Off-Beat

Iain Sinclair writes about Gregory Corso

There may be only two writers, currently at work in America, who can bring themselves, unblushing, to use the phrase ‘drinky poo’. Two Wodehousian renegades. One drops the words, like a pair of maraschino cherries, into his sunburst fiction. The other, a poet, whose work is his life, is happy to go either way: rhyme them or float them, with a winning question mark, at the conclusion of an in-your-face Greenwich Village monologue.

The novelist is the Miami-based eco dude, Carl Hiaasen, author of a number of slick, fast-moving, if increasingly formulaic, crime romps. Barbecued poodles, steroidal maniacs in sub-Disney pleasures parks, ugly plastic surgery retreads looking for vengeance, decent Hispanic cops, intelligent strippers with hearts of gold: a generically complacent agenda. But good fun to read from a few thousand miles away. You don’t have to worry, at that distance, about suspending disbelief. You’re happy to swallow an ex-state governor called Skink Tyree, a Vietnam vet liberal, who chooses to live on road kills, a swamp rat whose self-presentation is somewhere between Kris Kristofferson (in one of Peckinpah’s more unbuttoned ventures) and Gary Snyder. Neat prose to surf in short sharp bursts, each cross-cut segment with a hook in its tail. Impotent fantasies aimed against the ravages of developers and despoilers, incomers, fixers, quacks, swarthy New York hoods with misjudged tailoring. Exactly the kind of lowlife Gregory Corso once appeared to be: a 16-year-old member of the so-called Walkie-Talkie Gang who ripped off $64,000 from the soft-file safes of the money-lending Household Finance operation. Corso kitted himself out in a traffic-stopping zoot suit, squeezed $7000 into his pockets and took off for Florida. Later he would write about how money leaked away, slippery as mercury: ‘Money in every pocket, no wallet, no clip/I just bunch it up and stuff it.’ Cash for Corso was always a dangerously occult commodity. ‘Money,’ he acknowledged, ‘doesn’t come with instructions.’

Corso of course is the other ‘drinky poo’ laureate. In his latest novel, Stormy Weather, Hiaasen takes less than a hundred pages to dispose of Tony Torres, the scumbag mobile-home salesman who utters the fatal phrase: ‘Let’s have a drinky poo.’ But Corso is stuck with it for life, it’s part of the texture, the rap. Back in the late Forties and early Fifties, when he sat in coffee shops and dyke bars, Horn and Hardart’s, talking at Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac with feverish intensity, disconnected hipsters admired the vigour of their discourse. ‘Dig that aggression!’ Tony Torres goes out in baroque style, crucified inside a TV dish, ‘splayed and mounted like a butterfly’ by a Teamsters heavy, the son of a dissatisfied customer. Corso, paying his dues to his Catholic Italian heritage, rolls on for ever, the angelic bad boy, youngest of the Daddies. His teeth ‘lost in the service’.

Hiaasen’s teeth are so bright, they irradiate his author photo like a hole in the paper. His career is moving on an upward curve, through crusading journalism towards movie options, by way of song lyrics – ‘Rottweiler Blues’ – for Warren Zevon. He was never stuck in the paperback original ghetto, his mayhem justified by a care for indigenous wildlife and a surreal gift for disposing of unpleasant humans in inventive ways. But Gregory Corso is in danger of slipping quietly out of the scene. No book of his is in print in Britain. At a period of Beat Generation revivalism that threatens to turn the whole bunch into another Bloomsbury Group, Corso has succeeded in opting out – while producing ten large cardboard boxes of unpublished typescripts. Once he was the unnamed tyro on the cover of Newsweek, the Zeppo Marx who spoiled the original ‘triplicity’ (as he calls it) of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg. The Kerouac Estate now has a six-figure annual turnover, expensive relics are sold to celebrity collectors. Ginsberg’s papers, a vast and valuable archive, have gone to Stanford University for more than a million dollars. Burroughs, in retirement, advertises Nike, and is visited like an Emersonian sage. Ginsberg and Burroughs have both been taken into the Establishment, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and are represented by the same high-profile literary agent. Corso remains agentless, a public orphan: ‘I’ve no mamma, no papa, no dente, no casa.’ Uninvited by Bill Clinton to join other high-achieving Italian-Americans, such as Nicolas Cage, Martin Scorsese and ex-baseball player Joe Garagiola, at the bean-feast held in honour of President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Corso is typecast as an involuntary amnesia case, a sleeve-tugger of enormous charm. A street poet in an age that has no use for poets or streets. His worry was that his father, seeing him on the cover of a Luce empire magazine, would think he was going straight to the electric chair, a True Crime punk, a fastburn celebrity.

