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“Our Intention Is to Be Wise”: Marvin Bill’s Poetry and Essays

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
Old Snow Just Melting. By Marvin Bell. Michigan. $8. 95. Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire. By Marvin Bell. Atheneum.$6.95. Segues. By Marvin Bell with William Stafford. Godine. $8.95.

As anyone who has heard Marvin Bell read his poems can attest, he is a powerful reader. He doesn’t read in the dramatic voice of some of our more “theatrical” poets, but in the measured speech of a man talking about personal matters, I heard Bell read from his work and deliver an “informal lecture” at the 1983 Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. What impressed me then was his wit and his ability to work an audience; a small figure, practically hidden by the podium, he charmed the crowd with his easy manner, his impromptu jokes, his sense of timing. There was a musical quality to his voice when he read, and he often spoke around the poems, narrating a story about or providing a footnote on the composition of a particular poem.

Bell obviously likes to write. Over the last 20 years, he has worked as a journalist and editor. He has written commentary and criticism. As a poet, he has written blurbs for book-jackets, at least one entry for an encyclopedia, and general essays on poets and poetics. He has also published six full-length collections of his poems. Bell has not, as far as I can tell, published any fiction, but these three recent books— a new collection of poems, a “correspondence” in poetry with William Stafford, and a collection of essays and interviews—are filled with stories: personal, wise, and often brilliant.

We seem to be moving into a time when more American poets are publishing critical and exploratory prose. This might be in part a reaction to the high-minded and often wrong-headed approaches taken by some recent literary criticism which second-guesses the poets under discussion or uses their work for fodder in a scholar’s developing critical philosophy. At any rate, a number of our best poets in early middle-age—Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Stanley Plumly, Dave Smith, and others—have published or will soon be publishing collections of essays and reviews. We’re lucky. We’re also lucky that Donald Hall (himself a prolific poet and serious prose writer) is editing the University of Michigan’s “Poets on Poetry Series,” which includes Bell’s book. Although the 20 books published to date are somewhat uneven in quality, they represent an important contribution to our general understanding of the composing process and, more specifically, our understanding of contemporary poetry.

A poet’s prose is almost always interesting, and not only for what it might tell us of the writer’s poetry by way of self-criticism (many poets are, after all, notorious misreaders of their own work). But a poet’s criticism of other writers often contains “privileged” insights into the work unencumbered by the laborious footnotes and theory of professional critics. Many poets—because they are actively involved in the process of writing—are able to speak with an insider’s knowledge, especially alert to nuance and the richness of language. A poet’s prose is also interesting for what it might tell us by deflection and by way of autobiography. We begin to see the whole person emerge, often a fuller figure than we sense from the poetry, although sometimes the opposite is true. Some poets do not take easily to prose, but Marvin Bell does. He writes with style: clean, metaphoric prose that’s readable and instructive. He writes simply without condescending and without ignoring the complexity of the issues he examines.

Before beginning his lecture at Breadloaf, Bell passed to the audience copies of poems by an interesting mix of poets: John Berryman, Henrik Nordbrandt, John Logan, Anne Sexton, and others. He explained then, as he explains in several essays and interviews, that “when one talks about poetry there should be some poetry present.” It’s easy to see why Bell chooses this approach to criticism. As a close reader and active writer, he knows the dangers of wandering too far from the text, the danger of overreading and spinning theory out of pure air. It’s an admirable approach, one that Bell takes in most of the essays collected in Old Snow Just Melting.

The title of this prose collection echoes the title of Bell’s last book of poetry, These Green-Going-to-Yellow, and indeed echoes the themes of many of Bell’s poems: the process of change, of time passing, of deterioration. The title also points to a central characteristic of the prose: these essays illuminate a poetics in process, not a hard-edged didactic stance illustrated with examples. Bell himself admits in interviews to frequent changes in his point-of-view, in his aesthetic judgment, and, consequently, in his poetry.

In a number of essays, Bell argues that it’s better to have seriously studied one poet’s work than to have a passing knowledge of many poets’ work. For his part, Bell knows Williams well. In the generation of poets immediately before his own, he knows John Logan (a former teacher), James Wright, and, of course, William Stafford, his collaborator in Segues. He also tells us he’s learned from a number of European and South American poets whom he has read in translation. Bell’s apprenticeship to these writers has been a successful one.

In Old Snow Just Melting, Bell writes on a wide variety of subjects. Almost all of them are tied to personal anecdote— there’s little idle musing here or self-conscious literary theorizing. Some of his best essays are the columns he wrote on assignment for the American Poetry Review from 1975 to 1978. These are essays written to deadline, quickly and passionately. He takes on topics as diverse as the relationship between students and teachers, the notion of writing “away” from the self, the impossibility of defining form in poetry, the place of motivation and biography in poetry, and potentially useful techniques for starting poems. Whatever the topic, however, the underlying purpose of these essays is to encourage readers to take poetry seriously, to remove it from the realm of the abstract and find a place for it in our ordinary, daily lives. Bell’s approach is to offer his audience ways to read which directly or indirectly teach us how to love poetry and perhaps how to write it as well.

