Edited by Raymond Foye and George Scrivani
The Golden Dot: Last Poems, 1997-2000
(Lithic Press, 2022)
“Tell me not of time and places
Of men who shaped the world
I’ve seen the spider at work
Long after earth was twirled” — Gregory Corso, from The Golden Dot
I feel that in this piece, I am not only reviewing a book but celebrating an important event in contemporary publishing.
Gregory Corso died more than twenty years ago, but his meticulously composed final poems are presented here for the first time, thanks to the tireless efforts of Raymond Foye and George Scrivani in retrieving its manuscript and preparing it for publication.
The Golden Dot, as much of Corso’s earlier verse, is disarmingly straightforward in its expressive mode and its consistent (though here not loudly trumpeted) “anti-literary” stance. Excluded by orphanhood from the protections of family life and “normal” psychic development, Gregory’s valorization of poetry takes contrary forms: on the one hand his enthusiasm for poetry is something like a small boy’s wonder at its very existence (and his own seamless identification with it); on the other, conventional, academically mediated, literary attitudes are not adopted. As distant from the Groves of Academe as imaginable, Corso discovers poetry as a teenager—among the slim literary pickins of a New York State prison’s library cart.
A few weeks before my 17th year I heard in my cell voices
which I wrote down; wasn’t long before I received a book
called Ideas & Forms of English & American Lit.—
First came Beowulf; the Twa Sisters; Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight—they did nothing for me; it was when Smart;
Herrick; Hood; Marvell; Milton; and the immortal Romantics,
I came upon the other half of the duad: Poetry.
I wasn’t born poet; no one told me there existed such as:
Poetry. I never graduated from grammar school.
It came to me, poetry. I was a boy who lived alone.
Poetry became my friend. It was possible to confide in it.
I had something to talk to; and something that talked to me.
An all-embracing identification with poetry is confirmed a bit later, largely by Allen Ginsberg, to whom he remained a devoted companion until Allen’s death (1997) a few years before Corso’s own in 2001. Much of the poetry in The Golden Dot is written in the wake of Allen’s passing, though the book underwent many versions over the full ten years during which it was Gregory’s project. One of the book's persistent subjects is the loss of his compadres, in resonance with Gregory’s not entirely fearful anticipation of his own death.
Among the iconic Beat Generation writers, Corso’s work has received the least critical attention. With this final collection, perhaps that situation will change. I hope that in the not too distant future a fully developed interpretive study of Corso’s work will be forthcoming.
Regarding the main characteristics of his writing practice, Corso clearly inherits from his mentor a possibility that the Beat Generation established in poetry itself: that serious creative work can flow in alienation from the norms of bourgeoisie respectability, and an unflinching fas e fas with the bare bones of human experience, its raw, “unmentionable” realities. Allen, at least in the early years of his career, was the poet commonly vilified as the champion of “the great unwashed,” and quickly celebrated (and not only by the sympathetically attuned “great unwashed” themselves)—for the public expression of private, socially alienated affect, and the privately felt critical dismay of his outsider perspective.
Corso, as one discovers reading The Golden Dot with some attention, was uncommonly well-read. Possessed of the broadest of interests, Gregory composed his poems with the care and understated structural intelligence that has kin in rather unlikely antecedents: Metaphysical poetry’s fascination with untoward connections, and the Romantic movement’s valorizing of poetry and creative energy as such. Nevertheless, to read Corso is to put oneself in relation to an established persona: Gregory the aggressive and uncompromising literary innocent, Gregory whose wrath might be stoked by any public display of literary and social pretension.
It is not easy to read Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale without being aware of the poet’s personal losses and that his own death was soon to befall him. Similarly, it is hard to enter Corso’s poetry without recalling the figure of Gregory Corso himself as one of the four or five icons of Beat Generation poetry. It is true that his poems don’t often terminate with rhetorically dramatic last lines. The last lines (that in fact often really do gather up the thought in the poem) are usually understated if not downright anticlimactic. Apparently. But I think this understatement is the very site of the poems’ magic—a keeping of troth with inspiration through a kind of secrecy or private revelation that is itself hidden in plain sight: uncommon inquiry penetrating common puzzlement.
Corso’s story, looked at psychologically, is largely one of self-protection—early on beneath a mask of obstreperous behavior, itself in origin, a natural consequence of the extreme brutality of his upbringing. In one poem he attributes his care in the homes of foster parents as lovelessly motivated by cash granted by the Catholic Church for taking him in or taking him on. After many years on the poetry-reading circuit, usually together with Allen G., he dropped out of public performance. In giving a reading, his habit was to play out his role as badass beatnik and appease his audience with funny and predictably badass poems. Corso himself tells us that from the beginning he couldn’t bear reading his more heart-felt and serious poetry in front of large audiences. Eventually he withdrew from his own notoriety, became something of a recluse, though he never stopped writing. His withdrawal, I think, was a life-affirming gesture that expressed dismay before his own persona and a need to protect the authenticity of his poetic impulse. The Golden Dot contains deep reflections on that persona and the self-exposure of the conditions for his own art. The innocence and naïveté does not change as he ages but becomes in an original and disarming way an aspect of the self-reflective, indeed the confessional tenor of the poetry.
