Bell, Marvin (Hartley)
Marvin (Hartley) Bell 1937–
American poet, essayist, critic, and editor.
Bell is among America's most prestigious contemporary poets. His career has been marked by steady development and his work as an editor, critic, and professor has significantly influenced contemporary American poetry. Bell's early poems reveal his interest in language. They are noted for experimentation with style and structure, extensive use of complicated syntax, and clever wordplay; the predominant tone, as G. E. Murray notes, is "breezy charm and wit." As Bell's writing matured, his language became more simple and direct. According to critics, this development heightened the emotional impact of his poems and fostered greater integration of their content and form.
A Probable Volume of Dreams (1969), Bell's first important collection, contains poems reprinted from Things We Dreamt We Died For (1966) and other publications. This volume presents his thematic concern with loss and displacement. Bell's relationship with his family, especially his deceased father, and the problems unique to his Russian-Jewish heritage form the basis of much of his poetry. The tone of his later verse suggests a sense of reconciliation and acceptance not found in his early work.
Bell's next two major works, The Escape into You (1971) and Residue of Song (1974), reveal his increasing preference for emotional depth over technical virtuosity. With Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (1977), Bell found what he had sought: "A language that embodies deep feeling and meaningful experience." Bell also discovered a style which enabled him to "write poetry in a way that is accessible to anyone who wants to read it." Of this volume, Bell further stated: "In a very real sense, [this is] my first book." The quiet, graceful tone, the sense of modesty and calm assurance, and the sophisticated maturity of this "first book" have elicited almost unanimous critical approval.
The poem "Trinket" in Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See exemplifies the simplicity and immediacy of emotion which constitute the strengths of this and subsequent volumes. In this poem, the sight of water oozing through a crack in a fern pot acts as a reminder for the speaker that, as David St. John notes, "It is not in grandeur that the self is to be found," but in the domestic particulars of everyday life. In the same volume, "The Self and the Mulberry" begins with the line: "I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry." Since Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See Bell has produced two volumes of poetry—These Green-Going-to-Yellow (1981) and Segues (1983), a "correspondence in poetry" with William Stafford—and a collection of essays, Old Snow Just Melting (1982).
(See also CLC, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)
Robley Wilson, Jr.
Marvin Bell does it [well]—this business of articulating a Jewish heritage—and the opening third of Things We Dreamt We Died For succeeds through sheer feeling in converting the stereotype of the immigrant arrived from Russia into an affective image. The Jewish father becomes the symbol of a past remembered, respected, owed to. "There will always be a Jew in Russia, / to whose grave our very talk / goes back and forth …," says "The Manipulator." "The Coat of Arms" begins: "I am seen in a landscape sometime before / the revolution…. / My name is Botsian, and the Jews are in for it." The lines suggest the differences between generations, and the remainder of the poem cries out for continuity. Such poems make for a strong first book.
Other subject matters undercut the strength. What Bell does that I don't enjoy seeing done is: be clever. And he is clever, and brittle and glib and elliptical and a player-with-language. He has the gift of lyric, but he often obliges that gift to be only rhetoric. Still the good pieces—"What Song the Soldiers Sang," "The Hole in the Sea," "Believable Linden, Pumpkin, Cherry, Etc."—are worth re-reading, and I hope these mark the poet's best direction. (p. 120)
Robley Wilson, Jr., "Five Poets at Hand," in The Carleton Miscellany, Vol. IX, No. 4, Fall, 1968, pp. 117-20.∗
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[From A Probable Volume of Dreams through The Escape into You and Residue of Song]—the three most important books of Marvin Bell which have been published so far—we discover the poet crafting his poems in structures which keep reminding us just how much artifice is involved, and how much wit is needed to keep the poem afloat and the reader at once near and at bay. What proves telling is seeing which poems from Bell's limited edition of Things We Dreamt We Died For … get left out of A Probable Volume of Dreams: the poems tend not merely to be the weaker ones, but the less distanced ones in which there is insufficient strategy to manage where the poet-father must walk, "foot by foot," both on earth and in heaven.
If the most recent poems of Bell, those still uncollected in book form, have begun to indicate changes in both the life and the art, there are lines of continuity as well as lines of departure. Some of Bell's preferences are ingrained and resonant enough for his best poems, whatever the vintage, for us to know that if they shout back and forth at one another there will be response and commerce. (pp. 4-5)
Stanza by stanza, sequence by sequence, and book by book, Bell reminds us that he is intent on exploring the relationships among love, art, and some public, moral realm which demands faces and postures of another kind….
