Wednesday, June 07, 2006

For a Feast of Saint Gregory

Notes from the Bitterness School with Gregory Corso

The second last time I saw Gregory Corso was the one time I met Herbert Huncke in Roger Richards’ bookstore on Greenwich Street where Roger sold used and rare books and distributed vodka and orange juice free. Huncke was attitudinizing anecdotally. The girl who had given me cocaine cut with speed and great sex and wrecked my marriage was history--drug history. Gregory gave me a puff on a joint and agreed to come over and sign a limited edition.
The last time I saw Gregory he signed the edition and I gave him $1000. The next morning most of the edition seemed to be missing. I phoned Roger.

“Where’s Gregory?”

You fool, Roger said. He’s in Atlantic city. Where else would he go with $1000?


As an editor I got to know certain graduates of the prison system. Gregory Corso, the poet, was imprisoned for robbing a gas station. The judge was angry because Gregory and his friends used walkie talkies, and, despite Gregory’s youth, sentenced him to three years. As a kid Gregory was entangled in classic New York gangs with names like Tiny Tims and Lucky Gents. He was a junkie all the time I knew him. Malcolm Morley, the painter, spent time in prison in England for burglary; Malcolm was messianic and a law unto himself and in the U.S. invented Photo-realism. Daniel Berrigan, priest, poet, and activist, still regularly goes to jail for Thoreauvian civil disobedience. Dan is also a quirky sneak-thief.


I was very straight at the time, and the whole junkie mentality really turned me off. The whole death mystique is so strong with hard-core junkies. -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti quoted in Ferlinghetti:the Artist in his Time by Barry Silesky (Warner Books; 1990; page 96)

I’m reading Barry Miles’ Beat Hotel and enjoying it immensely. Miles quotes from an interview with Gregory Corso in Writings from OX. The Times quotes another passage from that interview in Corso’s obituary.

He died 17 January 2001 aged 70 years.

Interviewing and publishing Gregory was an adventure. He’d visit me with a few pages he wanted published and a burning need for money for heroin. I managed through Gregory to meet a certain sampling of Manhattan pushers. Gregory avoided only The Times Square area. I suspect there were people there he did not want to meet; I bet he stiffed more than one of the very bad guys who used to hang out there.

Gregory was secretive and occasionally embarrassed by this drug problem. He got angry at me when I discussed it once pseudonymously; he had no problem seeing through my pseudonym. The wrong reputation would detract from his poetry. Of course, he also spent three years in prison as a young man. The wrong publicity could lead to a return visit.

Gregory was a wonderful poet. Put off by his wastrel ways, people would say, me included, that he’d wasted his talent. They’d say, like Robert Wilson in his new memoir Seeing Shelley Plain, that Gasoline, Gregory’s first book, was his best.

Though I am partial to The Japanese Notebook OX and Writings from OX, I’m generally of the opinion that The Happy Birthday of Death is the most characteristic of his genius. It’s the first publication of his best poem, “Marriage.” “Army,” “Police,” “Power” utterly master the scale of “The Wasteland” or “Howl.” Such work gave me the idea for The Poets’ Encyclopedia. There is an easy mastery of a comic French Surrealist idiom. “Under Peyote” confesses his druggie ways. “Hair,” too, is there; the poem seemed weirdly prophetic in the ‘60s; and the play, Hair, by no coincidence, has just been revived at City Center. “Bomb,” an unfolding centerfold, forecasts the quasi-Blakean union of the visual and the poetic seen in his later illustrated texts, particularly his undervalued novel, The American Express, and The Japanese Notebook OX.

I don’t know what to say about Gregory now that he’s dead. The last fifteen years of his life, when I saw him, I’d think -- how unfair! Gregory takes every chance, main bad or good. But look at me, a timid little bird; and are we equally alive? He was somehow moreso. John Gay and the invention of gin, Robert Burns and Scotch whiskey, Charles Baudelaire and the need for drunkeness, Arthur Rimbaud and the derangement of the senses, W.B. Yeats and les poetes maudites -- there’s a tradition of poets playing around with substances. The work of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso encouraged experimentation with drugs.

Corso did not just experiment. He was a junkie. When Gregory tied up his arm on our living room couch, cooked heroin on the stove, then casually shot up, my first wife called me into the bedroom. “Get him out of here,” she said. Years later, after our divorce, she had Corso’s Earth Egg (and other Unmuzzled OX) thrown into a dumpster.

I read a letter years ago in the Columbia rare book room from Allen Ginsberg about an evening with Gregory at Peggy Guggenheim’s in Venice. She didn’t like them. She prefers, Allen wrote, “high teacup” poets whereas they prefer to present an image “more Chaplinesque.”

But did Gregory Corso die of a heroin overdose? Or did one of the many pushers he stiffed finally catch up to him and kill him? Or perhaps one of the patrons of the arts who, against their will, supported his drug habit -- did someone finally call the law and have him incarcerated? Or did he get AIDS from the many needles he happily shared? None of the above. He died from prostate cancer, surrounded by family, friends and admirers.

Not only that but the Italian government has consented to have his remains flown to Rome and buried next to Shelley.