Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell (1937) was born in the Bronx section of New York City on August 3, 1937 and raised in Center Moriches, New York, on the south shore of Long Island. He has spent a large portion of his life as a poet and teacher of poetry in Iowa City. Bell taught for forty years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, retiring in 2005 as Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters.

Bell discovered Iowa City while a graduate student in Chicago in the late 1950s. During that time, he was introduced to the Iowa-born poet John Logan, who was residing in South Bend, Indiana, but teaching one night a week in Chicago:

The Most Beautiful Reader of Poems in the Country

 Logan’s “Poetry Seminar” was not a class, but a group of Chicago poets—some of whom became well known—that met in downtown Chicago with him. Logan was a good teacher for a young poet … because he read our poems out loud so beautifully. He was probably the most beautiful reader of poems in the country. So, when he read our poems, we thought we were good, and he took our content seriously, too, no matter how sophomoric it was. Two and a half years or so passed in Chicago, and I had to go into the Army eventually, but I didn't want to do it yet; I wanted to find out about poetry. So, I asked John Logan, what shall I do now? And he said, well, there's something at the University of Iowa called the Writers’ Workshop. I will send a letter to the poet, who teaches there, Donald Justice, and you can go and be interviewed, and maybe you can do that. So, I took a bus—I thought, Iowa City? … That’s the wilds! … I'm not, I'm not going to drive out there—I took a bus and stayed at a hotel that doesn't exist anymore, it was downtown. I met Donald Justice in the Iowa Memorial Union the next day, and we talked for a little while, and then … we went bowling! There used to be bowling alleys in the basement of the Union. I was accepted into the Workshop. And so I moved here with my wife, I had one child at the time, and we stayed three years. I was a teaching assistant in the Rhetoric Department, I also took photography courses, I also took pottery classes, and at the end of those three years I had to go into the Army. Then, before my Army term was used up, I was called by the Workshop to come back and teach. So, I came back in the fall of 1965 and, although I was occasionally teaching elsewhere or went on sabbatical, I essentially taught for the Workshop for the next 40 years.

I Taught As If I Was One of the Students

I was a graduate student bum for three years, and I liked Iowa City right away. There were probably about 10,000 students at the university, and I liked it because it was only about 10,000. When I came back from the Army to teach it was maybe 12,000. Because it was of that size, everything was interdisciplinary. If you went to a party, there would be writers there but also scientists and artists and dancers and musicians and who knows who else. That's not true anymore because everyone has so much to do in their departments. I liked Iowa City right away, very much.

So, when I was in the Army, and I got the call—and don't forget, I had not published a book—I thought, if they could do this, if Donald Justice thought I was worthy, then I guess they could hire me even if I had never published a book. That's not true anymore, my goodness, today I'd never get the job. I asked Don if I could think about it for a few days, because I had my heart set on getting a teaching job in the Northwest, which I’d never been to but I just knew I would like. I don't know why I knew I’d like it. I grew up on the East Coast, on Eastern Long Island, but somehow something I thought about the Northwest was appealing to me. I thought of the Northwest those days as Oregon. I didn't really know anything. In those days, you could get a teaching job easily. If you had only an MA or an MFA, you could send out ten letters and get several job offers back. The universities were expanding.

But then, I thought about it and said, gee, I like Iowa City. And it was the best job in the country for a young poet, my goodness. And so I called Justice and said, sure. I didn't even ask him what I was going to be paid. I came back to teach, and I stayed. I did semesters at Goddard College, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Washington, but I was basically here. Don't forget, the students were very exciting, I mean, for a long time I taught as if I was one of the students. And they became my friends. Then, I started publishing books, and they started treating me as if I were an authority. And I didn't like that as much. I wanted to be a beginner all the time. Then I got old enough to be a geezer, and instead of being their father, I was their grandfather, and then everything was fine again.

