“The Bill Bash”: On the Occasion of William Corbett’s Retirement

Editor’s note: As part of honoring the career and work of poet and retiring MIT lecturer Bill Corbett, we hosted “The Bill Bash” on May 15th. Fellow MIT poet Ed Barrett offered some comments, and we would like to share them along with some by Bill himself.


Comments by Ed Barrett

Bill, a few days ago Ed Schiappa asked me to say some words at your party today because you and I have been friends and colleagues for over 20 years.

Sure, no problem, happy to do it, I said; what could be easier than saying something for a friend. But the following days were not at all easy because I just couldn’t distill more than two decades into a shot glass of words.

This morning, in a panic, I reread your book Boston Vermont. The title is the axis you and Beverly, your children and grandchildren have traveled along for years. Your poems are about teachers and friends, about family, about MIT students, about separation and memory. In one poem about a teacher of yours you write: “I’ve been thirty-three years/in his footsteps.” Imagine how many MIT students will say, with fondness, the same about you.

In a poem called “Back” about the start of the fall semester, you describe the #1 bus, which carried you from 9 Columbus Square to 77 Mass Ave. as being “true as the tides”. Maybe the T schedule is true as the tides. I don’t know about that.

“Beyond calculation, in this Institute devoted to calculation, is the influence you have had on your students as they leave to live their varied lives after graduation.”

Here’s what I do know is true: for two decades you have given your all to your students and MIT. Beyond calculation, in this Institute devoted to calculation, is the influence you have had on your students as they leave to live their varied lives after graduation.

In a later poem, called “MIT Poetry,” you sketch some students in your class. It ends with the tide of classes changing, an instructor waiting to use the room who asks, in a voice laced with acid, if your class is “ahem, ready to leave.” No, they’re not. It’s Corbett’s class. Why would anyone want to leave?

Comments by Bill Corbett

“I’ve been lucky, unsurpassably so, in my years here. I’ll let you know if my luck holds.”

When I entered 77 Mass. Ave this morning and saw the yellow smiley face balloons proclaiming today “MIT HAPPY DAY” I knew it was the right day to retire Another omen came on Tuesday when Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe in the South End where I have dined for over 50 years announced that after 87 years it will close. With Charlie’s closed I can hardly stay open.

Some of what I did while at MIT—reading series and Illona Karmel prize night—could not have been done without the help of Nick and Maya, Magdalena, Ed Barrett, Fred Harris and Evan Zipoyrun, and the many who found the money. And the MIT police who kept the howling crowd at bay during Haruki Murakami’s reading. Michael Russem made several knockout posters and Karinthia Louis helped in passing along the Illona’s to Ed.

And big Thanks to all the writers who gave us discounts during the years. I salute Seamus Heaney, Haruki Murakami, John Ashbery, Jhumpa Lahiri, Siri Hustvedt, Russell Banks, Paul Auster, Jonathan Lethem, Robert Creeley, the maestro Steve Lacy, Nate Mackey, Fred Moten…the list is Oscar length and stellar.

I am the first non senior faculty member to be honored as you honor me tonight—at least in the 23 years I’ve taught here. I hope this means my immediate colleagues—Janis, Karen, Cindy, Andrea and Lucy—will be given greater recognition in the future. Ladies, I well know the value of your good work. I’m proud to have served with you.

Over the past weeks upon hearing I am retiring friends have smiled and said, “Congratulations.” I know they mean to speed me on to a better place but I love teaching. To not work with MIT’s brilliant and quirky kids…To not be touched and inspired by their ardor and intelligence…To not be in daily touch with all that youth and promise…well, I have books to write and books to publish and read and the life of a husband, father, grandfather and friend to live and if this is the first step into new adventures I am a lucky man. I’ve been lucky, unsurpassably so, in my years here. I’ll let you know if my luck holds.

 
 

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