But even with study, the poems surprise, because of their tone, when, as they frequently do, work through historically and socially serious themes. Their seriousness, in even these last poems, almost seems to arise surreptitiously. The register of the diction, the seemingly quaint archaisms, the unembarrassedly simultaneous self-celebration and self-deprecation—are no mere affectations developed by Corso as his “brand.” What the poems show is the real deal in their, I want to say “existential” complexity and their uncombed-out surface contradictions. Still they often manifest verbal characteristics that Beat Generation writers share—a style that prefers direct presentation to extended narrative or syntactically manicured re-presentation. The flash of an image or the impact of a thought arise simultaneously with the word that utters it; the readerly ear does not have to wait for syntactical or aesthetic closure to receive the content. That the content appears instantaneously with the moment of its utterance, associates the poetic act with real time’s indomitable passing. Poetry’s “eternal” qualities do arise in Corso’s poems, but in tension with time’s irredeemable transiency. But there is always poetry’s sometimes enigmatic permanence—even the quality of timeless membership in an eternal company.
I think Gregory was conscious of the somewhat hidden and paradoxical temporal phenomena at work here. Many poems evoke—idiosyncratically but aptly observed—temporal anomalies as curiosities, yes, but more pertinently as expressions of HIS curiosity and sense of wonder. In fact these philosophical interests, understated as such, play against the book’s extended reflection on spirituality and mortality. The poems embody intuitions that more commonly arise only under the terms of a Faith that overrides the cruel incoherence of the common world and such discomfiture as Corso’s story—fragmentarily evoked in the poems and recounted carefully in Raymond Foye’s introduction—bear witness to. Corso had understandably rejected early on the Catholic indoctrination “fostered” in the foster homes through which he was trafficked in childhood. But his poems do register a Faith slowly recovered, and based not on institutional authority but on the redemptive quality of poetry itself. Poetry surely was his “salvation,” and his poetry does thematize aspects of the conventional religion whose essence he supports but from which he keeps a poet’s distance. Still, the poems are “confessional”—and that more in the Catholic sense (acknowledging wrong-doing as a condition for redemption) than the familiar self-revelations of “confessional poetry”—more often than not a cry of metaphysical despair and a prelude to suicide. Corso’s confessions confirm the very values he confesses his inability to realize.
Being denied the possibility of initiation into a poetic lineage through formal education, Corso assembled his own poetry world. This included of course his beloved Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, but also a personal mélange of writers from the established historical canon. One poem gives us an evening in Shakespeare’s Mermaid Tavern with emblematic snapshots of Keats, Joyce, Marvell, Milton, Auden, Whitman, and, remarkably, an imaginary male sibylline oracle from “Magna Graecia” (his ancestral Italy)—a figure adopted perhaps for his own, again, typically understated, prophetic mission. For it would not be entirely in error to see Corso on a mission for poetry as a way of being.
The presence of Andrew Marvell in Corso’s “Tavern” is in a sense emblematic of a few hidden but definite points of affinity. Marvell interests Corso as a major poetic figure who wrote (in Corso’s view) only one master poem—the inevitably anthologized “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the exigencies of erotic play are projected over cosmic time. He was fascinated by the concentration of Marvell’s power, as if an entire life could be registered in a single artfully elaborated utterance. Gregory’s connection with this possibility stems from the fact that he composed his books less by accretion than elimination. He wrote constantly but published little, and worked tirelessly at what he intended to publish. Yet his poetic activity did not strive for gem-like perfection—the common desideratum of creatively parsimonious poets—but retained an attitude of immediate expression even in what, after due reflection, may seem the most studied of remarks. Marvell of course is usually categorized with the Metaphysical poets and their love of improbable but logically elaborated conceits. Perhaps the essence of the Metaphysical attitude is the discordia concors: the creation of an illuminating or anyway suggestive harmony between distantly related or even mutually alien subject matters. But take a look at this poem from The Golden Dot, which I place here to give a brief instance of the movement of Corso’s combinatorially free-flowing intelligence, referring, as if out of nowhere, to Aztec ritual sacrifice on the one hand and Marvell’s symbolic eroticism, if only allusively, on the other:
Who are these people that were Aztec?
