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The man who nourished Boston’s literary scene

For decades poet William Corbett and his wife, Beverly, hosted a bustling salon in their South End home. Although they left town this summer, the writers and artists they inspired can only hope the spirit of the place is here to stay.

William and Beverly Corbett at 9 Columbus Square shortly before moving.

matt kalinowski

William and Beverly Corbett at 9 Columbus Square shortly before moving.

JHUMPA LAHIRI WASN’T SURE SHE COULD BE A WRITER. Although as a child she had harbored dreams of doing just that, they had gradually been eaten away by self-doubt — she could scarcely believe the books she loved had been written by real people.  “At twenty-one,” she recalled in a 2011 New Yorker essay, “the writer in me was like a fly in the room — alive but insignificant, aimless, something that unsettled me whenever I grew aware of it, and which, for the most part, left me alone.”

After graduating Barnard in 1989 with a degree in English literature, Lahiri moved to Massachusetts to take classics courses at Harvard. She also found work at the cash register in a Harvard Square bookstore with a friend of a friend, Marni Corbett, a daughter of poet William Corbett and his wife, Beverly. Marni’s father, a tall man with a commanding, jowly face and mischievous eyes, used to visit the store to say hello to his daughter and to buy books. Big armloads of books.

Creating community where none existed is what William Corbett was devoted to above nearly all else.

matt kalinowski

Creating community where none existed is what William Corbett was devoted to above nearly all else.

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The Corbetts lived at 9 Columbus Square, a red-brick town house in Boston’s South End. Although Lahiri didn’t know it then, it was an address where, on any given night, you might sit down to a gourmet meal alongside literary luminaries like Seamus Heaney, Siri Hustvedt, Paul Auster, John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, Russell Banks, Basil Bunting, or Don DeLillo. Writing was celebrated there.

Lahiri was soon invited to dinner at the Corbetts’ herself. On the appointed evening, she took the Orange Line in the wrong direction and turned up late. She was nevertheless welcomed into a kind of life unlike any she had previously known.

In the Corbetts’ eat-in kitchen, where there was seating for 18, one could find a framed poem by their friend and Nobel Prize recipient Heaney, a rubbing of Ezra Pound’s tombstone, and drawings by the late Philip Guston. On the table were the little ceramic shoes that Beverly, a psychologist and self-taught chef, liked to collect. Above the fridge there was a painting of a pig with the words: “I WANT BEV TO COOK ME!” And then there were the guests — an ever-changing assortment of family friends and writers, students and artists.

“I had never been in a home like that before,” recalls Lahiri. “I didn’t know people lived that way — surrounded by so much art, by an aesthetic that was so grand and yet so comforting at the same time.”

Once, while the Corbetts spent time in Vermont, Lahiri had the opportunity to housesit. “I spent a lot of time by myself that summer,” she recalls. She pulled books about artists she had never heard of from the shelves, one at a time, listened to the Corbetts’ jazz records, and read back issues of the Paris Review. The desk in the living room where Corbett wrote his own poetry, usually teeming with manuscripts and proofs, had a personality of its own. “The house had an incredible spirit,” Lahiri says. “And even though Bill was physically absent, he was so present.”

One day, in a bright room on the top floor, the once “terribly closed off” Lahiri began to write. Just sketches and ideas at first. But it gradually came to her, in this house, that this life, the life of an author, was one she could inhabit. She enrolled in courses at Boston University and began submitting work to journals. In 1999, she published her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. 

“That time [at the Corbett home] changed me in a fundamental way,” Lahiri says. And she wasn’t alone. Novelist Paul Auster, who set a crucial scene of his The New York Trilogy at the home he’d visited for decades, thinks of 9 Columbus Square as “the hub, the spiritual heart, the exact center” of literary Boston. Denis Leary, while a student of Corbett’s at Emerson, honed his stand-up routines in the living room. And after each of his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard in 1989 and 1990, John Ashbery, one of America’s most lauded poets, chose to dine not at some fancy downtown restaurant but at Bill and Beverly Corbett’s table. (“They always seem to have people there you’d want to meet,” he says.)

