Marvin Bell and the Open Poem

If I knew better I’d have bet against a quote purported to come from Yeats. It was first told to me in Finland by a British ex-pat professor of literature who was certain he knew more than anyone else. The word “pettifogger” comes to mind but he dressed well. He insisted Yeats said “a poem should click shut like a well made box.”

I was fresh out of grad school—the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—where I’d studied poetry writing with Marvin Bell (among others) and while I was young enough to be almost nauseous with credulity, I knew poems were different than humidors since the good ones are living things. But I believed Old Jasper (for that’s what I’ll call him) and blithely went about saying “Yeats said…” for a number of years. Youth can do this. You want the authoritative mien of Jasper.

You may not care about poetry or not overmuch and that’s fine but I think its important to say that craft should not be closed, arid, cramped, or locked. Whether you’re changing the oil in your car or writing a song, the best work sends us out into the world.

So I should have known better. Yeats never shut anything tight. He wouldn’t want to. He had the gyres of cosmos and aeonic winds and he loved a ruined house as much as anyone.

Marvin Bell said: “Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.” This is the proper way of it. Improvisation is vital resistance.

Today a large gathering of American poets will read poems by Marvin Bell through a Zoom session hosted by Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. Readers will include John Irving, Tess Gallagher, Heather McHugh, David St. John, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kwame Dawes, Ellen Bass, Juan Felipe Herrera, Stephen Kuusisto, Dorianne Laux, Lia Purpura, Eric Pankey, and many more.  Marvin’s son Nathan Bell, the internationally recognized folk singer will perform songs.

Marvin Bell has been at the forefront of American poetry for sixty years. He’s quite ill. Today’s event is our chance to say how much we love him.

Come for the poetry. Remember, poems don’t close.

It was summer and then in turn it wasn’t…

It was summer and then in a turn it wasn’t
Birds in the hedgerow vanished
Summer kept beating on the door

Orphan wanting to be let in
It was summer and then it wasn’t
The hunter cleans his gun

A sorrow from the gut
A tear from under your boots
The wildfire of consciousness

The boys were playing catch
I was reading and then I wasn’t
“Love is the flower of life

And blossoms unexpectedly
And without law”
Lawrence coughing it out

Enjoyed for the brief hour
Of its duration

Giving Up on Poetry

I promise to change my habits 

To read medicine jars, the prose of Yeats,

Sincere things without assurances.

I want only the galvanized electrolysis 

Of commercials and politics. 

Who needs all this camphor smelling 

19th century loneliness?

Goodbye Keats. 

Goodbye Fingal and Armand Schwerner.

Goodbye Walt. 

I don’t need a brother.

I’ll go alone into the mineral dark.

I carry armloads of books to the trash.

I can’t see poisoning someone else with the stuff. 

Goodbye Robert Frost

(The loneliest poet 

Who ever lived, though there’s Lorca …)

For kicks I say good riddance to Gustav Mahler

Who was as friendless and musical as rain…

The Conditions

I’ve a disability

So you can’t know me

Not precisely

As I was built

Of a mystery

And if I’m like you

If I resemble you at all

It’s not coincidence—

Reason is unlikely.     

I must go, forgive me

I’ve an assignation 

With the Cause of Love 

And its sessile undying heart. 

Love who you are—

Without wish, never being ready. 

Poetry’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny

I once wrote a poem that began “the winter wind is marrying my daughter” though at the time I had no daughter. Poetry is often vain, silly, and yes, driven by seasons. Poetry is also a place for shit. Ask yourself: how many un-shitty poems did Wallace Stevens write? I say four: “Sunday Morning”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”; “The Snowman”; “The Idea of Order at Key West.” 

A friend of mine once said the world is not harmed by bad poetry and he’s right. Let’s clear that up. And yes, by turns, the proliferation of bad poetry is the norm in any age. Add subjectivity, canon formation, academic taste makers, the yearnings of multiculturalism (I’m one of those yearners) and you’ve got a recipe for poetry custom.

Now before you start chasing me with a red hot poker let me be clear: one reason poetry can promulgate shit is because it’s infused with the gases of its era. Take from your shelf one of those old “Midland” poetry anthologies edited by the late Paul Engle and you’ll see page after page of rhymed offal, poems so bad that putting the book down you’ll want a Thorazine injection. It was the age of rhyme and meter, of irony, of poets emulating 16th century poetic conventions—British conventions. The anthologies purported to represent the best in American poetry in the middle of the last century. You’d never know there was a Whitman or Ginsberg or Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop. 