Gregory Nunzio Corso describes himself as a ‘graduate in orphancy’, abandoned by a youthful mother who fled back to Italy, abandoned also by a series of foster mothers. An early epiphany was the memory of bathing with one of these surrogates, golden light playing on her pubic fleece. ‘I remember the black hair on her cunt and the water. Now that’s a good shot for a two-year old.’ Corso the bedwetter was a runaway, living rough, discovering compensatory visions in the clouds, lions stalking the roofs of tenements. Inevitably, he matriculated in petty crime, thefts of radios, delinquency and institutional life. He was incarcerated briefly in the Tombs and defined as insane, spending ‘three frightening sad months’ in Bellevue mental hospital. As a full-blown Romantic he would read these years as a De Quincey-like apprenticeship: vignettes of poverty, endless movement around the same small nexus of streets, the Village, Little Italy. He was ‘God’s spy’, a poet fink keeping secret notebooks. The early poems are about his mother and the sea, their correspondence: ‘The sea ate her / Upon the shore I found a strange / yet beautiful food.’ Or about gangsters, death messengers, suicides: ‘When you’re dead you can’t talk / Yet you feel like you could.’

This was the sketchy outline I carried with me to New York on a trip, with the producer Paul Quinn, to research a radio programme about the Beat heritage. I’d never been there before, never met Corso. I’d seen him, in the tweed sports jacket of a young academic, performing, sober, at the famous Albert Hall ‘Wholly Communion’ readings on 11 June 1965. I’d watched the Peter Whitehead video. American poets in those days, with their crisper sense of history and occasion, wore suits and ties. I’d read the free-wheeling interviews in fugitive magazines, such as Arthur and Kit Knight’s The Beat Diary. I’d clocked Corso, along with the other survivors, on the conference circuit. Bearded, lived-in faces confronted by batteries of microphones – as if on trial, undergoing public McCarthyite interrogation. Burroughs, the octogenarian, can afford to spurn these invitations, transmit his condolences over the telephone, mutter about needing to feed the cats. But large-format hardbacks still roll from the presses, ancient allies and enemies yawning together on platforms at Boulder, Colorado, or Grand Forks, North Dakota. ‘Prisoners of the Press Conference’, as Ann Charters captions them. Explainers of what is gone, apologists for what never happened. Literary stocks busking to sustain their market value, justify the next complimentary, two-seat air ticket.

Corso always piled into these interviews with generous venom. He speaks so well of those he has bad-mouthed, those who have bad-mouthed him. There is none of that characteristic British backbiting. We enjoy a culture in which no poet will let slip the opportunity of diminishing another’s reputation. Corso has none of that. He’ll barrack readings as the spirit moves him, liberate the odd rare book, borrow money – but he retains a high-minded respect for the act of composition. The poet is blessed. Each interview comes fresh. He answers the old inglorious questions as if he were hearing them for the first time.

Lodged for the New York section of our Beat pilgrimage in the Paramount Hotel, off Times Square, Quinn and I found ourselves in a Dantesque limbo: compulsory black like a gangland funeral, media friendly, discounts to TV crews who look like TV crews. The Paramount is clearly the joint John Lanchester’s characters allude to in The Debt to Pleasure. ‘Bed, sheets, fittings, lamps, lightbulbs – all black ... I stayed in a flash hotel in New York that was a bit like that.’ The cab-summoners, out on the street, in long torpedo coats and wool caps, swoop like bag-snatchers. Like video surveillance spectres. The lobby, dimly lit, is for professional posers and the in-house magazine-stand offers antique cigarettes and copies of William Burroughs’s Ghosts of Chance. Upstairs, there are quilted blackboard panels behind each bed and the colour television is hidden inside a thin cupboard with a cut-out Osiris eye. Light is hosed from a surgical tube and is so feeble that it’s almost impossible to see the numbers on the telephone.

