“Bomb”

by Gregory Corso
(1958)
   “Bomb” was written by gregory corso in Paris in 1957 and was first published in 1958 as a broadside by City Lights in San Francisco. The poem was subsequently printed as a foldout in Corso’s collection The Happy BirtHday of deatH (New Directions, 1960). “Bomb” is a pattern poem, that is, the printed shape is in the outline of the subject the poem describes, in this case the characteristic mushroom-formed cloud created by the explosion of an atomic bomb. The mushroom shape of the text may also be seen as a visual metaphor suggesting the parasitic nature of the bomb and of death itself, which in the poem is embodied in the bomb. Contrary to what might be expected of a literary treatment of this grim topic, which was written during the height of the cold war in the late 1950s, Corso’s “Bomb” is neither solemn nor angry nor anxious but is, instead, imbued with a wild, irreverent humor. Indeed, the poem is not—as might be supposed—a protest or a dire prediction, a denunciation of or a diatribe against the atomic bomb but rather a delirious declaration of love for it! Corso’s paean to the bomb proceeds in part from his assumed role as jester and prankster, gadfly and maverick, clown and contrarian. In this sense, the poem is written in mischievous defiance of the solemnity surrounding the subject and as a provocation to the sanctimony and the selfcongratulatory pacifistic posturing of the Left and the left-leaning literary and artistic avant-garde of the era. Another motive for Corso’s unusual treatment of the topic of the atomic bomb is the poet’s desire to go beyond foregone conclusions and conventional pieties to undertake an imaginative exploration of the subject, to discover unsuspected connections and latent meanings behind the phenomenon of the bomb.
   The essential structure of “Bomb” is that of a temporal progression from the past into the future, accompanied by a dramatic escalation toward a climactic vision of an atomic apocalypse and its aftermath. The argument of the poem consists mainly in its endeavor both to place the atomic bomb in the context of human history and to view it in the perspective of the fundamental energies, processes, sequences, and cycles of the cosmos. The basic devices employed by Corso in the poem are those of apostrophe and animation or anthropomorphization, the poet–speaker addressing the bomb as if it were endowed with human intelligence and human emotions.
   The poem begins by introducing the contradictory roles of the atomic bomb in human history. On one hand, the bomb is the “budger of history,” while on the other it may well prove to be the “brake of time.” The atomic bomb, that is, acts to advance events, giving impetus and urgency to contemporary history, while at the same time representing the potential annihilation of all history and humankind. Yet, whichever of these roles is ultimately enacted by the atomic bomb, the bomb is seen by Corso as being no more than an effect of other much greater forces that act upon it or through it, the expression of energies akin to but vastly more powerful than itself. The atomic bomb is ultimately but a “toy of the universe.” In these opening images, time and history, power and death, the limits of the human perspective and of human agency, and our incipient awareness of cosmic forces of a magnitude that far surpass our limited imagination are established as central themes of the poem.
   Corso proceeds to trace the history of human weaponry from the Stone Age to the invention of the atomic bomb, showing the diverse ends which various weapons have served: survival and selfdefense, criminality and conquest, personal anger and tribal warfare, and resistance against oppression and evil. Weapons, the poet implies, are not in themselves pernicious; rather their nature depends on the uses to which they are put. The same holds true of the atomic bomb: “Bomb / you are as cruel as man makes you.” Such a nuanced view of the phenomenon of the atomic bomb—as possible human benefactor, as a tool against tyranny, as well as a menace—would not have been at all well received by the bohemian community or political left of the time. (Indeed, in a letter to a friend, Corso records how during a reading of “Bomb” to a group of students at Oxford University, a member of the audience threw a shoe at him.)
   The poet suggests that much of the modish opposition to the bomb has its origins in the fear of death, which is an inevitable component of the human situation. He enumerates other forms of death that he sees as far more likely and equally or even more terrible. Also like the figure of Stubb in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick who observes “such a waggish leering as lurks in all your horribles,” Corso makes remarks about the strange “impish” and “sportive” aspect of atomic apocalypse. In the fiery wind of the thermonuclear blast, all human vanities will be revealed in their ultimate triviality, and surreal, absurd juxtapositions and metamorphoses will occur:
   Turtles exploding over Istanbul,
   The jaguar’s flying foot
   Soon to sink in arctic snow
   Penguins plunged against the Sphinx
