Marvin Bell Essay - Bell, Marvin

Bell, Marvin

Bell, Marvin 1937–

An American poet and editor, Bell divides his time among writing, teaching, and editing. He has edited The North American Review and has been coeditor of Midland II. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

[Bell] often deploys barrages of surrealistic humor, somewhat in the manner of Mark Strand or James Tate….

[Any] use of humor in an essentially serious poem requires a kind of intelligence which is rare among poets, though poets often praise it: … Bell not only [sees himself and his] surroundings clearly but [renders] them without overinflation. [He has] the ability to make sense, rather than gratuitous use, of more or less subjective imagery….

Bell's range—the variety of themes, tones and line lengths which he has mastered—is quite wide. The inclusion of the sixteen earlier poems [in A Probable Volume of Dreams] shows how far Bell has extended his range since they first appeared. His voice is sometimes evasive, often idiosyncratic, so that the reader is simultaneously engaged and kept, for a time, at a distance. This effect is sometimes achieved by means of a device which Strand and Tate also use; I mean the use of an addressed "you" who is more like a translated "I". (p. 122)

The style of those poems is lean, with short lines and sentences which carry an economy of emotion which would constrict if it were not for Bell's control over the placement of ironies….

The conscientious wit which keeps the earlier poems from going flat has also directed the development of Bell's style toward the more discursive poems which are collected for the first time in this book. The economy remains, but the range of emotion and the depth of exploration are increased; the resulting poems are characterized by longer lines and a more inclusive vision. Even the surrealistic humor has been extended to include such verbal exuberance as [a poem] … spoken by a poet who is "locked in/the English Department"….

Bell's poems move out from a great variety of departure points; in this limited space, I cannot give a fair indication of his versatility. He is concerned with war, love and the kinds of mental life in which a poet and teacher is caught up. He approaches these subjects as a man remembering, thinking and believing. If his music is low key, it is almost always appropriate to his themes.

"Toward Certain Divorce," which is among the best poems in the volume, is a narrative meditation spoken by a visitor in the home of a man and a woman who are planning to separate. The last few lines are typical of the later, more discursive style; they show that a poet, if he is strong enough, can handle the problem of sentimentality, not by avoiding it but by facing it squarely and earning his use of it. (p. 123)

Henry Taylor, in The Nation (copyright 1970 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), February 2, 1970.

What is immediately impressive about A Probable Volume of Dreams—the title is taken from one of the poems, 'Treetops', and the word 'dream' occurs frequently—is its variety and versatility. The quality of the poetry is uneven, but the range of subject-matter, emotion and tone is extraordinary. Bell writes about things personal and public, about love, marriage, divorce, children, politics, war, Jews, America, about dreams and nightmares and realities. His technical range is just as extensive. He varies from the simplicity and directness of poems like 'The Affair' to the complexity and allusiveness of poems like 'Poverty in Athens, Ohio'. He can write compact, intense imagistic poems like 'My Hate', which is based on a single conceit. He can also write more relaxed and open-textured, though no less powerful, poems like 'The Perfection of Dentistry', arguably the best poem in the book. Occasionally he even employs a quasi-allegorical idiom, as in 'Wanting to Help' and 'Time We Took to Travel'. He can be elegaic, as in the moving but unsentimental 'An Afterword to my Father'; wryly comic, as in 'A Poor Jew'; and hilariously funny, as in 'The Delicate Bird who is Flying up our Asses'. At times he is serious to the point of sombreness, as in one of his best poems, 'The Extermination of the Jews'; but he can also be almost gaily lighthearted, as in 'The Danger at Funny Junction'—almost, because Bell's pervasive humour usually has dark, even sinister, undertones. The surface lightness and verbal playfulness of some poems is deceptive. A smile can mask an anguished grimace; a joke, a cri de coeur. In 'World War III', for example, Bell puns on 'the American right wing'—the context is of military aircraft—and ends in an almost offhand way with grim, low-key humour:

        You decide against shelter.
        Instead, you stand on your porch.
        In the sun,
        that old fireball,
        you stand on your porch with your family.
        You tell them not to worry.
        It's a nice day, you say,
        such warmth on your skin.

This ironic understatement, almost comically euphemistic, is far more effective in articulating the horror felt at the prospect of nuclear warfare than the ponderous banalities usually found in treatments of this well-worn theme.

It is therefore clear that Bell's poetry exhibits the inclusiveness, the determination to confront and encompass the totality of human experience, that has characterized much of the best American poetry since Whitman and that helps to explain why so many American poets of this century, especially major ones, have attempted large-scale, even epic, structures…. Indeed Bell is distinctively American in other ways, particularly in his handling of words and rhythms. Donald Justice's claim that Bell has been 'redefining the language, not the words only, but the very grammar of it' may be an exaggeration; but for a non-American, reading Bell is like reading a foreign language you think you know but suddenly find you do not know all that well after all, especially when it comes to nuances and connotations.

