When I heard of Marvin Bell’s passing this week, my first thought was of unrealized plans. Every time I spoke with Marvin over the past few years, he reminded me of the idea he had shared to erect a statue of Paul and Hualing Engle in Iowa City. If we could put up a statue of Irving Weber, we could do this, too.
To the end, Marvin was thinking of others. So, when I scrolled through social media that morning, I was not surprised to see so many writers with ties to Iowa City sharing their Marvin stories, about his teaching and mentorship, his poetry and his friendship, the effect he had on their work and their lives. Through his teaching at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and elsewhere, his lectures, his writing, his interviews and more, he had an outsized impact on the world of letters and on this community.
As part of my career in journalism before I became director of the City of Literature, I wrote about the arts for The Gazette. In that role, I was paid to read and interview authors. One of the pleasures of that time was becoming familiar with Marvin’s poetry, and having the chance to interview him about that work.
The first time I spoke with Marvin was in 2000 when he was named the state’s first Poet Laureate. “I hope to show by example that poetry is a natural human activity,” he told me, something I’m sure my younger self thought of as a throwaway line, but which seems today, looking back on his life and career, to encapsulate so much of who he was.
Later that year, his collection Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000 was published. Later than planned, as a matter of fact. Because of the popularity of Harry Potter, printing presses were backed up printing one of those books, and authors like Marvin were forced to wait. An August publication date became November, and scheduled readings were postponed into the next year. Marvin seemed to take it in stride and was self-effacing about this selection from his life’s work up to that point.
“It’s a pretty tight selection given all that I’ve published, but it’s still big enough to hold open a small door.”
With Nightworks in hand I became familiar with, and a fan of his work. His poetry was always thought provoking, occasionally a barometer of the times, more often a sort of time capsule. Marvin landed on lines that he loved, and he loved to share them. He told me in 2000 that when he thinks of his older poems, “They seem to me to have been written by someone I used to know well, but he didn’t know me.” I don’t remember a reading that followed where he didn’t utter this same line. And he closed every reading I attended with his poem for his wife, “To Dorothy,” which begins
“You are not beautiful, exactly
“You are beautiful, inexactly”
If I had written something that perfect, I would have read it every time I had the chance, too.
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And Marvin had more to say. Though a collection like Nightworks often signals the end of a career, he published two more solo collections and a handful of collaborative works in the years that followed. These books included Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems, a collection of his poems featuring The Dead Man, a sort of everyman chronicled in endless ways in Marvin’s verse. This may be how he is best remembered in the wider world of poetry, but in Iowa City, we will remember him for many other things as well.
In this job, I went from reading and interviewing to actively working with writers, and every time we asked Marvin to participate in something, he said yes if he was able. He took part in readings to protest wars, to raise money, to dedicate things. We will remember him every time we pass the plaque with his poem, “This Library,” in the foyer of the Iowa City Public Library, when we stop at the wall in the Pedestrian Mall that bears his poem, “Writers in a Cafe” — written to celebrate Iowa City’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature — or stroll by his spot on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk.
A few weeks ago, a Zoom reading was arranged that featured dozens of writers reading their favorite of Marvin’s poems, people from all over the world gathering together on computer screens to celebrate the man. Marvin was there, a small square in the bottom of my screen, ailing but smiling, constrained by that little box in a way he never was in the real world.
He seemed to be everywhere, and his own words and those of the many he influenced and taught, will carry on.
John Kenyon is the executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization.