Happy Birthday of Death, The

by Gregory Corso
(1960)
   In The Happy Birthday of Death, gregory corso deploys passion, humor, and the resources of his fertile, quirky imagination against all the various agencies that debase the human spirit and impair true life. In a series of longer poems, each centered upon a single concept, the poet denounces and ridicules the faults and failings that obstruct the development of humankind, while in the shorter lyrics of the collection he presents epiphanic glints and glimpses, praises the heroes and martyrs of visionary consciousness, and affirms the sovereign power of life.
   The longer, reflective poems of the volume, “marriage,” “bomb,” “Hair,” “Food,” “Death,” “Clown,” “Power,” “Army,” and “Police,” eschew formal organization, reasoned argument, and explicit formulation in favor of verbal virtuosity, extravagant invention, anarchic humor, and intensity of emotional conviction. The poems are less meditations or discourses on their themes than they are imaginative explorations, proceeding by associative leaps and oblique correspondences, by expansions and fusions and transformations.
   The principal and most central in this series of free-wheeling meditative poems is “Power,” which may be read as an enunciation of Corso’s poetics and of his conception of the role of the poet and of poetry in the world. The poem turns upon the contradictory duality inherent in the word power, which means both the possession of control, authority, or influence over others and the ability to act or to produce an effect. By exploring the nature of the concept of power, the poem elucidates the irreconcilable dual nature of the world as material or as spiritual reality.
   The poem opens with the declaration that “We are the imitation of Power,” which I understand in a Platonic sense, that we may each of us choose to seek or to embody either mundane or transcendent power. This idea is amplified in the first and second stanzas in which the insufficiency of the senses to perceive truth is asserted. In this way, true power exists in the spirit and is exercised through the imagination. With his declaration “I contradict the real with the unreal,” Corso expresses in essence the guiding principle of his art: the rejection of the tyranny of the real and an assertion of freedom from limitation, from causality, from “impossibility.” The poet (together with his counterparts and allies) is, in Corso’s view, a prophet of the ideal, the transcendental, an “ambassador of Power.” It is the poet’s task to liberate humanity from all forms of oppression and to redeem the ravaged world, the “Awful blank acreage once made pastoral by myths.” Against the violence, indifference, banality, dullness, and despair of the fallen world, the poet possesses two weapons: vision and humor. By means of vision he may remythicize the drear, bleak wasteland of the world, restoring it again to fertile, pastoral Arcadia, and by means of laughter he can defy and deflate the forces of Death-in-Life and oppose the institutionalized repression of the human spirit. The theme of humor is taken up again in the poem “Clown.” Here, the poet contrasts the vital position occupied by the jester or court fool in medieval society with the current low estate of the clown. Corso characterizes the present era as a spiritual winter but prophesies a vernal renewal to be ushered in by the clown, the “good mad pest of joy” whose “red nose / is antideath.” Certain of the more malign aspects of our frozen age, our winter of the spirit, are treated by the poet in “Bomb,” “Death,” “Army,” and “Police.” The titles speak for themselves, and taken as a group the poems communicate a vision of an infernal era, dominated by destructiveness, negation, violence, and oppression. Enthroned in human consciousness like a baleful and obscene deity sits “Horned Reality its snout ringed with tokens of fear / pummelling child’s jubilee, man’s desire” (“Police”). If armies, wars, bombs, prisons, and police are external, historical manifestations of the fallen world that we inhabit, then the individual, internal manifestations of our fallen condition include such traditional deadly sins as vanity and gluttony, anger and despair. These impediments to human spiritual development are given a humorous treatment in “Hair” and “Food.” The former poem takes the form of a lament by an unnamed narrator who alternately rages and weeps at the loss of his hair through baldness. The comic effect of the poem derives from the exaggerated emotion and the hyperbole provoked by an essentially trivial event. Corso’s theme here is that of human vanity, the blinding conceit that engenders in the mind of the narrator (and by extension all of us) blasphemy, anger, abjectness, despair, and envy. False values and self-infatuation are here shown to perpetuate the illusion of the real. “Food” follows the development of another persona–narrator from fastidious, abstemious ascetic to voracious, insatiable glutton. The poem dramatizes and derides the extremes of denial and indulgence in relation to physical appetite. The two positions are seen as being equally absurd and untenable. Both serve only to confirm appetite rather than transcending it, and both represent essentially life-denying attitudes, dogmatic, deviational obsessions that narrow and distort consciousness and thus impede expanded vision.
