias when he was living in Paris in the mid-1950s and, together with Ginsberg, convinced the publisher to take on Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
PKM: What are some of the other titles that Tough Poets has published by and about Corso and other Beats?
Rick Schober: The first book I published was The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews with Gregory Corso in 2015. That was followed by the first-ever publication of Corso’s play Sarpedon about a year later. The only other Beat-related work I’ve published so far has been a new edition of West Coast poet Kirby Doyle’s novel, Happiness Bastard, originally written between 1959 and 1960, but not published until 1968. It was originally put out by Essex House, a short-lived California publisher of primarily soft-core porn novels. In their defense, they also published three original Philip José Farmer sci-fi/fantasy novels as well as Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man.
PKM: Are you aware of any other unpublished manuscripts in the Corso archives? Where is most of his archive located now?
Rick Schober: Raymond Foye and George Scrivani, who both helped immensely with the editing and proofreading of the collected plays, have been working on editing The Golden Dot for the last couple of years. It’s a collection of poems that Corso wrote between 1980 and 1983 but never published. Actually, four of the poems were published by Foye last year in a bilingual broadside (English and Greek) titled Melted Parchment.
Corso’s manuscripts, both published and unpublished, are all over the place. In a 1974 interview in The Whole Shot, he said “When I needed money for dope, you see, I would never recopy the poems. I’d just sell the book. So a lot of my poems, you know, are in the universities and have never been published.” Brown, Columbia, Syracuse, the University of Texas at Austin, and the New York Public Library all have pretty extensive collections. And there are many others.
In The Whole Shot, Corso also mentions two lost collections. The first was a suitcase full of early poems misplaced at a Greyhound Bus terminal in Florida in the mid-1950s. The second was the only copy of a manuscript for a book he planned to call Who Am I—Who I Am, a collection of poems written between 1970 and 1974, which he left in the care of poet Isabella Gardner but was stolen from her apartment in the Hotel Chelsea. Sadly, these are probably lost forever.