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William Corbett

Three Great Talkers


I have known three epic talkers: Charles Olson, Philip Guston and Robert Creeley. (Had I known Ted Berrigan better he might have made a fourth.) I was in my mid-twenties when I knew Olson and had never met a person of such conversational force, like a waterfall or blizzard. Conversational is the totally wrong word for our relationship. There were those who conversed with Olson, but I was rarely one of them. He held court and I listened, awed by the leaps, twists and turns of his monologues. I could not always or, truth be told, often follow his references to mathematics, mythology, anthropology or Gloucester, Massachusetts history and geography. He delivered these in fragments as if his mind was on to a second or third thought before the first one had fully emerged. When he caught himself with too many incomplete thoughts in the air he laughed, shaking his head at the maze he’d gotten into but he moved on. It was exhilarating talk, exhilarating to be in the presence of someone for whom so much mattered, but had I taped Olson this may not come across today. Years after his death a tape surfaced of the legendary Bloomsbury talker, raconteur and wit Desmond McCarthy. A generation who had long heard of his prowess was all ears to experience it for themselves only to shrug, nonplused. You had to be there or McCarthy’s talk, like Johnson’s, needed a Boswell to help it travel. Olson left interviews, several recorded talks and some appearances on film. His reading of his poem “The Librarian” for WNET Television in, I think, 1966 captures his vitality and entertaining hamminess.
          Guston and I did converse, on more than one occasion all night, from dinner through wine or beer for me, scotch and milk for him, several packs of Camel cigarettes, snacks to daybreak, breakfast and off to teach. He did need to be listened to, but he enjoyed the give and take of argument. And maddeningly, because he was a chronic doubter, he liked to argue with himself. The evening might begin with his taking one side of a question and arguing it with such lucidity and force that if you needed to be convinced, you were. But the worm of doubt was alive in his argument and soon he argued against himself—this is why Dore Ashton titled her book on Guston Yes, but…—until the merits of both sides were so clear it was impossible to embrace either one. Guston hated resolution. The concept of closure now in vogue would have driven him nuts. He liked a permanent tug-of-war, a frustrating chaos that he could achieve provisional treaties with in his studio. Often we became so straitjacketed in both sides there was no exit but laughter.
          I knew Bob Creeley for thirty-eight years, far longer and more intimately than I knew Olson or Guston. Where they were old enough to be my father, Bob was an older brother. Before I met him I had read and reread his poetry and admired his craft, commitment and way of being a poet. He was someone I wanted to befriend and be accepted by. Accomplishing this could not have been easier. From the start, a dinner in Cambridge’s Chez Dreyfus, certainly the poshest restaurant Bob and I ever dined in, we hit it off. Soon he either came for lunch or dinner or stayed with us when in Boston to read and I became initiated into the talk sessions he seemed to thrive on.

WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet living in Boston’s South End and teaching at MIT.
Among his books are Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir. He has edited The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara.

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