Bell's poetry undoubtedly has its roots in American speech, and the speaking voice can be heard very clearly at times…. Yet if his poetry is colloquial, it never descends to chattiness, the great danger with Bell's kind of poetry and one of the prevailing vices of contemporary poetry. On the contrary, Bell's writing can modulate from the colloquial to the eloquent, even to the rhetorical, without any sense of strain, as it does at the end of 'The Students':

        And it is almost enough, and it is almost a
        just to do what's next, up the stairs,
        into the picture, into your marriage, into the
        writhing into the goals, O pleasure!

This degree of discipline, entirely appropriate in this case to prevent hysteria or mawkishness, is unusual in Bell, but he is too good a poet to try to do without control, even though he is capable of a freewheeling, 'stream of consciousness' style…. Bell steers an individual course between formalism and formlessness, and avoids both academicism and the self-indulgent meandering that has been an unfortunate though necessary part of the revolt against academicism in America during the last fifteen years.

Bell's poetry is not a poetry of statement or of ideology but of exploration. He maps out emotional territory. He is a geographer of the psyche. In 'The Perfection of Dentistry' he writes, 'we have words for the cabinets of our emotions', and in his poetry Bell is intent on unlocking those cabinets. Many of his poems are voyages of discovery, attempts to articulate something felt or experienced but not fully understood, it would seem, until the writing of the poem. His work is, in Eliot's words, 'a raid on the inarticulate', but his equipment is neither shabby nor deteriorating. He gropes towards the truth, towards a definition of reality, and this tentativeness is sometimes enacted in the writing…. (pp. 35-7)

A poem by Bell is therefore very difficult to paraphrase. As Archibald MacLeish might say, a Bell poem is. He seldom sets out to express a point of view, to expound an idea, or to preach. There are few certainties in his work, and traces of polemicism are rare, even in his poems about war and politics, but on occasion he can be blunt, as in 'What Songs the Soldiers Sang':

        The songs, too, about their singing, are lies.
        The truth is that some songs were obscene
        and that there were no words for others.

Satire is by no means excluded from Bell's work, but he is essentially an ironist, not a satirist. 'The Perfection of Dentistry', in which he investigates the impact on a North American sensibility of the alien way of life and values of Mexico, could easily have become satirical, but Bell achieves a richer and deeper effect by recording the human contradictions and complex ironies of the situation without attempting to pass judgment, 'without any irritable reaching after fact and reason', to quote Keats on Negative Capability.

An important feature of Bell's poetry is fantasy, a genuinely surreal fantasy that never degenerates into whimsy even though it is frequently linked with comedy. Because his work resists labels and pigeonholing, Bell cannot be described as a surrealist or an expressionist, but such descriptions are at least partly valid. Since the real world of the twentieth century that Bell confronts is so bizarre and irrational as to be almost a fantasy world or bad dream, fantasy is often superior to 'realism' as a way of illuminating reality and approaching the truth. Kafka and Beckett are much better 'realists' than Arnold Bennett and John Osborne. Bell's handling of fantasy is extremely varied and flexible. In some poems, such as 'The Delicate Bird who is Flying up our Asses' and 'The Hole in the Sea', he sustains the fantasy throughout. In others he counterpoints fantasy against reality, often with comic and ironic results, as in 'On Returning to Teach'. In 'The Israeli Navy' fantasy approximates to comic extravaganza, whereas in 'The War Piece' he employs a bird and insect fantasy to convey a horrific vision of nuclear war. (p. 37)

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of Bell's poetry is his fondness for puns and word-play. One poem, for example, is called 'Verses versus Verses'. Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with his verbal ingenuity. It depends on how he uses it, and it can be effective, as 'black, widow cloud' is, with its marvellously appropriate pun on the deadly black-widow spider….