Quinn does his best to fix an interview with Corso. Not easy, this juggling with the poet’s appointments at the clinic, our visits to the Beat Culture exhibition at the Whitney. Complex negotiations are entered into with minders and middlemen. I thought of Jeffrey Smalldon’s account of running across Corso in the Kettle of Fish, how the occasion rapidly degenerated into rows over lottery tickets and a chance meeting with a ‘tall, slender’ gent in a sinister ‘European-cut suit’. ‘Mafioso, man, heavy shit,’ warns Gregory. ‘Nobody messes with him.’ The portrait is of a life in afternoon bars, gambling by numerological and cabalistic systems, polishing well-honed insults (‘hairbag full of water’).

The non-writing poet at home in the city, scuttling between memory stations, known among the unknown, a clown at the feast. ‘You still spending Christmas with us?’ asks the Sicilian functionary. Corso is last seen, bifocals at the end of his nose, scowling behind a book, as he babysits a deserted bookshop. The owners of that shop are the ones who now keep a roof over his head.

He still lives in childhood territory, a couple of blocks from the Hudson River, in a pleasant apartment shared with the bookdealers, Roger and Irvyne Richards, the dedicatees (‘slayers of homelessness’) of Corso’s last substantial collection, Mindfield (1989). Herbert Huncke and Peter Orlovsky also hang out at the book room, living exhibits, marginals whose work has never quite been accepted into the official canon. It is so much easier to patronise the exoticism of hard-lived lives than to search out the pamphlets that feature transcripts drawn from them, the crafted poems and tales.

Corso, at once, throws Quinn. He can’t talk sitting down. He has to pace the length of the room, like a cell. He plea-bargains, turns confession into a boast. There’s barely time to put a question. His memory tapes are on a loop. Word perfect. He’s hot. A white, open-necked shirt, loose waistcoat. Grey hair to the shoulder, gargoyle cherub. The impishness of the much-photographed young hustler is unsubdued. He has weathered around the flying buttress of that magnificently medieval nose. If anyone should be in the Nike ads, it’s Gregory. He’s the only pensioned Beat still using well-hiked trainers. Look at the Annie Leibovitz spread in Vanity Fair, a row of brilliantly varnished hoofs – and Corso sockless in scuffed white casuals. Footwear is an important element in the Corso creed. ‘Don’t take off your shoes,’ that’s what they told him, aged 17, when he arrived at Clinton State Prison in Dannemora. Any session with Corso opens with a restatement of the three golden rules: ‘Hang on to your shoes, you’re walking,’ ‘Don’t serve time, let time serve you,’ ‘When you go out there and you’re talking to two people, make sure you see three.’ Wisdom from the joint that is now permanently imprinted. Corso has stuck with the doctrine of the third person. He could report on his adventures, make ‘Gregory’ the hero of a picaresque narrative. ‘It’s the mirror that changes / not poor Gregory.’ This favoured other, anecdotal child, grants the poet the freedom to use an impersonal ‘I’, to work the nominative singular pronoun, like a needle, in and out of the lyric web. ‘I’ is a charmer’s tool, a performance double, whose antics bring an audience towards the release of laughter. The great public poems – Marriage, Bomb, The Whole Mess ... Almost – make use of a perky and confident ‘I’ to guide us to the punchline. It’s an energised version of the poet himself, self-confident, spread over a chain of circumstances that will never change. ‘Beauty’ will always be the ‘killer’ and ‘Death’ will be flung from the window, ‘kitchen sink and all’.

