Marvin Bell Bell, Marvin (Hartley) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Arthur Oberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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," the opening poem in A Probable Volume of Dreams,] announces a motif of fathers and sons which will run through all of Bell's work….

Although Bell is never narrowly confessional, it is important to note just how much the death of the father—his profound absence and presence—helps shape Bell's poetry and create possible worlds. The father: Bell's own dead father, and his growing sense of himself as a father who has sons and who, like him, will someday die.

The titles of The Escape into You and Residue of Song present ambiguities of time and person, loss and rescue, treasure and waste which look back toward A Probable Volume of Dreams. Bell suggests that as he moves amid father and son, woman and woman, poem as speech and poem as song, he often will be unsure whether there is anything left, whether home has been reached, whether homecoming is desirable or possible. Each of these three books is divided into sections which tell how unlinear life and art are, how "progress" is a deception of the nineteenth century, how increasingly distant the finishing line for the poet-runner proves to be. The choice is in knowing there is no choice, and in acting as if there were choices all along….

If the death of the father sets into motion A Probable Volume of Dreams as a book of homage and love, it soon becomes obvious that Bell has more than his father under his heart, or on his mind…. The father never disappears in Bell's work, but he is part of a landscape of sons and wife and friends. The dream house which the poems and the poet build toward seeks love as its foundation and song, a place where "all things are possible." The wish proves easier in the making than in the keeping. Repeatedly, poems in this volume break or give the impression of breaking into fragments. Lines are drawn across the page, and across the face. The promised dream proves not to include us, or to offer a home which it is useless to be in. Joy cannot be contained less because it runs over than because it is the nature of joy to go wounded….

It would be easy to extract from A Probable Volume of Dreams those poems that push toward the status and shine of anthology pieces: "An Afterword to My Father," "Treetops," "Let's Go, Daddy," "The Perfection of Dentistry," "The Address to the Parents," "Toward Certain Divorce." We could argue about the grouping, but that would be only to be transfixed by the integrity of whole, contained poems and thereby to forget how radically experimental and brilliant the book itself is. The feel or experience of the book is closer to that of going under or around some of the poems … in order to determine the network of feelings which at every turn or junction come into view….

In doing a review of A Probable Volume of Dreams, I noted about the song which Bell learns to sing that it "is never an easy one, but paradoxical, and when necessary, unengaging." That unengaging sense remains for me central to this book and to all of Bell's later work. It is part of a core of meaning which is variously relentless, tough, and irresistible….

By the conclusion of A Probable Volume of Dreams the poet suggests that his chances of taking his father down from the pedestal or wall are greater, and that his own chances of "entering the wall" are better than they had been at the ambiguous conclusion of "An Afterword to My Father." Barrier, after all, need not be barrier; and cloud need not be hindrance but protection, halo, and sign.

What Bell discovers in this book is how much looking and looking up he must do, and how "giving in" is not so much weak surrender as it is some strong, gracious embracing of his own life and of the lives of those close to him. (p. 5)

In The Escape into You and in Residue of Song the poet's two sons Nathan and Jason and his wife Dorothy figure as increasingly telling presences whose possible absence or loss the poet seeks to prevent….

From the poems in A Probable Volume of Dreams through those in Residue of Song we see not only how related volumes of dreams, love poems, and songs are, but how easily each book could turn into some book of the dead unless the poet is careful to see where and exactly what his kinships are. In The Escape into You we soon discover how ambiguous the title is, and how difficult again Bell's poems have a habit of being….

[The] poems in The Escape into You function as a sequence which will record a crisis, or many smaller crises, within a marriage and within a poetic self that is still learning to bury the dead and to walk among the living, loving persons who can and must sustain his life beyond the reaches of even the tallest, fullest art.

The Escape into You is not so much...

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G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David St. John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David St. John

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

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Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Baker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven Ratiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 545 words.)