Gasoline – The Imaginary and the Pure
‘I think Corso is a more perfect poet, unique and independent of modes and manners’
– Allen Ginsberg
‘….it comes; I tell you, immense with gasolined
rags and bits of wire and old bent nails, a dark
arriviste, from a dark river within.’
– Gregory Corso
by PAUL STUBBS
It seems an almost well accepted fact that more than fifty years on from when it was first published in 1958, Gasoline (City Lights, 1958) by Beat poet Gregory Corso is a seminal book in the birth of that particular literary generation. Yet today, when compared to Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, the other major Beat writers, his work is still relatively ignored, and while their books can be found in large amounts in most British and American bookshops, Corso is still almost untraceable. And actually, at the time of writing this, Corso’s selected poems Mindfield is criminally out of print. Consequently, Corso’s poetry has still to receive its true recognition, which in part is due still to the ruling classes of Academia, and maybe even to a certain snobbishness over his sometimes wild and spontaneous antics.
In Beat circles of course Corso is still read widely, but outside such a group it seems there still exists a kind of malignant amnesia for a poet of such unique gifts. The label given to him of the Beat ‘clown’ and madman of poetry has certainly not helped his reputation, and has in fact repeatedly damaged it. When Corso was writing the poems of Gasoline the barricades were already being drawn in the universities and colleges of America between what Robert Lowell described as “cooked” and “raw” poetry; besides, in the two preceding years leading up to the release of Gasoline came the publication and subsequent trial of Howl by Allen Ginsberg in 56, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 57, two individual books that wedged that divide even further. So, by the time Gasoline was published in 1958 Corso was already an infamous and notorious Beat character, having already appeared in Life magazine alongside Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, also living around this period in the Beat Hotel in Paris that he himself named. It is true Corso probably alienated himself further by comments such as the following in a letter to Ginsberg in 1957: “I hate poetry and all its fucking ambitious son-of-a-bitches who call me a showman because I act myself”. Yet, he is the true Beat poet, writing because he had to and because of his beloved Shelley who handed down his pen to him as if a rod of lightening out of the celestial dream cloud forming inside his head while he was only 17 and festering in Clinton prison for petty crime. Corso though did find one early champion of his work in the unlikely academic and public figure of Randall Jarrell who, at the time, was Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress: he was impressed by The Vestal Lady on Brattle (the poet’s first collection, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955) enough to invite Corso to his house, giving him encouragement and vital head-space in which to write and complete the poems that went into Gasoline. Yet, only months after, fuelled by a visit to Jarrell’s house by a drunken Kerouac, Corso was left in no uncertain terms that he had outstayed his welcome – such as would happen to him most of his life.
After a reading with Ginsberg in 1956, Corso wrote to Jarrell to outline again his belief in the poet as an actual living-fusion of the language, an almost bodily representation of his own words, and also, like his hero Shelley as a legislator: “…I wanted to cause rebellion, I wanted to wake them up, even if my song was impractical, or somewhat silly. The poet is the minstrel, the legislator, the eternal rebel”. Ginsberg himself was the biggest champion of Corso’s work, maintaining up until his death that Corso had always been the greater poet, and always fighting his corner. In a letter from Amsterdam in 1957, where Ginsberg was writing the introduction to Gasoline, he replied to Ferlinghetti: “I know everybody puts Gregory down there in Frisco and glad you don’t, I am amazed by his genuine genius & originality”. And once more, in a letter to Kerouac: “We unite and give him send off – for he is sure to be generally put down unless people are made to dig him.” Besides, in his introduction that he was then writing, he explained in depth: “Corso is a great word-slinger, first naked sign of a poet, a scientific master of mad mouthfuls of language. He wants a surface hilarious with ellipses, jumps of the strangest phrasing picked off the streets of his mind like “mad children of soda caps’ ”.
Corso described his own quite idiosyncratic methods further: “That’s what poetry is to me, a wondrous prober… It’s not the metre, or measure of a line, a breath; not ‘law music’, but the assembly of great eye-sounds placed into an inspired idea” – the phrase “eye-sounds”, for him, being a typical oxymoronic way of seeing things, and that feeds into the poems of Gasoline.
