William Corbett, 75, poet whose South End home became a literary salon
As a boy, William Corbett was reprimanded at times for paying rapt attention to his surroundings, for staring too hard. Even then he was someone “on whom nothing is lost,” he recalled.
“I’m a poet of consciousness, of consciousness in the world, as it goes by,” he told the Rain Taxi Review of Books in 2005. “I’m a poet of attention to that world, attention by ear, attention by eye. I write what I see and what I hear.”
He wrote about writers and artists whose work he admired, about the landscape of his Vermont summer retreat, and about the streets of Boston, his home for more than 40 years. “Half moon over Fenway Park/over Vermont’s sawtooth trees,” Mr. Corbett began one poem, stitching together here and away in a single couplet.
Until he and his wife, Beverly, moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., six years ago to be closer to their two daughters, Mr. Corbett was the unofficial laureate of the South End. Holding court through decades of dinners Beverly prepared, drinking and smoking into endless nights, he turned their townhouse into a salon sought out by writers and artists from around the world.
Mr. Corbett was 75 when he died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 10 in the Greensboro, Vt., home that had been in his wife’s family for more than 100 years. “He was a person of place,” Beverly said. “He died up here in Vermont, a place he loved dearly.”
At 9 Columbus Square, the Boston address he made famous among writers, Mr. Corbett was “as active a listener as he was a speaker. Most people tend toward one or the other,” said the poet and critic Maureen N. McLane, who had been his student at Harvard University.
He slipped easily from role to role: poet, critic, essayist, and memoirist; editor, publisher, and teacher. Beloved in college classrooms, he taught at Emerson College, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Wellesley College, Brown University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last fall while being treated for cancer, Mr. Corbett was teaching at his final stop, New York University, and his lessons extended to those who never took one of his classes.
“There’s no one I learned more from, not only about poetry, but also about how to live and how to be a good person,” said Fred Moten, a poet and critic who teaches at NYU.
At the Corbetts’ kitchen table, writers from different generations, different disciplines, different countries dined side by side, their voices a chorus of ideas.
“I will always think of Bill as at the center, the unwobbling pivot of Boston literary life, connecting writers who would come through to read at some university,” said the novelist Russell Banks. “I just felt blessed to be in that circle.”
Mr. Corbett had “an aura of humanity that very few people seem to possess,” said writer Paul Auster who, with his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, would stay with the Corbetts while visiting Boston, and became closer still once they all lived in Brooklyn.
“Bill had a quality I’ve never found in anyone else I’ve known,” Auster said. “It’s something to do with a generosity of spirit that made him one of the most ardent and thoughtful friends — in fact, the most ardent and thoughtful friend I’ve had in my life. He thought about others in the way that people think about themselves.”
William Corbett was born in Norfolk, Va., while his father was serving during World War II, and spent his early childhood in Jim Thorpe, Pa., where his grandparents lived. And though he grew up mostly in Trumbull, Conn., after his father returned, Jim Thorpe kept hold of his imagination.
“The first poem I ever wrote — when I was 12 — was an elegy for the town Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania; the first line: ‘The gray sky sets on the gray hills,’ ” he told Rain Taxi. “I’m 12, walking through a town that I spent a lot of my youth in, and knew I was leaving.”
His father, Dr. William Corbett Sr., was a physician. His mother, the former Claudia Mench, was a nurse. Mr. Corbett was 21 when his father abandoned the family, heading to Baghdad with a mistress and leaving a note: “I have gone to further my education.” Mr. Corbett appropriated that cryptic farewell for the title of his 1997 memoir, “Furthering My Education.”
“I think it was crushing for my father and in a way really defined his adult life,” said his older daughter, Marni. “He felt like anything could happen at any moment.”
The experience shaped Mr. Corbett as a husband and father, a teacher and a publisher, a friend and a mentor to other writers.
“He decided that he would be super responsible for everything — for his family, his friends,” said Beverly, who added that “he was the most generous person I’ve ever known in my life, and generous in every way possible.”
Along with writing 11 collections of poetry, a pair of memoirs, two collections of essays, books about artists such as Philip Guston, and editing 2004’s “The Letters of James Schuyler,” Mr. Corbett edited literary journals and launched the small imprint Pressed Wafer, which published the poetry and essays of more than 60 writers.
“Bill created so many opportunities for so many people, and I’m an example of that,” said McLane, whose first collection Mr. Corbett published in a format that folded into a mailable postcard size.
“So many relationships, both literary and human, were created by and through Bill,” McLane said. “So many friendships, marriages — so many books came into being under Bill’s eye as a mentor and an editor and a publisher.”
Mr. Corbett graduated from the Wooster School in Danbury, Conn., and received a bachelor’s in literature and history from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.
He sought no graduate degrees, which closed off tenure-track opportunities, though he never considered himself an academic, said his daughter Arden, who added that he was averse to conventional self-promotion, preferring instead to offer his services generously.
“If they said they were going to pay him 50 cents, he’d say, ‘No, I’ll take a quarter,’ ” she said.
“If somebody asked him to do something, he would do it,” Marni added. “He would never, ever say no.”
Mr. Corbett and Beverly Mitchell met when they were in college and married in 1964. She became a psychologist and managed several clinics. Along with cooking meals that were as much a draw at their South End salon as the discussions her husband led, she provided most of the home’s income, and he was a full-time father when their daughters were young.
They lived in the South End from 1969 until moving in 2012 to Brooklyn, where their daughters and three grandchildren live. Mr. Corbett also leaves his brother, Peter. The family will announce a service in the fall.
Though Mr. Corbett was known for what Arden called his “wonderful, bawdy, egalitarian sense of humor,” he had a deft emotional touch for literary mourning. His tribute to Gordon Cairnie, cofounder of Harvard Square’s Grolier Poetry Book Shop, ended: “I write this remembering/Tears falling on the keys.”
And he opened a poem in 2012’s “Elegies for Michael Gizzi” with the lines:
You die and the already baffling
World becomes more so.
For friends, Mr. Corbett’s death was just as unsettling, an unfillable void.
“To me, Bill was Boston. It was a joy to be with him,” said San Francisco poet August Kleinzahler.
“He is — was — an exceptional person,” Auster said. “I can’t really compare him to anyone else, and I’ve known thousands of people. Bill was Bill and I’ve never known anyone like him.”