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.