Poetry by Marvin Bell
Poems from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 by Marvin Bell appear courtesy of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368
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An E-view with Marvin Bell
By Rebecca Seiferle
I first met Marvin Bell in 2001 when I was teaching at the Port Townsend Writer's Conference, but it seemed that I had “known” him most of my poetic life. In the 70s, as a young poet living in a remote corner of New Mexico, I had read his interviews and works in American Poetry Review. He seemed a part of my own poetic imagination.
In whatever direction Bell's work has tended, it has always been of interest. His work is always contemporary while being formally restless and innovative. His work has expanded the poetic line. In his poetry, the everyday self has become a kind of “Everyman,” the modern equivalent of that figure of the pilgrim from the morality plays of the Middle Ages. His voice has the cadences of Biblical prose at times, and yet, it is also an intersection, a presence in the present, bearing several simultaneous threads of thought.
His work is grounded in a sweetness of being, and yet it is a sweetness without sentimentality or rhetorical flourish. It is this very sweetness, I think, a kind of humility that has made Marvin a friend and teacher to many poets, that has also kept his work somewhat undervalued. He does not adopt a suffering persona. Even when writing out of the intersection of the personal, his poetry always has the quality of anonymonity, as if the speaker were every and any person. This quality has led some to overlook the multi-dimensional quality of his poetic thinking. We've been aware of the conversational tone, the humor, the great naturalness of his writing, but not of its formal restlessness, its seriousness of mind.
Since 1990, Bell has been engaged in writing the “Dead Man Poems,” a series of poems written according to the Zen admonition “Live as if you were already dead” which have allowed him to develop a new poetic line and “an overarching consciousness” that allows all manner of intersection.
Marvin Bell, author of seventeen books of poetry and essays, has been called “a maverick” and “an insider who thinks like an outsider.” He is a longtime member of the faculty of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Additionally, he has taught for Goddard College and the Universities of Hawaii and Washington. In The Book of the Dead Man (Copper Canyon Press, 1990) and Ardor (Copper Canyon, 1994), Bell originated and developed a poetic form that has come to be known as “Dead Man Poems.” In his latest book, Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 (Copper Canyon, 2000), he extends the Dead Man concept in 21 poems titled “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps.” Bell lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he now teaches one semester a year; Sag Harbor, New York; and Port Townsend, Washington. In the year 2000, the State of Iowa named him its first Poet Laureate.
Seiferle: How did you get started writing the “Dead Man” poems?
The first one happened during a winter in Port Townsend, Washington. I say it “happened” because it boiled up on its own. It was December of 1986. I was there by myself. From my window, I could see the Whidbey Island ferry pass beyond the bluff. The wind was tearing at the American flag above the post office. A body had been found on the beach beneath the cliff. I had completed a Selected Poems for Atheneum. I was reading Max Frisch's Sketch-Books. Our sons now lived far away. I was nearing fifty, and I was writing what I called “Pages.” Some “pages” were lines of poetry, some were prose, and some were combinations. The prose fell between that of journals and that of prose-poems. Think Williams' Spring and All. In that way, I was already casting about for a new form. The first Dead Man poem emerged out of all this. Afterwards, it sounded to me as if it came from elsewhere, as if it were a sort of transliteration from a book lost to antiquity. I gave it the title “from: The Book of the Dead Man” and published it in Iris of Creation in 1990. I had no intention of writing another Dead Man poem. It would be four years before I wrote another one.
Seiferle: How are the poems related to or a departure from your earlier work?
Bell: I would say they are the same in their view of the human condition and in their fondness for ideas with a little dirt on their shoes. They are different in that they license my natural mode of perception. That is, for me thoughts and sensations arrive from many directions, I often think more than one thing at a time, and everything seems to me connected or at least connectable. My mind has always functioned that way, but I had generally downplayed it when writing. Also, I was tired of enjambments. The lyrical mixing in free verse of end-stopped and enjambed lines had come to feel unhelpfully artificial. Most importantly, I suppose, the Dead Man poems, with one foot in life and the other in death, swept the horizon.
Seiferle: If the Dead Man had a literary family tree, from whom would he be descended?
Bell: Whitman, of course, is Granddad. A reviewer called The Book of the Dead Man “The Undersong of Myself.” Whitman is Granddad, William Carlos Williams is his more or less respectable son, and Allen Ginsberg is his rebellious grandson. There's a dotty ancestor spoken of in hushed tones, Christopher Smart. Some people say we're distantly related to Pablo somebody, a Chilean. On a more inclusive family tree, the names would be those of photographers, potters, philosophers, sergeants, five-and-ten men, Ukrainian immigrants, rabbis, radicals, amateur radio operators, journalists, trumpet players, a few crooks—you know, the people who taught me the world. For the Dead Man is very much of this world.
Seiferle: Do you miss the more ordinary, less oracular, self of the earlier poems, the self strolling through the lawns of one's neighbors or racing to look up inside a hot air balloon beginning to rise?
Bell: I still get to be that old self at public events where I read those poems aloud. On the surface, it's a more universal and perhaps less eccentric self than that of the Dead Man poems. On the surface, that is. It draws in a more general readership. Those are the anthology poems. But the Dead Man poems are another mode. I've noticed that they engage a kind of reader who has extra mental energy—maybe, I should say, one who wants to boogie and think at the same time. A reader who has one eye on the individual and the other on the human condition. I like to think some future anthologist will read the Dead Man poems closely.
