Marvin Bell

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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.

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Marvin Bell does it [well]—this business of articulating a Jewish heritage—and the opening third of Things We Dreamt WeDied 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

(This entire section contains 222 words.)

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Other subject matters undercut the strength. What Bell does that I don't enjoy seeing done is: be clever. And heis 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

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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," 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 the detail-by-detail story of a faltering marriage and a divided poet that come together and hold together when more lasting relationships are worked out as it is the story of the slow, painful coming to awareness of a man who sees what was already there: a wife and sons who keep and have their own separateness even as they love, and a man whose better self needed only a keener looking glass to help make him up and out. What are rescue and escape, grace and craft, warning and dare: these prove leitmotifs in a drama which understands there is no single answer, but answers true for the moment or context which demanded them. For even the people are changing and changeable, not out of weakness but out of the needs and the wants which drive them on. Sons, wife, and husband join in a dance which keeps stopping so that we can see who are the partners, who is calling, and what is the dance. Only to have it all start again.

Just as William Stafford understands the "millions of intricate moves" needed to create "justice," Bell enacts in his poems the endless strategies for locating and establishing love. Love is not easy or cheap in Bell's world. As a result, we find Bell perpetually acknowledging that what the doctor ordered is not what the poet may choose to do, that all that he can do is to say he is having trouble saying how much he loves….

No matter how I address the fact, The Escape into You is a painful, exhausting book to read. As metaphysical amorist, Bell leads us to the repeated situation where dressing up is dressing down. The passages are "murky," and the feelings frequently unpleasant and ugly and small. But what saves the book and makes the book an important one is Bell's ability to reveal a radical innocence behind the witty sophistication, and a radical intelligence behind the mock stances of ignorance and foolishness. The wise fool kills off the foolish fool, and long enough before the floating drama-epic-lyric-elegy decides to close down. Only again to tell us we do not have to, and have to, go on. This is the magnanimous act and fact of the book. And it is quintessential Bell….

Poem by poem, The Escape into You moves to the turning of "So help me" as colloquialism into a moving, acceptable prayer for help and love. If poetry is "scratching," it also becomes for Bell a means toward finding an instrument and vehicle for his sad, long song. In The Escape into You the dead father comes to seem more at rest, and childhood and children and wives sink in more profoundly than they had done before. (p. 6)

With the publication of Bell's next book Residue of Song the poet suggests that he has come to some vantage point of both rest and distance. As I read the book, it is a coda to the earlier work. Of all of Bell's volumes published so far, I find it the strongest; and it contains the two poems I return to most in all the books—the title poem "Residue of Song" and the last poem in the volume "The Hurt Trees."

If compressed, intricate lyrics are always instructions for performance, Residue of Song involves a score which must be played soft, softly….

What the poet comes to with new and renewed eyes is the fact of the dead, wounded father and of his own marriage which has not only survived but deepened since he left off with versing it in The Escape into You. For this task Bell knows he needs "a pure mid-country poetry" which is English but which may not sound like English at all: a redeeming language wrung out of Iowa and a lightly hidden Long Island, and unlike the speech that any other American poet has used before.

In the title poem "Residue of Song," in "The Hurt Trees," and in such poems as the thirteen poems for the father (the You Would Know sequence), Bell is able to move beyond what had sometimes been for him a dangerous, debilitating wit to a poised, tough wisdom. These poems possess fuller closure and greater ease without forcing the poet to mark down items for less than they cost…. [They] achieve that same suspended time sense which enables the poet and the reader to admit loss and grief and to lessen them….

Residue of Song takes more than one look back, and more than one look at what the poet tried to accomplish in The Escape into You…. The Escape into You had attempted to walk the poet home; Residue of Song continues that long walk…. The Escape into You very well might have been subtitled "On Loneliness." And Residue of Song aspires in its movement through five sections—Study of the Letter A, You Would Know, Being in Love, Holding Together, and Song of the Immediacy of Death—to the feel and the experience of one more long poem in which loneliness and loss again prove central, undeniable facts….

