What I see is enough—remembering a conversation with poet Marvin Bell
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
I wake earlier and earlier these days, a habit perhaps popularly attributed to the elderly, but I'm not, I tell myself, that old. 37 as of this September. I've been taking longer and longer breaks from the drink (an editorial in my paper Life on Capitol Hill, soon to be reposted here, will mine this subject), and I find myself with more energy... I also find my mind racing. It does that, and has for as long as I can remember. Maybe that's why I drink/drank.
I'm a person who's been very hard on himself, and this propensity has made it hard for others to get close to me. My wife Joni was in part snared by my poetry, she says, but she also says she was attracted to my spirit and kindness. I work hard to believe these things.
I have been reflecting on my career of late. I fell into teaching as a way to have a little time to keep writing, and then that profession swallowed me whole. No complaints; I'll never forget those years. Now I find myself back writing for a living again—though not writing poetry—full time. Journalism shares much with teaching (the pay, the hours), but it is a new, I hope truer, tact. Am I home? I don't know if I ever will be again, but I can enjoy the journey more than I have in the past... That's a goal.
The man below, to me, seems to have enjoyed his journey. The prolific Marvin Bell, a man not necessarily at the top of most MFA program professors' writers-to-teach list, is someone who's palpably abundant joy struck me immediately. I've been lucky to meet him in the person, and the first thing I noticed was his smile—he tries to hide it under a beard, but it's there, and it's full.
I say he's likely not at the top of the to-teach list, but he should be. Him, Jim Harrison, Kay Ryan... A few others. But these are the ones who have crossed over. Their poems are beyond any lesson and, often, just are. That's quite a feat. In all honesty, it's a poetics I aspire to (though aspiring won't get you there).
I wake earlier and earlier because, I hope, I am turning a corner in my life and want to be there for it. There's time yet, but there's a lot to do. Deep breath. I hope to be able to take it slow enough to be able to fit it all that wonderful joyousness in. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
Note: the below interview was originally published Aug. 20, 2009, on the Academy of American Poets website, poets.org.
What You See Is What You Get: Marvin Bell in Conversation
Haines Eason: Of late I’ve been rereading Mars Being Red; just today I was meditating on the title poem. There’s a moment in it that’s captured me, the line “of shoots reaching for the light. Scarlet of sin, crimson.” It drives me to ask: are you a man who seeks after faith in any traditionally defined sense? Meaning, are you interested in exploring personal matters of faith in your poetry as a poet like Fanny Howe is? Or are you, as this line and the poem at large suggests, more interested in faith as it melds with the workings of the larger universe—with mystery and the shiftings of matter?
Marvin Bell: If you mean religious faith, faith in a God or an afterlife, I am, as I tell the evangelicals who come to our door, “not a candidate.” I feel comfortable in most churches. I have attended Jewish, Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian and Quaker services. I know that faith can be powerful, and that churches can be agents of good or evil. I realize that religious faith and church sponsorship have produced great art. Nonetheless, I prefer to think of religion as man-made. There is no way to know it is not. Hence, religious belief must necessarily be an act of faith. For myself, I am a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. I believe in entropy and in good works for the sake of the present. I think the idea of God is a metaphor that grew out of psychological necessity, which itself, our scientists are finding out, has a material basis.
To me, the imagery in the poem "Mars Being Red" is all physical, which includes what we call “emotional.” But do I have personal takes on certain lines in my poetry? Of course. After all, there is a source from which each item in a poem derives. At any moment, one could have written something else. So why does one choose to write this or that? It could be an intellectual resonance, the good fit of a good idea, but even a good idea has an emotional resonance.
When I look back at "...Red of walks by the railroad in the flush / of youth, while our steps released the squeaks / of shoots reaching for the light...," I remember walking by the tracks in the countryside with a close friend in the days just after I first arrived in Iowa City to be a graduate student bum among other young writers. My friend was a good poet who later quit writing. We would walk by the tracks, asking ourselves how many poems in a book had to be good for that book to be called a good book. Eventually, we decided, one. One good poem was enough.