I Liked Iowa City Right Away

Iowa has its own beauty: there are a lot of trees here; depending on where you are, there can be a lot of hills; the fields change their look from season to season, and the skies are fabulous … When Richard Hugo, the poet who lived in Montana—with license plates referring to Montana as “The Big Sky Country”—came here, he said, “Oh no, this is the big sky country.” But don't forget, I did live elsewhere. During the time I taught at Iowa, I lived in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Santa Fe, rural Vermont, Hawaii, Seattle, Mexico, and Spain, as well as in Port Townsend, Washington, where we have been going for 26 years. Port Townsend is three sides water and to the left and right are snow-topped mountain ranges. So, we see a lot of dramatic nature. We drive I-90 in the northern part of the country 2,000 miles to get there, plus a ferry ride, and it's gorgeous. We never get tired of the drive, even though it takes three or four days.

So I’ve traveled a lot, I taught at a lot of writers conferences, I gave a lot of readings, I taught short courses, I've lived in, and traveled in, many versions of nature, and it’s just natural for nature … You know how Aristotle defined art? He said, art imitates nature. Now, of course, there is the nature of things that grow outside of us, and there is the nature that is ourselves. We are part of that, for better or worse. But Bill Stafford, the late poet William Stafford—he lived in Oregon, and people always think of him as a Northwest poet, but he was actually from Kansas, and he was very proud to be from Kansas, although he lived for so many years in the Northwest—so, he once said, responding to a question that assumed the Midwest is flat, “Some people need to see a mountain to see a rise in the land.”

Paul Engle Was Like a Steamroller

When I came back in the fall of 1965 to teach, there was no International Writing Program yet, but Paul Engle had begun to add writers from other countries to the Workshop; just a few. And Paul liked to have parties. At the parties, he would impose on the foreign students to sing or dance or play instruments or whatever they could do, and they were often very talented.

Earlier, Paul had been able to create the Writers’ Workshop simply because no one could stop him. There was a course called Writer’s Workshop at the time [from 1936 to 1941], taught by a famous journalist named Wilbur Schramm. Paul was the first person to file a creative writing thesis, and Iowa was the first school to accept a creative writing thesis. Paul Engle took over that workshop, he took it, and he built it into what it became. And Paul could raise money from everybody. At first, the University gave him minimal support. But they couldn't stop him. He could be a steamroller. And when I came back to teach, Paul was leading the Workshop, George Starbuck was teaching, and Don Justice was teaching, and someone else, a visitor—it might have been Robert Sward. We would teach in twos and switch partners weekly. George Starbuck liked to make a chart. We would change partners, and Paul would show up and teach a bit, too. Just as he had when I was a student. Don Justice had taught the Poetry Workshop, often alone, but also with Paul, although Paul was in and out of the room. Meanwhile, he and his wife Hualing were about to create the International Writing Program, and the exact moment when they created it I don't know, I don't know if anybody knows. So, eventually, that was what he was doing. There wasn’t an announcement: we were in the English Philosophy Building. He would sometimes go around the corner and the next thing we knew, he’s gone.

As you know, later on there was a big brouhaha when they tried to eliminate the International Writing Program. I stayed behind the scenes. I told the President, “I'll come and talk to you, but I will not be on a committee.” Two years earlier, a professor in the Russian department and I had been given the job of doing a big review of the program. We interviewed at least 30 people, it was an elaborate report, and I remember saying in the report that the program should be taken out of the Comparative Literature department and be placed in the international arm of the university. It doesn't belong in Comp Lit. And I praised it. Later, they tried to use my report against the Program, but someone knew better, and they asked me if they could obtain and use my report. It gets funny after that, it gets interesting, but it got rescued and that is what counts. David Skorton [Vice-Provost for research at the U. of Iowa 1998-2002, currently, President of Cornell University] was the one I went and talked to. He was the guy you would go to if you wanted things to get done, but I had never met him. And when I talked to him, he said, let me tell you what I am planning and see what you think. We went down his list, and he had hit everything on it that I had hoped for, and I thought, this man is awesome. He was a terrific administrator here, an unusually multi-talented guy.

The Students in the Workshop Were Raw Talents

The Workshop was a different thing back then, when I enrolled as a student. There were one or two other such workshops in the country, small ones, and the people who came to this one had come by circuitous routes; we were older, some of us veterans, some of us having taught somewhere, some married, like me, with children. It was a different thing. A smaller program, too, which had only one section of poetry. By the time I came back to teach, it was larger, but it was still one of very few programs in the country. And then, they began to proliferate. And an organization called the Associated Writing Programs came to be; it is now a very large organization. So, now you have all these programs institutionalized, hard-wired into academia. The Workshop I knew was not. Iowa still is the most famous program, of course. George Starbuck used to say that the quality of the Iowa program could plunge, and no one would know it for 10 years, its reputation is so high. And it is still a very good program, but it has a different kind of student.

