BY CHRISTOPHER MERRILL
“I like to think we have a world right here,” Marvin Bell wrote.
His was a world predicated on the mystery of the creative process, which he called Bloody Brainwork in a recent lecture. He had at his command an array of formal strategies, techniques, and gifts, and he was a relentless explorer, who kept pushing past terrain surveyed by others. His concerns—emotional, aesthetic, philosophical, political—were wide-ranging, befitting his restless imagination. He was by turns a prophet and a comic, a singer and a wise man, whose work belongs to the tradition of wisdom literature, which stretches from Ecclesiastes to Emily Dickinson, a tutelary spirit hovering in the background of his poems. He wrote book-length sequences; carried on a poetic dialogue with William Stafford; composed poems in prose. “Writing is all and everything, when you care,” he observed in “Instructions to Be Left Behind.” What distinguishes his work was the care and attention he devoted not only to the art and craft of writing poetry but to every moment in his life and the lives of others—which may account for his ability to reimagine himself as a poet at every stage of his career. Thus when it seemed as though he had explored every possible aspect of the free verse lyric he surprised readers with his invention of the Dead Man Poems, which were collected last year in Incarnate. These two-part meditations begin with the Zen admonition, Live as if you were already dead, and proceed to examine every side of everything from the perspective of an everyman always conscious that the end is near at hand.
“I believe that language, compared to the materials of other art forms, has only one thing going for it: the ability to be precise.”
Marvin was born in New York City on August 3, 1937 to a Jewish family of immigrants from Ukraine, raised in Center Moriches, Long Island, and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Alfred University, a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he taught for forty years, retiring as the Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters; his students are a Who’s Who of American poetry. He was Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, and he held Senior Fulbright appointments to Yugoslavia and Australia. “I’ll tell you right now the secrets of writing poetry,” he once said. “First, one learns to write by reading. … Number two, I believe that language, compared to the materials of other art forms, has only one thing going for it: the ability to be precise. … And the third and most important secret is that, if you do anything seriously for a long time, you get better at it.” Marvin’s poetry offers abundant proof of this insight. He wrote well until his final days.
Determined to find clarifying words for what remains invisible to others, Marvin translated his individual experience into poems that double as life lessons, and then he passed along to several generations of students what he learned from his immersion in poetry from many lands. He placed a high value on listening closely to other poets, within the classroom and without; the exercises in imitation he assigned, which he did himself, were designed to tune the ear to other possibilities, which in his work was transformed into something new, as in his “Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade” or the three poems he wrote, on assignment, on the subject of ecstasy—this from a man who claimed to “hold to/ a certain sadness the way others/ search for joy, though I like joy.” What he praised as a poet’s ability to listen to his materials, to meditate on the potential music and meaning of every word, image, and idea, is on lavish display in all his books.
“Marvin Bell is easy to interchange with. Like a prism, he accepts whatever comes at him and reflects it in rainbows.”
His shaping influence on my life dates from the summer of 1978, when I studied with him at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; ever since his poems, essays, and interviews have schooled me in the art of poetry and the intricacies of the creative process. Our friendship began in earnest some years later, when he took a sabbatical leave in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where my wife and I were caretakers of a small estate on the edge of the national forest. Marvin called me nearly every morning, at 8:30, to talk, gossip, joke, and banter—calls I came to regard as invaluable lessons in the art of poetry, which begins with listening. I was grateful for the chance to listen to him. Then and there a seed was planted for what grew into a fruitful collaboration.
Ours was inspired by his earlier partnership with William Stafford, which produced a magnetic book titled, Segues, and a fine-press edition, Annie-Over. Stafford wrote: “Marvin Bell is easy to interchange with. Like a prism, he accepts whatever comes at him and reflects it in rainbows.” This was my experience, too, first in the group poem collaboration we undertook in 2007 to celebrate the International Writing Program’s fortieth anniversary, 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book, and then in the exchange of prose poems (or paras, as we called them) collected in After the Fact, the first volume of which, Scripts & Postscripts, was published in 2016; the second volume, If & When, we finished in the first days of the pandemic, and a third volume, Here & Now, was in the works when Marvin died. For close to ten years we probed our memories, teased out the meaning of various public and private events, bore witness to our separate walks in the sun. Nothing excited me more in literary terms than this exploration. Marvin seemed to feel the same. “I love receiving each new para from you,” he wrote ten days ago concerning my latest installment in Here & Now. “It defines the immediate future.” A few hours later, he sent me a final message: “Heartbreaking.” His family was with him when he died last night, and the stereo was playing Chet Baker’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” Marvin never missed a beat.