Alexandra Naughton Gregory Corso and Randall Jarrell

In the beginning of his literary career Gregory Corso had the good fortune of having esteemed poet/critic Randall Jarrell take him in as a supportive benefactor. Corso thought highly of Jarrell, and it is obvious in Corso's poetry that Jarrell was an influence. Jarrell, a graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, served for nearly four years in the Army Air Force, during the height of the Second World War. After the war, Jarrell worked for The Nation, writing reviews and recommending poems. (Burt, 10) Jarrell is more famous for his criticism than his poetry, as he helped to establish some very significant American poets, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, to name a few. (Burt, 17) From 1956 until 1958 Jarrell was an active Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress and was viewed as one of the most influential literary authorities of that time. In the autumn of 1956, Gregory Corso was staying in San Francisco with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky and during this time Corso met Randall Jarrell at a dinner hosted by Ruth Witt-Diamant. Corso wrote in a letter to Robert Creeley that "Jarrell was here and dug my poetry and wants me to go to Washington to live with his wife and him and record my poems for the Library of Congress. He even wants to get me a grant to go to Europe on. Sounds too crazy." Corso left for a trip to Mexico, with Allen Ginsberg, but kept a correspondence with Jarrell during that time, making plans to visit him at his home. (Corso, An Accidental Autobiography, 10) In early December of 1956, Corso came to stay with Randall Jarrell and his wife. In a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, taken from An Accidental Autobiography, Corso wrote: "Jarrell is going to write about current American poets in New York Times either in January or February

and I'm to be one of the currents." (AAA, 23) It is apparent that the two worked off each other symbiotically. To Jarrell, Corso was a promising new voice in American poetry, and was glad to offer his assistance to Corso, as a knowledgeable, reputable mentor. Corso only stayed with the Jarrell's during the month of December, after which he wore out his welcome. However, this time was very helpful for Corso and his career-- Corso learned about poetry from a critical standpoint, and gained a well-known scholar as a contact. Corso is quoted as saying: "He made me see things around me-- fat ladies at the supermarket. Look at that, he says. What? you say, because you don't see anything great about them. But then suddenly you do! He illuminated me in this way, got me to see." (Foster) In Corso's The Vestal Lady On Brattle, grim themes are used repeatedly, with simple and eloquently arranged language. Although the subject matter of the poems in Vestal Lady is usually morbid, the poems themselves have bright language and are non-judgemental. "In the Morgue," from Vestal Lady (Corso, 6), is the inner-monologue of a gunshot-victim lying dead in a morgue. The language is uncomplicated and dream-like, streaming laxly in the manner of pure thoughts. We know immediately that the speaker is deceased, "The bullet in my stomach proved that I was dead," making a very macabre addition to the poem. The tone of the poem, however, is light and punchy. The speaker does not comment on the coldness of the room, nor does he make a big deal of being dead-- he makes jokes instead: "Being dead didn't mean much. / I still felt pain where the bullet went through." This is not a poem about death. The fact that the speaker is dead is just a part of the story, the background of the situation. The focal point of the poem is the other people in the room: the embalmer and two deceased gangsters. This poem could just as well be about someone people-watching in a diner or a public park, there is a very every-day approach in the poem.