The heart, their most precious possession,
fed to the sun to keep it on the run—
The first line is curious about the Aztecs generally. In the second Corso responds intuitively to his own inquiry: these people held the heart to be their most cherished possession. The third line repeats the inquiring attitude of the first with a more specific though implicit and somewhat anguished moral inquiry: how could the Aztec commit human sacrifice of their most precious symbol—the human heart itself, the sacrificial victim? The question stimulates an answer that opens on untoward dimensions of possibility. They fed the heart to the sun, to keep the sun’s life-bestowing energies in motion. The movement of the poem, its formal properties, involve the feeling of transition between these three prosodic moments as three discontinuous but equally and curiously connected, articulate attitudes: curiosity directly expressed; the poet’s intuition spontaneously explaining to himself the meaning of the violent act: a yoking together of human essence (heart) and violent practice (human sacrifice), through an explanatory line that holds this discordia concors together. But the nature of this interpretive integument has a hidden surprise, if one has been attentive to Corso’s “canon.” The running sun of the Aztec ritual alludes to the closing lines of Marvell’s poem:
Thus, though we cannot make the sun
Stand still, yet will we make him run.
In an inverted sense, this is the subject of Corso’s final poetry. Inverted because the poems do anything but glorify his stature, but accounts for the way—out of excessive sensitivity and shyness—he created himself as the outspoken and ferociously indecorous exposer of poetic flummery. While continuing to depend, for his very psychic survival, on the self-creation, in the privacy of his poetic composition, of himself, as what Allen Ginsberg called him in praise and admiration, “The Pure Imaginary Poet.” For the very privacy of its inspiration, it is the unembarrassed, that is to say, the innocent quality of his very self-consciousness, that makes him—along with Ginsberg and John Wieners—the most intimately communicative of poets. His art is not an art of self-construction and self-valorization, but intimate articulation and genuinely inadvertent—except to himself—self-exposure. So that truth—personal, historical, poetic, without being touted as such—might reveal the true dynamism and valor of a poetry.
The image of the golden dot inverts an ancient cosmogenic figure: the emergence of the cosmos from a single point appearing in and from nonentity; the last instance of existence flashes golden luminosity as it returns to that from which it emerged. My sense is that Corso’s Golden Dot does not refer explicitly to any such symbol—for instance to an early passage in the Kabbalistic compendium, The Zohar, where the Deity concentrates a “point” within the Infinite from which Creation itself proceeds. Gregory’s “dot” is the last speck of existence flaring forth before disappearing—Death in other words, the inversion of creation, his own death, and possibly the end of the world. Raymond Foye mentions that over the course of its composition, the title passed from The Golden Dot, to just The Dot and finally no words at all: just a printed (presumably golden) dot as a title. The unworkability of this for a published book dissuaded his editors from adopting that final adjustment. But the title remains—whether word or the last point before vanishing—exploding into the withdrawal of the Light as Gregory’s effort to transform the end of life into a kind of farewell “revelation.”
The book is dotted with unfamiliar and, if reflected upon, penetrating observations about the mysterious character of time:
There is no time
but spans and measures of the Eternal
Your time-piece as your finger prints
belongs only to you—
As the hunch you have is yours alone
so too your life-span measurable to none other—
There is a sense of integrity that derives coherently from the person of the poet, and a sense that the whole book is a single field, a random distribution of different senses of form and contents. The poet interacts with the accumulating meaning of the accumulating poems and the intensity of glow increasing over time as the golden dot of death is approached or is itself approaching.
I am not among those who followed Gregory Corso’s career in his many books after Gasoline or The Happy Birthday of Death. I did not pay attention to his books from Long Live Man to The Golden Dot, but I will pay attention to them now. When I said I feel that I am reviewing not only a book but an event, what I take it to be, this event should be something of a refocusing of readerly attention—the way reading The Golden Dot has refocused mine. Gregory Corso and his poetry seems an event in our moment when the presence of his poetry exhibits an image of the human species, as the species itself is entering into a time of ontological drift—a condition eloquently expressed in the last poem of the book, something like Gregory’s farewell:
My ancestral home was the cave
A recurring dream would come to me
when awake & when asleep
—Myself and a pylon of wooly mammoths
trudging up a snowy alpine;
downward a Neanderthaler plain…
I would be frost bitten
with puffed belly starved
trudging the windy snows
looking homeward in circles
encircled by mountains
no stepward path to climb
but ever upward
and deep within wishing to fall where I hardly stand
and sleep my life away—
Is the dream within Gregory’s “ancestral home” or about it? We should be uncertain as to whether we have entered the shared dream of a modern poet or the poet’s dream report of an ancestral condition. Is he in the cave now? Are we?