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BELL, MARVIN (1937- ) An interviewer once dubbed Marvin Bell the "tree poet," and Bell's body of work lives up to the nickname. Bell says that his "poems have often made a distinction between what nature is and the uses we make of it" (21). "The Self and the Mulberry" (1977) opens with praises for nature's simplicity, which the speaker determines to emulate:
"Like the willow, I tried to weep without tears." The speaker finds that his imitations result in not being able to "cry right," and the poem suggests that contemplating nature will not yield "a natural self." Not all of Bell's verse concerns trees, but all of it possesses a philosophical and contemplative tone. Bell states that he, like William Carlos williams, is "a poet of ideas," and he shares with his mentors, John logan and Donald justice, a concern for the psychology of loss and interest in conceptualizing self-identity (78).
Bell was born on August 3, 1937, in New York City and grew up in rural Long Island. He studied with Logan at the University of Chicago before working with Justice at the University of Iowa. He published Things We Dreamt We Died For, his first book, in 1966 and has published 16 volumes of poetry to date. Bell has received awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Iowa named him as the state's first poet laureate in 2000. Bell's former students include Rita dove, Joy harjo, and James tate.
Tending toward the experimental, Bell's early poems are noted for a nontraditional structure and style, wordplay, and complicated syntax. While Bell's writing developed, his innovations became more subtle; as Richard Jackson observes of Bell's later work, his "poems . . . make stunning leaps and turns with the seeming ease of someone out for a walk" (45).
In his most recent and longest poem cycle, Bell develops his thinking through counterpoint, as he often does. Based upon the contradictions and dialectics of death and life, the Dead Man is an everyman character, who "is dead like a useless gift in its box waiting." ("About the Dead Man"). As Bell writes in "About the Dead Man's Not Telling," the protagonist "encounters horrific conditions infused with beauty," a phrase that embodies the entire cycle. The Dead Man appears in The Book of the Dead Man (1994), Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2 (1997), and "Sounds of the Resurrected Dead Man's Footsteps," included in Night Works (2000).
The convoluted becomes clear in Bell's writing, but the mundane and simple turn into the complex. All of it intertwines, producing an aesthetic of paradox and possibility.
36 "BELLS FOR JOHN WHITESIDE'S DAUGHTER"
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