In the opening poem, ‘Ode to Coit Tower’, which is actually more of an anti-ode, Corso bursts forth into a vatic outpouring, in which vision and beauty clash like two cymbals to leave the reader rapt, transfixed and vibrating with the poet’s compound phrases and hallucinatory build-up of images. Vision and beauty are represented by the tower itself, while everything else in the world that stymies, restrains and oppresses is represented by the prison of Alcatraz. It’s “petrific bondage” in which the human capacity for spirit, soul, light, is locked away, those each day “weeping I’m sure for humanity’s vast door to open that all men be free that / both hinge and lock die that all doors if they close close / like Chinese bells.” Corso knows his own truth but asks all the same:
‘Was it man’s love that put that rock there never to avalanche
but in vision or this imaginary now or myself standing
on Telegraph Hill Nob Hill Russia Hill the same view
always Alcatraz like a deserted holiday’
This opening poem, like nearly all of Corso’s creations, laments the imprisonment of the human spirit, that which is inevitably inflicted by “reality’s worm”. The poet mourns the loss of the imaginative faculties that he holds so dear, longing as he did always for the
‘Dreams that once jumped joyous bright from my heart like
Sparks issued from a wild sharper’s wheel’
These ‘dreams’ that almost re-tongued Corso allowed him, if only momentarily, to speak ‘that madness again that infinitive solitude where illusion spoke truth’s divine dialect’; for Corso is a poet of the unfettered, an intuitive and reflex poet, a poet of the film-scraps of the soul, whose imagination, like that of all true originals, was but an involuntary net hauling in all that transfigures, burns, and dazzles in the universe; his voice can be located in his sonorous distortion of diction, syntax and cadence, that which truncates the rhythm of his poems, until the ’sound’ of his voice becomes that of a dictionary tearing:
‘It is better man give up his diction
it is better
that another man, myself,
heed his restriction’
(from ‘No word’)
Being an autodidact allowed him the freedom to read as voraciously as he pleased, and read he did: The Book of the Dead, Egyptian and Greek myths, poets such as Mayakovsky, Artaud, Lorca, Shelley, Rimbaud, Michaux (who both he and Ginsberg befriended when they lived in Paris) and other American originals such as Crane and O’Hara. In ‘Puma in chapultepec zoo’, which might in some way have been influenced by the jaguar of Rilke (whose poems Corso had discovered whilst in Paris), the feline’s confinement is juxtaposed by the wilderness that once poured off from its heel; then the restriction of the puma in this cage makes Corso think of a distant friend:
‘I think of Ulanova
locked in some small furnished room
in New York, on East 17th street
in the Puerto Rican section.’
And this is also a metaphor for our own everyday human predicament, of the spirit caged in the material world, vision and imagination locked behind the cage of our own flesh and bones. In ‘Amnesia in Memphis’ the narrator sways back and forth between life and death, retelling the posthumous existence inside his now dead body. Behind the visage of his dead face he remembers his former life that now lies supine and “half-embalmed”. This loss of life seems to be also paralleled by the loss of his once magical and divine power:
‘For what I am; who I am, I cannot regain,
Nor sponge my life back with the charm of ibis oil;’
By the end of the poem, this subsequent mortal outcome becomes something of a post-mythological prophecy for our own End-times, in this period of eschatological politics and religious demonology, and the last image has still today quite horrifying consequences:
‘The papyrus readers have seen the falcon’s head
Fall unto the jackal’s plate.’
In ‘To a downfallen Rose’, we witness our imaginative fall since Eden, our de-humanization born of man’s anti-utopian mindset, which has entrapped us “in the vast fixedness of matter”, and who is also then subject to the now “hateful law” of the phenomenal world, to time, to decay and physical mortal death; and thus, man, in the form of a rose, screams in anguish and despair, realizing ‘the big lie of the sun’. The sun is even given more in-depth treatment in the automatic poem ‘Sun’, where Corso lets his mind off the hook, treating it as if water to skim his words like stones directly into the sun itself; this poem is in many ways the type of poem that a Lowell or Bishop must have so hated, for it is poetry in its most ‘raw’ state, Corso at his most untamed, wild, creating a poetic form that Kerouac described as “eyeball-kicks”. Yet Corso’s vision bursts through to have a powerful effect, reminding us that the sun is far from being just a ball of gas, but is that same torch that lit up once the crypt of the skulls of the ancient civilizations, that its life-giving qualities maintain a direct poetic link to his imaginative forebears, “hellion, Apollo, rha, sol”, for Corso, like any visionary poet, bathed in the sun’s eternal glow of possibilities: ‘O constant hole where all beyond is true Byzantium’.
