Marvin Bell (1937-2020)

Marvin Bell taught at the University of Iowa for several decades in the M.F.A. program, and one might have expected him to have published his poems in literary magazines primarily associated with the mainstream of American verse. Indeed, for the most part, his work appeared in the periodicals whose familiarity endows a writer with a national status (The New Yorker; Poetry (Chicago). Yet Bell was one of those poets who was perfectly comfortable in the company of those whose poetics might seem seriously at variance with his. I never me Bell or had any contact with him, so I can’t offer any insight as to how his approach permitted his muse to intercede and avoid the imaginative confinements that academic influences can all too easily generate.

As a case in point, here is the table of contents from the first issue (1961) of THE OUTSIDER magazine, which was primarily published in New Orleans:

Russell Edson 3
The Editor’s Bit
Sinclair Beiles
Stuart Gordon 5
Gregory Corso 9
Jon Edgar Webb, Jr. 15
Ann Giudici 17
Diane Di Prima 19
John Grant 20
Paul Haines 23
Gary Snyder 24
Gael Turnbull 25
Charles Olson 26
Edward Dorn 27
Allen Ginsberg 28
Peter Orlovsky 29
Langston Hughes 30
Juan Martinez 31
Gilbert Sorrentino 35
Walter Lowenfells 36
Cid Corman 38
Lawrence Ferlinghetti 39
Ray Bremser 42
Margaret Randall 43
Millen Brand 44
Robert Creeley 45
Mike McClure 46
Charles Bukowski 48
Robert Sward 55
Harland Ristan 56
Colin Wilson 57
Jory Sherman 60
Leslie Woolf Hedley
Henry Miller
LeRoi Jones
Marvin Bell
Lester Epstein 70
Curtis Zahn 72
William S. Burroughs 74
kaja 78
Judson Crews 79
Tracy Thompson 79
Paul Carroll 80
G.C. Oden 81
James Boyer May 82
Marc D. Schlefer 82
Frederick Pfisterer III 83
Gene Frumkin 84
Jonathan Williams 84
William Corrington 85
Kay Boyle 85
Paul Blackburn 86
Clayton Eshleman 86
Tuli Kupferberg 87
Barbara Moraff 88
Sam Abrams 88
Terence McGuire 88
Notes on Authors

Charles Olson, Diane Di Prima, Kay Boyle, Paul Bladkburn, LeRoi Jones, Charles Bukowski, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Edward Dorn, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gene Frumkin, Jonathan Williams. To fin Bell’s work at age 24, in this company should cause any reader of his work to keep in mind the contextual fluidity it deserves to be enfolded within. I certainly can’t imagine Jorie Graham, for instance, who has taught at the University of Iowa MFA program, or Louise Gluck, who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, ever publishing their work in an equivalent cluster of poets.

Copper Canyon Press published a tribute to him and one of its editors made a point of how Bell was willing to speak up for the oddball poet.

In Memory of Marvin Bell (1937–2020)

One can also find relevant links to his life and work at the Poetry Foundation. If you’re looking for a poem to start with, I’d recommend “He Said To” followed by “Wednesday.”

One of the few people I know who was friends with him is Carol Ellis, whose first full-length collection of poems was recently published by Beyond Baroque’s Pacific Poetry Series, which is headed up Suzanne Lummis. I close this poet with Ellis’s tribute: “Marvin was a combination of sanity and sunshine who walked intensely with the dead man, until now that’s who he is, as we all will be. He was brave enough to look at the ‘after himself’ as someone studying death and, equally, studying life –- what does it mean to be alive, does the dead man remember, apparently so, but how quiet it sadly is.”