If the unexamined life and the eternally examined life are equally unbearable, Bell moves in Residue of Song toward a perspectivism which avoids the sentimental and the nostalgic yet does not deny or profane or imitate happiness as it existed, or now exists, between father and son, father and sons, husband and wife. Bell's poems become his own sacred wood in which he refuses to romanticize hard times or hard knocks. Just as the poet goes to history and pre-history for origins and beginnings, so he now looks up to find his own planets and stars. False heroism, false idealism, and false Romanticism are rejected as the poet learns to trust what is close and familiar; the self is able to hold together because it learns to be with father and sons and wife, to be together with them.

Residue of Song shows the poet seeing what love with death should have to do. The dead and the living teach the poet that in time nothing is alien or foreign to him. He finds less of a need to hoard in(to) his poems as much as he once did. A sparer lyric emerges as he is able to say his love for his wife again, and on familiar, local ground. The scene and the air are distinctively American…. As lives open and close around him, as the parachute collapses in slow motion. Bell knows that only the close and the familiar and the American can restore the hurt, bleeding trees….

What I see as the defining achievement of Residue of Song is a slow distancing of the poet from associations and attractions which prove at odds with an evolving sense of what he wants his own poetry ultimately to be. On the one hand, the sad loneliness which always threatens to undo him—and which I connect with his Jewishness (and with the writing of Bellow, Salinger, and Roth) as much as with a larger American poetry of sadness produced by contemporary poets as different as Lowell, Berryman, Hugo, Ashbery, and James Wright—I find less in evidence here. On the other hand, a preference shared by such poets as Justice and Strand for absence and cancellation seems to be shifting in Bell toward an insistence upon what is close at hand as closest to the heart….

Recent poems of Bell uncollected in book form continue to move toward a simplicity which is no easy simplicity at all…. [There] is a new ease and tone … which seem part of some hard won awareness of just how close artlessness and ultimate artifice in fact are. (p. 7)

The latest work of Bell shows a predilection, still, for using a poetry of wit in order to address concerns of morality and aesthetics. But what is changed is Bell's ability to join that kind of poem to a poem that is more lyrical, sometimes more lyrically elegiac than he had wished or managed to be before…. (pp. 7-8)

The poetic strategies are still elaborate, even when the poet seems to walk most lightly or softly. But "license" now seems in the service of greater good: the "exclusive calculations," "sensational airwaves" and "interchangeable frequencies" of some of the past work have settled into Bell's celebration of the fact that the self has held together, that the wife and sons have not been lost in order to allow the poet to satisfy some false, wilful Romanticism in his own time.

Nor is sadness, or Bell's corner on sadness, gone. But he has begun to see sadness more in terms of joy. If happiness is an unfashionable contemporary American poetics, Bell is unafraid to start writing a new lyric which tells us we had better ascertain "who is doing the crying," and just how happy we are. (p. 8)

Arthur Oberg, "Marvin Bell: 'Time's Determinant./Once, I Knew You.'" in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, May-June, 1976, pp. 4-8.

G. E. Murray

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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] perilously close to prose, but Bell manipulates risk to his advantage, in the end exciting with a rare delicacy of phrasing and shrewd control over the poem's fate. (pp. 969-70)

[Mainly] I am impressed by this poet's increasing ability to perceive and praise small wonders. There is life and health in this book, and if sometimes Bell's expression is quiet and reserved, his talent is not. Altogether, Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See demonstrates an important transitional phase for the poet—a subdued, graceful vein that enables him to "speak of eyes and seasons" with an intimacy and surehandedness that informs and gratifies…. I believe Marvin Bell is on a track of the future—a mature, accessible and personalized venture into the mainstream of contemporary American verse, one beyond adolescent caterwauling and psychological minutiae, one at once devoted to craft and substance, vitality and permanence of tone. (pp. 970-71)

G. E. Murray, in a review of "Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1977, pp. 969-71.

David St. John

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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 American and colloquial as Williams'. Since Gary Snyder's haybucker in "Hay For The Horses" many poets have tried to appropriate into their poems a gritty, tough-talking American character, and to thereby earn for themselves some similar authority or "authenticity." But in Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, Bell has found within his own voice that American voice, and with it the ability to write convincingly about the smallest details of a personal history. He has found the maturity to meet with an enviable generosity those otherwise ordinary domestic events and routines of a daily life…. And what in some poets has always seemed a Puritan underpinning to our ideas of American speech ("straight talk, no nonsense") instead reads in Bell simply as a belief that words might possibly mean what they say. Yet this never leads him to contend, as it apparently has others, that beauty in language is the snake-oil of poetry. Nor does Bell ever feel called upon to abandon his intelligence to retain his identity as an American.