The tastemakers in every era love shit. And yet there are brave and steadfast publishers and editors who fight for fresh air. Poetry doesn’t need to stink. What makes it un-stinky? You see this isn’t going well. You probably want to stop reading right now. 

Langston Hughes said: “writing is like travelling. It’s wonderful to go somewhere, but you get tired of staying.”

When asked how to play the 12 string guitar Leadbelly said: “you’ve got to keep something moving all the time.”

Good poems move. They avoid the ponderous. The good poet hits an inside the park homer. 

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, a poem that moves, a poem that treats of ideas without polemical rhetoric, a poem of stark beauty. This is “Sanctuary” by Donika Kelley:

The tide pool crumples like a woman

into the smallest version of herself,

bleeding onto whatever touches her.

The ocean, I mean, not a woman, filled

with plastic lace, and closer to the vanishing

point, something brown breaks  the surface—human,

maybe, a hand or foot or an island

of trash—but no, it’s just a garden of kelp.

A wild life.

This is a prayer like the sea

urchin is a prayer, like the sea

star is a prayer, like the otter and cucumber—

as if I know what prayer means. 

I call this the difficulty of the non-believer,

or, put another way, waking, every morning, without a god. 

How to understand, then, what deserves rescue

and what deserves to suffer.


Or should I say, what must

be sheltered and what abandoned. 


I might ask you to imagine a young girl,

no older than ten but also no younger,

on a field trip to a rescue. Can you 

see her? She is led to the gates that separate

the wounded sea lions from their home and the class.

How the girl wishes this measure of salvation for herself:

to claim her own barking voice, to revel

in her own scent and sleek brown body, her fingers

woven into the cyclone fence.

I believe Donika Kelly is one of the best poets currently writing in the United States. Note her nearly buried question—the question—“can you see her?” How does one say it? The better poets bifurcate the self, create what the poet James Tate once described as a “self-to-self dichotomy” which is an engine, a phenomenological drive that lifts the poem out of easy confessionalism. Kelly offers us three perspectives in the poem: the little girl encountering woundedness, the adult poet who would try to make sense of consciousness, and yes the adult poet as philosopher. And though you’ll think me odd for saying so, Kelly’s swift intelligence reminds me of Anne Sexton:

“The Ambition Bird”

So it has come to this –

insomnia at 3:15 A.M.,

the clock tolling its engine

like a frog following

a sundial yet having an electric

seizure at the quarter hour.

The business of words keeps me awake.

I am drinking cocoa,

the warm brown mama.

I would like a simple life

yet all night I am laying

poems away in a long box.

It is my immortality box,

my lay-away plan,

my coffin.

All night dark wings

flopping in my heart.

Each an ambition bird.

The bird wants to be dropped

from a high place like Tallahatchie Bridge.

He wants to light a kitchen match

and immolate himself.

He wants to fly into the hand of Michelangelo

and come out painted on a ceiling.

He wants to pierce the hornet’s nest

and come out with a long godhead.

He wants to take bread and wine

and bring forth a man happily floating in the Caribbean.

He wants to be pressed out like a key

so he can unlock the Magi.

He wants to take leave among strangers

passing out bits of his heart like hors d’oeuvres.

He wants to die changing his clothes

and bolt for the sun like a diamond.

He wants, I want.

Dear God, wouldn’t it be

good enough just to drink cocoa?

I must get a new bird

and a new immortality box.

There is folly enough inside this one.

I do not say these poems are thematically alike only that the restless, clear-headed and determined imagination pushes each lyric, strips each poem of sanctimony and lumbering rhetoric.  

I mentioned “easy confessionalism” above because the worst in our contemporary poetry, our Midland stampede is toward wounded blab. I just went to Poetry Magazine and found dozens of examples. I won’t quote them. Instead, just for fun, I’m going to offer my own parody of a contemporary shit-poem:

“The Mangle”

Trousers, wrinkled, old man

Daddy-pants, dropped 

On the floors of childhood 

So I’ve got to carry them

Like Nana did. 

I could continue but I won’t. 

Here are some closing thoughts:

Bad poetry isn’t caused by free verse. 

It doesn’t happen because a poet wants to write about the personal.