Over more than four decades, the Corbetts together quietly created one of the most important literary and artistic salons in modern America. It was a place where poetry was read aloud and where the idea that to be creative you had to work alone in a cell, giving everything to your muse, was roundly disproved. It was a place where art and life came confidently together — and where, as one old friend put it, “everything was vivid.”

Now, however, that era has come to a close. Earlier this year, the Corbetts sold their house. It was a painful decision, but Beverly, 70, had retired from her work as a psychologist, and the couple wanted to move nearer their two daughters and three grandchildren in Brooklyn. Friends know the Corbetts are going to be just fine in New York, a city that has always been like a second home, even as some wonder who will fill their place in Boston.

The departure of the Corbetts, poet Daniel Bouchard said at a recent event, is “a tremendous loss to our city and to the community of poets of which we are a part.”

What the Corbetts created at 9 Columbus Square, however, was an ideal as much as a long string of convivial get-togethers. And in that sense, it is not the kind of thing that ever just goes away.

***

 

GROWING UP in Pennsylvania and Connecticut in the 1940s and ’50s, Bill Corbett, now 69, was a difficult student, insecure, academically erratic, and prone to showing off. Although his parents didn’t keep many books at home — at least not until their son asked for a bookshelf in his room — he developed an early interest in literature, writing his first poem at age 13. He loved telling intricate stories, too, even though his grandmother tended to frown on that sort of behavior, scolding Corbett with “Oh, you’re fibbing. Don’t do that.” 

But while attending the Wooster School in Connecticut, Corbett found people who seemed to understand him. Between his sophomore and junior years at the prep school, his French teacher, novelist Donald Braider, hired him as a baby sitter. Initially, the Braiders’ home felt foreign, bohemian. It was messy. They smoked. Their dog sucked spaghetti straight off a dinner plate on the table.

And yet the Braiders treated Corbett like an adult. They offered him wine at his first dinner there. Their home was bursting with art, including works by Jackson Pollock (an old friend and their son’s namesake), Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and Franz Kline, Mary Cassatt, and Pablo Picasso. Best of all, the house was overflowing with books. It felt, Corbett later recalled, as if he had arrived home.

In 1964, Corbett graduated Lafayette College with a degree in literature and history and married Beverly Mitchell. The young couple decided to move to Cambridge mainly, as Corbett says, “to get away from our parents.” In 1969, they relocated to the South End, then a tough part of Boston. Once, says longtime friend and neighbor Judy Watkins, Bill and a poet friend came across a dead body on the sidewalk — “that really hit those two poets right in the solar plexus!”

A harder and more lasting blow, however, had come some years earlier, when Corbett learned his father, a physician, had disappeared, abandoning his patients and family. The elder Corbett had fled with a mistress to Baghdad, leaving only a note on his office door that said: “I have gone to further my education.” Corbett never saw him again.

The abandonment was a defining moment in Corbett’s life, says Beverly. It left him reeling, and with a permanent hole in his heart. But it also gave him a heightened sense of responsibility, an abhorrence of running out.

Even before their daughters attended, the couple and their friends focused on turning around their local elementary school. “Many of our friends and relatives thought that we shouldn’t be trying to raise children and educate them in the South End,” says Watkins, who worked at the Boston Public Library. “It took a political passion which we shared to buck these opinions.” In a kind of extracurricular program, Watkins and her husband, Ben, who owned a Brookline bike shop, taught neighborhood kids weaving and geology at their house; Beverly, meanwhile, taught cooking at the Corbetts’ house, while Bill served as school lunch monitor and supervised kids on the playground.

As Corbett began to focus on his own writing, he discovered another kind of community at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square, a favorite gathering place of poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Corbett’s friendship with Philip Guston, a painter three decades his senior whom he met in 1973, “made all the difference.” For the first time, he experienced “passionate conversation with a true artist,” he says. “It was also the older artist saying, ‘You’re OK, kid.’ ”

Corbett never forgot how powerful a vote of confidence like Guston’s could be. In the years to come, he and Beverly made sure everyone, novice and star, had a seat at their table. Their house became, as Jackson Braider, now a writer and radio producer, puts it, “a playpen in the democracy of art.”

Their town house was “an extension of Bill and Bev – garrulous, welcoming, nourishing in every sense of the word,” says Jackson Braider.

matt kalinowski

Their town house was “an extension of Bill and Bev – garrulous, welcoming, nourishing in every sense of the word,” says Jackson Braider.