Here, the poet cranks up the language to an almost incalculable pitch, forcing free the confession of new words, as if each line were a rope in an end-of-the-world tug of war battle between sound and sense ; indeed, like in Beckett, the silence is that before the beginning of the world, before the flesh was fossilized by scars, and the great crustacean of the will by sin, for the ’silence’ in Corso’s poem is purity: a purity that he catches and cages and turns into straw by the fire of his imagination; in this poem, scathed by impossible sounds, his voice glitters and sparks until registering in the brain as something approaching the raw and unclassifiable language of Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty”, of what Artaud himself depicted as “a wholly auditory language” ; for when the semantic ambiguities and cerebral punctuation have been removed from language, the human consciousness is forced then to exist inside the gaps, the pauses between the noises of the world:
‘Sun dinosaur of electric motion extinct and
fossiled, babble on!’
The faults in Corso’s poetry are always indications of its strengths, the verbal (neo-romantic) elucidation, the ‘old’ poetries becoming new again, by what, prior to the denouement of his poem, Corso manages to shunt into creation by his own self-formulated thought patterns; he achieves this by receiving the holy-ghost of poetry, his muse, which to him was never something problematic, but the vision that has no climax, for his poems of universal impartiality were as absolute to him as were the tonnage of the planets and galaxies that when placed upon his word-scales assumed no more than feather-weight properties; this same kind of celestial realization is portrayed in one of the very best poems in Gasoline, In‘the Fleeting Hand of Time’, a classic Beat poem in which Corso’s mind takes astral flight back over his material world of birth, childhood, family; the poet, like his very own creation, ‘Captain Poetry’, takes on supernatural flight and journey back over the corporeal facts of his life, and relays them to us by speaking directly into the microphone of memory; William Blake can perhaps be detected in this poem, as maybe can (but in a very loose way) Wordsworth in his ‘Intimations of Immortality’: from the Recollections of Early Childhood, for this poem reveals Corso’s own personal myth of his cosmos, taking us back to ‘his’ beginning:
‘On the steps of the bright madhouse
I hear the bearded bell shaking down the woodlawn
the final knell of my world’
And thus the poet reveals himself to us in his own mythological life-span:
‘Now my presence is known’ until
‘time itself takes me by the hand
born March 26 1930 I am led 100 mph
O’er the vast market of choice
What to choose? What to choose?’
Corso flies back and back and back, until:
‘A baby mother stuffs my mouth with
a pale Milanese breast
I suck I struggle I cry O Olympian mother’
then regresses until having extinguished his imaginative source:
‘a long long dog having chased its orbited tail
comes grab my hand
and leads me into conditional life.’
But what Corso also proves in this collection is just how powerful a poet he could be when writing the more quite lyric poem, when turning down the volume of the dial of his own high imaginative frequency, to write mournful poems such as the famous ‘The Mad Yak’, a heartbreaking poem, just as Corso himself described it in a letter from Mexico to Randall Jarrell in 1956: ‘how perfect, how sad is that?’; and sad it is, for we hear the interior monologue of the Yak himself, who speaks of the cruelty of the whole of mankind. Here, ‘Human’ and ‘animal’ are merely anthropological variations on the same crime, for we hear the compassionate and gentle and humane Yak juxtaposed by the greedy and callous human being who sees the Yak only in terms of opportunistic ‘products’ such as ‘scarves’, ‘Caps’, ‘buttons’, and ‘shoelaces’. The Yak, on the other hand, feels our sorrow and compassion for us. It mourns the loss of its brother and sisters, and feels pity for its “Poor uncle,…/ How sad he is, how tired!”. The Yak therefore exhibits all the qualities that humans, in this case, sadly lack.
