In the introduction to C.'s second volume of poems, Gasoline (1958), Allen GINSBERG described C. as a “scientific master of mad-mouthfuls of language.” Although the epithet refers mainly to the C. who helped his friends Ginsberg and Jack KEROUAC found the Beat movement, it can be applied to the later C. as well, as he continues to combine conversational idioms with a frenetic and occasionally surrealistic sense of movement and image.
C.'s early life was difficult. He spent much of his childhood in orphanages, and was imprisoned for theft at age sixteen. While in prison, however, C. made up for his brief formal education by reading Fyodor Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Chatterton, and Christopher Marlowe. He also studied a 1905 dictionary, obtained from one of the inmates, which may account for the mixture in many of his poems of archaic English idioms and Beat generation slang.
His first volume, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems (1955), uses Beat slang copiously, mixed with what some see as residual poetic diction from his studies of English poetry. One of the best known poems in the volume, “Requiem for ‘Bird’ Parker, Musician,” is a tribute to Charlie Parker, whom C. had met. Happy Birthday of Death (1960) contains several protest poems, the most famous of which is “Bomb,” an antinuclear poem itself shaped like a mushroom cloud. The poem refuses to preach directly about the evils of nuclear war, but ironically suggests that the bomb is responsible for the death of God in the line, “O Bomb thy BOOM his tomb.” In a similarly ironic vein, the poem “Marriage” considers the question: “Should I get married? Should I be good? / Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?” and shows C.'s occasional attraction to rhyme, though almost all of his poems are free verse. The poem continues by picturing newlyweds, “All streaming into cozy hotels,” with the poet losing his patience with what he sees as a beehive of empty ritual, finally “Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon! / running rampant into those almost climactic suites / yelling Radio belly! Cat shovel!” This poem earned C. the Longview Poetry Award and is probably one of his best known.
When Kerouac died in 1969, C.'s book Elegiac Feelings American (1970) meditated on the loss of his friend in the leading poem of the same title. In the course of the poem, C. symbolically associated many of the ills then facing America with the death of Kerouac. This attempt to translate private pathos into public symbol, which some of his later poems also do, has led one critic to remark that C. can sometimes “mistake cant for inspiration,” since many of his poems blur the boundaries between private reflection and social criticism.
His next collection, Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (1981), shows an increasing interest in questions about childhood and religion, as does Mindfield: New and Selected Poems (1989). The poem “Hi,” for example, whimsically asks “How can there be a god … When chickens eat hard boiled eggs / and when Gregorys are called Gregs.” The fact that C. has not won the recognition and money enjoyed by Ginsberg and Lawrence FERLINGHETTI surfaces in “Poet Talking to Himself in the Mirror,” where he considers the price of fame: “Ain’t got no agent / can’t see poets having agents / Yet Ginsy, Ferl, have one.” The question is resolved emphatically in the last lines: “Maybe I should get an agent? / Wow! / No way, Gregory, stay / close to the poem!!!” C. again asserts in his own idiom what he sees as the immediate and authentic over the commercially lucrative.
Bibliography Gregory, S., Exiled Angel: A Study of the Work of G. C. (1989) Selerie, G., G. C. (1982)
R. A. Benthall
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