Gregory Corso: Poet of the Streets
by James Lough
Illustration by Isaac Bonan
If the first string of the Beat writers featured Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, then Gregory Corso was the number one second stringer, an apt metaphor because he loved baseball and wrote about it. When young, in the 1960s, he was a handsome devil, which helped him befriend Allen Ginsberg, who claimed he once seduced Corso. Corso denied it. But Corso’s smooth good looks were belied by his aggressive personality forged from growing up in eight different foster families and fending for himself on the streets. He met Ginsberg at age 20, right after finishing three years in upstate New York’s Clinton prison for several robberies.[i]
Corso’s most well-known collection of poetry was Gasoline/Vestal Lady on Brattle, published by City Lights, but he published something like seventeen books. Probably his most famous poem was “Bomb,” which appeared on the page in the shape of a mushroom cloud and argued that we must learn to love the bomb. Hadn’t we heard that somewhere, say, in Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire of the Cold War? Corso beat Kubrick to the punch, publishing “Bomb” in 1958.[ii]
Corso lived at the Chelsea off and on, gracing the hotel’s literary scene with his literary learnedness, his trickster’s antics and his acid tongue.
I was on my way with a couple of friends on 23rd Street, and we saw this crazy old drunk standing on 23rd street, sort of ranting at people on the street. He looked homeless. He was holding this huge framed photograph of Hitler before Hitler became Chancellor. Hitler was dressed in mourning clothes, those ties that are folded over, and his shoes had spats on them.
So this drunk on 23rd was screaming, “Ya wanna buy a pictah of Hitlah?”
Naturally, I was immediately attracted to this guy. I went up and talked to him about his picture of Hitler.
When he turned to look at us, I realized he was Gregory Corso! Corso on the street selling this picture! We started talking to him.
“Are you Gregory Corso?”
“Yeah of course. That’s Corso, yeah,” he said, referring to himself in the third person.
So we started walking down 23rd street with Corso, talking with him, and he was grabbing at people as he staggered down the street. At one point, he stopped right in front of the Chelsea Hotel, and he pointed at Hitler. “Look at him! He coulda done so many good things, the motherfucker! The broads loved him! Look at his shoes!”
And then he walked into the Chelsea. I found out later on that he was going up to Marty Matz’s room.
Before long, Dimitri had introduced Corso to his his young friend, the fillmaker James Rasin.
Gregory Corso and I would go to Atlantic City together. I remember the first time we went, I had just come walking down the block. I was in shorts and a tee shirt and flip flops.
Gregory said, “I’m going to Atlantic City. You wanna come with me? Let’s go to the Port Authority and catch the bus.”
I had just gotten paid – I had about 300 bucks in my pocket, so I said, “Sure, let’s go!”
So we’re walking through the Port Authority, and I was thinking this was pretty cool to be doing this with Corso. But then this homeless guy who’s walking behind us starts saying “Excuse me!” and starts chasing after us.
I thought, “Well, I’m going to ignore this guy!”
But the homeless guy came up to me. He tapped me on the shoulder and then he started shaking me. He said, “This fell out of your pocket!” He was holding my wad of money – it had fallen out of my pocket.
Corso was ecstatic. “You are the luckiest person in the world. I’ve never seen anything like it! I’m so glad we’re going out – you’re gonna be good luck in Atlantic City!”
To have a homeless guy chase you down with your 300 dollars! I felt like kind of a jackass, so I gave the homeless guy some of the money and we went on and had fun.
Corso had just gotten the galley proofs of his book Minefield. The whole bus ride out, he was reading aloud to me from the galleys as he proofread it. Gregory was a great teacher. He was a very, very smart guy, different from Huncke in a lot of different ways. Sometimes I’d go over to his place and we’d watch football together.
We once did a film with Gregory Corso up on the roof of a building. We had him recite and riff on the Bill of Rights. He would read from the Bill of Rights and then say his peace about it. He never liked the film – he thought we had tricked him and gotten him drunk. He thought he looked like an idiot. He didn’t want us to show that film, so we never did. But I didn’t think he looked like an idiot. The film probably could have turned out better, and he was a little self-conscious, and he was a little drunk, but it’s still an interesting document – Gregory up on the roof saying his peace about the Constitution.
One time, Corso was kidding around with me.
“Hey Dimitri, you’re Greek. You’re supposed to know something about the ancient Greeks! You don’t know crap about the ancient Greeks, and you’re Greek!”
So Ramon, the Puerto Rican drug dealer, asks Corso, “What’s that mean? He’s Greek, so what? What’s that mean?”
“You don’t know?” Corso asks. “You don’t know the ancient Greeks?”
“Nah,” Ramon says, irritated, as if it’s obvious that he wouldn’t know about such things.
Now Corso’s schtick was that there’s not much to know, that there were only about five things about the world that everyone should know. And one of them was the ancient Greeks.
“I’m going to break it down for you, Ramon,” Corso said. So Corso went home and wrote Ramon a history book of the ancient Greeks! It’s got an inscription in it.
Corso was an intimidatingly brilliant man, and all self-educated.
Later, I told Ramon, “Listen Ramon, you hold onto that book. That book’s worth all the gold you own.”
“Really?” Ramon was incredulous. “From this guy?” Ramon had just stumbled onto these Beat guys by knowing some of us at the Chelsea. He had no idea who they were.
“Yeah, bro,” I said. “Really.”
He knew so much about the Greek classics and poetry. He knew Greek mythology backwards and forwards.
According to Ginsberg’s biographer, Barry Miles, Corso – who had next to no formal education – learned everything he knew about ancient Greek and Roman literature by reading them in prison. The old convicts there had advised him about prison life: “Don’t serve time, let it serve you.”
But as Ginsberg and William Burroughs could attest, Corso could be a handful. He was emotionally mercurial and subject to tantrums, hissy fits and general bad behavior.
Gregory Corso used to hit on my girlfriend, Carol, and be really abusive in a verbal way.
My wife at the time was absolutely beautiful, and one time Corso was being rude to her in my apartment. I wanted to kill him. But later on, I got to know him more, and he said to me that my relationship to her was a blessed thing. I had to beat Corso’s ass, but after I did, he started to be decent to me.
Gregory Corso died January 17, 2001 — ten months before the death of his fellow Chelsea-dwelling poet, Marty Matz.
[i] From Barry Miles’ biography, Ginsberg, Simon and Schuster, 1989.
[ii] For more on Gregory Corso’s poem “Gasoline,” see http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/corso/bio.htm and