["An Afterword to My Father,"...
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G. E. Murray
The new work of Marvin Bell … reflects the effects of major alteration in voice and thematic course. From the breezy charm and wit of Bell's earliest poems, which frequently assumed a vaudevillian aura, and the open-hearted emotional drive of … The Escape Into You (1971), Bell now achieves a crystallization of sense and style in Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. In short, the good news is that Bell has come to create with authority instead of temperament.
This, however, is not immediately apparent. In fact, the first few poems in this volume smack of mediocrity—almost as if Bell tests us by saying, "if you can survive the bread and water of these early poems, what flaming desserts I have in store for you later." And this is exactly the case. After slumping through several merely competent pages, Bell turns on in "The Mystery of Emily Dickinson," writing: "Sometimes the weather goes on for days / but you were different. You were divine." There is conviction to this strange juxtaposition, a rightness that survives and supports the remainder of the book.
Bell's thin collection combines facets of dream, metamorphosis, and work-a-day observation to create something that at first appears to be a separate reality from the one in which we live, but on closer inspection evolves with disquieting affinities to conventional life…. [The book's distinctive title piece maneuvers in such a way, drifting]...
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David St. John
Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, Marvin Bell's fourth volume, is a disarming book, deceptive in its simplicity and altogether seductive in its beauty. If others have made much of the verbal intelligence and knotty wit in Bell's work, and rightly so, what has most often been ignored is the extreme delicacy of the voice in his most lyric poems. Though Bell's playful, metaphysical intelligence is always pleasing, it is when this intelligence grows most fluid and intimate that the poems most completely succeed. It is this same delicacy, for example, which informs the much anthologized poem "Treetops" from Bell's first book, A Probable Volume of Dreams. It is the immediacy of this voice and the implicit pleas which draw us to a poem such as "We Have Known" from The Escape Into You, his second book…. (p. 314)
That same sense of being, as readers, invited into the landscape of a privacy overheard continues throughout Bell's third book, Residue of Song. The fluid self-dialogue of the title poem … as well as the intimate address of the sequence "You Would Know" (for his dead father) both serve to join us with the experiences Bell seizes. (p. 315)
For some time now, it has seemed as if Bell has wanted to abandon the complications of syntax which have sometimes marked other of his poems, even though they were nearly always genial complications. He has sought a plainer speech, as...
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For [Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See], Marvin Bell has developed a style that steps among silence in plain shoes, making as little noise as possible. Without becoming flat, the language is held down to simplicity and quietness as if truth itself were a mild thing—Dame Patience, perhaps, or Dame Peace. Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, though comprised of not-quite-satisfactory poems, pleases all through by its sociable small music as of wind chimes on Mid-Western porches. The style has a subdued, sweet, and confiding volubility…. You cannot help liking poetry that so obviously welcomes you, that is so gentle in itself besides. A remarkable air of sincerity, a gift of humble appreciation, a certain validating awkwardness in the diction and line-breaks, as of one who is more moved than calculating—these are enough to transform the basic style of contemporary poetry into something (as the jacket says) "unique in tone."
Bell has finally trusted himself to be direct. His earlier work twists about uncomfortably, wanting plainness yet resisting it. The poems seem both concentrated and distracted. The perfection of for instance the close of "Letting in Cold" from Residue of Song, his preceding volume, "No one approaches the father's thoughts / where he stands, at the back door, letting in cold" (to feel the chill of this, one scarcely needs to know that the father is dead), was too rare to make Bell...
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David St. John
What strikes one immediately about Marvin Bell's wonderful new book, These Green-Going-to-Yellow … is the sense of quiet that pervades them and the deceptive understatement of nearly every poem. Even more than Bell's previous book, Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, his new collection offers poems that express their fluent and steady peace with the world.
Although many of the poems in These Green-Going-to-Yellow are set in distant locales—Hawaii, Tangier, Alaska, Cuba, Italy, Spain, France—they seek not to appropriate the exotica of their surroundings but to recognize the dailiness and immediacy, yet intrinsic otherness, of their settings. (p. 227)
Throughout this volume, Bell has chosen a more straightforward and unadorned diction, a diction capable of becoming alternately reflective and immediate. Yet there is still the verbal play and sly wit, the marvelous turns and reversals familiar to readers of Bell's earlier books. Because the poems in These Green-Going-to-Yellow are more consistently, more unashamedly narrative than in the past, Marvin Bell's aphoristic gifts have never seemed more successful; interwoven in the narrative fabric of the poems, these moments seem so inevitable and yet so surprising. Bell is constantly able to bring the reader up short with a sudden shift in tone; he has become masterful at quite invisibly shifting the grounds of argument...
