This is Marriage? The Beat Generation and Gregory Corso’s ‘Marriage’

Corso with partner and baby, by Allen Ginsberg

Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage” is an expression of the poet’s disgust with the concept of marriage as a (predominantly middle class) institution. It also displays how the poet’s battles between conforming and subverting the entire process. And yet beyond this, his intention is serious: he is searching for some ideal which will allow him the happiness that a conventional marriage would not.

John Clellon Holmes wrote in the early 50’s:

“for today’s young people there is not a single external pivot around which they can, as a generation, group their observations and their aspirations. There is no single philosophy, no single party, no single attitude. The failure of most orthodox moral and social concepts to reflect fully the life they have known is probably the reason for this.”

The Beat Generation lost faith in the structures of ordered American society. As a postwar generation, they believed that these organizations had failed in both preventing the confusion and upheaval of war, but had also not been able to adapt to a world enormously affected by the conflict. In “Marriage”, published in 1959, Corso launches an attack on the convention of marriage. He does so by looking at wedlock through three different perspectives: from that of the working, middle and upper class.

The two extremes of wealth (the immigrant family and the sophisticates) are cleverly juxtaposed. Both groups live in apartments in New York City, but they experience the city entirely differently. For the immigrant family it is “hot smelly tight New York City / seven flights up roaches and rats in the walls” and the wealthy “lived high up in a penthouse with a huge window / from which we could see all of New York and farther on clearer days”. Even the speaker’s wives are compared. The immigrant wife is enormous and fertile with the violence, noise and strong will one associates with the image of “a fat Reichian wife screeching over potatoes”, whereas her counterpart is “beautiful sophisticated / tall and pale”. Unlike the first wife, she has no children; there is an air of sterility and coldness to her. What unites these two images are two factors; firstly, they are both caricatures of immigrant life and high society. Secondly, and more importantly, neither portrayal of marriage is deemed satisfactory. In the first case the poet says that it is “impossible to lie back and dream” and the other is a “pleasant prison dream”. Marriage does not fulfill him in a spiritual sense.

Corso focuses his greatest energies on the middle class. He meticulously describes each stage of a young couple’s life together to illustrate to what extent marriage is ritualised and subordinate to the bourgeois need for appearing respectable. During courtship they limit their behaviour to the boundaries imposed by society, “and she going just so far and I understanding why”, when he meets her parents they make cliched comments, “we’re losing a daughter / but we’re gaining a son”, the priest’s words, “Do you take this woman as your lawful wedded wife?” underline the sense of tradition and the importance of it being lawful or socially acceptable. Even the honeymoon is taken at a conventional spot: Niagara Falls (34) is a favoured site for honeymooners in America. Moving on to early married life, his wife stays at home while he goes out to work and desires nothing more than to be the mother of his children. This paternalist attitude towards woman (as helpless beings whose sole aim in life should be to please their husbands) was typical of conservative middle class America.

How nice it’d be to come home to her
and sit by the fireplace and she in the kitchen
aproned young and lovely wanting my baby
and so happy about me she burns the roast beef
and comes crying to me and I get up from my big papa chair

Finally, their first child is born. They, in a sense, satisfy the demands of their society: they are married and now they have a family.

However, throughout this journey, it is clear that the speaker is dissatisfied. Through his embarrassment (such as when he cannot ask to go to the bathroom (13)), his anger or irritation at the behaviour of the people at Niagara Falls,

The lobby zombies they knowing what
The whistling elevator man he knowing
The winking bellboy knowing
Everybody knowing! I’d be almost inclined not to do anything!
Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!
Screaming: I deny honeymoon! I deny honeymoon!
and his absurd fantasies about upsetting middle tradition,

running rampant into those almost climactic suites
yelling Radio belly! Cat shovel!
O I’d live in Niagara forever! in a dark cave beneath the Falls
I’d sit there the Mad Honeymooner
devising ways to break up marriages, a scourge of bigamy
a saint of divorce”

the speaker implies that he cannot accept this conventionalized form of marriage. These devices show up how ridiculous this ritual is: there is not spontaneity because all actions have been predetermined and there is no love, as love is forced to conform to what is socially allowed.