Along the way there are many quotable lines, nuggets of common sense and wisdom:

Left alone because the poet is concentrating so intensely on the externals of language and perception—the look of a leaf, a special congruency of syntax and emjambment—the subconscious will float upwards as always, right into the poem.

. . . the self is better thought of as very small, and best identified and given value through attention placed almost anywhere else.

What I dislike in poems, and what I think defeats them, is the “poitry” in them, the thoughtless stylization that becomes the style of the art of one’s time.

. . . I’ll tell you right now the secrets of writing poetry. . . . 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.

This last excerpt is characteristic of Bell’s prose in a couple of ways. Bell knows how to communicate directly with his audience in ways which anticipate our interests and questions as readers of a text. And he is not, as this piece illustrates, afraid of talking directly to the reader. There’s also a playful earnestness in most of his prose—without being anti-academic, Bell manages to avoid elitism by siding with the reader, one who is untrained, perhaps, but who is interested and sympathetic. In an interview, Bell talks about the fact that there are literally thousands of people writing and publishing poetry. Bell’s comments should be required reading for anyone who has ever complained that there are so many minor and “bad” poets writing today:

On the great scale of human vices, writing a bad poem doesn’t weigh very much. In any case, why should only people who can do something well be permitted to do it? That’s crazy. If that’s true, I should give up running because when I run a marathon, I finish so much after Bill Rodgers or Frank Shorter that it isn’t the same event. People who are against workshops essentially hate young people. That’s all. They hate young people. They don’t want any competition.

The first section of Old Snow collects a group of essays written after Bell had finished writing the American Poetry Review columns. Several of these more recent essays, including “Influences” and “Auden Twice,” are among the most self-reflective in the book. The essay on Auden is Bell at his best—the piece begins with a story of hearing Auden read at a small Iowa college and quietly enlarges to explore such topics as inspiration, the delicate balance of intelligence and emotionalism in good poetry, Jarrell’s work vs. Auden’s, Stevens’ vs. Williams’, and ends, finally, with the assertion that “the poet must protect his ignorance.” Three other essays, “Influence,” “The Hours Musicians Keep,” and “How We Think Back,” describe a variety of influences on Bell’s work (including music, especially jazz); the latter essay also describes the specific composition of one poem, “Gemwood,” one of Bell’s best poems from an earlier volume, Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. “How We Think Back” is a wonderfully revealing piece, for it gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in Bell’s head for a number of months. Like Jarrell’s famous piece on the composition of “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” Bell’s essay helps us understand how seemingly disparate images and experiences that form the heart of a poem can come together.

Four separate interviews comprise nearly one hundred pages of Old Snow Just Melting. Because the interviews take place over a period of only two years (1981—82), there is a fair amount of repetition in both the questions and Bell’s answers. Still, Bell is such a thoughtful writer that he manages to elaborate on topics with seemingly endless energy, devising new metaphors for his experiences and points-of-view. His answers never sound canned, and he is sometimes able to take a naïve question and fashion an interesting response by extending or slightly twisting the question. He’s also able to frame long answers without losing track of the question and to talk about his work without boasting or confessing.

In all of his prose—interviews and essays—Bell refuses to make large claims for himself. He charts one man’s reactions to and observations on poetry; much of what he says is really a kind of eloquently articulated common sense. Old Snow is a book full of aphorisms, telling asides to the reader, and a few arguable positions that the reader is not inclined to argue with because Bell does not set himself up as a target. He keeps his chair pulled up close to his writing desk in “that little room out back,” enjoying the privacy but willing, sometimes, to unlock the door for an intimate conversation.

Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire is Bell’s second collection since his ground-breaking Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1977. About his four earlier books, Bell admits in an interview that “I think of them as beginner’s books.” In another interview, he says “I always told my students that I thought I would be a beginner until about the age of forty. Well, I published Stars Which See when I was forty and for me, that was sort of the end of an apprenticeship.” And it’s true that the books before Stars Which See do look, in retrospect, like apprentice work, even though the last of them, Residue of Song, a book Bell now calls “anti-poetic,” contains a fair number of memorable poems, including the title poem.

Critics of Bell’s early work found much to praise in Bell’s style; it was fast-paced, musical, and quirky. Donald Justice noted that Bell seemed to be “redefining the language,” but it seems now that Bell was still finding his subjects, those concerns that would lend themselves to his unusual gift for syntax and music in combination with a brilliant associativeness and ear for plain speech. Some of the early poems shared the nervous quality of John Berryman’s “jazzy” style, but Bell could never pull off Berryman’s earnest sense of confession and self-defeat. By virtue of his character, Bell seems happier, more optimistic, less iconoclastic.