Death and the window, the poles of Corso’s world. The young poet, returned from prison to Greenwich Village, took his manuscript to the Pony Stable, a West 12th Street, Mafia-owned, lesbian bar. In his rented room, lights off, he watched a young woman in the house opposite as she dressed and undressed, bathed, or coupled with her lover. Corso masturbated over this Rear Window manifestation, the tender pornography of the real. Window-watchers, in his experience, were potential jumpers, suicides:

Arms outstretched
Hands flat against the windowsides
She looks down ...
They take her away with a Daily News on her face
And a storekeeper throws hot water on the sidewalk

Death is what happens in the transaction between interior and exterior, room and street, watcher and one-who-is-watched. In The Whole Mess ... Almost the poet heaves his romantic abstractions out into the air, until all the illusory toys are gone. ‘Out the window with the window!’

In the Pony Stable Corso noticed a man who seemed to be staring back at him. ‘Why you staring at me when I went to make a phone-call?’ ‘’Cos you got big eyes, man.’ Allen Ginsberg. Who else? Instant collision of egos, exchange of biographies. Corso told his prison tale. How he had devoured literature – Shelley, The Brothers Karamazov, Rimbaud, Chatterton, Les Misérables. How he discovered the ‘obsolete and archaic’ treasures of the 1905 Standard Dictionary. Onomatopoeic words of which he became too fond. Thomas Carlyle’s ‘brool’ appears several times in Minefield, even being brought back across the Atlantic for ‘Of One Month’s Reading of English Newspapers’. ‘White Chapel Street is fog again ... Noon, slow, brool, a flowerian dress/breezing over a flowerian face.’

The meeting with Ginsberg was the crucial one for Corso. It would be a lifelong bonding. They were the two acknowledged poet heroes of the Beat Generation. ‘The poet and the poetry,’ Corso frequently stated, ‘are inseparable.’ ‘I am my poetry.’ Ginsberg, careful of his career, but working hard to promote his friends, continued to support and nurture Corso – even when he had to be expelled from the Cherry Valley Farm for his refusal to abstain from alcohol. Their relationship was not homosexual, Corso assured us. ‘He sucked me off, but that was it. I didn’t want to put my mouth where men go to the bathroom.’ But it all began, this mental kinship, with windows. Because Ginsberg, who had been the lover Corso watched from his eyrie, invited the younger poet to meet and share the woman of his fantasy, Dusty Moreland.

What mattered most to the poets was the quality of their visionary experiences. Corso, who had a thing about doors, was lying on his bed one day when he saw the doorknob turning, the locked door opening. A seizure that occurred a second time on Crete. ‘Skinless light.’ He was young, clean; he wasn’t dreaming. There was a form in the light, pointing straight at him. Immediately he wrote a letter to Ginsberg. ‘I saw it, Burroughs saw it – did you see it?’ And received a furious reply. The poets, like spiritual gunslingers, judged each other by measuring the length and weight of their eidetic hallucinations. Ginsberg heard the voice of Blake in Harlem. ‘But what did he say?’ Corso demands. ‘Niente, no word.’

The New York Beats were peppery, competitive, jealous of the inventiveness of their language. Believers in spontaneity, speaking ‘from the top of the head, putting all trust in your self as truth sayer’. Madness was an affirmation of that truth and poetry a ‘dark arriviste’. There were presentational differences with the cooler cats on the West Coast. Corso could never quite accept the Pacific Rim ecological package. He didn’t want to be lectured on the divinity of forests. ‘I pounded my fists on a wooden table and said: “This is what man does to trees.” ’ He insisted on an ecology of mind. Somehow he found it hard to take Gary Snyder ‘yakking at Dakota farmers on how to plant potatoes’.