What is also very effective is the poet’s references to symbols of American life: the “velvet suit and faustus hood”, cemeteries, werewolves and zombies bring to mind the B-grade horror movies so popular during the 1950s and 1960s; Flash Gordon and Batman were popular comic book heroes; the golf clubs, lawnmower, picket fence and Community Chest are synonymous with suburban life and Blue Cross Gas & Columbus were suppliers of gas and appliances for household use. The implication created by these concepts is that marriage is rather like a pre-packaged commodity; like tickets to a film, comic books, a house in the suburbs or furniture it is an experience that one buys into and does not create. It is so much part of middle class society that it no longer exists as an expression of love or devotion. Thus, as an institution, the speaker is entirely disillusioned with marriage.

Holmes admits that “it is certainly a generation of extremes”. He goes on to say that with this disenchantment with society and the desire to reform it, the Beat Generation were challenged by the tension existing between finding comfort and security in conformity or in excess. In Corso’s work, according to Carolyn Gaiser, “one finds the recurring embodiment of the Dionysian force of emotion and spontaneity, as opposed to the Apollonian powers of order, clarity and moderation.

This Nietzschian conflict is present in “Marriage”. The speaker repeatedly asserts that he “should” marry. Even though the dictionary meaning of “should” is that the word is “used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness”, in context, “should” is a suggestion, rather than an order (as in “must”), it carries no real obligation. This ambivalence introduces conflict. The speaker feels that it is better to marry and, hence, to be “good”, but he has no real compulsion to do so, in which case, he is at liberty to play with the norms and conventions of marriage.

For example, in the first stanza, Corso mixes conformity (the rituals of courtship) with excess (the horror genre). In the first few lines, conventional courtship is alluded to with the girl next door (the archetypical, suitable middle class girl) and “take her to the movies” (the usual destination for courting couples). Subverting this are “velvet suit and faustus hood” (these items are unconventional or bohemian and would be considered inappropriate in conservative thinking) and “cemeteries” (an extremely unorthodox spot for a courting couple). In a way, the other references to death and fantasy (the werewolf and tombstone) evoke the darker side of bourgeois society (the werewolf is an apt metaphor: man by day, monster by night). Due to the fact that they have been suppressed and effectively pushed out of the ritual that marriage has become, passion and “desire” are part of this hidden aspect of mid
dle class being. Hence, the speaker is feels that he should conform to convention when courting, but he is pulled into the direction of what the establishment labels “excess”: passion, desire, sex, uncontrollable emotion and love.

Another example is,

So much to do! like sneaking into Mr Jones’ house late at night
and cover his golf clubs with 1920 Norwegian books
Like hanging a picture of Rimbaud on the lawnmower
like pasting Tannu Tuva postage stamps all over the picket fence
like when Mrs Kindhead comes to collect for the Community Chest
grab her and tell her There are unfavourable omens in the sky!
And when the mayor comes to get my vote tell him
When are you going to stop people killing whales!
And when the milkman comes leave him a note in the bottle
Penguin dust, bring me penguin dust, I want penguin dust

In a series of fantasies, the speaker takes a metaphor for middle class life and subverts it. Firstly, “Mr. Jones” is the archetypal suburban neighbor who would not approve of someone
“sneaking into [his] house late at night” to perform mischief. His golf clubs and lawnmower are also symbols of suburbia, whereas the “1920 Norwegian books” and portrait of Rimbaud would be more in place in the home of an academic or intellectual — someone whom Mr Jones may consider to be a threat to his way of thinking. The stamps from Tannu Tuva on the picket fence (once again, a symbol of the American middle class dream) indicate the limitations of bourgeois thinking: they never think beyond their picket fences; their thought is parochial. The stamps challenge this confinement; they suggest what is beyond these self-imposed borders. These first few acts of subversion highlight the narrow boundaries of the middle class life; the books, portrait and stamps represent not only that which lies beyond those boundaries, but they confront and also subvert these limits. Dionysus dares Apollo.

