Some people fled William Corbett’s bravura; others stayed, laughing.
By Fanny Howe
William Corbett, poet and teacher, died this summer on August 10 in Greensboro, Vermont. Only a few years before, he left Boston and moved to Brooklyn to join his children, and there he had a wonderful time. But in his last weeks, he still called Boston “home”. Bill loved art and life, food and friends, the Red Sox and movies. His memory was phenomenal and his presence too. His poetry was delicate, sensitive and elegiac. He was made of many contradictions. His students from Boston and New York loved him. Some people fled his bravura; others stayed, laughing.
Bill wrote autobiography, biography, art and poetry criticism. He wrote it all at 9 Columbus Square in the South End and prepared his classes for MIT. Now he has left all that behind, and his wife Beverly, his daughters Marni and Arden, and three grandchildren. They were all with him when he died at their home on Caspian Lake. Bill was incorruptible. He never asked for anything back from anyone he had given to. And he gave a lot. Big tips, big dinners.
Bill, the son of a doctor, grew up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He was an athlete at the Wooster School when he met his mentor, Donald Braider, who set him on the path of poetry and gave him an eye for class manners. Bill wrote a beautiful homage called “To Carol Braider’s Kitchen” because the art of her cooking epitomized the life that he envisioned for himself. Bill was fifteen when he met them and from that time on, he remained true to what he saw in their company.
He and Beverly married young and moved to Concord, Mass. There they began their renowned dinner parties for the great and the young poets of their time while they renovated an old town house on 9 Columbus Square in the South End. Beverly studied to become a psychologist, she also learned to cook sumptuous Braider-like dinners that became emblematic of their gatherings.
Together Bill and Beverly created a center for the arts at their house, including poets from around the world, and friends like Seamus Heaney, Robert Creeley, Maureen McLane, James Tate, Philip Guston and Paul Auster. They all could, I am sure, see in Bill someone who never asked for favors but admired, without flattery, what they did. Their house was probably the most warm and fertile space in Boston for many years. Bill was a tireless worker — educating and befriending younger people, raising the children, writing essays on art, reading voraciously, watching every Boston Red Sox game, and teaching. Bill taught at Emerson College, Harvard and for many years at MIT in the Writing Program. Last year he taught at NYU because he was, really, a born teacher.
He produced several books of his own and published many by others through his excellent small press based in Somerville, Pressed Wafer. Bill’s poetry was in the tradition of James Schuyler and the British poet, Basil Bunting. He was conversational, elegiac, fierce, and hyper conscious of the natural world. He was urbane and a walker. He noticed and jotted. His heart broke a lot along the brick ways, you could hear its breaks in his lines of poetry, and his recoveries sustained by the poets he knew. He listened, he made hilarious comments, his presentation was brusque and self-abnegating; sports and jazz and movies figured large in his conversation. When he was in Vermont, it was the light and the shapes of things that he noticed and made lyrical.
Since that recent move to Brooklyn, Bill began work on a book of recollections based on the famous dinners at Columbus Square. His relationship to Boston’s South End where he arrived in the mid-sixties could only have happened during those years of radical gentrification (not a contradiction in this case), Those old brick row houses still held the atmosphere of settlement houses and fashionable Jamesian dinners, Irish maids and African American after-hours clubs. It was more than affordable, it was cheap to buy a four-story house and remodel it, year by year, with your own two hands.
In that way Bill passed through the critical decades of social change — the Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam, the Gulf War — participating in protests and staying close to his neighborhood where his children attended public school. That 20-year span, even in Boston, was a time of idealism accompanied by angst, folk music and Motown, fast drives to the North Shore and to New York, ecstatic mishaps, and near misses with the law. Bill was part of all that. He was never part of a poetry “school” but just did what he liked best. He described himself as “a poet of landscape, weather and consciousness.” No one could understand when he had time to notice so much, read so much, remember so much, name so much, and make us laugh so hard.
His collections of poetry include Columbus Square Journal, Runaway Pond, Elegies for Michael Gizzi, The Whalen Poem, Opening Day, Boston Vermont, New & Selected Poems, and Don’t Think: Look, among others.
Fanny Howe‘s most recent novel is The Wages. She lives near Boston.