William Corbett (right) and Stan Mir, summer 2011 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Ways to Remember”

I sent my first letter to William Corbett a week before Christmas at his MIT address, where he taught writing for years. I wasn’t sure I’d hear anything. On Christmas Eve, his reply came with a stack of books published by Pressed Wafer.

He wrote, in his memoir on Philip Guston, that working is the only way to figure out where to go next.

“Don’t do something, like edit a press or run a small magazine, unless you have to do it, for yourself and no one else.” (Often repeated.)

His father abandoned the family when Bill was in his early twenties. He left a note that read, “I have gone to further my education.”

In February 2011, Bill came to Philly for a reading. When asked if he’d like to see “The Gross Clinic,” he said, “I always have time for a painting.”

For a large man, he was light on his feet and seemed to fly into a room.

How did you start writing about art? “I wanted to test my powers of description.”

Today – five days after his death from pancreatic cancer at 75 — his answer echoes James Schuyler. He liked to describe, too. Bill edited Schuyler’s letters, titling the book Just the Thing, and believed letters and diaries “are not lesser than poetry.”

Sometimes people pronounce Bill’s surname like the French painter, Courbet, as if the hard double consonant in Corbett couldn’t be right.

He tried to write the story of his father abandoning the family as a novel twice before writing his memoir Furthering My Education.

Overheard at one of his readings, “That man has lived in painting.”

He spent formative years with his grandparents in East Mauch Chunk, PA, before it was renamed Jim Thorpe. His parents had met in Philadelphia.

In front of the “The Gross Clinic,” he points to some blood dripping from a scalpel and I notice for the first time what must’ve been a damaged hand.

While walking towards the house he shared with his wife and daughters in Boston’s South End one afternoon, he realized he was free of his father’s ghost.

A number of years ago, in a review of The Whalen Poem, the critic described Bill as Boston Irish. He lived in Boston for decades, but he wasn’t Irish. Did the errors bother him? “No,” he said, “because I’m not those things.”

Once at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after seeing the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp, we went to the crowded cafeteria to relax. There was a row of bottles on a shelf, just about out of reach, above the condiment stand. He grabbed one and filled it with water. “I think those are for decoration,” someone said. Bill shrugged and kept moving.

At his readings there would always be a moment when he closed his eyes and tilted his head upwards. He would often include poems by others young and old, likening his practice to that of a jazz musician playing the standards.

He was once told that in Budapest everyone looked like him.

Bill describes, on page 13 of The Whalen Poem, wrapping his father-in-law’s penis and balls in a cashmere sweater to prevent bedsores while he died of cancer.

On that same page:

My plan is teach until

I forget everything I once remembered

And have my subscription to Life

Cancelled before I have to fill out

Any of the (blank) forms

At dinner he once said, “Most of your colleagues won’t care what you’re doing. Just get on with it.”

Sonny Rollins, after releasing twenty-one full-length albums between 1953 and 1959, dropped out of the scene and began woodshedding. Rather than retreat to the Ozarks à la Charlie Parker, Rollins used the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins said of the experience, “Playing against the sky really does improve your volume, and your wind capacity.” Bill took a cab one night across the bridge just to hear him.

Bill loved Brancusi. On a visit with Beverly, he insisted we all stand in front of “The Kiss” at the PMA. He was drawn to the intimacy of working with stone.

In a series of letters on detective novels, Bill wrote, “One can actually re-read Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. They’re that good.” Like Schuyler and Joe Brainard, Bill had a talent for the list poem. A shame he never wrote one for detectives.

For three years, when his daughters were little, he taught at three colleges. During that time he would write in the morning before the rest of the house was awake. That’s where the time was.

Bill moved fast through an exhibition. But he slowed once in front of a small drawing by Jasper Johns on a used envelope. The address was one Johns shared with Robert Rauschenberg.

At dinner with Beverly he worried that he might not finish his book on their life together at 9 Columbus Square, where they lived since the ‘60s and hosted their friend Fanny Howe countless times. The house became legendary for the parties they would host. After they had sold it and moved to New York in 2012, Bill said he had to accept that it was someone else’s house now. That he had to let go of it.

There’s a recording with Bill reading a Schuyler poem that has the phrase, “…a day like any other.” Since Bill’s death, this line’s been repeating in my head.

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Stan Mir

Stan Mir is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, Jacket2, Seedings,...

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