It doesn’t sneak into your word processor at night while you’re sleeping.

But does happen when the conventions of your ponderous age creep in. 

It happens when unlike Donika Kelly or Anne Sexton the poet isn’t tough and fast.

Ezra Pound said “the book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”

I want to tell you a story. Don’t worry, it won’t take long…

The old woman beside the Oyster River, who picked flowers; who the children knew to be peculiar–someone said the word “lobotomy” though no one knew what it meant–how he’d made up a story about her so long ago. 

That woman with her florid face, who talked to herself, she took in stray animals. Now he sees he’s old as well, sees stars are of a different magnitude, and still, he thinks, someone has to take the lost creatures because the world is both desolate and easy.   

The ADA @ 30, “Why It’s Like Poetry”

I can’t tell you how to laugh or love someone. I certainly can’t tell you where poems come from or what will stir my heart or yours, say, in the next hour. 

The things I can’t tell you make a considerable list. I won’t write it. You have your own even if you don’t generally acknowledge it. 

I love a photo of the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso who is gently guiding Helen Keller’s cosmic finger tips across his throat as he sings for her Samson’s aria about losing his sight. Caruso was a genuine peasant and grew up in terrible poverty in Naples. By the tine of the photograph he was as famous as Theodore Roosevelt. Helen Keller was certainly just as much a public figure. And there they are, having what a later generation would recognize as a “Vulcan Mind Meld” and whenever I think of this photo I want to be Helen’s fingertips. I want to feel the luscious electrolysis of mystery-static coming through. Imagine! Touching Caruso’s throat! 

I write poems in rain and in the sun. I fall down stairs. Once when I was much younger than I am now I successfully stood on my head while a young woman I loved fed me jelly beans. I fell over. 

I lie down and dream of Edgar Poe’s best laugh. It was a vengeful laughter and probably more than that for it was likely mean spirited. It probably came after he met Walt Whitman who he thought a simpleton. Then there was Whitman’s laugh, which came later, at Pfaff’s saloon, and which had no Poe in it. 

Where does the bitterness go?  I can’t tell you.

I can’t tell you about the winds of my boyhood which kept me awake at night. I’m not that boy any longer. The winds produced stories in me. I don’t remember them now. I do recall that I always insisted to my father that he leave the window open. Even in winter I wanted it open just a crack.

I most certainly cannot tell you how in private I launder my shirt of happiness.

Can’t describe how the stars lean close when I’m mumbling “it’s alright, it’s alright” to an aging dog.

Can’t tell you how it is I can forgive the walls.

Of the ADA @ 30 I can’t tell you what it means. I stop wet faced, inner tears of joy and desperation welling. 

There are substantial obstacles. There are miracles that have not yet healed. 

I can’t describe poetry. I’ve the law on my side. 

Whether you’re disabled or not I can’t say when cordiality or affection will come. 

I wear an imaginary sapphire on my finger. 

I eat the white flowers from a table and the rich people don’t notice. 

Blind, crossing the street. 

Like all disabled I work out things in my peculiar way.

Poetry? What is that?

I’m lighter than a child’s hand. 

Hay Scratching Hay

When I was a kid I fell in love with a Victrola in my grandmother’s attic. What was I doing up there? It was summer. Kids were playing ball. And there I was with a wind up gramophone with a metal horn. Blind kid alone with an old fashioned record player at the top of a Victorian house. I fell in love with that machine. It worked perfectly and there were dozens of records featuring the great Enrico Caruso. You have to picture me, five years old, a little lonely, and then stunned to hear such a voice under the eaves. I’ve loved Caruso’s voice all my life and yet, even now, sixty years later, hearing him pulls me back to my provincial first opera house.

There were lots of artifacts in that attic. A raccoon coat, a sea captain’s chest, a cracked boudoir mirror, cane chairs that were eaten through, dusty books, a sewing machine, oddments of all kinds, tools I couldn’t identify. I explored with my hands while the great tenor sang of vengeance or a broken heart.

Think about your private opera. I was lonesome as a cricket. I was in love with a strange singer.. Best of all I’d no one to tell.

I still hear the needle hitting the record. The sound of hay scratching hay.

In my case poetry has always been a kind of forsakenness. The solitude glitters. Do you know this feeling? Rain runs down the window and you press your forehead there. You see you need nothing.