The subtlety in Corso's poems works to their advantage. The simple, almost musical language sounds good when read aloud, and can be read repeatedly. With each reading, new questions regarding the poem are brought forward, and the reader wonders about the word choices and subject matter, and how they relate to each other. The straightforward way in which scary subjects are used in the poems makes the reader think nothing of it at a first glance. The child-like tone also helps the reader overlook the darkness, at first. However, once the reader finishes the poem and figures out his own meaning of the poem, he then reads the poem again. Upon a closer inspection, the reader puts together the dark themes and innocent voice, creating a newer and indeed chillier feeling within the poem. Corso's poems are very similar in structure to Jarrell's, and almost operate in the same way. Tales of disparity and woe are told in Jarrell's early anti-war poetry, through the mouths of innocents. Children, old women, mothers, wounded soldiers, and lost souls make up the speakers in Jarrell's work, in books like Little Friend, Little Friend, and Losses. Jarrell wrote the poems to express his bitterness towards the war, and to show that it affected everyone, children and civilians especially. (Rosenthal, 20) Jarrell's poem "The State" (Jarrell, 189) opens with the lines: "When they killed my mother it made me nervous; / I thought to myself, It was right: / Of course she was crazy, and how she ate!" This is quite a macabre opening for a poem, and it is immediately effective. To begin a poem with such outright darkness serves as a warning to the reader to brace himself for sad, strong themes, prompting a feeling of sympathy within the reader. The poem continues in this child-like, wide-eyed voice that, scared and nervous, does not dare to question the over-looming power of the State: "And she died, after all, in her way, for the State." The innocent voice tries to reason the atrocities being carried out on his family, reminding

himself: "'Now I'm helping to win the War.'" He tells himself, after his Sister gets taken away "'It's healthier there in the fields'" but he is scared for the future, and finds himself getting steadily lonelier. The speaker remains brave, though, and stays calm and collected when "the neighbours came in, as they did, with my meals." He doesn't break down until the last stanza, after his cat gets taken away, and he imagines him "there in the cold with the mice / And I cried, and I cried, and I wanted to die." The reader gets the feeling that the State is abusing this child mentally, taking away his security, his family, and his only happiness. He tries to maintain a level of loyalty to the State, despite how scared he is, but after he is stripped of everything that made him feel safe, he wishes for death. Everything that made this boy alive is now dead. The reader imagines the speaker, a lost boy, now looking upon the bodies of his kin in the last lines: "They were there, and I saw them, and that is my life. Now there's nothing. I'm dead, and I want to die." We can see how Corso adapted this writing style into his own poetry. The mixture of morbid themes and childish innocence creates an unsettling mood, one that Jarrell and Corso both used to stir up emotion within the reader and get their point across. Corso, however, added to this mixture a subtlety. In Corso's poems, the reader is not immediately accosted by images of death and gloom-- the feeling, instead, creeps up. In another creeping poem, "Dialogues from Children's Observation Ward" from Vestal Lady (Corso, 16), we are presented with two dialogues from, assumably, child speakers. The poem opens with the first dialogue "--You don't paint nice. You paint faces on window shades / and you don't make them look nice--" The reader imagines a child in a hospital bed, leaning over to the child next to him and taunting him. The mood, at the beginning, is curious, and we wonder where the poem will lead us. The second voice responds to the first by saying "--Window shades

is all I got, / and faces is all I got--" and suddenly the mood becomes dark and sad, but in a much understated way. We feel sympathy for the second child who makes bad paintings of faces on window shades, but it is not a clear feeling. Unlike the pity the reader feels for the child in Jarrell's poem who wishes for death, Corso does not give a definite direction, but leaves the tone open for the reader. In the second dialogue of the poem an older sounding voice speaks to a child and the same kind of understated sadness is reflected. : "--Your mother came today. Did she say hello?--" to which the child responds in the next line "--No--." The conversation continues with the older voice asking questions about what happened when the child's mother visited. At this point the older voice becomes more childish, with short, quick sentences. The first voice asks: "--Did she see your black eye? Did she cry? / She gave you a box. What's in it?--" to which the second voice replies: "--A fox--" The language of the first voice is rhyming and playful, provoking the second voice to speak and add to the musicality of the poem. The first voice gets the rhythm moving, and by asking questions of the second voice, gets him to rhyme and contribute to the song. The second voice is reluctant to join, though, and only contributes just enough words to answer the first voice's questions. The first voice continues questioning, getting sillier still: "--Is it cooked? Can we eat it? / Is it silver or red?--" to which the second voice says "--It's not dead--" The reader assumes that the second speaker is bothered by the first speaker, due to his short, curt answers. However, the last two lines tell all. The first speaker continues with the silly banter "--Good! Yipeee! Let's kill it--" and the second speaker replies with a very sad echoing of the first interchange between the two speakers: "--She didn't even say, hello--" The second speaker, we realise after reading the poem, is upset that his mother didn't come to say "hello" to him, and perhaps feels tricked by the gift in