This is further dealt with in the second section of the stanza. Here, the middle classes are represented by “Mrs Kindhead collect[ing] for the Community Chest”, “the mayor com[ing] to get [his] vote” and “the milkman”. The Community Chest, mayor and milkman are all illustrative of traditional social structures: the Community Chest is a charity organisation who distributes money given by (mainly) middle class people to the poor, the mayor is symbolic of the political organisation of society and the milkman is a common aspect of suburban dwelling. In subverting these elements, the speaker descends into what would be considered “mad” behavior: his actions are not appropriate to the circumstances. Again Dionysus comes face to face with Apollo, but because this subversion is not done secretively, by sneaking into a neighbor’s house, they have more of a feeling of the “excess” so assiduously avoided by the bourgeois. The tension between conformity and excess continues, whether quietly or out in the open. This Beat Generation issue is brought into the poem; as a member of the Generation, the speaker is torn between either having the appearance of conforming and in a clandestine manner upsetting middle class life or blatantly and loudly challenging it.

However, as Holmes writes,

For beneath the excess and the conformity, There are the stirrings of a quest. What the [Beat Generation] is looking for is a feeling of somewhereness what [it] wants is a stable position from which to operate. [They] have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.

Without a base of secure values to work from, the Beat Generation developed a need to create or to find something to believe in. As Kerouac explained, “I was waiting for God to show his face”. Only once faith is found can this disillusionment and tension be resolved. Corso introduces this idea of a quest in the eleventh stanza with, “O but what about love? I forget love”. At once, the poem is serious. Love is offered as hope; the ideal for which he can strive. It is the answer to his disgust of the marriage institution, but it is not easily found.

I never wanted to marry a girl who was like my mother
And Ingrid Bergman was always impossible
And there’s maybe a girl now but she’s already married
And I don’t like men

There is a true sense of rising panic and worry with his repetition of “And” at the beginning of lines 103, 104 and 105. It reaches a climax with:

but there’s got to be somebody!
Because what if I’m 60 years old and not married,
all alone in a furnished room with pee stains on my underwear
and everybody else is married! All the universe married but me!

The speaker envisages a lonely and rather pathetic future as the reality of his situation becomes clear to him. Only by finding love (the ideal) will his happiness be secured.

All this discussion is an exploration of Corso and his generation’s question (with a nod to Holmes): is this marriage? From his original rejection of the conventions of marriage, its ritualised nature and its inability to satisfy him spiritually and accommodate his views, attitudes and thinking, the speaker moves to having to balance his desire to conform whilst still wanting to subvert the system. Yet, beyond all this, he realises that the solution for his disillusionment (the faith he needs to believe in) is love and love must be sought. There is a definite and determined progression in this process: the speaker does not remain mired in cynicism or devilish fantasising. As Holmes concludes,

But [the Beat Generation’s] ability to keep its eyes open, and yet avoid cynicism; its ever-increasing conviction that the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem; and that capacity for sudden wisdom are assets and bear watching.
(par. 17)

This thought proved prophetic. The Beat poets and writers have become a respected and popular inclusion in the canon of western literature. Indeed, Corso’s “Marriage” is one such example. Despite effectively embodying the tenets and spirit of the Beat Movement, the poem has another side to it which places it (somewhat ironically) beyond the limits of Beat literature. I feel that it is possibly this that has ensured the work’s continuing popularity, as compared to other Beat poetry which is best understood within its context. This “something else” is Corso’s characteristic, almost childlike, sense of fun. In 1961, Carolyn Gaiser wrote, “The mask that is most distinctly Gregory Corso’s [is] that of the sophisticated child”. This comes across best at the end of the poem where the speaker, seriously anxious about his future, switches from serious contemplation to the child’s fantasy of a beautiful woman waiting for her rescuer. This turnabout rescues the poem from becoming oppressively heavy or oppressive. It allows it a timelessness; the humour appeals to people living forty years after the poem’s publication.

In 1996, just five years before the poet’s death, Iain Sinclair wrote an article about an aging Corso for The London Review of Books. He begins the article with: “There may be only two writers, currently at work in America, who can bring themselves, unblushing, to use the phrase ‘drinky poo.'” Of course, Gregory Corso is one of them. This ability to use speak childlike nonsense whilst being fully aware of one’s enormous poetic talent is what imbues “Marriage” with its capacity to translate to a wide, and varied, audience, regardless of the poem’s Beat Generation context.

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