Years ago, the students were raw talents, and for the most part they hadn’t had practicing writers for teachers, that was almost unheard of, now everybody has real writers for teachers. They are all over the place. The result is that the students learn tricks, they learn a few tricks, which they become good at, and the competition is so intense now for admission to the Writers’ Workshop that the people you would have accepted, and would have blossomed here, don't get in. That's been true for a number of years. Also, American poetry has many different tribes, and one aspect of American poetry has a lot to do with language theory, they are what some call brainiacs: it’s all up in the head; it's not in the heart. And I think many of the writing programs have changed in that respect. Theory is in the saddle. I've been retired for five years and for the last 10 years of my teaching I was on the periphery of things. It's not up to me to judge it, but it's very different, I think, much more intellectual now, the students come from hot-shot schools; you can't really accept raw talent because the competition is big and you cannot take a chance. It's a different world. Also, when I went to school, it was easy to be a poor student, you didn't need much money. Now, you need a lot of money to do anything. On the other hand, there was no student aid in the Workshop. I managed to get a teaching assistantship in Rhetoric, but that was it, you couldn't get any aid from the Workshop itself. Now, they have aid for everyone. I don't know what the student community is like now.

You Can Make a Poet Smaller by Being Critical in the Wrong Way

The list of poets and, in some cases, fiction writers, playwrights, too, who studied with me here and who went on to publish books with big presses is at least a hundred. It includes a number of big names. John Irving the novelist took a class with me, Lee Blessing the playwright took a class with me, Denis Johnson, who is known for his fiction as much as his poetry, Joy Harjo, the Native American poet, and Juan Felipe Herrera, one of the great Chicano poets in the country, James Tate who is a very popular poet, and there are many, many others. Jon Anderson, Michael Dennis Browne, Larry Levis, Lynn Emanuel, Norman Dubie, Thomas Lux, Jane Miller, David St. John, Jack Myers… Well, there were quite a few, just to name some of those one might recognize. Oh, and Rita Dove, who was the U. S. Poet Laureate for a while … I first met Rita Dove at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. I walked into a building which had a bookstore, and it was my first time there. I said, excuse me, can you tell me where the bookstore is, and she said, follow me, and I noticed she was reading my book, and I said, what do you think about that book, and she said, I like it, and I said, oh, I don't like it so much. She didn't know it was me. I ran into her a few days later and she recognized me and was a bit baffled. And later she came to the Workshop. She always wore big earrings, maybe in the shape of yellow boxes, that kind of thing. And that was part of the thrill of the workshop, the students were always interesting. I always liked them, even the ones who thought I didn't like them. And the ones who didn't like me, I still liked them. I think people who are against workshops hate young people.

I do sometimes get emails or letters thanking me. But I don't want to take credit for anybody. You know, teaching creative writing, especially poetry, to talented people takes some jujitsu. Handling their egos! That's part of it, but also it’s important how you talk about work. You can make a poet smaller by being critical in the wrong way. Sometimes, the worst part of the poem contains the seeds of something that could become good if they just keep pushing it, make it more, write the stinky part longer, see what happens. But classroom talk can still get to the particular, and to the intellectual, so I have my ways of yanking the rubble a little bit. It takes a little jujitsu. You can make them afraid, you can take away their permission, you can take away their confidence. What you should do is to set them free: free of their reflexes, their conventions, their prejudices. I wanted to set them free. In art, you are free. Now, if you have to throw away lots of poor writing, so be it; the good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. There is no good stuff without bad stuff! If you want to write only perfect poems, you can’t write at all.