At heart Corso was a poet of universal compassion for all sentient beings, for the pure and natural state of all living things, and his poetry comes into being when this ‘state’ is irrevocably altered by man’s persecution of what (in the poet’s mind) should remain innocent in the world; in Gasoline, this ‘altered’ state of innocence we experience over and over. The destruction of innocence and beauty is exemplified in the manic and hallucinatory poem ‘Don’t Shoot the Warthog’ where a child personifying beauty is abused and devoured in some kind of cannibal frenzy; at the beginning, the child is seen “swinging an ocean on a stick”, a typical Corso-like image of the fabulous, the impossible and surreal. The calling out of the child’s “name” in this poem is what brings the other children leaping and running to see, before
‘a fury of mothers and fathers
sank their teeth into his brain.
I called to the angels of my generation
on the rooftops, in the alleyways,
beneath the garbage and the stones,
I screamed the name! and they came
and gnawed the child’s bones.’
The most successful poems in this collection also include a lot of small ones or what Ginsberg described as Corso’s “weird haiku-like juxtapositions that aren’t in the American book” such as the following ‘Italian Extravaganza’ which is much anthologized in Beat collections:
‘Mrs. Lombardi’s month-old son is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo’s funeral parlour,
A small purplish wrinkled head.
They’ve just finished having high mass for it;
They’re coming out now
….Wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.’
In the slightly longer and equally famous ‘I AM 25′ we encounter a poet full of youthful hubris and healthy irreverence for the elder poets of his day; it is another classic Beat poem, in which Corso informs us:
‘I HATE OLD POETMEN!
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poet men’
And then going on to conclude:
‘O I would quiet old men
Say to them: — I am your friend
What you once were, thru me
You’ll be again—
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems’
The last two lines especially encapsulate the impish, almost satyr-like humour of Corso, the humour that was to become an even more key component in his most famous upcoming poems of the sixties, such as ‘Marriage’, ‘Bomb’, and ‘Hair’. And it was indeed in 1963 that Robert Lowell, in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop, wrote: “…the Beats have blown away, the professionals have returned”. A typically cold-hearted response from a poet who had of course more in common with the Beats than he ever cared/dared to admit, having himself spent large portions of the second half of his life in various mental institutions and hospitals. But the Beats have never gone away, much to the chagrin of that school of ‘cooked’ critics and poets, such as Norman Podhoretz (who repudiated the Beats any chance he could get) or John Hollander, who called Howl a “dreadful little volume” and who maintained that the Beat writers were talentless.
Yet now, 50 years on? The Beats are going stronger than ever, appealing to generation after new generation. But what of the movement’s enfant terrible, Gregory Corso? Well, now should be the time for a complete overhaul of Corso’s achievement and re-recognition of this important and unique post-war poet. And things might just be looking up, for it was a pleasure to see Corso included in the critic Ian Hamilton’s book Against Oblivion (Penguin 2002) among other such eminent names like Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Hughes or Crane. So maybe the tide is beginning to posthumously turn for Corso, though, if this is to happen, a Collected Poems is a must. Ginsberg (also included amongst those fighting oblivion in Hamilton’s book) gives us the best insight available into the working methods of Corso in and around the time in which he was working on Gasoline, writing to Ferlinghetti from Amsterdam in 1957: “…in his poverty too marvellously, how he gets along here hand to mouth, daily, begging & conning & wooing, but he writes daily marvellous poems, every morning he wakes and types last nites 2 or 3 pages of poems, …his life is too unstable for him to sit down for long cool afterthoughts & assembling of book properly…”
And those particularly acute Beat facts of a poet’s life, though unimaginable for the festival-career-workshop-prizewinning poets of today, are what set Corso apart from nearly every living poet of his day for he LIVED his life to the poetic hilt. Corso concludes in a letter to Isabella Gardner in 1958 from Paris, speaking of himself and Ginsberg: “…the both of us, somewhat romantically, yes, but not cornily, will die for our poetry.” And how many poets alive today could you imagine saying that?
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 11th, 2010.