A Book That Changed My Life: Gregory Corso’s “Gasoline” Athenaeum Book Store, Amsterdam, Holland 16 01 13

I was invited by the Literary Activities Committee of the Athenaeum Book Store in Amsterdam to speak last night for ten minutes and take questions on a book that had changed my life. This is a slightly cleaned-up version of the talk that I gave.

Because spontaneous poetics was so important to Allen and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics school I attended at Naropa, I’ve resolved to always give these kind of talks “in the moment” without plans. But since there was a time limit, I knew pretty much what I wanted to say, expanding and contracting as the mood in the room changed. So this includes a few but very few additions and deletions.

I want to thank Jonathan Gill for getting me invited. He spoke on “Confessions” by St. Augustine, and there were three other excellent speakers as well.


The book I chose that changed my life was Gregory Corso’s “Gasoline,” published in 1955 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a notable American poet himself, and City Lights Books in San Francisco, an important small press publisher, especially known in the Fifties and Sixties as the publisher of Beat poets, of which Gregory was certainly one.

I was first given the book by Eric Nielsen, my best friend in junior high, which is 7th and 8th grade in the United States, and that means ’66 to ’67 for me. I’m going to use 1967, so that means I was thirteen.

I feel really blessed that Eric became my friend, because he and two of his older brothers became my alternate education to St. John’s Junior High School. They introduced me to so much of what has become important to me in my life. I first heard Lead Belly in their living room, and Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie, and the Fugs. I first heard Allen Ginsberg’s voice on a Fugs record in their living room. And he was chanting, so that was the first time I heard mantra as well. Just thinking back to being in that living room is like returning to a shrine.

And it wasn’t just music. They had “Evergreen Reviews” and “Ramparts.” And books. Not only poetry, but Nietzsche and playwrights and R.D. Laing and Timothy Leary and Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver.

And their entire house was dressed out in art. Every niche, every shelf, was assemblage art. The house was on a lake, set back from the turnpike, and there was a rowboat and when I first began to run away from home, that’s where I’d always run to.

I don’t remember if they gave me other poetry as well, but I do remember reading “Howl” and “Gasoline.” To understand my reaction to “Howl,” you have to understand a bit about where and when I first read it.

I grew up in a small town in rural New England, called Uncasville. In fact, even to call it a town is a bit of a misnomer. What it was, was, there were two “cities,” Norwich and New London, and there was a turnpike between them—literally, the Norwich-New London turnpike—and you know how houses and storefronts pop up alongside them, well, that’s what Uncasville was, a collection of houses spread out along a turnpike. There was no center of town, really, no “town.” So very rural, very quiet, very isolated.

And this was the Summer of Love. The first time I remember seeing Allen Ginsberg was in an issue of “Life” magazine about the Human Be-In, whose 49th anniversary, will be tomorrow, by the way, January 14th. And he was dressed in white linen with prayer beads and he was smiling and dancing and laughing.

So when I read “Howl” and there were people falling off of tenement buildings—we had no tenement buildings in Uncasville, I had to look them up, they sounded dreadful—and jumping off bridges and walking around with shoes filled with blood, it was like a horror movie to me. It was like a nightmare. It was as scary as Dante’s “Inferno” must have been in the 15th century. It was a cautionary tale. I didn’t want that. I wanted the other thing, “All You Need Is Love,” the dancing poet. I knew immediately it was poetry of a very high order, I recognized the poetics of it and the oratory and the accomplishment, but I’m just saying, I didn’t want to be a Beat poet, that’s for sure.

I don’t know what I expected when I first put “Gasoline” in my back pocket. And I mean that. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Pocket Poets series. If you’ve seen “Howl” and it’s black and white and almost square, literally pocket-sized, “Gasoline” was published like that too. So I put it in my back pocket and went about my day—I went to school, went home, got ready for dinner, ate dinner, did my homework, watched TV, and then it was time to go to bed and I found the book in my back pocket and I thought I’d read a poem or two before I went to sleep.

Well, you know where this is headed. An hour later, when I pried my eyes from the white endpapers, I went back and read the credits, every word, and then read the book again. And when I put the book down, everything had changed. And even at the time without knowing Gregory would one day write an important poem with that title, I used the simile of a bomb—that I had carried a bomb in my back pocket all day without knowing it, just waiting to go off and change everything.