Throughout Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, the overwhelming concern is for wholeness. The poems seek to establish the self in relation to the natural, as in poems such as "The Self and the Mulberry" … and "Bits and Pieces of Our Land."… The poems consider the self's relation to the fragments of the past and the vague promises we name the future, yet they rely on nothing so grand as these summations imply. The poems are invariably located in the moment, the idea arising from the fact. Each seems as earthbound as a prayer, for what but a life on earth prompts us to prayer? (pp. 315-16)

Slowly, through a reading of the book, we assume a trust in the voice of these poems, a trust enhanced by the instances of sheer lyric beauty. (p. 317)

[It] is the daily incident transformed, the minute detail serving as fulcrum to the poem, which informs nearly all of Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. Bell has sought out the most physical mirrors for his considerations of the self. He refuses to dazzle us with mysterious possibilities; instead, he is happy now to talk with us plainly, until we feel we understand.

It is in the poem "Trinket," which I take to be the real and secret Ars Poetica of the book, that Bell most clearly outlines his methods and concerns. The pacing is deliberate and exact, like the movement of the poem's water through a crack in a fern pot. The poem's humor is measured and human. It is not in grandeur that the self is to be found, but in this minute trickle of water through the cracked, baked earthen pot. It is this trinket, this gift, which is to be found and shared. The poem enacts the same balance of self Bell has sought in all of the book, and the pervasive presence in the poem steadies as we, like the water, move slowly out of what contains us. It is this delicate balancing act, between ambition and peace,… between our self-consciousness and the natural, which "Trinket" allows us to perform…. (pp. 318-19)

David St. John, "Oxygen and Small Frictions," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 314-20.

Calvin Bedient

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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 more than "promising."

Is he better than "promising" in the new volume? Perhaps he has overshot the mark, perhaps he has sacrificed too much "charge" for the real but limited virtues of simplicity. Maybe simple verse can be great verse but Bell's seems to look down modestly at the very thought. He has put ambition to an easy death. A child's first grief, "the crack in the fern pot," "the trouble with love," elm trees, catfish, all have in his book the same emotional weight, which is no more, if no less, than that of a flat skimming stone that the hand cups momentarily, before deciding not to throw it. He is in danger of falling into a very wayside of modesty, where even his utmost seriousness has a smiling, palms-up shrugging lightness. Civilized, and genial as all get out, but meanwhile the poetry looks a little helpless. (pp. 119-20)

Frequently Bell's simplicity is … impure. Now and again his wit strains or drifts sentimentally…. Too, he could occasionally be still a degree more honest…. If we see his plainness as a poetic strategy that affects precisely an abdication of strategy, then Bell has yet to perfect its transparency, its complete and wonderful openness as of air.

But in pleasure and justice let us note how very good he can be. For one thing, he has a very subtle and unexpected ear…. For another, his language can bear very sensitive implications,… [as in] the title poem. (pp. 120-21)

Bell can now deliver for many lines at a time a fine simplicity. (See … "To Dorothy.") Still there remains for him the problem of sustaining excellence from beginning to end—in poems, in volumes—and, further, that of scale: the size of the sphere and the vigor of the clapper. (pp. 121-22)

Calvin Bedient, in a review of "Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See," in Chicago Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Autumn, 1977, pp. 119-22.

David St. John

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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 upon the reader, and he often makes his exit in these poems with a disarming and winning directness…. [Each] of the poems in These Green-Going-to-Yellow holds within it that resolute core of self that Bell recognizes as the one "home" he will carry within himself always and to any distance. This careful, subtle book needs to be read more than once, as with each reading it accrues with power and vision. (pp. 227-28)

David St. John, "Raised Voices in the Choir: A Review of 1981 Poetry Selections," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XL, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 225-34.∗

Peter Stitt

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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 Green-Going-to-Yellow is thus an uneven book, not quite what one had hoped for from the author of Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See. Its poems that succeed are wonderful … ([for example] "Late Naps" and "Someone Is Probably Dead"), but its poems that do not succeed are a disappointment—too casual, not enough lyrical craftiness. (pp. 678-79)

Peter Stitt, "Poems in Open Forms," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Fall, 1982, pp. 675-85.∗

Publishers Weekly

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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.