   The shorter lyrics of the collection treat a variety of themes, most of which are centered around the struggle between vision and the real, the tension between transformation of the self and the loss of hope and purpose when vision fails. Poems such as “How Happy I Used To Be” and “On Pont Neuf,” treat the dark aftermath of the visionary experience, the acute sense of loss, the feeling of exile and forfeiture, the frustration and despair attendant on finding oneself trapped again in the raw, drear, unyielding material world. Despite such occasional moods of dejection and disconsolation, the poet continues to resist and endeavour and contend, striving against the agencies of negation, cultivating his sources of strength and inspiration. The spirit of abiding vitality, of renewal and vision, and of the miraculous redemptive principle latent in the world is frequently imaged by Corso as a young girl or a young woman. This figure—innocent sorceress, elusive muse, and mythic apparition—assumes various guises in Corso’s poems. In “The Sacré Coeur Café,” she is envisioned as Cosette, the heroine of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Sitting in a café, the poet awaits her appearance and dreams of following her, serving her, sacrificing himself for her, “little Cosette—the size of eternity.” Another incarnation of the same figure is glimpsed in the form of a lovely “childgirl” in the poem “Written in Nostalgia for Paris” and is pursued by him through the streets of the city. In yet another incarnation she is reverently awaited in a park in “Spring’s Melodious Herald,” where the poet expresses his hope that her “primordial beauty” will overthrow “winter’s vast network.” Embodiment of hope and of regeneration, Corso’s child–woman is a radiant enigma, appearing unexpectedly and fleetingly, anticipated incessantly.
   The motifs of confinement and persecution, familiar from earlier collections of Corso’s poetry, continue to be employed by the poet in The Happy Birthday of Death. In “For K.R. Who Killed Himself in Charles Street Jail,” Corso elegizes a friend and fellow–poet who represents for him the type of visionary quester destroyed both by the inner torments inevitably engendered by the spiritual quest and by the abuse and persecution inflicted upon such persons by an uncomprehending materialist society. More hopeful variants of these motifs occur in the poems “Transformation & Escape” and “1953,” in which escape from confinement may be read as an allegory of human spiritual liberation. Corso makes engaging and effective use of sports as a metaphor for metaphysics in two poems, “Dream of a Baseball Star” and “Written While Watching the Yankees Play Detroit.” In the first of these, the legendary baseball hero Ted Williams serves as a representative of the spiritual struggle to exceed the limitations of the physical world, while in the second poem baseball provides a trope for the cosmic struggle between spirit and all that impedes and confines it. In both poems, Corso affirms the ultimate deliverance, elevation, glorification and transfiguration of the human spirit, prophesying final victory and liberation.
   Corso’s metaphysics is of his own eclectic, syncretic, eccentric variety; he is not an expounder of doctrines, dogma, or systems. Indeed, he is disposed to be deeply suspicious of all that presents itself as being absolute, definite, fixed, or final. There are, of course, coherent and consistent ideas implicit in his work, but he chooses not to codify them, knowing that “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” The poet expresses this fundamental attitude in the poem “Notes after Blacking Out”:
   All is answerable I need not know the answer
   Poetry is seeking the answer
   Joy is in knowing there is an answer
   Death is knowing the answer
   The Happy Birthday of Death is a search for answers, a poetic inquiry into life, into the human heart, into the world and the cosmos. What is discovered and celebrated by the poet and what lingers afterward in the mind of the reader is a magical sense of the world, a sensation and an awareness that the objects and events of the world are charged with a mystery and a meaning beyond their immediate material qualities. At the same time the collection is an undermining, a discrediting, a rebuke, and a rebuttal to all that is inimical to freedom and growth, to beauty, vision, liberty, desire, and delight.
   The poems in this collection may be seen to represent a culmination of Corso’s poetic development and mythopoeic vision, effectively extending-through the imaginative scope afforded by the longer poems—the range of tone and technique in his poetry while maintaining its essential integrity of theme. The Happy Birthday of Death brings to fullest expression the whimsy, the audacity and the gravity, the boldness of metaphor and the richness of invention that give to Corso’s work its unique character.
 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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