I think I am a far better teacher now than I was when I began, but I knew enough to know that I didn't know much when I began and to simply be one of the students, discovering the art form as we went, together. We were very close; I was very close to my first students. We hung out together, we invented classes together. Later, I would teach a seminar where we would often read work in translation because it can give you permission that you wouldn’t give yourself otherwise. This was a puritan country, maybe still is. This was especially true when I began to teach. And so, a Russian poet would write a poem with great expressiveness, and we thought, ah, those Russian poets, they have big hearts! But if an American poet wrote the same poem, we said, oh, how pretentious! A Spanish poet or a Chilean poet might write a poem of great surrealism, and we would say, oh, now those poets have imagination! If an American poet wrote it, we said, how senseless! Maybe a Chinese poet wrote a gnomic poem, it was very tight, we admired its beautiful efficiency, but if an American poet wrote it, we said, oh, how stingy! So, I used to use works in translation so that people would take permission. And in many of my seminars, we would concoct a writing assignment every week, with two rules. Number one, no one has to write a good poem; number two, the teacher has to do the assignment too. So, all those years, I wrote every assignment I gave to my students; even at writers conferences, when I might give them an assignment that was due the next morning, I'd be up late at night doing it, too.

I'm Not Sure Anything Can Be Taught—but Everything Can Be Learned

A lot of learning goes on in the presence of teaching. You can create the conditions in which someone who is able to learn, and needs to learn, learns. Not everyone will, but that's fine.

Donald Justice was precise in thought and language, extraordinarily precise and very smart. Now, did I begin to think exactly the way he did? I don't think so, because I'm just not that way. And I try not to speak as if I am very smart. But Don, oh Don, he knew how smart he was and did not hide it. Don and I could both pass among people who didn't like us and thought we were not that smart, we could do that … But Don was very smart, and very well educated, which I was not. And that precision is something to have, you have to confirm its importance. Don had a high standard but, at the same time, in discussions in the Workshop, he always put himself in the position of defending the poem. The students always thought he liked their poems. Actually, he didn't. He was very selective with his approval in private, but in class he would put himself in the position of defending a poem against bad criticism. And you could always count on that. And he would be very precise in defining the poem against the criticism that made wrong assumptions about the poem. The poem would define itself. I can't say I learned it from him, but I would say I certainly had it reconfirmed in me, I saw examples of it in action. That's what you see when you read a writer who influences you: you see a manner of writing in action, and you are able to imitate it.

Poets, like other writers, learn to write by imitating other poets. The better the poet you imitate, the better the influence is. You learn to write in a very simple way. You read something and then you write something. Then you read something else and you write something else. But, here is the trick. You show in your writing what you have read. You don't mention it, I don't mean you allude to it, but you use it, it affects what you write, and that amalgam of influences makes for your distinct voice. It is your originality, if you're going to be original. There's no such thing as a primitive. There is no other way. No writer ever did it except by reading, writing, and being influenced by what they read. That's it! It’s never been done in any other way.

Talk about poetry is not poetry. Talk about fiction is not fiction. But you read the actual story, you read the actual poem, you see it being built, you know what it sounds like, it gets into your head, it's like the popular songs people know, they have never tried to memorize them, but they know them because they have sung them so many times. I never asked my students to memorize poems. Many teachers do. Regardless, they will know some poems after a while because they'll read them over and over.

That Generation Is Rapidly Disappearing

A great many writers have come to Iowa City to read or teach. John Berryman taught here, Robert Lowell taught here, Karl Shapiro--he didn't stay long. I think he may not have finished the semester. When I first came back from the Army, Don had been away for a year and he had come back and couldn't find a house, and he said he was going to leave. I was on a weekend pass from the Army to find a rental, so I found a house for him and one for us and then I went back to the Post.

Well, there had been a blow-up at the Workshop earlier, while I was in the Army, a terrible blow-up. A fiction writer, whom everybody liked, was teaching in the Workshop in place of someone who was on leave—Vance Bourjaily, I think. And at a certain point, the visitor got a job offer, I think it was from Hayward State in California, and so he went down to the chairman of the English department, because we were still part of the English Department then, and told him. In those days, if you got a competing offer, and people liked your work where you were, the Chair would just match the offer to keep you, it was so easy in those days. So the Chairman said, no, no, we will give you tenure and all that. Well, the Workshop was very proprietary, its own boss, and when the faculty heard about it, things went crazy. I mean, crazy!