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As its title—These Green-Going-to-Yellow—indicates, Marvin Bell's new book is concerned with aging, decay, mutability, mortality. Its central metaphor, tenuously and enticingly attached to the speaker of the poems, is illness…. The sense of illness is not limited to the speaker, nor to humanity in general, but permeates the natural world as well….
[The] poems tend to be relatively long, meditative, accumulative, even discursive. When the method works well, as it does on four or five notable occasions, the results are outstanding. Perhaps the best poem in the book is "Birds Who Nest in the Garage."… (p. 677)
The construction of this poem is obviously loose; some would call it rambling. The line between success and failure in such structures is a fine one. In "Birds Who Nest in the Garage," success is achieved by the use of not just one but two technical elements that appear consistently from the beginning of the poem to its end: one is the speaking voice, and the other is the image that carries the theme, the bird droppings. In similarly structured poems which fail (and every poem in the book is written in this form), there is only one element used consistently from beginning to end—the speaking voice. What results is a kind of self-indulgence—the reader is asked to attend to a series of unrefined images that matter to the speaker but do not seem to matter much to the poem…. These...
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The Marvin Bell method of writing a poem consists of producing a terrific first line and then refining all possible sequiturs into a whole, if somewhat mysterious, poem. This technique produces some fine poetry, but does not seem to apply to the composition of essays, which require not only topic sentences but also logical development and conclusive endings. Besides some undistinguished essays and interviews, the pith of [Old Snow Just Melting] is a series of 11 columns commissioned by the American Poetry Review in which Bell gets wildly excited and tells us everything he knows, practically in one single breath per column, about everything there is to know about poetry…. [Bell is] so full of genuine intelligence that it's a pity these random associations couldn't have been ordered into a form accessible to all readers.
A review of "Old Snow Just Melting," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 222, No. 22, November 26, 1982, p. 56.
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Marvin Bell does love poetry. He loves the very idea of it. And in Old Snow Just Melting, his new collection of essays and interviews, he loves writing and talking about poetry and does so with a joy and an obvious commitment that are contagious….
Old Snow Just Melting … brings together twenty-one essays with such titles as "I Was a Boston (Marathon) Bandit (On Assignment)" and "Learning from Translations" and four interviews including "The University Is Something Else You Do" and "Self Is a Very Iffy Word for Me." All were, he points out, done on assignment, including eleven essays written from 1974 to 1978 for The American Poetry Review, published here under the title "Homage to the Runner." Even the titles indicate the range of subjects in these pieces, from teaching to Hugo to pain, and the range of attitudes, playfulness-going-to-seriousness (as he might say). (p. 332)
I do think you will be disappointed if you expect, in Old Snow Just Melting, a book of criticism. And you will be disappointed if you expect a fully drawn, straightforward statement of poetics; this is more a poetics-in-the-making. If you can give Bell a little room, though, as you do that old friend who takes so long to tell a "simple" story, the one who winds around and forgets and gestures wildly and maybe even invents a little, you will be doubly rewarded. After all, when your friend finally finishes his story,...
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"Segues" is written by William Stafford and Marvin Bell, two of America's most respected poets. Theirs is an ambitious experiment, and while the quality of the poetry is uneven, their book is a refreshingly novel event on the literary scene….
[The poetry of "Segues" began when Stafford and Bell] decided to collaborate on a writing project to strengthen their friendship and explore the ways a poem comes into being. Stafford began the chain of "verse letters," and each successive poem grew out of the subject, tone, or language of the previous one. A long-distance version of the ancient Japanese renga (linked verse), their correspondence was a form of mutual inspiration, making a poetic duet from what is usually a private solo performance. The title "Segues" is a term for the transitions inside a piece of music that allow one theme to grow into another.
Certainly more is required of a book than the novelty of the poems' call-and-answer progression to make any lasting impression on the reader. Of the 44 poems in the collection, only a handful are strong enough to stand on their own merits. Stylistically, this work is a marked contrast to many of the popular trends in poetry; they have none of the oblique, hard-edged lines, vaguely surreal visions, or self-conscious absorption in the surface qualities of verse. The writing possesses some of the intimacy of letters and the give-and-take of good conversation—two...
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