“We were wild and crazy,” says Fanny Howe, then part of a group of young Boston-area writers looking to establish themselves. “But you went into their house and there was a formality to it.” The formality “came from having a world-class cook. You don’t just throw food down on the table,” says Corbett. “Also, we had children. I thought it was important to be competent at things. I didn’t want to be a poet who couldn’t tie his shoes.” The environment wasn’t stifling, but serious, in a way that showed the next generation of artists what Howe calls a “template for life.”

For established poets and newcomers alike, Corbett helped organize readings throughout Boston. He put up posters, set up chairs, and made the introductions. As well as founding and editing several literary magazines, Corbett in 1999 established Pressed Wafer, a small imprint focused on poetry, essays, and memoirs that he ran out of his home.

One of Pressed Wafer’s authors is George Scialabba, an events scheduler on the building staff of the Center for Government and International Studies at Harvard. Although Scialabba’s friends know him as a brilliant and wide-ranging thinker, his diffidence sometimes veiled his talents. He’d written book criticism and essays here and there for years, yet stubbornly resisted Corbett’s attempts to publish a collection of his essays. “George,” Corbett recalls, “found ways to refuse me every goddamn time.”

But Corbett can be relentless, and Scialabba ultimately gave in. In 2009, Pressed Wafer published his first collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? It was reviewed on NPR, became a bestseller by small-press standards, and was described by New Yorker literary critic James Wood as “a deeply intelligent book of essays by one of America’s best all-round intellects.”

For his part, Corbett spent the weekend after the NPR review wheeling 1,000 copies of Scialabba’s book to the local UPS store. Says Roland Pease, who founded Zoland Books, which published seven Corbett works: “If Bill likes you, there’s nothing he won’t do for you.”

 

***

 

CORBETT’S GENEROSITY did not come without costs to himself. For one, although he steadily published a great body of work over the years, including 15 books of poems, two memoirs, and countless critical essays, he never really got his due as a writer in Boston, says Pease.

“He had a complicated relationship to publishing and notoriety,” adds Howe. “Half of him would have loved it. But the other half of him identified with John Wieners, who had the magic touch of a true poet, but was completely neglected.” Howe says Corbett would have received far more recognition as a poet if he’d moved to New York 30 years ago.

Paul Auster, who set a crucial scene of his “The New York Trilogy’’ at the home he’d visited for decades, thinks of 9 Columbus Square as “the hub, the spiritual heart, the exact center” of literary Boston.

matt kalinowski

Paul Auster, who set a crucial scene of his “The New York Trilogy’’ at the home he’d visited for decades, thinks of 9 Columbus Square as “the hub, the spiritual heart, the exact center” of literary Boston.

And although Corbett made a career of teaching — expository writing at Harvard, poetry and personal essays at MIT, even stand-up comedy at Emerson (at Leary and his classmates’ urging) — he never pursued a degree beyond his bachelor of arts. That meant he was never offered any real job security.  “William is terrible at advocating for himself. Just awful,” says Beverly. “He’s always helping other people. He has great difficulty in asking for help himself.”

“He was just passed around from one institution to another,” says Howe. “He was never properly acknowledged or given tenure, even though he was clearly central to the literary arts in this city. I was enraged. It was simply unbelievable.” Adds Ashbery: “It’s a shame they haven’t made better use of him.”

“Universities are deeply troubled places,” Corbett says. “They’re run by fear — the fear of constant assessment. They retard community.” And creating community where none existed, in the end, is what Corbett was devoted to above nearly all else. Even his poems, which are sensuous, thrillingly abbreviated, and full of jazzy syncopations, are studded with references to friends, pets, other poets, his two daughters. They have titles like “When I Read John Wieners’s Selected Poems,” “Crossing the Footbridge Over Storrow Drive,” and “Family.” They are, to cite Pease, “peopled.”

Over the years, the Corbetts together ambitiously pursued that goal of building community in their South End home. I experienced this firsthand.

My wife and I were first invited to 9 Columbus Square for dinner in 2008. Like Lahiri before us, we struggled with the T and turned up embarrassingly late. But almost before we had taken off our coats, two tumblers of Scotch were in our hands, and we were led down the hall to meet regular guests Paul Auster and his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt.