The life of the pure poet was tough. Or, better than that, it was impossible. Corso decided to bide his time in the Sixties, sit out the Seventies. He didn’t join in the essentially West Coast circus of Be-Ins, neo-tribalism, communality. The process of marginalisation began – in which he was happy to co-operate. Now the term ‘dopey poo’ was added to the lexicon as ‘a poet’s prerogative’. ‘Drugs,’ Corso writes, ‘were a filthy nurse.’ They marked time, they shaped the day. To the outsider these appeared to be lost years. If Burroughs used addiction as a way of making contact with alien energies, soliciting viral invasion, then Corso, requiring instant gratification, indulged heroin as part of along-standing argument with himself. The conversion of a ‘good-looking little wop’, trading on charm, into a toothless seer. The birthday poems and mirror interrogations grew harsher and harsher.

There were more stories of bad behaviour. Kathy Acker remembers being dumped from a car in the middle of the night, in a Panther-controlled area of Oakland, for refusing to take part in a Corso threesome. There were scuffles outside Burroughs’s Lower East Side bunker. ‘It’s always like this with Gregory,’ he complained. ‘Wherever he goes it’s always cops and everything.’ Corso was invited to leave the rural retreat of Ginsberg’s Cherry Valley Farm. By now he was well on the way to becoming the Joe Pesci of Casino, a loose cannon, motormouth nemesis for Ginsberg’s Jewish De Niro, who was still trying to do the business, keep the enterprise moving and growing.

Like his old rivals, the Black Mountain poets, who he regarded as ‘mental gangsters, hip squares’, Corso was out of favour, ignored by the major publishers. But he was still producing the work, he showed us the cardboard boxes in his cluttered room. He was the poem, so there was no way out. ‘Eight years now and I haven’t stole a thing! ... the world owes me a million dollars.’ No longer ‘randomly young’, how should he live? The language gigolo was easing up. Corso allowed himself to become a literary sperm bank, a child father. And the bank paid dividends. He willingly accepted the tragedy of bringing life into the world. ‘I like human beings, but I don’t like life.’ He reports Kerouac’s sorrow when confronted by Corso’s son. ‘O Gregory ... you brought up something to die.’

Corso breaks from his frantic pacing to explain how it works. ‘Four blessed children by four different mothers. And very rich mothers. How blessed I am. I don’t have to go to work, I don’t have to do anything. I’m happy, I see them. They see me. Oh boy! Great ladies. They wanted to raise their kids alone. One child is enough, Gregory. Sharp women, blessed. Each one, five years a shot. Dig it? No accident.’ A great solution. But now, he says, things are different. ‘I need my drinky poo. The ball game is over. I don’t want to make more children. I don’t go after women anymore.’

We get into an animated discussion of the relative virtues of the terms ‘whack’ or ‘dust’ for a Mafia hit. Corso finds ‘whack’ an onomatopoeic vulgarity, the sound is there, but the impact is too crude. He prefers ‘dust’ with the visual scoring of powder rising from old suits, the meat of man returning to clay. Blown to the winds. Lost to the desert. The gun theme runs. Hearing that we are about to visit Burroughs, he tells us that we’ll have some good hunting, and breaks off the interview to write Bill a letter.

It’s curious that, in our conversation, Corso uses a number of similes drawn from Native American life, an unconscious reconnection with Snyder’s long-term concerns. The Beats, he implies, are the Redskins of America: noble savages doomed in all they attempt. Fossils of better times. Or Hollywood B-feature braves played by Jews. In his fine collection Elegiac Feelings American, he wrote of Kerouac, his identification with the land, and also offered a ‘Spontaneous Requiem for the American Indian’. A ‘hard nickel faced’ Geronimo skidding into a displaced, leather-jacket motorcyclist ‘smoking/a cigarette in a fishy corner in the night’.

Burroughs slashes open his letter in his fire-hydrant red cabin in Lawrence, Kansas, with a ceramic knife. He reads it, snorts. The guns are in the cellar and the Native Americans safely in their university on the far side of the fence. Sometimes they get drunk and invade his property. But he’s ready for them. There’s a feathered shamanic wand in the bedroom. There have been rumours of sweat-lodge ceremonies, the casting out of a personal demon – thought of as the unappeased spirit of the dead Joan Vollmer Burroughs, shot through the forehead in Mexico City. Or the malignant, pre-Columbian entity that caused that event. A Navajo shaman presiding over the exorcism blew on a bone whistle, touched Burroughs with a burning coal. The shaman later admitted to being deeply frightened by what he had seen: the Ugly Spirit of American capitalism, ‘a faceless white skull with winglike protuberances and no eyes’. A neutralized war helmet. Burroughs didn’t want to talk about it. He has insisted often enough that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. His new shaman, he allowed, was quite useful in pacifying a grumbling hiatus hernia.