Well, what do I mean by “changed everything”?

First of all, every poem I’d read up until that moment had been in—let’s say—oratorical style. An elevated language. (I didn’t know about Williams then.) But this is me. This is how I talk. I can’t talk like that. Or it’d be fake if I tried to do that. And it *was* fake when I tried to do that. Even “Howl.” I can’t talk like that. I’m not seeing Moloch in the business district. That’s not how I see the world. I see the world in a very level-headed way, an everyday way. My whole day is interactions with people, observing stuff. And that’s what the poems in “Gasoline” were.

Now, they were a very high level of talking in an everyday human voice, of noticing stuff. But it was something I could aspire to. And he focused on the human, the humane, the humanitarian, which was important to me too.

And for the first time I had a vision of how a voice like mine could be considered poetic. And if I could be moved by a poem like “Italian Extravaganza”—it adds a whole ‘nother of irony to return to the title after reading the poem itself….

Mrs. Lombardi’s month-old son is dead.
I saw it in Rizzo’s funeral parlor.
A small purplish wrinkled head.

They just finished high mass for it;
They’re coming out now
… wow, such a small coffin!
And ten black cadillacs to haul it in.

I can write a poem like that. It’s observational. I can say it in my voice. It’s about the human level, it’s about connecting to other humans. I can do that. I *do* that. But it was the first time I’d read it as poetry of a very high order.

And, second, Gregory himself described his poems as “probes.” There’s a whole series of poems with one-word titles. His two most famous poems—“Marriage” and “Bomb” are two of them. What he’d do is choose a word—“Destiny,” “Hair”—and then he’d explore the idea, and the poem would consist of his mind moving, turning the word over and over, examining as many different sides of it as he could think of, and with a great deal of humor and wit. And that’s the poem–the path of the poet’s mind, considering an idea like “Bomb.”

And the “poem as probe” was similar to something I would later discover, in how Philip Whalen described his poetry as “a graph of the mind moving.” The poem is like a map of Gregory’s mind moving too, and I thought, “I could do that. I do that already.”

And it extends beyond the poetry. Life is a series of questions for me. And it’s like what Jonathan said about St. Augustine, it’s important not to settle too soon, to keep finding reasons to question everything, always, to turn it upside down and think again. Like this talk. I’ve given 14 versions of this talk in my head, each one examining some piece of the story. What does it mean to change a life? How can a book do that? Or save your life, as it says on the poster. Can a book do that? How would a book do that? What would that look like? And what’s the difference between changing and saving a life? And is it about saving your life or saving your audience’s life? It’s tricky. The temptation is to take one and run with it. But if I was giving this talk tomorrow, it would be a different talk.

Another quote I discovered later, this one by Ram Dass, has also been very important to me: experiments in truth. Everything, every moment, is an experiment in truth. And then when it’s over, you move on. It can be never-ending. It’s like what Trungpa, Allen’s first Tibetan Buddhist teacher said, “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.” When my questioning stops, that’s when I’ll get worried.

And third, “Gasoline” is like a travelogue. It’s like the journals of a really exciting life. He’s doing things! He’s in Mexico, he’s in San Francisco, he’s hitchhiking with Kerouac making up poems! He’s in New York City, he’s in Paris, places I’d never been to. I’d never been anywhere.

And I knew I had to *get out.* I had to go where there was dancing and music. Because the scariest sentence I’d ever read was the one in “Walden” about lives of “quiet desperation” that I first read when I was 17, and decided to leave home. Because that wasn’t going to happen to me and my life, no way. And I had to get out. I had to *get out.*

And once you get out, it just continues. I model my life on Allen’s. He just kept moving on. In the ‘50s, it was “Howl.” Then it was India and mantra, then it was the anti-war work, then it was the National Book Award, then it was Blake, then the Rolling Thunder Revue and Naropa and Chogyam and the Clash and Brooklyn College and China, and in the end it was Bono and Beck, continuing to inspire even after his death by passing the torch to the next generation.

And here I am in Amsterdam, still getting out, 45 years later.

And another thing that Gregory’s book inspired in me is the hope that someday I’ll publish a book that will be like that bomb for someone in a world yet to come: to one of those “golden ones” David Bowie sings about:

I think about a world to come
Where the books were found by the golden ones
Written in pain, written in awe
By a puzzled man who questioned
What we were here for.

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