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About the Author
Patti Smith is a poet, performer, visual artist, and author of the National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids. She has twelve albums, has had numerous gallery shows, and continues to give concerts of her music and poetry. Her books include Early Work, The Coral Sea, Witt, Babel, Auguries of Innocence,
Woolgathering, Land 250, Trois, and many others. She lives in New York.
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An Accidental AutobiographyTHE SELECTED LETTERS OF GREGORY CORSO
By GREGORY CORSO
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOKCopyright © 2003 New Directions Publishing Corporation
All right reserved.
Chapter One[One of Gregory Corso's earliest letters was a brief note dated Nov. 18, 1954, written to Isabella Gardner, an editor of Poetry magazine. Corso thanked Mrs. Gardner for what he called her "beautiful helpful letter." It was in response to a rejection letter consisting of the single line: "'Mental muscle'-yes, how right you are." Corso was just beginning to struggle with the process of publication and wanted to be recognized by the established poetry forums of the day without giving up his individual style and voice.
At this time Corso was living in Cambridge, MA, as a drop-in mascot for the literati at Harvard. He was busy writing poems and plays, a few of which were published in late 1954 in The Harvard Advocate and i.e.: The Cambridge Review. In June 1955 many of his works were collected into his first book, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, published privately in a small edition by a Cambridge associate, Richard Brukenfeld.
Corso did not write many letters before the mid-1950s. There are a few letters to Corso from his family to indicate that both he and they wrote infrequently. A note from his stepmother thanking Corso for his Christmas gifts of Dec. 1954 is followed in 1955 by a few notes from his father asking where he is and why they haven't heard from him. His father wrote him a rare letter: "We were so thrilled about the first book you sent, needless to say when your book of poems arrived this week, well - I was so proud I showed the whole shop and boss as well." However, the family was not especially interested in Corso or his life as a poet, and Gregory had to look elsewhere for approbation and support. It appears that the family did not save many of the letters he might have written to them.
In 1956 Corso wrote a letter to a friend in which he established a pattern he followed for much of his life. His dreams of travel, his money woes, his hatred of work, his apologies for rude behavior and descriptions of his wild and spontaneous antics fill the pages of his letters for the next forty-five years. Even his word inventions, such as "street-cornering" and "writs" are evident in this first letter, along with his formulation of the ideal of the "closest thing to what a poet should be."]
To Hans [Cambridge, MA]
Dear Hans -
I did not make it to Afghanistan. First of all there was the problem of the cats. I tried getting them good homes but to no avail. People just don't like a bunch of cats-one, maybe, but a bunch, no. I have four and they grew up together so I didn't want to separate them. I stood for hours one day on a street corner accosting each passerby with "Cats, would you like some cats?" It was an embarrassing business.
Then, after two days of street-cornering, a great thought struck me. MacLeish, vacationing in Antigua, would surely be sympathetic. So I wrote him of my plight, offering him the cats, and having just enough money to go to Afghanistan I offered to ship them C.O.D., railway express. Do you know they ship all sorts of animals? If you wanted to ship a rhinoceros you could. Well, I haven't heard from MacLeish since. I guess he's become a little wary of me or maybe he has enough cats of his own. It's a fact, you know, all poets love cats. Well, the only thing I could do was to keep the cats and postpone Afghanistan. Still determined to travel, though, I decided to leave Charleston and return to Cambridge cats and all.
Well I'm in Cambridge and guess what happened? You wouldn't believe it. The first week, the very first week, mind you, the cats got lost. It happened this way. I got up very early one morning to have breakfast [...] and to do some visiting. I let the cats out to play and go to the toilet in the backyard. Well, when I came back that evening I went into the backyard and called: "Here, kitty, kitty." To my horror a strange mangy homeless Tom heeded my call. I kicked it aside and furiously began searching under porches, old washbasins, between and behind garbage cans and abandoned iceboxes - no cats! I looked and looked and called: "Here, kitty, kitty" over and over. All I succeeded in doing was congregate a horde of homeless Toms. If there's anything I can't stand that's a parasitic cat. Not that I have anything against parasites, on the contrary I love them and am fortunate to be one myself, it's just that when they're cats, I dislike them, because cats are supposed to be dignified.