Don was in San Francisco on a fellowship to work on a play. He came flying back, I think Vance Bourjaily came flying back, I was in the Army and I just stayed in the Army, I heard about all this over the phone. Paul Engle and John Gerber, who are both passed away now, said things to each other it would be hard to take back. It was angry. R. V. Cassill, who was a fiction teacher, a very good teacher but also, in private, a problematic character, decided that it was the right time to get the big raise he deserved, and I’m told he led a torchlight parade down to Old Capitol with some of his followers, threatening to burn it down. The visiting teacher was well liked, but no, the Workshop made its own decisions, so he quickly took the other job and left. Well, during all this, other people began to feel oppressed, including Don, who felt that he should have a raise, and Paul Engle said, no, I won’t raise your salary, so Don called his good friend W. D. Snodgrass, who taught at Syracuse, and Snodgrass said, sure, come here. So, Don left after, I think, my first year back. And it took a year or two, I can’t remember exactly how long, until we convinced him to come back.

Later, he moved to the U. of Florida for a ton of money. And he wanted to retire there, he wanted to retire early, but they wanted him to stay, and they kept giving him more money, and saying, just teach this one semester and then, again, just teach one semester more, and he took these offers and taught, but he always regretted it. He wanted more free time. And when it was his time to retire, he didn't want to retire there. It was dull, he said. It wasn’t the Florida he remembered, of course. If he had the money, he said, if he could have afforded it, and if his wife Jean would have agreed, he wanted to live in Los Angeles, right downtown. But that was out of the question. He had me sending him housing ads from newspapers, but not about Iowa City; it was about other places, and so I said to him, look, if you’re going to move when you retire, you have to go somewhere where you have friends. It's hard to make friends. And I think they liked Iowa City enough, and Jean agreed, I’m told, that they could move to Iowa City on condition that they never move again. And so, once they were back in Iowa City, after he retired from Florida, they would go off for part of each winter to Cedar Key in Florida where they would meet up with friends who also went for the winter.

I saw him the night before he died. We were living elsewhere for a while, but I had come back to town for an event, and stayed in a hotel, and by then he was not at home, he was dying. I asked Jean if I could see him, and she said, no, because he was in such bad shape. But then she changed her mind, she said, you can go. So, I went over to see him. He was bedridden, hooked to this and that, in a coma. I talked to him for a while and when I left, I said to the nurse, you have to put music in his room, he loves music. Unfortunately, by the next morning he had died. He had been going downhill for a few years. The last time I had seen him, just before that, I could see that he was not well and that he was faking it a bit, trying to keep up with the conversation. Yes, that generation is rapidly disappearing.

Raymond Carver in Iowa City

I used to see Ray in Iowa City, he taught here while I was also teaching here, and I also saw him when we lived in Santa Cruz. He came down with his wife Maryann, and we went to dinner at the poet George Hitchcock's house [George Hitchcock just died in his nineties], who lived nearby. I would see him in the Northwest as well. The last summer of Ray’s life, when he was living in Port Angeles, and Dorothy and I were in Port Townsend, Ray and I were going to go fishing, Ray loved to fish. When Ray and Tess [Gallagher] moved to Port Angeles, he bought a boat. And I gather he went fishing almost every day. But because he was fishing all the time, he didn't write. So, I’m told, he sold the boat. But then, when he was writing, he wanted to fish, and so, apparently, he bought another boat. He and I were going to go fishing, but we both knew that he wasn't going to last much longer, his cancer had metastasized. So, we kept saying that we were going to go fishing later in the summer, and finally, it was time for Dorothy and me to leave, and the day before we left I got a book bag in the mail in Port Townsend: Ray had sent me a fish, a smoked fish. After he died, I went to the wake in Port Angeles, Tess wanted it in the old-fashioned way, and Ray was laid out in front of us, and we had to stand around Ray and talk about him, and his ex-wife Maryann was there, too. Nobody ever resented Ray getting rich or famous, he had struggled a lot. He was always wanting to buy a new house, and he had his eye on a house in Port Townsend, and he thought he would buy it if he could convince Tess. He was always interested in moving to another house. There is a cemetery site for the two of them, very elaborate, overlooking the water, in Port Angeles. And there is a place for Tess, it is very fancy. It is not like me, I just want to leave a small footprint [laughing loudly], but that is Tess’s doing. Tess was a student of mine years ago …

Poetry Is a Way of Using Words to Get Beyond the Words

"Marvin Bell is wonderfully versatile, with a strange, dislocating inventiveness. Capable of an unflinching regard of the painful, the poignant, and the tragic; but also given to hilarity, high-spirits and comic delight; and often enough wedding and blending these spiritual antipodes into a new world. It must be the sort of bifocal vision Socrates recommended to his drunken friends if they were to become true poets." – Anthony Hecht

I was called a love poet, a nature poet, a political poet, but I am also a philosophical poet. I can't help that. That's who I am. I like an idea, I like ideas, but I like them to be embedded in the tangible physical world.

