The night I saw Corso in a dim Bohemian bar in New Brunswick, NJ sometime in the 80's (1983?) I was with two buddies from graduate school. We had just come from a class with Nathaniel Tarn on modern poetry, and I had convinced my friends to come with me. They didn't know what to expect. I kind of did, and I was excited; but first we had to stand and listen to two or three young Beat wanna-be's deliver their loud insistent clanging rants, and then Corso stood up and walked over to the microphone. He was short and missing some teeth and his face looked like an old boxer's. I liked him immediately, and when he began reading it was obvious from the start that, unlike the previous readers, he was a poet. I don't remember what poem he read first , but it was a seamless combination of sound, image and insight and every once in a while there was a line that made me laugh out loud. The poet pugilist was funny, but he was also a little scary: his mannerisms were erratic, almost frenetic, and I think many of the 20 or so people in the bar stifled their laughs because nobody knew how he might react. I laughed half-expecting him to drop his book and take two steps into the audience and punch me in the mouth. But the poem "Marriage" was the first poem that made me laugh and cry and here I was standing ten feet away from Gregory Corso, the aging boxer who had had a face lift and seemed to be wearing a wig, or if it was his real hair it had grown long and had been dyed an off-reddish color that didn't look quite real. There was also an angularity to his face that, combined with the wig, made me think of an old transvestite, or at least a woman in a man's face. Maybe a satyr. The again satyr read on, one good poem after another, and then I noticed something strange : he wasn't finishing any of his poems! Instead, every time he got close to finishing a poem his voice would trail off and he would mumble something, pause and look down, and then introduce or just start reading the next poem. It was a strange tick and he seemed to know it, that not finishing his poems was bizarre, and he started to get increasingly more self-conscious about it; until at one point he finally said, "I can't finish this poem," or something to that effect, and then, "I can't read the last lines of any of these poems and I don't know why." When he said that, I was standing right in front of him, and it sounded as if he wasn't being rhetorical but he were asking, almost pleading, for an answer, so without thinking ("first thought, best thought") I said , "Because you don't want to die." And then Corso the poet looked at me and shrugged and kind of chortled or snickered, I couldn't tell which but I kind of ducked, and then he looked back down into his book and started reading another poem, which was as good as the previous ones. But he didn't read the last line of that poem, either.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Saturday, January 11, 2014
Al Cook, our visionary English Department Chair, invited Corso, the delinquent high school dropout
and incandescent bard, to teach a senior seminar on Shelley—probably in ’65 or ’66. We met in
Foster Hall, one of the original buildings, I believe, from the original poor house before it became UB’s
Main Street campus. At least it seemed of that vintage. We used Newman Ivey White’s biography and
the Complete Poems. Gregory still looked like he did on The Happy Birthday of Death (he inscribed
my copy, “Hello, Gregory Corso,” as if conferring his name on the reader) though a bit more grizzled,
as became him.
Foster Hall did not, so sometimes we’d adjourn to Bitterman’s, a bar directly across Main Street
that once served as a blacksmith’s shop and still had its original wide, black wainscoting on the walls.
In those days, two types frequented Bitterman’s: jocks and poets (later, the jocks won, and it became
a garish sports bar). In its glory days, though, we’d order a few pitchers of draft and marvel at Gregory’s
erudition. Yeats’ rough beast had, in a gentler incarnation, slouched toward Buffalo.
Alas, as so often blights apocalypses, this too aborted, mid-slouch, via a double whammy. I don’t recall
which came first, but at one point Gregory, out of sorts, confronted Professor Ralph Maud (with whom
I had studied Dylan Thomas, among others, and who later became an important Charles Olson scholar),
calling him a “long-red-haired moon-faced faggot.” Ralph, moved to umbrage by the unexpected slur,
walloped Corso in the kisser, breaking his nose (the story goes).
Alas, again, it goes further: in those days, employment at UB required one to sign “the Feinberg Oath,”
which stipulated that the signee supported the Constitution of the United States, as well as the Constitution
of the State of New York. Gregory, well acquainted with the former, said he could assent to support it, but
had never read the latter, and requested a copy. Oddly, it took some time before the University could provide
him with one and, when it did, it proved much longer and more convoluted than the US Constitution.
Objecting that he had to teach a course and didn’t have time to peruse such a lengthy document, he declined
to sign the oath—whereupon the University dismissed him as a potential subversive. Everyone regarded the
gentleman who replaced him, a brilliant and thoroughly competent man, as a socialist (who, of course, signed
the oath). No matter: the commie poet had to go, another victim of stupidity. I used to memorize his poems
and recite them to whoever would listen.