The early poems turned inward: they commented on themselves, their language and meaning, becoming as Bell says “less and less paraphrasable.” The newer poems look outward in the sense that they look away from the self, although the language can still be reflexive. Borrowing Seamus Heaney’s definition that craft “is what you can learn from other verse,” I’d argue that Bell has long been a good craftsman. What came later was technique—”a definition of one’s stance towards life,” according to Heaney. In one of his essays, Bell argues that it is “style which makes poetry famous, but content which makes it worthwhile.” If Bell is right, then it is primarily since the publication of Stars Which See that readers needed to take Bell seriously as an important voice in American poetry.

Bell’s new book is an elaboration on and extension of many of the themes and strategies of his last book, These Green-Going-to-Yellow. Like many good poets, Bell rediscovers the ordinary and, in the process, transforms or illuminates it within the text of the poem. Like only a few good poets, Bell is able to perform this task without drawing undue attention to the process. Bell’s art makes the process seem artless, the poem extemporaneous and unpremeditated.

Quoting William Stafford in one of his essays, Bell says “art imitates “an appearance of moral commitment.”” How can poetry do that? In Bell’s poems it is usually by having the narrator take a humble stance in the face of experience, especially experiences with the natural world. What first strikes the reader in reading Bell’s work is the persona’s attitude toward his subjects, not the subjects themselves. It is Bell’s voice—low-keyed, sometimes taciturn—that compels us to read his work; it is his commitment to thinking of himself as an average person in an extraordinary world that makes readers want to rediscover with him the small pleasures and happinesses of everyday experience.

In the final lines of the last poem in his last book, Bell writes:

We have no
experience to make us see the gingko
or any other tree,
and, in our admiration for whatever grows tall
and outlives us,
we look away, or look at the middles of things,
which would not be our way
if we truly thought we were gods.
(“These Green-Going-To-Yellow”)

Bell’s point, of course, is that we are not gods (“The gods drink nectar, I drink fruit juice,” he writes in a new poem), and so we must be humble, looking to the “middles,” which also implies looking to the heart of things. Bell argues for a vision that is unobstructed by the ego, a vision that is clear-headed and made simple:

My destiny has been to prune one tree
to make it look more and more common.
Friends, I am still at it.


The purpose of a tree is what I have given it:
to be the sane result of chaos,
to be so completely known it may be overlooked.

Without belaboring the metaphors, without conceit, Bell often holds up nature as a mirror to the self, a self Bell describes as follows: “Who I am is a short person with small feet / and fingers.” Elaborating on the recurring image of trees, he writes: “I saw writers grow huge / in their writings. I get smaller yet, so small that sometimes a tree is more / than I can look up to.” The persona in Bell’s poems is one who is most often out walking or jogging; he lies down, dreams, and often looks out the window. This is a man who lives close to the earth and takes pleasure in that fact.

James Wright is a less obvious influence than Stafford on Bell, but Wright’s work has nevertheless been important to Bell’s evolving poetic maturity. Although generally not drawn to Wright’s sense of guilt or his darker subjects—the poor, the disenfranchised, the pathological—Bell admires Wright’s openness to surprise, sensuous delight, happiness (and pain), and, as he says in one essay, Wright’s “refusal to take credit or to freely condemn others.” Increasingly, Bell’s poems are guiltlessly accepting of joy as in the first two lines from “Trees as Standing for Something”: “More and more it seems I am happy with trees / and the light touch of exhausted morning.” And there’s joy in these last two lines from one of the best poems in the book, “Unless It Was Courage”: “There I was, unable to say what I’d seen. / But I was happy, and my happiness made others happy.”

Some of Bell’s best poems begin in medias res, an approach that may owe something to Wright, giving the poems an inevitable sense of motion. At times, readers must listen awhile; it’s as if we were suddenly aware of another voice speaking in the room, a voice from some distance, telling a story so compelling that we strain to overhear. Other poems directly invite the reader into the conversation, as the title poem does with its lovely opening stanza:

I can tell you about this because I have held in my hand
the little potter’s sponge called an “elephant ear.”
Naturally, it’s only a tiny version of an ear,
but it’s the thing you want to pick up out of the toolbox
when you wander into the deserted ceramics shop
down the street from the cave where the fortune-teller works.
Drawn by stones, by earth, by things that have been in the

Still other poems begin as traditional stories: “One afternoon in my room,” Bell writes, or “Once when the moon was out about three-quarters,” or “In those days, I was pulled as if by an undertow.” Regardless of how the poem begins, Bell does not often tell his stories in strictly linear fashion. The poems wander a bit, retract, wander out again, mirroring the associative logic of good conversation and yet connected, line to line, by Bell’s unique vision and voice.