Bell the Love Poet

from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000, Copper Canyon Press, 2000

To Dorothy

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
You let a weed grow by the mulberry
and a mulberry grow by the house.
So close, in the personal quiet
of a windy night, it brushes the wall

and sweeps away the day till we sleep.
A child said it, and it seemed true:
"Things that are lost are all equal."
But it isn't true. If I lost you,
the air wouldn't move, nor the tree grow.
Someone would pull the weed, my flower.
The quiet wouldn't be yours. If I lost you,
I'd have to ask the grass to let me sleep.


I remember saying to a friend, if I don't continue to publish with a big house in New York City, I'm going to fall off a lot of radars. And she said something very interesting. She said, you’ll be green again. And I thought it was a great thing to say. Because I always wanted to consider myself a beginner. Always a beginner, no matter how much I knew from the past. I wanted to be a beginner. I wanted to be a beginner every time I started a new poem.
Poetry Is Poetry Because of What It Leaves Out

One of the definitions people use about poetry is that poetry is heightened prose, prose with a special efficiency, figures of speech, images, those sorts of things. But that definition only applies to a certain kind of poetry. Poetry can be more than heightened prose. There are all kinds of poetry and some poetry is meant to be entertaining, some is meant to be argumentative, and some is meant to plumb the deepest emotions of the writer or even to struggle with obscurities, to make something become clear … I think, the difference for me is that prose is prose because of what it includes, and poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

Bell the nature poet

The Marvin Bell plaque on the Iowa City Literary Walk reads:

"And the color yellow regrets it was never green, and the east and the west long to trade places, and the shadow would like just once to come out on top."

"Poem in Orange Tones" in A Marvin Bell Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose. Middlebury College Press/University Press of New England, 1994

Poetry is not just a specialized version of prose; it is a whole other thing for those of us who push the envelope. And there are many ways to push the envelope. You can push the envelope in terms of the content—maybe it’s sociopolitical, maybe it’s ethnic. You can push the envelope in terms of the style, or push the envelope in terms of the imagination or imagery; you can push the envelope even in terms of how the poem looks on the page or sounds when read aloud. There are many ways to push it. And the poets who have mattered most to me, whatever their content has been, and however powerful their content has been, have also been poets who wanted to embed that content in the language itself.

from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000, Copper Canyon Press, 2000


White Clover

Once when the moon was out about three-quarters
and the fireflies who are the stars
of backyards
were out about three-quarters
and about three-fourths of all the lights
in the neighborhood
were on because people can be at home,
I took a not so innocent walk
out among the lawns,
navigating by the light of lights,
and there there were many hundreds of moons
on the lawns
where before there was only polite grass.
These were moons on long stems,
their long stems giving their greenness
to the center of each flower
and the light giving its whiteness to the tops
of the petals. I could say
it was light from stars
touched the tops of flowers and no doubt
something heavenly reaches what grows outdoors
and the heads of men who go hatless,
but I like to think we have a world
right here, and a life
that isn’t death. So I don’t say it’s better
to be right here. I say this is where
many hundreds of core-green moons
gigantic to my eye
rose because men and women had sown green grass,
and flowered to my eye in man-made light,
and to some would be as fire in the body
and to others a light in the mind
over all their property.

Poetry is a way of using words to get beyond the words. We deal with the outside world—that's a rational world maybe, or we can try to make it rational—but what life feels like is inside us. There aren't words for that; emotions are emotions and words are words. Poetry tries to express what life feels like. You do it by vocabulary and syntax, by your handling of rhythm and sound … possibly meter and rhyme, imagery, imagination … between the lines, by nuance, by tone of voice, by free association, with the sewing that takes place when things are repeated or varied.