the box, the fox, a symbol of trickery. Side by side, the two dialogues discuss dissatisfaction with the present condition. Both involve two speakers, one more positive than the other. In the first dialogue Speaker A complains about Speaker B's style of painting. Speaker B, however, explains that he makes-do with what he has. In the second dialogue Speaker A tries to make light of a brisk, unfriendly happening with Speaker B's mother. Speaker B, however, is more effected by the occurrence and refuses to see the humour in it. As a whole, "Dialogues from Children's Observation Ward" works as a comparison of two different conversations in a seemingly unappealing place, and demonstrates how children act amongst each other in such a place. It is interesting to see how both Jarrell and Corso were interested in letting children and innocents come through with voices in their poetry, letting them tell their sides of the story. Both excel in giving their speakers an accurate style and voice by keeping the speech simple and keeping the language flat. Jarrell and Corso were also interested in the voices and experiences of victims, as exemplified in Corso's "Greenwich Village Suicide" and Jarrell's highly anthologised "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Both are fairly short poems that describe a death. Jarrell's "Ball Turret Gunner" is about a man whose job is to sit, upside down, in the belly of an aircraft and shoot at enemy aircraft below him. In the notes on the poem, Jarrell says: "When this gunner tracked with his machine-guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb." (Jarrell, 8) The gunner, then, is vulnerable to harm, and his appearance, like a "foetus," links up with imagery of innocence and purity. The poem opens: "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze." The speaker is compared to a baby animal, born from its unaware mother

into the cold world of the State. The baby, warm from where it was, tries to assimilate itself in its new home, but freezes anyway. With the knowledge of some military vocabulary, and why Jarrell wrote this poem, the rest is easy to decode. The last three lines of the poem document the gunner's death: "Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, / I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. / When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." This is an obvious anti-war poem, comparing soldiers to innocent animals who, after being taken from their homes and their "dream of life," are killed and washed away with a hose by the cold and oppressive State. "Gunner" is an effective poem, and says a lot in its five lines. The reader feels Jarrell's anger towards the war and the State's carelessness with human life. Again, there is the child-like language of wonder and innocence upon being brought into the world, and again the scared tone almost muted by the straight statement of facts. This poem, like "The State," does not state its judgements, but uses the voice of the victim to lay its blame. Corso's poem, "Greenwich Village Suicide," from Vestal Lady (Corso, 5) comes from the voice of a woman jumping from a window, but like Jarrell's "Gunner," the persona of the poem does not use the word "I," which gives a more objective feeling. "Suicide" opens with the description of the persona's surroundings and thoughts before she falls from the window: "Arms outstretched / Hands flat against the windowsides / She looks down / Thinks of Bartok, Van Gogh / And New Yorker cartoons / She falls." Corso's poem is much subtler than Jarrell's, although both poets treat death the same way. The personas in the two poems both have flashes of images before they die, nightmarish in Jarrell's poem, musical and visual in Corso's. Both then get scraped away and hosed down after they are dead. Both poets make the deaths artful, as if their deaths mean something, but the two personas both get treated with indifference after they

die-- their bodies become a mess to be cleaned up and washed away. It is interesting to see that both poets thought of death in the same way, and built up their poems only to have them end with someone trying to erase the death.

Bibliography: Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2003. Corso, Gregory. The Vestal Lady on Brattle. City Lights Books, 1969. Foster, Edward Halsey. "Corso." Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. Jarrell, Randall. The Complete Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1971. Rosenthal, M.L. Randall Jarrell. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.