So, to return to the lines you mentioned, I see in them a recognition of the life force: its power, its inevitable decline, and its demise. I don’t intentionally write on one level so as to reveal another. Depth, to me, means complexity, not complicatedness, complexity in the sense in which many things are happening at one time—complex, as we say a wine is complex. My poems do not need “unpacking.” I do the unpacking myself by writing the poem. Still, there may be no escaping the contrast of red and green in the poem. One is said to be “green” in youth. As one might be thought to be green again when one has gone back into the earth and air. Well, I think of one other thing, too. I published seven books with Atheneum, when that was a hotshot New York City house. So I was myself a hotshot in the eyes of some people. When Atheneum went out of business, I took my books to Copper Canyon Press, based in Port Townsend, Washington. I gradually fell off the radars of reviewers, literary opinion-makers and the like. When I expressed concern to a friend about whether or not I should take my books to an independent publisher in a small northwestern town, the friend said, “You’ll be green again.” Of course, that was exactly what I wanted. I wanted always to be a beginner, exploring the art form and ideas, never being cast in the role of an authority, and damn well never acting like it. And it may be easier to keep changing as a writer if one is out of the spotlight. One isn’t pressured to invest in an image of oneself. The price of leaving the spotlight is small potatoes compared to the freedom to one’s inner life. Naturally, I happily accept any notice that comes to my writing. One must feel honored by anyone’s interest. But I’m just me forever, a phrase which is, of course, for a geezer like myself, a definitive euphemism.
HE: I want to continue with faith in time—your approach is very interesting—but this matter of unpacking... I find your statement that you do the unpacking when writing a poem to be very surprising. It may have been Eihei Dogen Zenji (it may well have been someone else!) who said “to study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.” I use but part of this in saying that the world is so full of things, and the writer chooses but a few of these in an effort to understand all. Packaged together, it seems to me the few are presented so the reader might then unpack them and reconstruct what he or she will—something perhaps akin to what the artist saw, perhaps not.
Your poem "To Dorothy" is a sonnet in which a kind of false mirroring occurs. You introduce a “we” in the first stanza, and follow up on the logic of that we in the second stanza by narrowing to the effect of the “we” on the speaker. You’ve chosen to pack two notions of “we” into the poem, and by the end one arrives at a more complicated notion of “we” than was initially presented—a grander notion that must be built out from the poem, even as the poem narrows to such succinct intimacy. Furthermore, the first lines “You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly”—they don’t unpack, they complicate! Could you talk a little about how you came to this vision of the process?
MB: I’m not sure I understand. First, just for fun, the concept of the sonnet. There is a story about a young poet handing William Carlos Williams a sonnet, and Williams handing it back, saying, “In this mode, perfection is basic.” The young poet in the story is Allen Ginsberg, who, of course, goes off to write "Howl," for which Williams writes an introduction. I’m like Williams in that way. To me, a sonnet is fourteen lines of rhymed, iambic pentameter. I guess I understand why poets sometimes call fourteen free verse lines a sonnet. It sounds more accomplished than, say, “short lyric.” Then there was Gil Orlovitz, who published—was it in the Sixties?—a collection called Art of the Sonnet, in which some poems are more or fewer lines than fourteen, and the poems are generally unmetered and generally unrhymed. It was interesting back then for someone to suggest that any short poem is a sonnet, sort of.
I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “a false mirroring” or “two notions of ‘we.'" The “we” in the poem refers to the speaker and the person being addressed, Dorothy. That’s it, nothing more. As for those first two lines, they are not unlike the start of Shakespeare‘s sonnet: "My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” I have often begun a poem by starting in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom. It’s not a conscious decision but an instinctive preference. For example, the poem, “To No One in Particular," begins: “Whether you sing or scream, / the process is the same.” I’ve always been fond of flying in the face of educated expectation.
I like your idea that those first two lines “don’t unpack, they complicate.” I suspect you are referring to the use of the word “inexactly.” Indeed, one could paraphrase many implications, inherent in the sense of “inexactly," about beauty, and about one’s notion of beauty, and of course it sets up a little narrative that may somewhat define one circumstance of “inexactly.”
