Bell, Marvin (Hartley)

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BELL, Marvin (Hartley)

Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 3 August 1937. Education: Alfred University, New York, B.A. 1958; Syracuse University, New York, 1958; University of Chicago, M.A. 1961; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1963. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1964–65: Foreign Military Training Officer. Family: Married1) Mary Mammosser in 1958; 2) Dorothy Murphy in 1961; two sons. Career: Visiting lecturer, 1965, assistant professor, 1966–69, associate professor, 1969–75, since 1975 professor of English, and since 1986 Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters, University of Iowa. Visiting professor, Oregon State University, Corvallis, summer 1969, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, summer 1970, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1981, and University of Washington, Seattle, winter and spring 1982; Fulbright scholar, in Yugoslavia, 1983, and Australia, 1986; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writing Fellow, University of Redlands, California, 1991–93; visiting fellow, Saint Mary's College, Orinda, California, 1994–95, and Hampden-Sydney College, 1998–99; Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, Nebraska-Wesleyan University, 1996–97. Editor, Statements magazine, Rochester, New York and Iowa City, 1959–64; poetry editor, North American Review, Mount Vernon, Iowa, 1964–69, and Iowa Review, 1969–71. Since 1997 senior poetry editor, The Pushcart Prize. Columnist ("Homage to the Runner"), American Poetry Review, Philadelphia, 1975–78, 1990–92. Awards: Lamont Poetry Selection award, 1969; Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1969; Emily Clark Balch prize (Virginia Quarterly Review), 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978, 1984; American Poetry Review prize, 1982; Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1994. Address: Writers Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242, U.S.A.



Two Poems. Iowa City, Hundred Pound Press, 1965.

Things We Dreamt We Died For. Iowa City, Stone Wall Press, 1966.

Poems for Nathan and Saul. Mount Vernon, Iowa, Hillside Press, 1966.

A Probable Volume of Dreams. New York, Atheneum, 1969.

The Escape into You: A Sequence. New York, Atheneum, 1971.

Woo Havoc. Somerville, Massachusetts, Barn Dream Press, 1971.

Residue of Song. New York, Atheneum, 1974.

Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. New York, Atheneum, 1977.

These Green-Going-to-Yellow. New York, Atheneum, 1981.

Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry, with William Stafford. Boston, Godine, 1983.

Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire. New York, Atheneum, 1984.

New and Selected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1987.

Annie-Over, with William Stafford. Rexburg, Idaho, Honeybrook Press, 1988.

Iris of Creation. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1990.

The Book of the Dead Man. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1994.

Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

Poetry for a Midsummer's Night. Seattle, Seventy Fourth Street Productions, 1998.

Wednesday. N.p., Ireland, Salmon Publishing, 1998.

Recording: The Self and the Mulberry Tree, Watershed, 1977.


Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1983.

A Marvin Bell Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1994.

Editor, Iowa Workshop Poets 1963. Iowa City, Statements-Midwest Magazine, 1963.


Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Marvin Bell" by Peter Elfed Lewis, in Stand (Newcastle upon Tyne), xiii, 4, 1972; "Marvin Bell; 'Time's Determinant/Once, I Knew You'" by Arthur Oberg, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), May-June 1976; "Not Life So Proud to Be Life: Snodgrass, Rothenberg, Bell, and the Counter-Revolution" by Larry Levis, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), January/February 1989; "Marvin Bell, New and Selected Poems" by Greg Kuzma, in Prairie Schooner (Lincoln, Nebraska), summer 1989; "Exile and Cunning: The Recent Poetry of Marvin Bell" by Daniel McGuiness, in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), summer 1990; "Containing the Other: Marvin Bell's Recent Poetry" by Richard Jackson, in North American Review, 280(1), Jan/Feb 1995.

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Marvin Bell's work satisfies a need for every kind of laugh and reminds us that comedy is at least as tough as tragedy. From the outset, however, he has been modulating the balance of amusement and profundity in his poetry. Early on his wit was, by turns, clever and probing, tending at one moment to trivialize his work, at another to deepen it. But over the long haul he has exerted mature control.

