Thinking of Marvin Bell

My dear teacher, the poet Marvin Bell said in a 1980 interview with Nancy Bunge (at the time) of Michigan State University:


“Intelligence applied to what the poem is about–that, to me, is worthy and important; poems without intelligence don’t interest me at all. Poetry which is just a theme and doesn’t have any mentality operating in it interests me less than poetry which makes a turn, or discovery or or further exploration in the course of itself. That’s along the lines of what I meant by visible indications of intelligence in a poem.”


I like this a good deal. In fact more than a good deal. I also know what it cost Marvin Bell to say this–for poetry, as a subset of the academic American creative writing explosion tends to abjure intelligence in favor of technique or sensation, and god help you if you bother to say it. 


Perhaps no sensible person ought care about this. As my Finnish grandmother would say: “beyond the woods things are bad.” Why should we wrangle about the rules of Monopoly? 


Yet we may care if visible indications of intelligence are central to poems because they offer an anodyne to the news. William Carlos Williams famous lines remind us of the stakes:


Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

  •     It is difficult
    to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there. 


It is difficult to get the news from poems–and for news let us substitute indications of intelligence, which in turn means developing thought, moving thought, a thing beyond rhetoric, for the latter tells us of logos, ethos, and pathos but can only hint at flowering ideas. 


Augustine, who had the very lightest and lyrical touch as a philosopher of art and beauty said ‘reason’ depends on a certain rhythmic measure. Poetry and reason were freed from the neo-Platonists by that old Saint who stole pears and lived the most profligate of lives when young. 


The visible indications of intelligence…


Here’s an early poem by Marvin Bell that exemplifies reason and the rhythmic measure:




My father moves through the south hunting duck.

It is warm, he has appeared

like a ship, surfacing, where he floats, face up,

through the ducklands. Over the tops 

of trees duck will come, and he strains

not to miss seeing the first of each flock, 

although it will be impossible to shoot one

from such an angle, face up like that 

in a floating coffin where the lid obstructs 

half a whole view, if he has a gun. 

Afterlives are full of such hardships. 


One meets, for example, in one’s sinlessness,

high water and our faithlessness,

so the dead wonder if they are imagined

but they are not quite.


How could they know we know

when the earth shifts deceptively 

to set forth ancestors to such pursuits?

My father will be asking, Is this fitting?

And I think so–I, who, with the others,

coming on the afterlife after the fact

in a dream, in a probable volume, in a 

probable volume of dreams, think so.




“Why is sorrow distressful,” writes Augustine. “Because it tries to rend what used to be one. Therefore it is troublesome and dangerous to become one with what can be separated.” (And there’s your saint, small “s” for whom the afterlife can never be a dream–and is beyond probability for its a matter of faith. Poor Augustine, who spoke much of reason but had little it seems. Poetry is hard news.)


I’m grateful for the hard news and the poets who leave it on my doorstep. 


Thank you Marvin. 



Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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