I think it’s those first lines that have made that poem so popular. People use it at weddings, it pops up all over the Internet, it has been played upon by characters in two novels that I know of, it has been set to music several times, and one couple emailed me to tell me that they recite it during their morning runs. Just this week, I quite accidentally stumbled on a Swedish blog on which someone has written her own prose poem while liberally using lines from my poem—without attribution, I might add. And then I came upon a blog which is titled—the blog itself is titled, in a large, handsome typeface—“You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly”—again, without attribution. I don’t mind.
As for “the study of the Buddha Way," I long ago discounted the so-called “self," which remains both the most common, and the least profound, poetic subject. When you say, “Packaged together, it seems to me the [things in a poem] are presented so the reader might then unpack them and reconstruct what he or she will," you may be assuming more intention than I deserve. Naturally, one can add to the reading of any poem whatever seems irrefutable from context (other poems, biography, the times...), but, if one is guessing, it’s about oneself, not the poem. Of course there are poems that rely on guesswork, distortion and willful complication. The poets who write them may foresee an importance from having to depend on academicians. I think of a wonderful blurb by Louis Simpson, for a book of Anne Sexton‘s, which reads something like, “Her work reminds us that, in the weariness of literature, poetry can happen.” (My other favorite blurb is Robert Creeley‘s for Ted Berrigan: “The bell rings. Ted is ready.”) Maybe this is the place to say that I think blurbs long ago outlived their usefulness.
When I say that I myself do the unpacking by writing the poem, I mean simply that the writing of a poem is, for me, in the first place, an almost total act of abandon leading to discovery leading to recognition. The poem pays attention to itself as it goes, I pay attention, and I look back and forward at the same time. If there is anything to be “unpacked," I unpack it as I write. That does not rule out mystery, or even acts of impenetrable imagination, but it proposes, before the poem is set free to be read by others, a fundamental clarity. My primary tool is Occam’s Razor.
You know, the human condition is heartbreaking. Malthusian Law still applies, and with a vengeance. The world is sociopolitical, not literary. It’s only our reaction to the world that can be literary. I never felt I had to confirm in poetry that I feel deeply.
So there you have it. My technique, if I have one, is to write with abandon, apply Occam’s Razor, open up to dumb luck and not take death personally.
HE: Great answer to a convoluted question. So to tease this out just a bit more, you’re saying that for you, the act of writing a poem is a sort of voyage, and further, that the mysteries surrounding the events of that voyage are likely the result of very simple phenomena (if I correctly understand your mention of Occam’s Razor)?
And, am I right in my understanding that you do not approach the page with a concrete object, or objects, in mind, but instead see yourself as teasing out some faint inkling of an inspiration, and that this teasing is what results in the poem? I am pushing this line of thought because so many of the poems in Mars Being Red are so firm and sure at their outset. I am thinking of poems like “What Things Are," which begins “A mallet is a tool. It can put you to sleep," or “Unable to Sleep in Frost’s Bed in Franconia," beginning “The floor shone from nightmare.”
MB: I don’t know if the concept of “teasing” applies to me. I’m not that subtle. I do tend to refer early in a poem to what I can see in my mind. Then I tend to want to locate what I see, and to quickly funnel the tangible world through the subjective. So, for example, to say that "...a mallet is a tool. It can put you to sleep...” is to begin a sort of redefinition, but not yet to know what it is. That poem turns political, perhaps from the feeling of danger inherent in that sense of a mallet, but also, no doubt, because I was mainly writing poetry at the time that could, in retrospect, be called “sociopolitical.” The political turn would not have been conscious at the start. If you look at that poem, you will see that parallel syntax and small associational steps carry it for a while. In the other example, "...the floor shone from nightmare..," the overlay of the imagination, of the subjective, is easy to spot.
There is the partially knowable truth of how things are, and then there is the phenomenon of how we feel things are. In art, we express the world of what we feel things to be, which is embedded in obscurity, mystery and illusion. Scientific knowledge is always a way station from where we interpolate. When Adorno said that, after the Holocaust there could be no poetry, he must have been thinking of art as defined by, and perhaps limited by, worldly truth—our notion of the human condition, at the time he said it, having been once again overwhelmed by the horror of what the human animal can do to others. But art is not about worldly truth. Art is about how life feels, even for those poets, and I am one of them, who feel ideas as tangible expressions of emotion. That is why I say that I like ideas to have some dirt on their shoes—and why, I suppose, I tend to begin a poem with an open mind’s eye. Make sense?
