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.

Natural Facts

Now it’s up to the winter trees to carry us. They stand sentinel. “Empty your pockets,” says the alder. In summer he was a foolish thing–a dunce–but now, shaking his last strained leaves he’s a genius.

Meanwhile post cards and letters to be gone through…

Christ I need a cup of tea.

A small spider walks across the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Arvo Part playing on the radio.

No More Space Race Colleges

I attended college from 1973 to 1978. I remember the dormitories as though it was yesterday. They were dank, cinder block affairs. Furniture was Army issue. The lounges were places for Stalinist electro-shock therapy. Sofas were covered with duct tape.

Crossing campus you’d find the gymnasium was much the same. You could smell decades of liniment. The showers seldom worked. And for the classrooms? Desks with graffiti. Cracked linoleum. Spastic fluorescent lights.

I’m one of those who never left the ivory tower. I’m a senior professor these days. I’ve watched with disapprobation as higher ed has fought a space race for “the country club campus” with “lazy river” swimming pools, rock climbing walls, Hilton-esque residence halls, gourmet dining, celebrity concerts, and of course, stadiums and arenas fit for professional sports.

Tuition at the private college I attended was roughly $3000 per year in 1975. This adjusts to $14,000 today. That same college now charges over $50,000 a year.

College administrators know that the lion’s share of tuition doesn’t go to faculty salaries and programatic support. COVID-19 is bringing the chickens home to roost. Students and their families were willing to money up exorbitant tuition dollars when they paid for the Club Med experience promised them by campus tour guides. Minus the resort they don’t want to pay for classes and academics.

I believe that even after we’ve come through the virus crisis students and parents are going to want a change in how tuition dollars are spent. I think students who are willing to live as I did would cheerfully pay less for the on campus experience. One should have the option of living on campus while paying nothing for the frills. If you’re really resort minded you could pay a day fee. Students should not have to bear the costs of irresponsible luxury appointments on today’s campuses.

Alone in the Library

After hours of reading alone I take to counting on my fingers the random things known to children—dogs I’ve owned or known; automobiles I’ve seen in person; best arias by Verdi. Outside rain brings down the last October leaves. I’m up to my ring finger. The first October I remember was in Helsinki. There was a reindeer wearing pajamas in the market square. 

“It takes so little to make me happy tonight…”

“It takes so little to make me happy tonight!
Four hours of singing will do it, if we remember
How much of our life is a ruin, and agree to that.”

Excerpt From: Robert Bly. “The Night Abraham Called to the Stars.”

Listen pal, don’t bother me. I’m trying to remember how much of my life is a ruin. I think I’ve got it right. 65 per cent. I’m agreeing to that.

So it’s love among the ruins; dancing in the fallen temple of Hermes; waving my skinny arms at the moon and shouting “what have you done with Lorca?” 35 per cent…

Factor in my age. At 65 I’ve got actuarial creep. Is my 35 per cent still solid?

“Just agree your life is a ruin and you’re alright,” I say.

I write a poem:

Ode to the World

I am at my best when writing
And the Devil take the hindmost.
You know, I was a worm
Before I was a man
And the Devil take the hindmost.
Sunset at the shore
Feeling the pulse
In my wrists
And so forth
All for the Devil.
Of the worm
Call him an accountant—
Shuffling zeros.
Such a steep hill
We’re climbing.
I can’t love you all
Any more than this.

Ode to the World

Ode to the World

I am at my best when writing
And the Devil take the hindmost.
You know, I was a worm
Before I was a man
And the Devil take the hindmost.
Sunset at the shore
Feeling the pulse
In my wrists
And so forth
All for the Devil.
Of the worm
Call him an accountant—
Shuffling zeros.
Such a steep hill
We’re climbing.
I can’t love you all
Any more than this.

In More Innocent Times

In more innocent times we asked questions like “what’s the “beyond” in Bed, Bath, and Beyond? We were max-innocent. We asked because the answers would be foolish. If nothing else the past four years have rid us of vapid fancies.

Meanwhile one thinks of Will Rogers: “An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.”

Now this is true as far as it goes. He means peeling. I’ve yet to peel a rutabaga and just crack up. The name of the rutabaga will make you smile but so what?

When I think about peeling the president I just see smaller versions of him popping out. This is not funny.

In more innocent times…

Well of course there never were such times. But a fool and his nostalgia are not so easily parted. But there never were such times. While people watched “What’s My Line?” on their Dumont televisions they were executing the Rosenbergs.