While Bell has written both poems on friendship and poems on childhood, the new book contains some of his best poems on these themes, including the beautiful “If Jane Were With Me” and two poems on childhood, “In Those Days” and “To Be.” The details in these poems and others are wonderfully observed and lovingly transformed, sometimes with humor:

How did we find our way from the forced beginning of each school day to the final bell? The daily miracle!

Someday, the bills will come due for the things we did to save our souls—hundreds for writing on the walls, for carving our names in the desks, this much for a bad mouth, this much for sleeping in class . . .

(“In Those Days”)

And sometimes with a lyrical and serious meditation, as in this poem about the death of a squirrel:

If in between
the life part and the death part,
there is another part,
a time of near-death,
we have come to know its length and its look
exactly—in this life always near death.
But there’s something else.
Jane was with me.
After the rain, the trees were prettier yet.
And if I were a small animal with a wide tail,
I would trust them too. Especially
if Jane were with me.
(“If Jane Were With Me”)

Segues is a “correspondence in poetry,” initiated by Bell and William Stafford “when we agreed on it during the first Midnight Sun Writers’ Conference, held in June 1979 in Fairbanks, Alaska.” Because of the tremendous energy both poets have for writing, Stafford and Bell seem uniquely suited for such a venture, and Bell says in the foreword that he had even considered the project earlier than 1979: “I had thought before about poems back-and-forth. There’s good luck, not to say advantages, in addressing someone in particular in one’s writing.” The advantages such a project offers may be more fully reflected in the poems in Bell’s Drawn by Stones than in Segues, which is not to say that this correspondence does not make interesting and satisfying reading. It’s just that the poems in Drawn by Stones are more “finished” than those in Segues. Bell says in one of his published interviews that “one has to be able to feel that a project like this (Segues) is not going to deplete the poems one would otherwise write,” which means that the poems in Segues are, as Bell says about teaching, “something else you do.”

In a poem from his collection Someday, Maybe, Stafford writes that “the authentic is a line from one thing / along to the next.” Stafford’s point-of-view, reflected in these lines, is shared by Bell who has defined poetry as “obsessive viewpoints.” Segues is an attempt then, and largely a successful one, to forge an authentic dialogue in writing by exchanging and responding to each other’s themes, lines, and subjects without sacrificing one’s individual perspectives. This improvisatory process may have, in fact, strengthened the authors’ points-of-view as they labored to make their positions clear while simultaneously encouraging a response.

As Stafford and Bell correspond, their similarities as writers become evident to readers. What is more interesting, perhaps, are their differences, differences that are subtle and important. Steven Cramer, who helped edit the early versions of the manuscript, has noted that there may be a kind of aesthetic argument going on beneath the friendly give and take. The first two poems (the first by Stafford, the second by Bell) serve as an overture, suggesting a tone that, except for some interesting deviations in the middle of the book, governs most of the poems. These poems suggest the “strange echo” effect that the writers hoped to achieve in their correspondence. But the first pair of poems also signals differences, counterpoints: while Stafford often generalizes, believing that “everything is telling one big story,” Bell presumes to speak only for himself, writing, “I pinch off / a part of the story I know; / toss it to you.”

The original title of this collection, announced prior to publication, was Hunger For Stories. Still the title of the first poem in the book, that phrase signals one of the book’s primary strengths: the anecdotal approach both writers take (although Bell more often than Stafford) in many of the poems. Yet Segues is a story in the largest sense, reporting ideas and feelings as well as facts about the author’s lives. Some of the poems offer corresponding tales (especially about family life), but the poems are just as likely to correspond about the particular meaning of certain words (“Losers” and “It’s”) or the nature of writing (“At the Writing Conference” and “More Than Words Can Tell”) or, even more self-consciously, the progress of their own correspondence (“Dear Marvin” and “About Our Series”).

Although there may be some arguing in this series, there is never any competition. Both writers keep up their end of the correspondence, and both can be equally provocative or obscure. For his part, Bell writes with grace and intelligence, continuing to define his sense of poetics in relation to the self, working, as he writes in one poem,

To be as much of oneself as possible.
To accept (& complete), rather than revise,
To fill the form (organic, human) when it appears.
(“The Iowa River”)

Although it may be unfair to single out particular poems in a book such as Segues, several of Bell’s contributions stand by themselves, measuring up to his best work, including the large handful of fine poems from Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire. Any future anthologist will want to consider the following poems from Segues: “Reflexes,” “Flyswatter,” “At the Writing Conference,” and a marvelous poem about childhood, “Then.”

Readers unfamiliar with Bell’s recent work might start with any of the last three collections of poetry. For those who know Bell’s poems, Drawn by Stones is an important new collection; both Old Snow Just Melting and Segues make useful companion volumes, offering as they do a close look into the writing processes of one of our most interesting and active writers.


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