As for Occam’s Razor, I meant the usual thing: that the best interpretation of phenomena is usually the simplest one. I like your idea that “very simple phenomena” can be the cause of the mysteries that surround events. Yes, I believe that.
HE: Now I’m intrigued by your statement above—that there’s some partially knowable truth out there, and then that there’s the internal truth we all carry around with ourselves. It seems in Mars Being Red—and perhaps for a while now?—you have been investigating the political in your poetry. In writing your more recent political poems, have you gained any insight into the recent military debacles of our American Empire? Meaning, have you been able to bring close to your internal, emotive truth some of that slippery external truth regarding our political mistakes, and from the proximity of these two truths, have you come to any conclusions about who we are now as a nation, where we might be headed, etc.?
MB: Can the writing of a poem lead to sociopolitical insight? I don’t want to claim too much. But maybe. Poetry is, after all, another way of thinking. I have to say that I wrote the wartime poems in Mars Being Red because I couldn’t help myself. How so? Because the Iraq war was in the American foreground. Because I read some very good journalists, and I get around. Because I am the son of an immigrant from Ukraine. Because I am a parent and an Army veteran. Because I have lived in many places here and abroad and live each year in the Midwest, in the Northwest, and on the East Coast. (I joke that my wife and I are “tricoastal.”) Because I have a thing for language. Because I write when the pot boils over. And because sometimes I write to stamp out my brain.
You asked about politics in relation to inner feelings. Big changes come about when large numbers of people feel the necessity for them. Not when they know better in their minds, but when they are convinced emotionally. The Bush-Cheney administration banned photos of military coffins because they didn’t want Americans to feel the effect of their actions. They knew that the Vietnam War ended when a large segment of the American public understood, emotionally, that it should—long after Americans knew it intellectually. There evolved a consensus based in emotion. An inescapable resonance.
You ask my idea of who we are as a nation and where we are headed. I am hopeful that democracy will survive both the stupidity and violence of the far right and the hubris and sense of entitlement of the graduates of our prestigious colleges. We have now in the White House a man of intelligence, experience, imagination, equanimity and abiding decency. But we also have a disloyal opposition.
The old explanation of political decision making was that it came about through an aggregate of minorities. In the election of Obama, those minority blocs included cultural minorities who came together in common cause. I note with some pride that the national election replicated the caucus example of Iowans. No Iowa, no Obama.
Given the challenges we face, political and planetary, and a largely uninformed citizenry, it is amazing how much goes well. In the meantime, and at any time, art and philosophy remain important survival skills.
HE: Well put. I said above I wanted to return to the question of faith. I think this will be my last... I’d planned to ask how you see faith as fitting into our present circumstances, but how about this: you went through the Vietnam years, and lived the years after, in which we forgot the lessons we’d supposedly been taught by that disaster. Is there something different in the air now, something you maybe didn’t feel in those years when opposition was building to the Vietnam war, or are we just going along, similarly perched to make the same mistakes? It just feels like, with Obama bringing forward a poet at his inauguration, and people asking themselves how they really feel about the decisions our government has made, etc. ... It seems like something completely new is afoot, at least as far as my generation is concerned. Could we have begun on an upward trend?
MB: During the daily agony of the Vietnam War years, many of us thought this country could never go to war again. Well, I have hopes rather than faith. In the matter of our national government, yes, we are, as stock brokers like to say, “trending upward.” It will be up to your generation to maintain the changes and to do more.Hate radio and TV appear to be running the G.O.P., so for now it’s up to Democrats and Independents. I can’t see the future, but I can see that our national policies have increasingly tied health, privacy and safety to individual wealth. Our economy has increasingly depended on creating the desire for unnecessary, and often harmful, consumer goods bought with money borrowed at usurious rates. It has increasingly depended on gaming the system, and by exporting inflation by using cheap labor abroad. It was good that Obama included the arts, even a poet, in the Inauguration. It was another reference to our national soul. Ultimately, we will be judged, individually and nationally, not by idealistic pronouncements, but by what we are willing to pay for and by what we do for others for free.
Marvin Bell portrait via the Academy of American Poets website.