D. H. Lawrence wrote: “It’s no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You’ve got to stick to it all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times! But you have to wait for the times. Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they’ve got to come. You can’t force them.”

Yes there are moments when the fire warms and the inn is open. Family and lovers; neighbors, strangers well met—a trusty dog. Behind this scrim is the solitude. It was me. It was the voice of a tenor singing in the dark.

The ADA @ 30 or “James Tate’s Egg”

When I was in my early twenties I read a lot of poems by James Tate. If you’re an American who’s interested in poetry and you’re over forty there’s a good chance you’ve visited Tate’s poignant, Da-da universe where dark alleys and cemetery willows remind a man to have a cigarette; where Sam Beckett’s people enter cereal naming contests; where only a dish of blueberries can pull you out of a lingering funk. Somewhere in my reading I saw a line about a man who feels like a fried egg has been glued to his forehead, which is to say, he walked around that way. There I was, blind, in college, cross eyed, the streets before me erasing themselves as I moved, lonesome, stamped by the U.S. Department of Alienation, hyper-aware that a cutting remark would be coming my way any moment. I knew Tate’s fried egg was my third eye, my sunny side up stigma. Disability can feel like that.  

When we, the disabled discuss the biopolitics of disability, which is to say, the economic and political performances and entrapments of disablement, it often seems, at least to me, we’re talking about eggs and foreheads as much as anything else. What kind of egg will it be? Will you cook it yourself or will someone do it for you? Just so, will you self-apply your egg or have it done professionally? (I’m not metaphorically describing disability but the stances one must take because of it.) And there’s more: will it be a free range organic egg or from a factory? Perhaps if you’re lucky it will be cooked just right. 

The neoliberal egg-on-forehead (hereafter NEOF) is like the cereal naming contest above–you have to pay to win and while you may be named Estragon you’re reliably in the game because it’s now an inclusive economy. In the bad old days you’d have been forced to live in the NEOF asylum but suddenly you have putative value. A productive, non-normative worth has either been declared or assigned. You round up your pals who once lived in the ward with you and together you create a federation. You’re online. Christ, you even blog. You belong to a Single Condition User Group. You’re no longer just a person with egg on the unibrow, you’re informed, itchy, talkative, contrary, ardent if not militant. 

In their groundbreaking book The Biopolitics or Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that: “as medical citizens within neoliberal biopolitics we are expected to take active control of our health management regimes to a greater extent than in any time in history. This active control taking health represents the double-edged sword of biopolitics and results in the desperate necessity of participating in funding initiatives on behalf of physicians and researchers to provide the missing profit motive for future investigations of potential medical treatments for members of rare condition groups.”

You were in a special hospital not so very long ago but now you’re an anguished expert on forehead eggism because you must be. You must be because either you’ve a job and want to keep it (you’ll need an accommodation—you can’t wear standard issue hats) or you hope to have a job—or jobless, you wish to have community relevance, which means among other things you should have the right script memorized. 

I for one commit to memory a lot of self-declarative language. Yesterday I went to the ophthalmologist. I told him all about my eyes. In ophthalmology land I’m a failure. You mustn’t imagine eye doctors view low-to-no vision patients as successful and autonomous citizens. I felt the need to take care of myself and control the medical narrative to the best of my ability. I wasn’t an uninformed blind person. I wasn’t in need of rehab. No. That’s not a laser scar on my left retina, that’s what it looks like. You see, I don’t need to be cured, and even if that’s something in the cards it’s not happening today.

As we think of the ADA @ 30 let’s not sentimentalize the limited inclusion of the disabled on our city streets. The disabled are bio-politically imagined by normative systems to be in need of cures if they’re to be successful. The ADA is a buttress against discriminatory practices but it can’t defeat the long history of medical prejudice. “Let me cure you” is a horrific phrase, often a precursor to real tragedy. One thinks of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birth-Mark” or the dreadful vignette in “Madame Bovary” where the small town physician kills a man with a club foot because he’s a man of science. 

Wood Work

In Finland they’re hunting for mushrooms and berries—
Time to make the old soup.
Here in America I stare at my hands.
I write some words about faith.
Last night a stray dog came to my door.
Summer will be ending soon.
Sometimes a poem is a way of sitting at the end of a bench
With an imaginary cap over your ears.
Which hat will I wear this winter?
I’m the king of the unswerving.
Watch as I whittle this stick.