Will Rogers: “Things aren’t what they used to be and probably never were.”

Peter Charles Hoffer’s splendid book “Clio Among the Muses” tackles this very problem. In short we’re living in an age when as he puts it, “there’s too much history to bear.” We’re also prone to believing only the history we like and the devil take the hind most. Christopher Columbus butchered and enslaved human beings. Hey, my grandfather loved Christopher Columbus. The latter view is a call for more innocent times.

Hoffer notes that suffering is crucial to our understanding of greatness in human beings, noting that Lincoln was not the best educated candidate for the presidency but he was certainly the greatest sufferer:

“Lincoln served as president during the most horrific and perilous of all American wars. His life, until the Civil War erupted, did not seem to prepare him for greatness. But it did prepare him for suffering. Often lonely, beset by images of his dying mother, melancholy and depressed, he identified with others’ suffering. Suffering taught Lincoln to hide a portion of his thoughts and feelings, and the empathetic suffering he exhibited during the war. The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “Let us honour if we can; The vertical man; Though we value none; But the horizontal one.”

In more innocent times…

Will Rogers: “The worst thing that happens to you. May be the best thing for you if you don’t let it get the best of you!!”

Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?

I have a new book due out next week, a collection of poems entitled “Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?” It’s my seventh book and my third poetry collection. 

The poems were written slowly over the past five years although some of them are mined from old notebooks I kept in times of deep solitude. The book is dedicated to Robert Bly. In my late twenties and early thirties, struggling with blindness and the overwhelming question of “how to live and what to do” Robert counseled me to accept imagination and loneliness as my secret companions. 

This proved to be good advice. Blind, I wasn’t going to drive a cab in New York. A bookish life was certainly available. 

The poems are about many things: seasons, music, books, journeys, chance encounters. The title poem is about watching my wife’s old horse “Luigi” a thoroughbred as he looks out the window of his stall:

“Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?”

—for Robert Bly

I also want to live tonight 

My pockets filled with ghost silver 

The real coins I spent long ago 

There are weeks, whole months

When I read only the ancients

I mean the dark one the river compulsive 

A man who made clocks from string…

Time is a game played beautifully by children

Lately this is all I can think of

When I was very small I lived by a meadow 

You loved me and I wasn’t confused

The “dark one” is an allusion to Herakleitos the Greek poet who said we can never step into the same river twice. Time is fleeing, our mortal lives are precious and short. I don’t know about the loneliness of horses. I don’t know if they meditate on growing old. But I knew as a child I loved them and as the poem says, I wasn’t confused.

I’ll be reading from the book THIS THURSDAY at 7:00 Central Time alongside my dear friend Ralph Savarese who also has a new book coming out, a collection of poems entitled “When This is Over” about the struggles we’re facing in a time of pandemic. We’re reading virtually and you can register for the event here: 

https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_leiEi5bgTrqh_E2V7SbM0Q?fbclid=IwAR2bItgdinkW147xlS8Jn7k7-qUZPcrICZ1w-YTy0_N_YahNlqRvYN_QcqE

Here’s to the poets, all, who keep on singing in dark times. 

Cover, “Old Horse, What Is to Be Done?”

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts…

Can I help it if I’m too sentimental to trust my instincts? Oh how many times have I stepped onto thin ice, just name the setting: employment, friendships, hodgepodge transactions of every sort. I’m the dope who thinks the car salesman “likes” him and to answer the question, apparently not.

Trust is a necessary adjunct to civics but its relationship to sentiment is poorly understood. Ernest Hemingway said: “the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them,” which is fine advice but it ignores the clouded and moist diffusions of tender feelings. If you grow up in a loveless house you’ll likely misunderstand affection–hardly any news there–but let’s think of sentimentality, the resistance to one’s better judgements, that Miltonic snake, as one of the worst things that can befall us and one of the most necessary.
Hemingway was mostly right. Wanting to be loved, dare to be loved, decide you’re in love, look for it in all the wrong places. Give it a go.

Sentiment, that gushy thing is not what we suppose for its merely the desire to love the self so in turn it becomes brittle, demanding and manipulative. Thomas Merton wrote: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

When I imagine the car salesman likes me I’m not perfectly myself. When I think workplace colleagues will be true friends I’m not at all myself. I’m just another sad soul demanding others reflect me. Baby Narcissus.

None of this is news. But sentiment has a worse trick up its sleeve. One is so in love with being in love, so thirsty a failure of almost sub-atomic proportions occurs. Here’s Emerson:

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

I’ll presume atoms have no sentiment, just life.