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On "Bomb"

"Many Have Fallen" by Gregory Corso

In 1958 I took to prophecy
the heaviest kind: Doomsday
It was announced in a frolicy poem called BOMB
and concluded like this:
Know that in the hearts of men to come
more bombs will be born
. . . yea, into our lives a bomb shall fall

Well, 20 years later
not one but 86 bombs, A-Bombs, have fallen
We bombed Utah, Nevada, New Mexico,
and all survived
. . . until two decades later
when the dead finally died

from an interview of Gregory Corso by Robert King

GC: I can take the "Bomb," or I can take blue balloons. But it's not political at all. It's a death shot. You see, because people were worrying about dying by the Bomb in the Fifties. So I said, what about falling off the roof, what about heart attack. And I used the double old-age: old age I picked as being the heaviest--"old age, old age." One line that I've written in that poem that's not in the poem, and it should be in there is "Christ with the whip," like "St. George with a lance." I read it yesterday. I don't augment or take away, but it could be a smart idea if I did add that Christ with the whip number. (12)

from an interview of Gregory Corso by Michael Andre

Corso: "Bomb" was written when I came back from England, when I saw the kids Ban the Bomb, Ban the Bomb, and I said, "It's a death shot that's laid on them, the immediacy of people being hanged in England at that time, and it's not as if the Bomb had never fallen, so how am I going to tackle this thing, suddenly death was the big shot to handle, Gregory, not just the Bomb."

The best way to get out of it was make it lyrical, like an embracing of it, put all the energy of all the lyric that I could name. And then get to know it. But if I start with hating it, with the hate of it, I get no farther than a piece of polemic, a political poem--which I usually fall flat on. That's not a political poem exactly, that "Bomb" poem. And you can only do it by embracing it, yes. So gee, I loved the bomb....

Andre: . . . You use archaism well in your poetry.

Corso: Yes, I would use a word like "thee" but I'd make sure I use "you" in it too, you know.... I use it in "Bomb" but only because it has something apocalyptic and biblical, like "ye BANG ye BONG ye BING." There's a lot of interplay in that poem. When it's read, it's a sound poem. (132, 150-51)

from Corso's "Standing on a Streetcorner: A Little Play"

   YOUNG MAN: . . . say, do you think the bomb's gonna fall?

   BARBER: The shave is 85 cents.

   YOUNG MAN: (handing barber twenty-dollar bill): I don't think it's going to fall, and you know why? Because it's too easy to think it'll fall. What's really strange and difficult to imagine is it NEVER falling!

   BARBER: (handing him change): Too much thinking about the bomb seems to me like the bomb is doing its damage without having to fall--here's your change.

   YOUNG MAN: Right you are! (He gives Barber big tip.) What with everybody so bomb conscious it is as though it has fallen in a way, mentally that is, because now they got these shelters and they're always gonna have them and that means that all the babies to come will have to ask what the shelters are, and the parents will have to explain to them, and not many parents can explain death, so the poor kids will have to consult their deaths when everything about them is life.  (460)

from Dom Moraes's "Somewhere Else with Allen and Gregory"

Things became more frantic toward the end of the visit [to England]. Even then, in 1958, they [Ginsberg and Corso] had numerous English supporters and imitators, and a reading that took place at New College was a disaster largely because it was invaded by numbers of them. The hosts, the college poetry society, were understandably exasperated. One hairy young man with large, bare, smelly feet ambled in and stretched himself out on a sofa. There he rolled a marijuana cigarette. The ceiling of the room was low, and to the astonishment of everyone else present he placed a match between his toes, struck it on the ceiling with a careless sweep of the foot, and lit his cigarette.

Quite apart from the uninvited hordes, the reading itself was not a success. I had forgotten to advise Allen and Gregory that New College was a stronghold of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When Gregory began to read a poem about the aesthetic pleasures of a nuclear explosion, his hosts were outraged. There was a great deal of heckling, and finally the New College poetry society, led by Stephen Hugh-Jones, the editor of Isis, took off their shoes and threw them at the poets. Allen and Gregory packed up their poems and left. They were tight-lipped and silent, with hurt eyes, like children who have been chastised for the first time.  (67)

from Allen Ginsberg's Introduction to Corso's Gasoline

Open this book as you would a box of crazy toys, take in your hands a refinement of beauty out of a destructive atmosphere. (7)

from Michael Horovitz's "On the Beat with Gregory Corso"