David Baker

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

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, haven't you learned more than the story itself? Haven't you learned something about your friend?

Now a couple of years old, These Green-Going-to-Yellow is to my mind one of Marvin Bell's best books of poetry…. In a day of hermit-poets, watered-down confessional poets, self-absorbed poets, diary-poets and poets-of-the-private-language, Bell's richly populated poems are a welcome return back to the world of people. By my count, in fact, all but two of the thirty-one poems in These Green-Going-to-Yellow include characters other than the speaker. (p. 334)

What the people in Bell's poems have to contend with is indicated in the title. These Green-Going-to-Yellow identifies the natural and inevitable decay of the world: trees die here, and birds, and pigs; the seasons change; people pass away and are missed; wars claim lives faster than ever. Maybe it is only a coincidence, but many of Bell's best poems here are those in which the speaker both admits to loss (or meanness or decay) and then tries to give back something to fill the void. In the beautiful "The Hedgeapple," the speaker and his friends have nearly taken a hedgeapple from a woman's tree…. The poem ends in a gesture of unabashed guilt-going-to-generosity, since he cannot bear to have almost stolen "someone else's treasure."… (pp. 334-35)

Bell's form is relaxed, even rambling at times. His voice is casual, but is capable of the beauty that clear language can bring. Only infrequently in these poems do I sense Bell allowing his form too much leisure or his voice too much ease. ["To an Adolescent Weeping Willow"], though, typifies such temptation…. The poem ends with the speaker's realization of the fallacy of his own metaphor—that the easy-moving tree and his hard-working father aren't alike. But Bell's language is a touch too easy too. I think Bell is less effective … when he depends too much on the momentum and character (even charm) of his style to make up for looseness. In fact, hasn't this been identified as a problem of many poets from the generation just prior to Bell's: that, having struggled to develop recognizable and convincing styles, they sometimes seem satisfied, simply and almost always ineffectively, to imitate themselves? I certainly don't think it's a problem for Bell generally. But I don't want it to become one either. He has come far already, and his poems, at their best, are among our current best. (pp. 335-36)

David Baker, "Marvin Bell: Essays, Interviews, Poems," in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2, Winter, 1983, pp. 332-36.

Steven Ratiner

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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 practices nearly extinct in American social life. Stafford and Bell are conversational, even voluble, in their writing, paying most attention to the subject at hand and the emotional tone. At times the relaxed atmosphere of this correspondence brings out their worst tendencies, allowing slack, unfocused lines or thin philosophical pronouncements that dilute the poem's effect….

Bell's poetry usually relies on sudden twists of diction and focus. He adopts some of Stafford's simplicity here in autobiographical pieces about his family and childhood. By and large, these poems aren't as well crafted as his previous work, displaying less control but providing more emotional involvement.

But in a curious way, "Segues" is a better book than the sum of its table of contents. Some of the most interesting moments seem to occur behind and between the actual poems. There is the feeling of true correspondence in these poems—not just the "letter" variety but also the sympathetic reverberation between two visions….

At the conclusion, the sense of culmination is more involved with the poets' bond than the poems' subject matter. But the reader is left with several strong impressions: first, that the book describes a greater human landscape than was initially apparent, implied more than defined by the individual poems in the way flares in a night sky provide glimpses of the broad countryside; second, a reaffirmation that the greatest strength of modern poems lies not in the surface dazzle and linguistic effects, but in the way a work impels a reader's imagination to be involved with the creation of its subject; and third, as these writers discovered, that there is more common emotional ground in the literary arts than the caustic visions that are becoming the sanctioning elements of much contemporary writing.

Steven Ratiner, "Poetry by Post Seals Friendship, Explores Nature of Verse," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1983, p. B5.


Bell, Marvin