On my second visit, a lunch for poet Michael Franco and his wife, Isabel Pinto-Franco, there were more than a dozen guests. There seemed to be no occasion for which the Corbetts wouldn’t open their home. The Francos, the first of seven couples to be married in ceremonies officiated by Corbett, were feted every year on their anniversary. The painter Trevor Winkfield celebrated his birthday at 9 Columbus Square every year (save one) for more than three decades.

The anniversary party we attended was three years ago. It was winter. The snow was piled high along “windy, scouring Columbus/ Avenue,” as Corbett once described it in a poem. As I listened to Isabel recount how she and Michael met, I watched Beverly in the kitchen politely turn down repeated offers of assistance. Over the next several hours, wine was poured and poems specially composed for the occasion lustily recited. All this while Beverly placed on the table no fewer than nine dishes.

“When I think of the house now, I think first of the table in the large kitchen,” says Hustvedt. “I remember candlelight, cigarette smoke, many bottles of wine, and long conversations about art and life that took place over serious food, prepared by Beverly. Her meals are some of the best I have ever eaten.”

 Everyone agrees that the world the Corbetts created at 9 Columbus Square would have been unimaginable without Beverly. Even as she sustained her own demanding career as a psychologist — most recently managing a clinic called Family and Community Solutions in Brighton and running a two-day-a-week private practice from home — she somehow found time to cook legendary meals for the family’s endless procession of visitors, using ingredients Bill often found in the North End. “I loved cooking for other people,” she says, “never for myself.”

The two together balanced their gatherings, Beverly’s patient reserve tempering Bill’s tendency to throw himself into the fray. At parties, says Pen Creeley, the widow of poet Robert Creeley, Beverly had “that slightly detached stance that was absolutely listening. She’d cook dinner and then sit quietly knitting at the end of the table.”

For all the writing, the publishing, the cooking, there’s a sense that 9 Columbus Square itself was among the Corbetts’ greatest works of art. “The house was an extension of Bill and Bev — garrulous, welcoming, nourishing in every sense of the word,” explains Braider.  “The Corbetts’ house was their instrument. It shaped them; they shaped it.”

***

CORBETT WAS coming home from the store with a quart of milk one day in the late 1990s. He stopped for a light and saw his house across the street. “My heart boomed,” he wrote in Furthering My Education, the 1997 memoir he titled after his father’s last note. “I felt great joy that it was my house. Never to be taken away from me.”

Although Corbett was proved right — no one would take 9 Columbus Square from him — he couldn’t have predicted he and Beverly would give it up willingly. Now that their children are grown and have children of their own, the pull of family has proved stronger than the pull of place.

Earlier this spring, during a gathering in honor of the Corbetts at Harvard, Bill seemed eager to downplay his and his home’s influence. “We’ve loved each other and our children in our house,” he said. “I don’t want it to be bigger than that.” And yet, for all the people inspired by it, by them, the Corbetts’ 9 Columbus Square was bigger.

Of course, Pressed Wafer will continue bringing little-known writers to the larger audience they deserve. And the Corbetts’ many friends in Boston and beyond will surely continue to stay in touch. Yet many worry that the city will be poorer for the loss, that some poets of international stature will no longer feel so warmly and genuinely welcomed here, that there will be no more Jhumpa Lahiris coming to Boston and discovering themselves in that singular house.

As for Corbett himself, friends know he’ll adjust beautifully. To hear the San Francisco-based poet August Kleinzahler tell it, Corbett’s energy has never been dependent on any one city. “I was always left breathless following Bill around town, New York, Boston — even the few times he visited San Francisco,” Kleinzahler recalls. “He was always on the run from place to place, friend to friend, vernissage to opening, reading to art exhibit, gourmet dinners with illustrious characters, name it!” 

“But,” he adds, “it’s in the upstairs living room of 9 Columbus Square that I remember Bill and Beverly most vividly, with the dogs and The New York Times draped over them. . . . I shall miss walking up those stairs more than I can begin to say.”

Sebastian Smee, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is the Boston Globe’s art critic. E-mail him at ssmee@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @sebastiansmee.
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