But in 'The Affair', a serious poem about New England Puritanism faced with the demon of sex, 'the seeds of awful pleasures', with the ambiguity of 'awful', the implied pun on 'lawful pleasures', and 'seeds' used both literally (semen) and metaphorically, sticks out like an ill-timed erection or an unwanted pregnancy. There is a similar incongruity later in the poem—'making the fair game tremble', with its complex play on 'fair sex', 'game bird' and 'fair game'. Other poems exhibit the same tendency. 'A Picture of Soldiers', an otherwise rather good poem about the First World War, is marred by puns on 'rank', 'batteries' and 'arms'. (p. 38)

For all the diversity of A Probable Volume of Dreams, an individual and immediately recognizable voice can be heard throughout. Some poems may recall the work of other poets—'Her Dream House' is reminiscent of Berryman's 'Desires of Men and Women' in some ways—but there is no evidence of pastiche. Influences have been digested and absorbed. Much of what has been said about A Probable Volume of Dreams is also true of The Escape into You, although this sequence represents an advance on the earlier book in certain respects. There is a greater intensity and urgency in much of the writing, a swirling linguistic energy that initially takes one's critical breath away. The poetic textures are frequently richer and the imagery denser…. Many of the poems give the impression of having been written under considerable emotional pressure, sometimes approaching the fever-pitch of Sylvia Plath's last poems, as in 'On Utilitarianism':

       We turn rubber into trees, flowers,
       make a cow of loose leather, a sow's ear
       of a ruined purse, we change wine to blood,
       bread into flesh, as if there were no tomorrow
       we change men into women, alter the course
       of the stars, we try to beat the odds.

The note of desperation here is partly produced by the absence of heavy punctuation and by the way in which the lines strain against the stanza form as if they were attempting to break through its rigidity. Even the syntax is compressed—'as if there were no tomorrow' can refer to both the previous and the following words. At times Bell's desire for concentration results in an extremely terse, clipped idiom, as in the verbal staccato of 'The Embrace':

                     Clip the tender parts
             together, they said. Joined. Holy
             because married.

On other occasions the poetry flows more smoothly, but the emotional and referential shifts are so rapid that Bell is using a kind of poetic shorthand or telegrammese…. (pp. 38-9)

Furthermore a number of poems, such as 'A Biography', 'You, Heavenly' and 'The Drifting', begin abruptly and dramatically. Bell frequently plunges into an experience heart-first and with nerves exposed, dragging his half-comprehending reader with him.

Among the fruits of this highly-charged style are epigrammatic phrases that linger in the memory, such as the final, paradoxical line of 'American Poets'—'We multiplied, but we didn't reproduce'…. (p. 39)

Bell also succeeds brilliantly in revivifying some of the most conventional metaphors of love poetry, such as the likening of the lover to a ship in a storm ('Rescue, Rescue') and the comparison of the growth of love to that of a tree ('Song: The Organic Years'). But if there are gains, there are also losses, and the losses are inseparable from the gains. In general the poems in The Escape into You are much more personal than those in A Probable Volume of Dreams, and much more difficult—difficult to the point of obscurity in several cases. In A Probable Volume of Dreams Bell seems more distanced from what he is writing about, so that even in the more personal poems he is capable of viewing himself with a considerable degree of objectivity. In 'The Perfection of Dentistry', for example, he achieves a delicate balance between involvement and detachment, and the emotional honesty of the poem depends to a large extent on the delicacy of this balance. In The Escape into You this balance is upset in favour of the personal. The increase in poetic vitality is offset by the decrease in comprehensibility. Sometimes the imagery and associations remain intractably private. What, for example, do the final lines of 'Virtuoso of the X' mean, and what precisely is the significance of the allusion to the genocide of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps? (pp. 39-40)

[Bell] does make very considerable, at times excessive, demands on his readers. His poetry may communicate be-fore it is understood, but he fails in a number of poems to objectify a personal experience sufficiently to make it meaningful to his readers.

Some of the difficulties are inherent in the nature of the sequence, a sequence without narrative or logical continuity, 'a diary without dates, fragments of a story without any names, part of a life' as Donald Justice describes it. In a way the sequence is 'The Pornographic but Serious History' of Marvin Bell, a non-stop emotional and spiritual striptease. The sequence is divided into six sections, and certain groups of poems concentrate on one main theme—a love affair, a marital crisis, Jews—but the links between poems are often omitted. The obvious comparison is with John Berryman's much longer sequence, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, especially as Bell uses what may be called Berryman form, a poem of three six-lined stanzas, in all but two cases ('The Children' and 'The Willing'), and these involve only minor variations. It is only through this self-imposed discipline that Bell achieves as much objectivity as he does and is able to shape his personal experience into poetry without becoming incoherent. Nevertheless Bell is not imitating Berryman. It would be more accurate to say that he is taking on Berryman on Berryman's own terms. Like Berryman, Bell is aiming at a large-scale but loosely constructed poem that is inclusive and flexible enough to contain a complex American consciousness (Jewish-American in Bell's case) in all its moods. The sequence encompasses tragedy and comedy, anguish and laughter, the holocaust of the Jews and bawdy love poems. In other words The Escape into You is tremendously ambitious. It is therefore not surprising that its success if only partial. But what is certain is that Bell possesses a powerful, original and mature poetic voice. Donald Justice has said that 'if there were a Jewish school of poets, as of novelists, Marvin Bell could be the whole school himself'. As yet Bell is not of the stature of Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud; but if he continues to develop he could be, and might then become an important influence on American poetry in the coming decades. (p. 40)

Peter Elfed Lewis, "The Poetry of Marvin Bell," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 13, No. 4 (1972), p. 34-40.

