Lawrence Ferlinghetti – “Untamed Poet Crosses River” (2001)

October 27, 2008 at 9:50 am (Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

Ferlinghetti wrote this obituary for fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso, upon his death in 2001…


Most obituaries are total eulogies, uncontaminated by any unkind cuts at the beloved or other straight talk. Don’t “dis” the dead, etc. Well, that’s OK for some dead folk, but not for Gregory Nunzio Corso who crossed the big river this past January 17th.
The announcement of a memorial service for him in lower Manhattan proclaimed he was “America’s greatest lyric poet,” although he certainly wasn’t as lyrical as Whitman or Edna St.Vincent Millay, or even the early e.e.cummings.
But that kind of judgment is always subjective and personal, isn’t it? Corso was lyrical all right, but in a highly original, cutting sort of way.
On the back of Corso’s early City Lights book, Gasoline, Jack Kerouac said, “Gregory was a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the rooftops and sang Italian songs as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words. ‘Sweet Milanese hills’ brood in his Renaissance soul, evening is coming on the hills. Amazing and beautiful Gregory Corso, the one and only Gregory the Herald.” Very poetic– but “sweet” is one thing Corso wasn’t every day. (“Bittersweet” would be closer.) And it wasn’t Milanese hills in his soul. He was no refined northern Italian, but a Calabrese, born in 1930 in Greenwich Village of parents from the very depths of the Mezzogiorno. And Gregorio was mezzogiorno through and through, handsomely dark, heavy-browed, often brooding, like that savage landscape on the unshod boot of southernmost Italy, swept with burning sun and storms. And he had its dark lyric spirit that could burst forth untutored and raw in great raves of poetry.
And he was always in your face, often not singing sweetly, but challenging you in some wild way, daring you or putting you on, shaking you up or at least mocking your ordinary way of looking at things. How many times did I hear him interrupt some solemn voice on stage with a loud shout from the back of the hall, comic or obscene, the outsider challenging the whole scene? But he was no mere egocentric wiseacre. He was a tragi-comic poet with a crazy sense of humor, as in poems such as his much-quoted “Marriage” with its parody of T.S.Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
And a trait of his that has never been noted is that he had a great graphic talent and could have been a great painter, if he hadn’t been so heavily into poetry, drugs, booze, and women. Some of his classic paintings and drawings were exhibited early in the 1990s at New York University’s Beat Art show. Graphically, he was the equal of any of the New York School painters who hung out with the poets at the old Cedar tavern in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 60s. When he drew with pentel or brush he had a classic line that was instantly recognizable as his own, much in the way Picasso’s line was distinctively his and no one else’s.
Ed Sanders’ Woodstock Journal published a beautiful obit, including a note from poet Robert Creeley that said Corso “had been ill for much of the past year but had recovered from time to time, saying that he’d got to the classic river but lacked the coin for Charon to carry him over. So he just dipped his toe in the water.” Some of Corso’s most powerful poems focussed on death, as was the case with so many other great poets. (The second and last reading that Dylan Thomas gave in San Francisco in the 1950s was totally centered on death, with poems by many others as well as himself.) Corso’s mad mouthfuls challenged death as he challenged everything else. Read his dire comic eulogy to it in “Bomb” to get the full blast.
But even in death, this gadfly wordslinger is triumphing on his own terms. He wanted to be buried in Venice or Rome, and in the latter he might well have been happy under the paving stones of the Campo dei Fiori, in the center of which is a statue of Giordano Bruno, the heretic burned unrepentant by the Church in 1600, whom Corso no doubt saw as a brother. But the British Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was Corso’s most loved poet, and Shelley is in the Protestant cemetery in the workingclass Testaccio district of Rome. That’s where Gregory’s going, thanks to the initiative of his friends, including attorney Robert Yarra, George Scrivani. and a powerful lady in Rome named Hannalorie.
So, farewell, devilish angel poet, hail and farewell!

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