   Simultaneous with this convulsive beauty, the instant that the atomic cataclysm takes place will also represent the ultimate confrontation between time past and time present, an encounter that Corso comically images as a baseball game with Greek gods, theologians, and Christian and Buddhist saviors as players on opposing teams. If time can in this way be abolished by atomic destruction, the present devouring the past even as the present extinguishes itself, then Corso imagines the same destructive power that is latent in the atom as capable of destroying the entire universe; the planets, the stars and galaxies extinguished; and even the Creator being consumed by His own creation.
   From this vision of a final void, Corso quickly turns to another fanciful picture—a hell for bombs, an afterlife in which the shattered, detonated bombs of various nations, formerly enemies, sit together in eternity. The pity that this vision of a despised and damned atomic bomb evokes in the heart of the poet causes him to comfort, to court, and even to make love to the bomb. The climax of this love making is an atomic explosion, rendered in full-volume onomatopoeia: “BING, BANG, BONG, BOOM.”
   Again, defying reader expectations, the destruction of the world as envisioned by the poet in this passage is not depicted as tragedy but as a joyous release, an ecstatic fulfillment: Flowers will leap in joy their roots aching Fields will kneel proud beneath the halleluyahs of the wind
   Nor will this cataclysm be the end, for the parasitic mushroom cloud that feeds off and destroys its host—life—also scatters the spores of new life. This is the sense in which earlier in the poem, the bomb was lauded as a “Spring bomb” clad in “gown of dynamite green.” Accordingly, the poet foresees future ages in which strange new empires will arise and new bombs will be invented and venerated. The cycle of creation, destruction, creation will continue on and on; worlds will appear and disappear endlessly. Seen in this perspective, the atomic bomb is but a local and minor manifestation of the mysterious fecundating destructive power of the cosmos that itself began with a “Big Bang”; the bomb is thus a vehicle, a tool, a “toy of the universe.” Quite apart from its content, its provocative, polemical or parodic intentions, “Bomb” is a poem of wild invention, verbal exuberance, and delirium of metaphor. Corso spins off allusions at a furious pace, keeping up a swift flow of disjunction and juxtaposition, mixing lyricism and whimsy, horror and humor, achieving a kind of manic sublimity. The poem ranges widely in human history and culture, drawing in figures and images from classical and Norse mythology, the Bible, fairy tale and legend, sports and popular entertainment, literature and contemporary history. Poetic coinages are frequent: vulturic, rainlight, untrumpet, mythmouth; and extravagant, incongruous images abound: pimps of indefinite weather, marble helmsmen, jubilee feet, lily door, Death’s Mozambique, and magisterial bombs wrapped in ermine.
   It is uncertain whether in dropping his “Bomb” on the cold war nuclear disarmament debate Corso really hoped to convince anyone of his eccentric perspectives on the issue or whether—more likely—he was aiming to explode some of the passionately held preconceptions and cherished received opinions associated with the controversy and to blast loose certain of the hardened and humorless ideological positions of the era. Happily, the topic inspired Corso to take a comic romp among the sacred cows, scattering them in all directions.
 Bibliography
■ Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso. Edited by Bill Morgan. New York: New Directions, 2003.
■ Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
■ Olson, Kirby. Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
■ 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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  • bomb — [n] exploding weapon atom bomb, bombshell, charge, device, explosive, grenade, hydrogen bomb, mine, missile, Molotov cocktail, nuclear bomb, projectile, rocket, shell, ticker*, torpedo; concept 500 bomb [v1] detonate weapon attack, blast, blitz,… …   New thesaurus

  • bomb — [bäm] n. [Fr bombe < It bomba; prob. < L bombus, a buzzing < Gr bombos, deep and hollow sound: orig. echoic] 1. a container filled with an explosive, incendiary, or other chemical for dropping or hurling, or for detonating by a timing… …   English World dictionary

  • Bomb — Bomb, v. t. To bombard. [Obs.] Prior. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Bomb — Bomb, v. i. [Cf. {Boom}.] To sound; to boom; to make a humming or buzzing sound. [Obs.] B. Jonson. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • bomb — noun ammunition, armament, blockbuster, bombshell, charge, detonator, dynamite, explosive, explosive device, fireball, grenade, gunpowder, hand grenade, high explosive, infernal machine, instrument of warfare, mine, missile, Molotov cocktail,… …   Law dictionary

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  • bomb|er — «BOM uhr», noun. 1. an airplane used to drop bombs on the enemy: »The bombers flew over the enemy city releasing bombs that set many targets afire. 2. a person who throws or drops bombs or who sets explosive charges as acts of sabotage or… …   Useful english dictionary


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