What can be said about a poet who complains like David Ignatow, sings like John Berryman, and sees like Theodore Roethke? That Marvin Bell has talent and is one of our most important poets. At their best, Bell's new poems snap with the wit and depth of Yiddish proverbs. "Residue of Song," Bell's third book of poems, is a kind of personal history. Like the history of the Jewish religion, the figures of father and son dominate…. "Residue of Song" is a book about origins, the poet telling us that "The proper study of man is where he came from!" Despite the logic and wit of the poet's complicated personal grammar, the finest poems move quickly, dropping the rationally conceived verbal pretensions for a greater associative content—poems such as "The Present," "To the Sky," "Song of the Immediacy of Death," and the graceful concluding poem, "The Hurt Trees." If there is a weakness to Bell's new book, it is his tendency to give in to an excess of word play, particularly in the third and fourth sections. Nevertheless, Marvin Bell's new book, by way of the poet's own imperfect personality, successfully woos the reader. (p. lvi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 2 (Spring, 1975).

To the ten poems from his giddy pamphlet Woo Havoc, first published in 1971, the same year as his "sequence" The Escape into You, Marvin Bell has added, to make up this book, a vaudeville of his undertakings and achievements thereafter and given it a peculiarly apt title [Residue of Song]. In law, a residue is that part of an estate remaining after the satisfaction of all debts and previous devices. Now I should not care to say that Bell had satisfied all previous devices, for there were so many of them to be satisfied, but I think he has given enough satisfaction to have a considerable estate on his hands, or within his reach.

It is no accident, to coin a phrase, that the poems from the pamphlet are dedicated to the poet's sons and that so many of the poems subsequent—particularly a series of thirteen called "You Would Know"—are devoted to the poet's father: this chain-of-generations is what has always bound Bell closest to his gift, the links in the family romance he finds so indissoluble, from the first poem in the book:

      The universe, remember, is a ribbon
      where we follow back to the beginning
      and so meet that one of whom you were thinking
      when you mistook being here for being there

to the penultimate & Son, in which Bell accommodates himself to the fact "that one is where one doesn't want to be"—that is, one is either with "the dead, where we live", or preparing oneself to become a monster daddy to the future. This tremendous sequentiality of Bell's admits of very few gaps, lacunae, let-ups: when they occur, the world appears to stop, everything falls apart. And that is the moment one writes poems, of course—one writes poems to keep things together, to get the world going again: "my way of trying propriety", as Bell says.

Admirable, the way this poet's wit is won over to his task as witness; as he ransacks the world for evidence ("Suddenly, we were responsible for discourse, whereas,/years earlier, we had been held only by the moon."), even the change of seasons is no more or no less than an inflection of the generations, a page from the great Oedipal chronicle which abides, the one thing we can count on: "Leaf-taking has turned to winter." There is a guarantee—in the goofiest, the most guarded of these poems, as in the most pietistic ones—that anything noticed, anything thought of or recurred to will be brought into the tradition, the handing-down, even when it appears to be no more than a betrayal:

  But to go from here to there, swervingly,
  to miss the edges, is hard but what you have to do,
  though it's not yet on your minds to send back word.

To send back word. One hadn't realized one was far enough ahead to send word back, and suddenly, there is that dead father, there is all this consequent life around one, here are these sons:

        And the maniac's me. The manic's panic's
        mine. It's been that or a headstone.

This last quotation reveals, I think, the reach of Bell's desperation, as of his delight in a sort of hand-to-microphone diction, the variety-show of talking which will keep things in hand, as I have said, until we reach the hospital or heaven or maybe just the next hideout, the escape into you…. [There] are "conventional" success like From a Distance, a poem which strikes me as Bell's most beautiful achievement, his most finely realized inheritance of man's estate. But that's not what he's after, that's not what he takes after, as we might say of the heir, the convulsive infant coming into his own. Whatever concessions have been—gratifyingly—made to my sense of decorum, they do not signify here so much as what is not conceded; Bell is in search of those psychosomatic dangers not yet registered by poetry, even by his own; and the search does him honor, if there's little comfort, and a great deal of menace, in it:

        Did I forget what's closest to my heart?
        Ache, peril, fissure, clot and blast.
                                      (pp. 346-47)

Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1975.