Seiferle: How does the newest group, “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps,” extend the development?
Bell: Resurrected Dead Man poems look like Dead Man poems. They have two titled sections apiece, and the poetic line is the sentence. But the Dead Man is no longer mentioned beyond the series title. The point of view has changed. I suppose I became the Dead Man. Yet I myself never thought of the Dead Man as a persona, but rather as an overarching consciousness. There is still that sense of it operating in the Dead Man's Footsteps poems. The I is not me but knows a lot about me.
Seiferle:As you just noted, in the “Dead Man” and “Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps” poems, every line is a sentence (no matter how long that sentence may be). How did you come up with this formal solution that combines syntax with the line break? Or was this something that you discovered as the work unfolded?
Bell: The first Dead Man poem, in its first version, was written nearly one sentence per line, but not totally. It had three sentences of two lines and one of three. I suppose I was still held in check by the conventional anticipation of a right-hand margin, which typically limits the elasticity of a line. By the time I wrote a second Dead Man poem, four years later, I was ready to go all the way. If I had sensed in 1986, while writing those “Pages,” that the experimental aspect of free verse was essentially used up, by 1990 I knew for sure. It's possible that I was already moving in that direction in “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade,” a poem that appeared in Iris of Creation and which was written in lines so long they read like brief paragraphs. There are no enjambments in Dead Man poems. The longer lines simply wrap at the end of the column.
Seiferle: In the Middle Ages, there were morality plays where, instead of individual characters, the protagonists were representative figures. The “hero” or protagonist was “Everyman.” Do you see the “Dead Man” in your poems as a kind of modern descendent of Everyman?
Bell: You bet. I'm tempted to echo Groucho Marx and raise the stakes and say, You bet your life. After all, the word “morality” needs only one thin letter to become “mortality.” The Everyman of morality plays had a visible relation to mortality. In a world of electronic telescopes and quantum physics, in a universe, therefore, of “dark matter” and “sticky stuff,” in a global community of nearly instantaneous, capacious communication, the human condition is being redefined by what we are made to know about life and death, about Earth and the universe, and about the effect of the observer on an experiment. Yet Everyman still must die, and it makes a difference. I included as epigraphs to both Dead Man books the Zen admonition, “Live as if you were already dead.” By the way, you may think this sounds crazy, but I think it's conceivable that, if we don't wipe ourselves out, people will someday be able to live forever. Gene research, cloning, artificial and organic parts, supercomputers mapping the byways of the brain will make it possible for people to be immortal. Indeed, one can hypothesize a Big Brother regime in which one is prevented from choosing mortality. People in that future may wonder what it was like to have been dead.
Seiferle: Why is the Dead Man dead? “Everyman” was lacking in individual characteristics because he was a religious figure, a kind of spiritual pilgrim. What's most noticeable about the time was the assumption of anonymity and universality having precedence over identity and particularity. But what's most noticeable about the “Dead Man” is that he is “dead,” that it is by means of this universal quality of death that he is connected to the times. Is that the connection which is left to us between the individual and the social and historical realities of our time?
Bell: Well, death is the great eraser of distinctions. The Dead Man is a spiritual pilgrim too though not of Bunyan's church. In part, it's also personal. Being a grownup means knowing that things end. But the Dead Man is alive and dead at the same time. He embodies the past and present, as does anyone, but he also embodies his future, from which he can look back. This is my way of trying to study the dark without turning on a light. He is dead because Everyman is a dead man in waiting. His pilgrim's progress is entropy.
Seiferle: What is it about the “Resurrected Dead Man” that is resurrected? Conscience, a larger, more social sense, of the self? Or a voice, perhaps, to speak the earth itself? One of my favorite lines in these is “Whatever happens to us from now on, it will come up from the earth.”
Bell: The Resurrected Dead Man has come back to life. The line you mention comes from a Dead Man's Footsteps poem that carries political subject matter. On the one hand, the Dead Man generally erases distinctions, though he has scored socio-political points where they mattered. My writing has always included political poems. Okay, the Dead Man erases distinctions where they are meaningless or harmful. But he does not erase those that bear on teleology. If one were willing to erase all distinctions, one would end up honoring the life-force at the expense of whatever it destroys. Thus, the poetry that is content to enact or express the life force ends up amoral or demonic. I suppose one could say that the Dead Man took a look at the reductive art-for-art's-sake aesthetics increasingly occupying the field and decided it was time to come back to life. As for resurrection, reincarnation and such, my son Jason defined it this way: “Either the universe is finite, so nothing is ever lost. Or the universe is infinite, so nothing is ever lost.”
Seiferle: I can see that this figure of the Dead Man would also allow for a new mode of oracular interview, but I'll go ahead and ask. What does the future hold for the Dead Man?
Bell: I don't know. I have been knocking about in the dark. I tried on the idea of the “preposthumous,” but the concept sounds comic. The Dead Man's world has been this world and not this world—simultaneously. If that voice is to speak further, after the Dead Man and the Resurrected Dead Man, it will have to reemerge before death and resurrection. It will have to be that which has yet to be born, yet knows its beginning and its end. It will have to have new eyes. It will have to be green.