Bell the political poet

from Mars Being Red, Copper Canyon Press, 2007

I Didn’t Sleep

I didn’t sleep in the light. I couldn’t sleep
in the dark. I didn’t sleep at night. I was awake
all day. I didn’t sleep in the leaves or between
the pages. I tried but couldn’t sleep
with my eyes open. I couldn’t sleep indoors
or out under the stars. I couldn’t sleep where
there were flowers. Insects kept me up. Shadows
shook me out of my doziness. I was trying hard.
It was horrible. I knew why I couldn’t sleep.
Knowing I couldn’t sleep made it harder to try.
I thought maybe I could sleep after the war
or catch a nap after the next election. It was
a terrible time in America. Many of us found
ourselves unable to sleep. The war went on.
The silence at home was deafening. So I
tried to talk myself to sleep by memorizing
the past, which had been full of sleepiness.
It didn’t work. All over the world people
were being put to sleep. In every time zone.
I am busy not sleeping, obsessively one might say.
I resolve to sleep again when I have the time.
Poetry Is a Manifestation of Deeper Things

Poetry is a manifestation of other things. Most arts are. It's a manifestation of deeper things. On the one hand, it's poetry, it can save your life, it can be the reason for your existence, it can take you places you never would have thought of. On the other hand, it's just poetry. And you have to believe both things. That's how I think.

Now, having said that, I have to say that I also believe that philosophy, which for some people includes religion, philosophy and art are survival skills. In fact, the young people need them now more than ever because of the Internet and cable TV. The human condition is thrown in our faces every day, 24/7. I think young people need philosophy and art because they are survival skills, because they are attached to our insides where we feel what it is to live.

Bell the philosophical poet

from Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

The Book of the Dead Man (Vertigo)

Live as if you were already dead.
Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man and Vertigo

The dead man skipped stones till his arm gave out.
He showed up early to the games and stayed late, he played with
     abandon, he felt the unease in results.
His medicine is movement, the dead man alters cause and
The dead man shatters giddy wisdoms as if he were punching his pillow.
Now it comes round again, the time to rise and cook up a day.
Time to break out of one’s dream shell, and here’s weather.
Time to unmask the clock face.
He can feel a tremor of fresh sunlight, warm and warmer.
The first symptom was, having crossed a high bridge, he found he could
     not go back.
The second, on the hotel’s thirtieth floor he peeked from the balcony and
     knew falling.
It was ultimate candor, it was the body’s lingo, it was low tide in his inner
The third was when he looked to the constellations and grew woozy.

2. More About the Dead Man and Vertigo

It wasn’t bad, the new carefulness.
It was a fraction of his lifetime, after all, a shard of what he knew.
He scaled back, he dialed down, he walked more on the flats.
The dead man adjusts, he favors his good leg, he squints his best eye to
     see farther.
No longer does he look down from the heights, it’s simple.
He knows it’s not a cinder in his eye, it just feels like it.
He remembers himself at the edge of a clam boat, working the fork.
He loves to compress the past, the good times are still at hand.
Even now, he will play catch till his whole shoulder gives out.
His happiness has been a whirl, it continues, it is dizzying.
He has to keep his feet on the ground, is all.
He has to watch the sun and moon from underneath, is all.

And yes, I wanted to be published, I wanted to be recognized, absolutely. And I remember saying to my wife Dorothy when I was a graduate student: if I could publish a poem in Poetry magazine—because at that time Poetry magazine was the place—someday, maybe someone looking at the index years later could see my name and say, o, he was a poet. So then, Poetry magazine took a couple of poems. And I said, oh well, if they could take a group of poems, that would really be something. So then, they took a group of poems. So I said, if they put my name on the cover, that would be really something! And they put my name on the cover. And then they gave me one of their annual prizes. So you see: one thing after another. I got over that, but I have to say that I got over it partly and probably—and I will never know—because I was lucky. I did get published. My first book did win what was then a big award. I had a lot of good luck. And the good poets I admired accepted me as a friend and colleague; if I hadn't had this good luck, would they have accepted me as such? However, I have to add this: because you're an Eastern European, you will understand this. My father came from Ukraine as a teenager—he had to escape, as a lot of people had to escape in those days, he was beloved by my home town, all the stores closed when he died, he died fairly young—and when I would complain about a grown-up, he would say to me, well, he has to make a living, too.


