The Enigmatic Relationship of Poets Isabella Gardner and Gregory Corso

By Janssen, Marian | Journal of Beat Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Enigmatic Relationship of Poets Isabella Gardner and Gregory Corso


Janssen, Marian, Journal of Beat Studies


Hidden in The Ohio Review we find a letter by the poet James Wright written to his protégé, poet-friend and look-alike Roland Flint.

One evening, a few years ago, I sat close enough to a certain Gregorius, a poet, to smell him.

It is none of my business that this literary personage shook down one of my best friends for two grand by threatening to destroy her apartment. She is old enough to judge.

It is none of my business that Gregorius laughed in the face of a schizophrenic young woman after she had meekly accepted his jeering challenge to go down on him in public.

I do my best to mind my own business.

But I had to sit close enough to smell him....

But Gregorius's age and mode of dress matter as little as his verses. Little does he realize, though very likely in his cruel vanity he would care, that his poetry and his bodily stink are alike timeless. (Wright, "Epistle to Roland Flint: On Ancient and Modem Modes")

A copy of this letter-poem is in the Isabella Gardner Papers in Washington University, St. Louis, inscribed "To Belle, with the only love I care about, for Roland's sake, and John's, and mine, Jim." The friend who was "shaken down" for two grand was the poet Isabella Gardner, known as "Belle," and the cousin of Robert Lowell as well as the great-niece of art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, for whom she was named. The girl said to be schizophrenic who "went down on" Gregorius was probably Gardner's daughter Rose Van Kirk, and "stinky" Gregorius was, of course, Gregory Corso. The "John" of Wright's dedication is lyrical poet John Logan, a loving friend to both Wright and Gardner.' In his "Verse Testament for Isabella Gardner," Logan also mentions this instance of Corso's extortionate violence that took place in the 1970s at the Chelsea Hotel: "Gregory Corso, that hood, conned her. / He'd left two bags in her workroom / and they were stolen. He solemnly claimed their value / at two thousand bucks and threatened / to smash to bits her apartment / if she did not produce the cash" (1981). Corso, for his part, denied guilt, blaming Gardner in a 1982 interview with Gavin Selerie for his having published so little since the mid-1960s.

GC: [. .. ] See, there are two books missing in all this. They were lost. One was stolen and that book was called Who am I-Who I am.

GS: How did that get stolen?

GC: They knew it was a good fucking book-in 1974. It was in two suitcases and I had all my letters from Kerouac and everything and I was living in this fucking Chelsea Hotel in New York City. A supposed friend, a woman, who's a very rich lady and all this shit, a poet named Isabella Gardner, got hold of it; once it was in her hands, it was lost.

...

GS: Do you know what happened to those other poems?

GC: Destroyed or stolen or hidden.

GS: Do you think someone's sitting on them?

GC: Sure. She doesn't need money so she ain't selling. (32-33)

Based largely on unpublished letters and interviews, this biographical essay will sketch a measured picture of the relations between the Beats and the more or less traditionalist literary establishment. It will concentrate primarily on Gregory Corso and Paul Carroll, respectively the most vociferous of the Beat writers and a poet who moved in and out of Beat territory, and the poet Boston Brahmin Isabella Gardner.2 In her assumptions and poetic practice, if not her personal life, Gardner represents the traditionalists. Additional discussion involving William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Allen Tate further supports my notion that at mid-century the lives of the Beat poets touched those of the established poets rather more intimately and diversely than is usually assumed. Believing in the "necessary nakedness involved in the act of writing," Gardner bared her soul in her letters, evoking a similar and often unexpected openness in young poets like Corso and Carroll ("The Fellowship with Essence: An Afterword" 161). …

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