More than any other modern poet, he's put the lyre back into the lyric, illuminating the haphazard mosaic cast by his thoroughgoing imagination of Bomb--the "Budger of history." He puts down the bomb in the best way possible--outlines its look and boom in a pattern of words which locates the explosions in his being, to express them--creatively, "lyre and tuba together joined." He cannot write in fear, as though the atom were the monster, as though it and not ourselves exercised the power. It elicits a hymn from his pen, "neither for or against the bomb," says [Allen] Ginsberg "--it just reduces the bomb to insignificance because the poem is greater than the bomb." (67)

from Catharine F. Seigel's "Corso, Kinnell, and the Bomb"

Gregory Corso's "Bomb" in 1958 was one of the earliest poems to confront the existence of the nuclear bomb. Ironically Corso was at the time married to a DuPont; as he said, "Her family made the bomb, and I wrote the Bomb poem." Corso's choice of form ushers in the irony which is to dominate the poem. The "Bomb," published as a pull-out centerfold, is constructed in the shape of the infamous mushroom cloud. Corso's calling on the tradition of patterned or shaped poetry, last made popular by the 17th-century devotionalist-poet George Herbert--poems of angels' wings and altars is ironically appropriate. The "Bomb" is at the core of a volume called The Happy Birthday of Death which has as its cover the black and white photograph of the nuclear cloud billowing over Hiroshima.

The poem is an ironic epic hymn to the which the speaker experiences all the standard psychological responses to the unimaginable, the horrific.... But the poet knows well that he is singing with his throat cut....

Corso's poem, especially when read aloud, accelerates to its all-inclusive, clamorous conclusion attempting to sound the reign of a nuclear, apocalyptic chaos, but then it moves back wisely to a quiet acknowledgement that this bombing will take place among you and me....

Although Hayden Carruth once dismissed "The Bomb" as "rant and shapeless anger" (356), I would suggest that the poem's onomatopoetic ranting and raging are its strengths. (96-98)

from Thomas McClanahan's "Gregory Corso"

Although it can be read as a polemic against nuclear war, "Bomb" is also an examination of the loss of humanistic virtue. Additionally, it is a vehicle for expressing Corso's developing epistemology. To know the world, for the younger poet, is to recognize it as a Heraclitean continuum, an alteration of consciousness that prefigures the way man understands himself and the world about him. Like the bomb, powerful forces--whether they are generated by great religious prophets or authentic poetic statement--provide the elemental energy that transforms human consciousness. So Corso's poem is a paradoxical rendering of two points of view: on the one hand it is about the destructive power of a weapon that can annihilate mankind, while at the other extreme it concerns the positive force of man's own potential to see the world from a new perspective. (144-45)

from Neil A. Chassman's "Poets of the Cities: Levelling of Meaning

[Martin] Heidegger lays bare the quality of intervalness which is entailed by the ethos of an atomic bomb society in which the bomb itself is not the scare but is merely the most obvious symptom of a system of values grounded in the myth of objectivity. To put it differently: if an atomic bomb were to fall, everything would be utterly devastated--chairs, people, mice, trees, ice cream sundaes, honors, lovers. All things would exist in a continuum of undifferentiation. Not only would physicality be so ravaged but the catastrophe would also reveal layers of already incipient undifferentiation in the realms of value, emotion, and spirituality. Intervallessness then means that all things are placed without intervals between them, without features which normally distinguish one thing from another.... For example: a farmer who has worked hard all his life to establish a situation of security and repose for his children, when witnessing the death of his children in a bombing, becomes aware of a transformation of meaning regarding the state of his farm, the work he has put into it, and all considerations which have been in any way related to it. The young high school girl anxiously awaiting her senior prom, choosing her dress for the evening, etc., when she becomes sick to her stomach all cares for the dress or the evening vanish, or rather, previously held meanings are levelled....

In spite of the devastation of a levelling of meaning there is a positive power attached to it, i.e., it allows for a reconstitution of meaning in an authentic manner--it makes possible for the first time a restructuring of the world. (17-18)

from Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage

There may not have been a single master fear, but to many in my generation, especially the incipient New Left, the grimmest and least acknowledged underside of affluence was the Bomb.... Whatever the national pride in the blasts that pulverized Bikini and Eniwetok atolls, whatever the Atomic Energy Commission's bland assurances, the Bomb actually disrupted our daily lives. We grew up taking cover in school drills--the first American generation compelled from infancy to fear not only war but the end of days. Every so often, out of the blue, a teacher would pause in the middle of class and call out, "Take cover!" We knew, then, to scramble under our miniature desks and to stay there, cramped, heads folded under  our arms, until the teacher called out, "All clear!" Sometimes the whole school was taken out into the halls, away from the windows, and instructed to crouch down, heads to the walls, our eyes scrunched closed, until further notice. Sometimes air raid sirens went off out in the wider world, and whole cities were told to stay indoors. Who knew what to believe? Under the desks and crouched in the hallways, terrors were ignited, existentialists were made. Whether or not we believed that hiding under a school desk or in a hallway was really going to protect us from the furies of an atomic blast, we could never quite take for granted that the world we had been born into was destined to endure.... The Bomb was the shadow hanging over all human endeavor. It threatened all the prizes. It might, if one thought about it radically, undermine the rationale of the nation-state. It might also throw the traditional religious and ethical justifications of existence into disarray, if not disrepute. The Bomb that exploded in Hiroshima gave the lie to official proclamations that the ultimate weapon was too terrible to be used. (22-23)

from Wini Breines's Young, White, and Miserable

The bomb haunted young people's imaginations.... Like polio, the bomb flourished as an apprehension. Memories of school air raid drills, of hiding under one's desk, dog tags in case of incineration, and fallout shelters populate young people's memories of the 1950s. I remember apparently rational, passionate public discussion about whether one would let a desperate neighbor into one's shelter, of decent husbands and fathers arguing that it would be just to defend their nuclear families with guns, forbidding others to enter, presumably because supplies and/or air were not endless. (7)

from The American Dream: The 50s

"I cannot tell you when or where the attack will come or that it will come at all," President Truman told the nation in 1950. "I can only remind you that we must be ready when it does come." With those chilling words, he launched the Civil Defense Administration--and a challenge that frightened, bewildered, and sometimes amused Americans. They were to think the unthinkable: that they could somehow survive the blast, heat, and radiation of a direct nuclear attack.

Schools added a new subject known as duck and cover. On command, students were taught to crouch, shield their eyes, and seek cover under any available shelter, including their desks. Parents were assured that children would be safe in school and could be picked up when the all clear sounded. Just in case, however, some schools issued military-style dog tags to identify students after an attack.

Civil defense manuals issued by the federal government, with titles such as The Family Fallout Shelter and Education for National Survival, urged homeowners to install shatterproof windows and buy Geiger counters to measure ambient radiation. "Your chances of living through an atomic attack are much better than you thought," reassured one manual. "At Nagasaki, almost 70 percent of the people a mile from the bomb lived to tell their experience." To improve their chances, 1 in every 20 Americans either modified their homes to include basement-based shelters with reinforced framing or acquired the ultimate in family protection by arranging for an underground bomb shelter in their backyards. (86)

Ann Charters

City Lights published his long poem Bomb as a multiple-paged broadside, with the text shaped as a mushroom cloud. Bomb was the poet's powerful address to the atomic bomb, cataloging the evolution of mankind's destructive tendencies, culminating in the bomb as "Death’s extravagance."

    Budger of history Brake of time You Bomb
Toy of universe Grandest of all snatched-sky I cannot hate you
Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt the jawbone of an ass
The bumpy club of One Million B.C. the mace the flail the axe
Catapult Da Vinci tomahawk Conchise flintlock Kidd dagger

Reining in his apocalyptic vision in "Bomb," Corso found a brief respite in humor:

There is a hell for bombs
They’re there I see them there
They sit in bits and sing songs
mostly German songs
and two very long American songs

He continues the joke:

... they wish there were more songs
especially Russian and Chinese songs
and some more very long American songs
Poor little Bomb that’ll never be
an Eskimo song

The menace of the bomb was never far distant, and Corso faced the horror squarely in his poem:

You are a paean an acme of scream
a lyric hat of Mister Thunder
O resound thy tanky knees
BOOM ye skies and BOOM ye suns
nights ye BOOM ye days ye BOOM
BOOM BOOM ye winds ye clouds ye rains
go BANG ye lakes ye oceans BING ...
Yes Yes into our midst a bomb will fall.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Daniel Tiffany

. . . Corso orchestrates a . . . scene of consubstantiation—the poem is seduced by radiation (like "Plutonian Ode"), yet in this case, lyric surrenders to the charm of the bomb. In the ludic device of the bomb—"Impish death Satyr Bomb"—the toy medium of lyric discovers a reflection of itself. Corso calls the bomb "Toy of universe" and, in a trope that conflates the atom and the atomic bomb, a "fairyflake" (65). He also proclaims the bomb's turbulence—its meteoric properties—by invoking the "lyric hat of Mister Thunder"; and he celebrates its antic fatality, calling it "Death's Jubilee" and "a piece of heaven":