America is still in some sense a young country, a naïve country; other countries understand the human condition better than we have. I've always felt pretty happy, I don't know if that's the right word, but I always felt okay; even when things were going badly. There are some people who have suffered so greatly that you can't say why they continue, you can't say how they manage to continue, and yet some of those people have a very positive attitude, without believing in an afterlife. I admire that tremendously. I basically feel that way: that you may feel happy even when things are difficult.

from Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

The Book of the Dead Man (Anubis)

Live as if you were already dead.
Zen admonition

1. About the Dead Man and Anubis

The dead man, considering, was asked, “When is the right time?”
What if one were whisked away too quickly to be missed, not even the
     smell after a lightning strike, not even the mist of a teakettle just
     turned off.
Ah, but the dead man is more resilient than the grass, more recollected
     than the jalopy of first romance, more encrypted than the crypt.
He outlasts the red dross of old blood.
He outlasts the clockwork, he lengthens the leap years.
The dead man may lie safely under a palm tree, or cross the barbed
He cannot be harmed by a coconut, he is not a target on the battlefield.
Now he is beyond both the local and the larger, out of range, calmly of a
     piece with gravity and the genuflecting universe.
Let him furrow his brow, it doesn’t matter.
Let him wrinkle like the pelt of a cheetah or bloodhound, either way.
He survives any comparison.
All time is the right time for the dead man, but in time you may miss him.

2. More About the Dead Man and Anubis

The dead man will find you.
He has befriended the weigher of souls and keeper of tombs.
He is the I-Thou of what matters for a while, then less.
Hence, the dead man repeats his pleasures in memory.
He loves the swish of the broom, the crease in the bedsheet.
He hears as well the music of the rattletrap as that of the wind.
He feels the weight of more, the heapings of the world.
He calls the pot black, he lounges till noon in his reading garb.
The dead man outlasts the low sky, the soggy, the arid, the freezing, the
He has vaulted the horizon, he has dispersed the material.
Here come the worms, is it time?
Turn here to see the dead man riding in the rumble seat.

"Bell has redefined poetry as it is being practiced today." – Judith Kitchen



Things We Dreamt We Died For, Stone Wall Press, 1966.
A Probable Volume of Dreams, Athenaeum, 1969.
The Escape into You, Athenaeum, 1971. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1994.)
Residue of Song, Athenaeum, 1974.
Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, Athenaeum, 1977. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1992.)
These Green-Going-to-Yellow, Athenaeum, 1981.
Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry (co-authored with William Stafford), David R. Godine, Publisher, 1983.
Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire, Athenaeum, 1984.
New and Selected Poems, Athenaeum, 1987.
Iris of Creation, Copper Canyon Press, 1990.
The Book of the Dead Man, Copper Canyon Press, 1994.
A Marvin Bell Reader (selected prose and poetry), Middlebury College Press/University Press of New England, 1994.
Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2, Copper Canyon Press, 1997.
Poetry for a Midsummer's Night, Seventy Fourth Street Productions (Seattle), 1998.
Wednesday: Selected Poems 1966-1997, Salmon Publishing (Ireland), 1998.
Nightworks: Poems, 1962-2000, Copper Canyon Press, 2000.
Rampant, Copper Canyon Press, 2004.
Mars Being Red, Copper Canyon Press, 2007.
7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book, Trinity University Press, 2009.
Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2011.
Whiteout: Dead Man Poems by Marvin Bell in Response to Photographs by Nathan Lyons, Lodima Press, 2011.
A Primer about the Flag (children’s picture book), Candlewick Press, 2011.

Letters, Essays, Interviews

Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews, U. of Michigan Press, 1983.
"Letter to J. D. Salinger," Letters to J. D Salinger (ed. Chris Kubica), University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

Acknowledgment: This profile is based on a conversation with Marvin Bell who sat for two+ hours with our writer and opened up in the most sincere and profound way on poetry, learning, philosophy, Iowa City, and the human soul. Thank you, Marvin, for being such a distinguished and approachable citizen of Iowa City.

Interview and composition: Zlatko Anguelov

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