“Marriage”

by Gregory Corso
   The theme of marriage is in poetry an ancient and honored one, which through the centuries has been treated in a consistently celebratory fashion. But in his poem “Marriage,” gregory corso brings a somewhat skeptical spirit to the theme and adds to the tradition of the marriage poem a note of zany humor.
   Written by Corso in 1958, published in the Evergreen Review Summer 1959 edition, and included in his collection The Happy BirtHday of deatH (1960), “Marriage” has been widely anthologized and is probably the poet’s best-known work. The poem takes the form of a monologue in which the poet–speaker addresses to himself a series of questions and by imagining dramatic situations relevant to those questions seeks to answer them. The questions that he poses and ponders in the course of the poem are fundamental to his future happiness and his fate in the world: “Should I get married? Should I be good?”
   Clearly, the questions imply feelings of uncertainty on the part of the speaker, who is both attracted by the possibility of marriage and fearful of it. The second question clarifies the first, identifying what is ultimately at issue—a clash of values between individual freedom and social norms, for to will oneself to be good necessitates conforming to a standard of right, and it is this standard that the speaker is unsure he accepts or is capable of meeting or maintaining.
   Much of the fun of the poem derives from the voice of the chaplinesque first-person narrator, whose eccentricity and sincerity and self-deflating candor arouse a sympathetic response in the reader. The narrator or speaker is all too keenly aware of his shortcomings, his inadequacies, his irremediably impractical nature, and the irrepressibility of his extravagant, insurgent imagination. While he fantasizes longingly about the kinds of fulfillment that are to be found in marriage and parenthood, he wonders anxiously whether he is equal to the challenges that courtship, marriage, and fatherhood will present. The first stanza illustrates the nature of the conflict within the speaker as he imagines the challenges and frustrations of courtship. The speaker is concerned that he may “astound” the girl next door if he begins to woo her, and given his eccentric sartorial tastes and his quirky notions of what constitutes an entertaining evening and a romantic setting, his concerns would seem well founded.
   This initial conflict suggests the crux of the matter: The speaker’s behavior and interests clearly diverge from all conventions and accepted usages, and so he must either suppress his desires and values or by indulging them and risking alienating others, including the object of his affections. The issue is that of integrity versus conformity. In the stanzas that follow, the speaker imagines what the consequences for him might be if for the sake of marriage he consents to conform, to dress, and to conduct himself in an acceptable manner. Each stage of the courtship and the marriage is envisioned by him as an ordeal: the examination and evaluation by the parents of his betrothed, the wedding ceremony, the honeymoon. He imagines committing social blunders and enduring discomfort, unease and embarrassment.
   Moreover, he recognizes that there is in him an unrestrainable streak of rebellion against the mundane, the bland, and the banal. His poetic imagination, he foresees, would inevitably erupt, taking the form of surreal phrases spoken or cried, and he would soon be driven to acts of defiance and subversion. Even were the marriage to be Hollywood-idyllic and were fatherhood to follow, the narrator knows that he could not suppress his idiosyncrasies, his outbursts of poetic babble, his compulsive forays into dada-sabotage of the quotidian. And what, he wonders, if the marriage were far from idyllic and he found his poetic spirit being suffocated by poverty and squalor? Accordingly, he rejects all thoughts of marriage.
   No sooner has he done so, however, than he reconsiders the notion, envisioning a Vogue magazine kind of marriage: sophisticated, affluent, fashionable, comfortable. Yet even so thoroughly satisfactory a situation, he concludes, would ultimately be for him no more than a “pleasant prison.” In such an atmosphere, his imaginative spirit would be stifled, would wither. But the alternative to all of these unsatisfactory scenarios, the narrator realizes, is at least equally unsatisfactory-a life of isolation and loneliness.
   The poem concludes with reflections on love, the ideal woman, and the ideal marriage, all of which are for the speaker epitomized in the figure of “SHE”—the sorceress Ayesha from H. Rider Haggard’s novel. In the novel, Ayesha’s love for Kallikrates is so passionate and intense that in a jealous rage it drives her to kill him and then to wait 2,000 years for him to be reincarnated and return to her. (In the interim, she maintains her youthful beauty by bathing in the Flame of Immortality, a mysterious life-giving fire.) This is the kind of fierce, unconstrained love, untainted by convention, that would—in the poet–speaker’s view—make for the perfect mate and the perfect marriage.
   Corso’s “Marriage” suggests that social conventions often serve to tame and attenuate our purest impulses and as well to subdue and starve in us all that is most vital and most vivid. Yet, though playfully and pointedly critical of the social institution of marriage and its associated customs, Corso’s poem ultimately affirms marriage as a human, heart-to-heart pact and upholds the animating principle underlying true marriage—the precious, perilous, primal mystery of love.
 Bibliography
■ Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. Edited by Bill Morgan. New York: New Directions, 2003.
■ Olson, Kirby. Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
■ Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
■ Skau, Michael. “A Clown in a Grave”: Complexities and Tensions in the Works of Gregory Corso. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
■ Stephenson, Gregory. Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of Gregory Corso. London: Hearing Eye, 1989.
   Gregory Stephenson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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