Talking, however briefly – and perhaps better for that – with these writers is an unreal and privileged situation. The dry, practical wisdom of Burroughs, always coming back to the facts of rent, the price of stew, the old books that will stand rereading. The rush of Corso with his semaphoring anecdotal style. Each memory treasured, lived again. His love of ‘blending his shit with the beauty of the Romantics’. ‘Blake, Shelley, Keats, Byron ... goody gumdrops.’ The Europe of the old gods is a lost, parallel culture. On opium Corso made an extraordinary collage of Paris – featured in the Whitney show – the same domes, in different sizes, piled on top of each other. ‘Ten Sacré Coeurs, four Opera Houses. I had a ball.’ He ripped-off over five hundred postcards, pasted them with Elmer’s ineffective glue, onto card. A glittering Byzantium of the mind.

Even his parents were invoked from the streets of Rome. He ‘stood in the Piazza Colonna (my mother’s maiden name) / on the Via Corso / (my mother’s wedded name)’ shouting, proclaiming his kinship with place, to Italians who were disdainful of such hysterical display. But this touristic Europe, with its zoos and galleries, was a great resource. The fantastic England of fogs and child-killers and stiff courtesy was frequently celebrated. Corso lived for a time in the late Fifties in Primrose Hill. ‘I saw the druids at their work, that was great.’ Unlike Sylvia Plath, who lodged on the same patch, Corso’s London period was invisible, his poems hidden away in secondhand anthologies. His life as obscure as that of Beckett’s Murphy. Corso’s sage green novel, The American Express, written for the Olympia Press in Paris, must be the chastest item in their catalogue. A whimsical fable decorated with doodles that could have been done by Stevie Smith.

Mindfield, a chunky gathering of Corso’s work, was published in England by Paladin – with a brief introduction by Douglas Oliver that Corso much admired. ‘The speed of mind is still there, along with its timing: how long a vowel lasts, the exact tick or fubbing of a consonant.’ But the series, indifferently promoted, never attracted a serious audience. Titles were allowed to drift out of print, or were pulped. Corso, unrepresented – if still championed by Ginsberg – became one of those fondly remembered ghosts, trapped in another period, interviewed in defiantly private magazines that never made it onto the racks of W.H. Smith. In 1962 Corso’s Selected Poems had been brought out in hardback by Eyre – Spottiswoode with a nice yellow dust-jacket: his first hardcover publication. But in those days there were different responsibilities, different expectations. MacGibbon – Kee kept William Carlos Williams in print. The conglomerates have put paid to such altruistic nonsense. Poetry is now defined as that which is beyond exploitation. Corso publishes in editions so small they are not much more than the excuse for an autograph. Hitting the Big 5-0, a copy of which we discovered languishing in a bookshop window, was one of an edition of 26 copies (none for sale). Market forces dictate the non-person status of poets such as John Wieners, who, in more gracious times, was granted two hardbacks by Cape. Too many lives are, as Kerouac said, ‘written on mirrors in smoke’. Poets could, so easily, be divorced from their own biographies. ‘Am I dead or alive?’ Wieners wrote. ‘A feeling of embalming fluid ... This is a cheated poet, a chastised citizen who has gotten hepatitis from Herbert Huncke’s spike.’

As we take our leave of Corso, his minders ask after desirable English authors, Larkins and Pyms. When their wants list arrives, as it surely must, at the foodie John Lanchester, Corso will find reassurance. Tarquin Winot, fastidious narrator of The Debt to Pleasure, has been carrying out a little light breaking and entering. Now he settles down for a session of Corsoesque eavesdropping. ‘Time for a drinky poo,’ he murmurs.