His method stresses spontaneity. Verse sections are rarely linked by any kind of discursive rhetoric but often by semiconscious associations arising from imagery and diction. He may organically combine a cliché, an aphoristic biblical phrase, and a straightforward ethical assertion. Trusting his subconscious, Bell does not finally patch his work together with accessible generalizations. He has said that he prefers to go on finding the meaning of a poem after he has finished it. But he has devised structures for his poems that render them both artfully finished and in progress. At worst, and infrequently, a poem is dubiously cryptic, maybe even a willful conundrum, as with "The Giving In" (A Probable Volume of Dreams). At best a poem unconsciously but overtly relates the visceral experience behind it to the semantic form it has taken, as with "Life" (These Green-Going-to-Yellow). Bell is also not afraid of social comment, though not as a mentor. In this province he is never as wonderfully nasty as Alan Dugan, but his range of feeling is greater.

The title A Probable Volume of Dreams is from "Treetops," in which Bell dreams that his dead father is alive. The collection is largely about the roots of identity. Overarching perhaps is the paradox that we can and cannot perpetuate the dead, bodily and in imagination. The dead especially include the father and the ancestral line, significantly but not parochially Jewish. Nonetheless, as in "The Delicate Bird Who Is Flying up Our Assess," Bell is often the wiseacre.

With The Escape into You, Bell came to the love sequence, which regulates the stanza throughout. So much for tradition. Divorce, amorous fatigue, and marital boredom take their place with the faithful heart. The verbal fabric whimsically includes every piece of sexual slang, and belly laughs abound: "We sold the chairs &/then the squeaking sagged/in-the-center four-poster baby farm &" ("The Auction"). By the end, however, the bawdy merely shares the stage with eroticism and tenderheartedness.

In Residue of Song something like midlife encroaches. Thirteen pieces are about the abiding father, proved "in the distance of a wrist." The sequence affectingly moves between the past in Long Island and Russia. Romantic love is other residue. The songs traverse a line from outrageous wisecracking ("Impotence") though nearly self-aware adolescent yearning ("Set in Hollywood Hills") to awakening after a great loss ("Dissolution").

The title poem of Stars Which See comments on Seurat's "La Grande Jatte." It catches a poignant relation between our natural yearning and decorum. Animals and trees dominate this elegantly simple collection, freer from prosodic experimentation than earlier volumes. The beautiful "The Self and the Mulberry" is approximately Taoist. The final piece, "Gemwood," connects a son's loss of his lab "rat" to the parent's projection of losses to come. The authentic sadness and the poet's real attention to children explain why this poem is not merely adroit, as are so many of its ilk.

The gingko's dying leaves supply These Green-Going-to-Yellow with its title. The book traces the moribund passage of everything toward autumn. Yet Bell avoids morbidity with frequently uplifting notes of resistance. A doctor's resistance in "Benny Hooper" and his own in the exactingly bleak landscape of "At the Airport" are notable. Trees are meant to dominate, but machines may. The analogies underlying the final two poems, which humanize the willow and the gingko, strain credibility. But the machinery of the grittier "At the Airport" and "The Motor" is perfectly successful, however grim.

Collected over two years, Segues is a poem-by-poem exchange with William Stafford. Its forte is the revelation of one poem's discourse generating another's. But this is also its weakness. It is more difficult than even in an ordinary volume for any piece to stand alone, and the reader may sense an excess of literature over experience as the wellspring of the poems. In addition, Stafford's probes, for good or ill, have elicited much undiluted autobiography in Bell's reactions.

