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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Number 2: Gregory Corso "The Mad Yak"

The Mad Yak

I am watching them churn the last milk they'll ever get from me.
They are waiting for me to die;
They want to make buttons out of my bones.
Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my uncle, he has a new cap.
And that idiot student of his--
I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him.
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they'll do with his bones?
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that!

Hap Notes:
Gregory Corso (1930-2001) had one of the most horrific childhoods of all time. Abandoned by his mother, ignored by his father, he was shuffled between aunts, uncles and foster homes and often incarcerated throughout his teens. He was terrified in jail. It's said that his first jail-mate when he was put into the notorious "Tombs" in New York, was a freaky psycho killer who stabbed his wife to death with a screwdriver. Corso was 13 at the time. He was, what we now call, a "gifted" student. Now read this poem again and think on that.

Everybody probably knows about his "Beat Poet" street cred. He knew all the guys my generation has come to venerate (Ginsberg, Keroac, Burroughs) and one of the many reasons I love Corso is because he was a great reader of classic Greek and Roman literature (which he started reading in jail) and he adored Keats and Shelley. He wasn't dabbling in poetry--he knew it dead to rights. (If you think this implies that I think a lot of the "beats" were just dabbling, you're a good reader.)

I taught this poem to "English as a Second Language" students years ago. The students were mostly Somalians and they brought up something to me that is so obvious I ignored it. The speaker in the poem is a female Yak. I always think of the "beats" as having a little too much testosterone for their own good. The poem is an interesting contrast, then, to his (probably) most famous work, "Marriage." The poem is especially poignant when you find out that Corso's mother hadn't so much abandoned him as been abused and forced out. Corso was told his mother was in Italy but years later he discovered that his whole motherless life she had been in New Jersey, unable to see him. He reunited with her as an adult and his life came full circle.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT in Austin has a bunch of Corso's papers. One of the things listed in the collection is "123 ink, crayon, and watercolor images created by Corso. A number of the pictures are in two sketchbooks and the subjects of the works include self portraits, landscapes, human figures, nature, animals, and street scenes." They also have letters written to him by Ginsburg and Ferlinghetti. Wish I had half of Corso's talent. I refer you to Corso's poem "I Held a Shelley Manuscript."

When he died in Minneapolis in 2001, hundreds of people sent money for his funeral. Because, of course, he didn't have any. We won't pause too long on why poets die poor. So this Aeneas, this Homer, of our age was sent to rest by Shelley in Rome. It's a nice story-- and it isn't. I refer you back to the "Mad Yak." How many of us use his work like buttons on our own lives? How many of us tie our shoes with Corso laces? Just askin'. And yet, admittedly, it's good to have some function, isn't it?

Here's one more Corso button. He describes his work-- "...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."

You can find more Corso here:

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