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.

Notebook, October 2017 

King worm drops to the floor having taken too much Beethoven. There are no loudspeakers in nature. At first he thrilled to the sensations—moisty liminal guts buzzing with the string section,

all that rum ti tum zithing the straight line of his pooper but then Ludwig nackered him with tympani and you know, the poor bastard’s just a worm who’s lost. “How to you paint music?” he thinks, scooching his way on lemon-lime linoleum.


You breathed right up against the windowpane. Drew your mother from memory. Breathed again. She was gone.


Sometimes when I go to a funeral I’m aware the dead man knows my thoughts and there’s no blinking it away. This is why I don’t like ministers. They don’t get this.


Everything I touched today belonged to Rimsky Korsakov.


Last night I slept walked to the river.

All rivers wear black coats days, evenings, doesn’t matter.

Gave the river my white sleep shirt

Just to cheer it.

“You know,” I said, “textiles…”


I have always hated the laughter of drunks. Their mirth is terrifying, like the sounds we’ve recorded from the sun.


The water shining through trees. Lake of childhood.

Long ago I saw despair on the surface.

Don’t cry anymore!


King worm has a pair of wooden clogs which he uses as his winter and summer palaces. Wind blows darkness outside.


Do you ever see something innocent in the faces of old men and women? It’s the pink undamaged. Always a miracle since mostly we’re all ashes in rain.


I make mistakes over and over because I believe in assisting powerless human beings and animals. This means I argue with bureaucrats, sometimes noisily. The organizers don’t like me much. I sit opposite them, at a big table, trying to see myself as an organ, a stomach in a larger body.


Missing the daily mail. Cutting open letters with a horse head knife.


Dogs know the heavens do not turn in silence and they’re simultaneously cheerful.


Put on my little “peace hat” and pepper the aborning hour with words—names—Isaac Bashevis Singer, entelechy, sea cucumber, yellow mittens, mother-world. No one is about in my neighborhood. No one’s awake. The houses are all buttoned, windows dark. My feet love the wet road. I think I need to pardon my youth. I hear the Phoebe bird. The age I live in has a dark taste. I’m seldom prone to this but I do sometimes wish I was a bird.


Count on me

Says the pea-stalk reindeer


Birches clouds books



“Embraceable You”—Bill Evans


Up and down the museum stairs above the physical museum. That’s the ticket.


On Giving Thanks Just Now

It’s difficult to give thanks in America when we’ve decided bravery is simply a matter of bullying and bigotry. When we’ve forgotten courage was once a defense of the weak and that sustaining humanitarian values was what we imagined we stood for. At least that’s what we said. At least we used to say it. Maybe we only said it between 1932 and 1945. And maybe even then we didn’t mean it. Ask Japanese-Americans. Ask the Jews of Europe. Ask the men who were experimented upon at Tuskegee. Today you might ask the brave men and women fighting the Dakota Standing Rock pipeline. What values does America defend? One is tempted to say, “thanks are so old school.”

I’m giving thanks for our literary culture and it’s unafraid practitioners—those who dare say the Emperor has no clothes, who still believe our souls can clap their hands. From Chris Abani to Carolyn Forche; W.S. Merwin to Ethelbert Miller; Alberto Rios to Sam Hamill—oh it’s a long list…Rita Dove to Dorothy Allison; Marvin Bell to Natalie Diaz; Mark Doty to Gregory Pardlo—the list is vital, enduring, sweet and sour, filled with ichor and iodine, our tough minded American writers who believe still in Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Dewey.

I think the coming years will be painful, arduous, and mean spirited. When, last week,  Newt Gingrich floated the idea of a new House Un-American Activities Committee, one could only imagine the plan was already “off the work bench” as Newt never has an original idea and “The Donald” hates contrarianism, free speech, the press, academics, and science. I’ve seen several posts on Facebook quoting Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

Against this, or alongside, one may add Churchill’s axiom: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

I’m giving thanks for the continuation, the fights to come, the ardor that is poetry and literature, the rising notes and the silences just before them when we imagine impeccably how the song will go.