A parasitic bum being there an amount of charm in that-unless he's a cornball who eats a lot. I stronger detest parasitic gluttons, in fact, any kind of glutter. Man is closest to an angel when he eats with restraint, don't you agree? Well-no cats. I searched until early morn calling "Here kitty" but all was in vain. Once it was about five, when called "Here kitty kitty" in some old lady's backyard, she screamed "The milk thief" I hardly knew what to make of that, but I was wise enough to tail out of there, because a few minutes later I heard sirens. I went back home heartbroken because I really was very fond of the little things, but man is a bastard, and I'm no exception.
Little images of Afghanistan began to form in my mind. At last I was free! I made myself some hot Ovaltine and, Hans, if only you could have seen me, I doubt if there was a happier man in Cambridge, aye, in the world, that morning. I paced my room up and down, up and down and with each step I imagined myself riding on a gray Arabian Horse across the desert sands screaming: "Allah! Allah!" "The devil" would have been more appropriate. I suddenly realized I had exhausted my boat ticket. What with the pad and the hi-fi set and the twenty cans of beans and the forty jars of Ovaltine and sixty, sixty mind you, cans of cat food, -in truth I had ten dollars left.
Free, I was finally free, but what good was it? How was I to get to Afghanistan? I thought of selling the hi-fi set, but I'd hardly get what I paid for it. I even thought of returning the beans, the Ovaltine and the cat food, but I doubt if they would have accepted it and even if they did, it wouldn't have been enough to get me to Afghanistan. Then, after two days of trying to find a way out, I came upon the idea of work. "O God," I cried, "Am I impelled to think thus?" Well I didn't give it a second thought. Rather than work, I said, "Screw Afghanistan." So now I [am] back doing what I did last year here in Cambridge, drawing Xmas cards with dead dinosaurs on them. They sell slow, Hans, and Xmas is a long way off. So if you can mail me back the 30 dollars I mailed to you by a previous loan I'd really appreciate it.
No matter what, though, I'm still writing poetry. And, without any exaggeration, I'm still, if not the best, at least the closest thing to what a poet should be. The more I read these Cambridge poets the more I'm convinced of this. These New England poets, apocalyptic crocodilians, the whole horde of them. They do not realize that poems are nothing without the poet. Why are Shelley, Chatterton, Byron, Rimbaud, to name but a few, so beautiful? I'll tell you why, they and their works are one the same, the poet and his poems are a whole. These New England poets aren't hip enough to realize that. They stand away from their poetry, as though it was something they were ashamed to be associated with. That's why they write for the New Yorker. Not only can they be poets but sophisticates, too. How can anyone truly be a poet who goes to the john with a clothespin on his nose? Fops, that's what they are, not poets. I dare one of them take rat poison like Chatterton did. They wouldn't dare. Aside from wanting to be buried in some quiet Episcopal graveyard, they want to endure-endure. And they do! How old is that Frost? It's disgusting! An old man writing verse. Verse is for youth, after 30 the only honorable thing to do is give it up. Look at what happened to Goethe-Wordsworth.
But Frost there's an excuse for him. In his own words: "I'm just a [nut] from Vermont". That's excusable because it's so, but when it's not so, then it's inexcusable, and I refer to the young New England poets-damn lawyers all of them. Completely bereft of sorrow-and that, dear Hans, is the essence of all great poetry, sorrow. And I mean that one sorrow, that only sorrow, that one wondrous sorrow which in the soul of the true poet, renders both joy and calm. I believe, Hans, that the most joyous poems were written with a tremendous culture of sorrow, for is not joy the true essence of sorrow?
God, if anyone else said that, I'd say he was coming on pretty corny. But, nevertheless, I say, without sorrow these poets are nothing. Sorrow. This noble sentiment will forever be foreign to them if they persist in dilly-dallying among prisms. (A favorite word of theirs, by the by). Shelley's life, Chatterton's life-those lives were poems! These poets, their lives are writs. Ah, if I were dictator I'd have poets throwing bombs! [...]
I just met the most obnoxious Radcliffe girl. Good God where do they come from? I knew her slightly last year so I went up to her and said: "Hello." She said, "Hello, you back. Ah, still wearing P.Y's jacket from last year-and R.S.' shoes? What [did] you do, come back for a new wardrobe?" (Last year, very broke, some of my beautiful Harvard friends gave me some clothes. God knows how the bitch found out.) I looked at her and smiled because I didn't know what to say. I wanted to say a lot of things, but thought best not to. I merely replied: "Sometimes I have money, you know," and walked away. In actuality I was hurt, and that's a bad sign, Hans, a very bad sign because I should have told her, "Of course I've come back for a new wardrobe, why not? Am I not beautiful? Are we not all beautiful?" But I didn't say it, I only said, "Sometimes I have money, you know." Lucifer! I hate myself for saying that. Well, next time I see the bitch, I'll bite one of her buttocks real hard.