The stars a swarm of bees in thy binging bag
    Stick angels on your jubilee feet. (66)

At the same time, drawing on the idea that atomic energy slumbers in the ordinary substance of nature, Corso repeatedly forces the bomb to "frolic zig and zag"—to represent nature in a scene possessed by the history of lyric:

O Spring Bomb
Come with thy gown of dynamite green
unmenace nature's inviolate eye
Before you the wimpled Past
behind you the hallooing Future O Bomb
Bound in the grassy clarion air. (66)

The Green World of the bomb implies, of course, the conjuring presence of the shepherd/poet. If we regard the pastoral scene as artificial, as a toy world, as an extravagant trifle (like Kepler's snowflake), then the artifice of the bomb coincides with an archaic poetic genre that transforms nature into theater. The "grassy clarion air" binds the bomb in antique weather and in the virtuosity of the lyric air.

Ultimately, to no great surprise, the bomb reveals itself to be a monstrous musical swain:

Battle forth your spangled hyena finger stumps
    along the brink of Paradise
    O Bomb O final Pied Piper
both sun and firefly behind your shock waltz. (67)

Incantation, moreover, is equated with apocalypse:

You are due and behold you are due
    and the heavens are with you
hosannah incalescent glorious liaison
BOMB O havoc antiphony molten cleft BOOM
    Bomb mark infinity a sudden furnace.

Corso refers to the bomb's "appellational womb" and regards it as a "liaison" not only to the ancient origins of poetry ("a hymnody feeling of all Troys / yet knowing Homer with a step of grace"), but to the mythological character of ancient physics:

The temples of ancient times
    their grand ruin ceased
Electrons Protons Neutrons
    gathering Hesperian hair.

With the advent of the bomb, the ancient doctrine of particles (which are no more accessible to intuition than the gods themselves) and the ancient meters of Lucretius cease their long decline into ruin, mingling song with the "carcass elements," to revive the corpuscularian body in a "shock waltz" treading along "the brink of paradise." Further—and this is Corso's way of invoking the problem of ethics—the idea that matter is nothing more than the shadow of the bomb leaves "God abandoned mock-nude." The modern revision of lyrical substance puts God in his grave, and returns God to life as the radiant species of the body.

from Toy Medium: Materialism and the Modern Lyric. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Copyright 2000 by the Regents of the University of California.

Stephen Hugh-Jones
"an untruth in yr website"

[Ed. note: the following is an email sent by Mr. Hugh-Jones to MAPS]

by chance, i came upon my own name in your website...

(try: modern american poetry---corso---bomb)

in which you cite the autobiography of dom moraes.... which he avers that when gregory corso and allen ginsberg came to oxford university in the late 1950s, and corso read a poem about the hydrogen bomb to the "new college poetry society", the members of the said society led by myself started throwing our shoes at him

your quotation is no doubt accurate, verbally; and i wouldn't turn a hair if it were true. but i fear the best bit of the alleged event is moraes's fantasy.

as anyone who knew him will tell you, dom moraes was a brilliant, stunningly good, young poet--and an equally skilled affabulist and fond of exercising that skill. 

corso and ginsberg indeed came to oxford, and indeed read some poems. (though, not that it matters, not to any "New College poetry society"--no such society, to my memory, ever existed. this may have been a meeting of the university labour club, perhaps? i don't know).

more to the point, the shoe-throwing is pure invention.

the assembled oxford students certainly heckled corso. alas, we threw no shoes. britons--like americans/french/chinese/most others--don't throw shoes as a sign of disapproval (even if they believed in smashing up their host's pictures and windows with the heavy english shoes worn in those days, to mark their disapproval of one of his guests).

in contrast, there is indeed a well known indian phrase--i've no idea if these days it's a genuine indian habit-- "throwing one's chappals [light sandals] at so-and-so" to mark one's disapproval. and, not by coincidence, dom moraes is an indian.

i would not be in the least ashamed, then or now, to have led disapproval of a silly poem by a silly man, as corso (strikingly unlike ginsberg) and his poem then appeared to be. but the shoe-throwing simply didn't happen, period.

merely in the interests of truth--not myself, i've done much sillier things than throw shoes 40-odd years ago--you should append a note to this extract, lest fantasy be taken for fact (as it already has in at least one biography of ginsberg). i suggest the following:

"The alleged leader of the alleged shoe-throwing records--to his regret, but from personal knowledge--that the high point of this entertaining tale is fantasy. We thought it a lousy poem, but we threw no shoes."


stephen hugh-Jones

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