Drawn by Stones is about the habit, after childhood, of not wondering, a death within life: "I was Taps," in a "youthful half stupor." But Bell has been saved, as the last line of the book contends paradoxically: "it killed me—and almost cost me a life." This is why he can wrap up "To Be" by saying that "still a child appears/in the guise of a grownup & at story-time." The poem sits next to the wonderful "In Those Days," in which Bell discovers the "mortar in the bloodstream" that enables one to see that "Phosphor in the paint on the ceiling/gave constellations their shine &"

Humor in the fifteen new poems included in New and Selected Poems is of the sort that deflates our facile reductions of experience. In "Wednesday" the poet quips that "through the fervent branches/carried by momentary breezes of local origin,/the palpable Sublime flickered as motes on broad leaves,/while the Higher Good and the Greater Good contended/as sap on the bark of the maples, and even I/was enabled to witness the truly Existential where it loitered/famously in the shadows &" This jesting confirms and revitalizes the experience of the world and of our own minds that lies behind our nominal abstractions of it: "And of course I went back to work the next morning,/Like you &/but now there was a match-head in my thoughts &/[and] I saw that the horizon/was an idea of the eye &" This is to say that, while the unalterable quotidian abides, an experience of the natural shapes the capacity of the individual to have a profound reciprocal exchange with the world. This idealist relationship with nature is rooted not in intellect but in the fleeting, revelatory acquaintance with the "dormant regions of the brain, the resonant cavities of not-knowing." In "The Pill" Bell likens these "regions" to the primordial "argument that once raged inside the spiral corridors of a nautilus, at a depth a human being could only imagine &" It follows that Bell says in other poems, "The things I did, I did because of trees," and "I am no more stupid now than I ever was."

All of the pieces progress toward a fine (again Taoist) trilogy entitled "In My Nature: 3 Corrective Dialogues." The poet speaks to a tree, the rain, and an island and then receives their artlessly artful and "corrective" replies. Bell is tuned to both the error of anthropomorphic projection upon nature and its necessity. And it fits that the poems comprising the finale address and derive from Tao Yuan-ming and Roethke, both of whom so appreciated this sort of poignancy, wit, and regard for the natural as universal truth, for they remain Bell's gifts to us.

Privacy of vision remains Bell's forte in Iris of Creation, even if we struggle at moments to find the emotional core in the poems. Unusual metaphorical connections and surprising word juxtapositions push the writing to the very edge of meaning. The most grounded poems in the collection are those with a defined subject. "The Big Slick," for example, addresses an Alaskan oil spill, and "Big Day at Santa Fe" addresses the downfall of communism. The poet's emotional dilemmas are sharpest and most accessible when he contends with the paradoxical and complex relationship between time, our thoughts of time, and the ways in which the events in our lives respond to time. "A Man May Change," "Victim of Himself," and "Ice" are three poems in which we sense this clarity of sensation.

Bell's collections The Book of the Dead Man and Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2, are his most radical and sometimes mystifying contributions to contemporary poetry. In The Book of the Dead Man thirty-three sections trace an everyman's observations, ideas, epiphanies, and questions. As a spokesman for the last minute of life, the dead man is "an underground voice trying to soften the blows" who "takes what the world discards." He "will not stay buried, reappearing in disguises that fool no one yet cast doubt." Incantation and repetition mark the style and demonstrate Bell's direct sense for the material of the world. Called a "material mystic" in the introduction of the book, the dead man alternates between nature-driven and market-driven impulses. Through a collapse he undergoes a transformation of self into other: "Whereas formerly the dead man cohered in the usual way, now he thinks dissolution is good for the soul, a form of sacramental undoing viewed through a prism, a kind of philosophic nakedness descending a staircase."

Ardor builds on the momentum of the earlier volume and continues its prophetic, irrepressible litany of the dead man's final moments. In nearly forty two-part poems Bell tours both familiar and unfamiliar hells, from famine in Somalia to war in the former Yugoslavia, trying to find the line that separates the real from the unreal, the shrouded from the illuminated, the living from the dead: "The dead man lives in the flesh, in memory, in absentia, in fact and/fiction, by chance and by nature." The poet and protagonist realize a blurred identity. At one moment Bell suggests that "the dead man is the light that was turned on to study the dark." In Ardor Bell, as a dead man, illuminates the shadowy caverns of this world of the living.

—David M. Heaton and

Martha Sutro