[...] There are other things. Afghanistan, for example. Oh, Hans, I do want so terribly much to go. How great it'll be to learn Afghanistani, and maybe venture to write a poem in Afghanistani. But you must not think I'm altogether unhappy here. I've met a lot of beautiful people since my return. O, but I do wonder about those cats, though. Allah be with you.
I am, Gregory Corso
[At the end of the summer of 1956 Gregory Corso flew to San Francisco to visit Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg and Corso had met in New York City in 1950-51, shortly after Corso's release from prison. The two were sitting in a bar when Ginsberg noticed Corso's notebook of poems and they struck up a conversation. The friendship blossomed and it wasn't long before Ginsberg had introduced Corso to all his other writer/friends including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. Late in 1953, Ginsberg left New York City on a long trip which took him to Cuba, Mexico and finally San Francisco where he hoped to renew his romance with Neal Cassady. While living in San Francisco, Ginsberg had a vision which led to his writing Howl, one of the most important poems of the twentieth century. After hearing Ginsberg read the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in the Fall of 1955, City Lights' publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, asked to publish the poem. While waiting for the publication of the book in 1956, Ginsberg shipped out as a merchant seaman and was on a cruise to Alaska when Corso first arrived in San Francisco looking for him. As Corso was preparing to leave for New Mexico, a note arrived from Ginsberg asking him to wait for his return. Corso replied to Ginsberg with the following letter.]
To Allen Ginsberg San Francisco
Your letter and poetry came today, today, a day before I set my mind on going away from this here San Francisco. Someone is driving to New Mexico, I put my hi-fi set and records and books and other things in her car, and they are still there. I will stay. If you say three weeks. I will stay. Reason for coming out here was to see you and to experience first plane ride; experienced plane ride, have yet to experience you. But I am not Sweetface Corso, but RATFACE Corso, really. Perhaps second canto will squeak that I am. I have finished second canto, and have no carbon. Chris MacLaine has second canto, when he gives it back I will carbon it and send you. I met Peter and accept Peter and like Peter and Lafcadio is or can be a Kirilov or a Barsorov-he has the face, and I preached to him, told him, "Don't do anything-be sixteen fifteen kill yourself, be always fifteen ..." He listened and maybe didn't his face looked like it heard at any rate. Two weeks ago Peter gave me five dollars. Haven't seen him since.
June 1955, after leaving Harvard, I met a beautiful Shelley with a cunt with Anton and she dug me and gave me a place to live and has been with me up till a month ago when I decided that I wanted to go to California. She went back home and expects to join me soon. She sends me money and delightful letters and I love her very much. Was she, who taught me. She has fantastic memory, only nineteen, can recite and feel all of Shelley, yes all, Prometheus [Unbound], Alastor, [The] Revolt of Islam, and also fifty stanzas of Swinburne's The Triumph of Time-but more! She is going to kill herself on her twentieth year. She planned her death two years ago. The year that I lived with her was all her ... she'd lock herself in a room and would walk up and down up and down ... spoke to no one but her Gregory ... weep, she'd weep and weep ... I can't really inform you about her, but I tell you she is the greatest person I've ever met, and if ever you meet her, I doubt if you'd disagree. Her name is Hope Savage, I call her Sura. Write to her: Hope Savage, [...] Camden, South Carolina. She, Allen, is our Rimbaud and more today.
But haven't you discovered Lucifer? Why St. Francis? Oh, I can see why St. Francis, but why? Is not Lucifer the first free thinker? Is he not the emancipator of worlds? The eternal rebel? Lucifer is love-St. Francis, gee-gaw. And I will not wash Peter's feet-no never! That is not saintly! I will, instead, have him wash my feet and give me all he possesses in return for having me stay a night or a year on his bed while he sleeps away from me-far away on the floor. And this he will do if he is a saint, but screw saints. One is almost inclined to wash one's own feet. Nor is the saint one who, old and peeling, flashes his cancerous fingertips before the eyes of children squealing: "Cock cock cock."
Excerpted from An Accidental Autobiography by GREGORY CORSO Copyright © 2003 by New Directions Publishing Corporation
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.