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May 20, 1983 - Image 21

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-05-20

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Marvin Bell: Rural Jewish Poet


vin Bell is an American-
Jewish poet whose star is
rising. Now 46 years old, he
is the author of six volumes
of poetry and one book of
literary criticism. He is a
Guggenheim Fellow, a Na-
tional Book Award finalist,
and the recipient of numer-
ous other honors and
awards, the most recent
being his selection as a
Senior Fulbright Scholar to
His poems have appeared
in all our leading national
journals, and he has read
from practically every im-
portant rostrum in the
United States. He rests his
winged heels in Iowa City
these days, where he is pro-
fessor of English at the Uni-
versity of Iowa and a long-
time member of its famed
Writer's Workshop.
As an American-Jewish
poet he is in some ways
uniquely different from his
co-religionists who are also
I first discovered Bell's
poetry a few years ago in
an anthology of contem-
porary American-Jewish
poets, entitled "A Time
To Seek," edited by
Samuel H. Joseloff. What
struck me most about the
poems was their relaxed
"This is a strange Jewish
poet," I said to myself, for
missing from these poems
was all the predictable
angst and all the usual
breaking-point tensions of
sons either competing with,
searching for, rejecting, or
attempting belatedly to
embrace alienated or dis-
tant fathers. After all, have
we not regularly
encountered just such sons
in the poems of Delmore
Schwartz, Stanley Kunitz,
Karl. Shapiro and Allen
Ginsberg, among others?

Unlike these poets, Bell
1_ seems never to be troubled
by familial tensions. The
familiar anguish and agony
are absent, these feelings
- almost invariably replaced
by joy, expressed in moods
that are no less complex for
being playful and low-
- keyed. Bell's idiom and his
rhythms are also relaxed,
complementing the positive
Two good examples of his
detachment and objectivity
are to be found in "An Af-
terword to my Father" and
"The Israeli Navy." The
first, in its entirety, reads:

Still the wood I knocked on
is the family tree.
I'm not a god,
I haven't the fact for it.
Devotion is my disease
or a way out. That accounts
for sons, and for everything.
Not so much 'enough,'
there is more to be done,
yes, and to be done with.
You were the sun and moon.
Now darkness loves me;
the lights come on.

With clarity and ease,
Bell pays his respects to his
departed father, assuring
that his guidance during his
lifetime is a beacon for the

"The Israeli Navy" is a
good example of Bell's comic
inventiveness. He describes
a nonexistent ancient
Jewish navy which could
only sail three days from
port in order to be back
home for Shabat. The first
stanza reads:

The Israeli Navy,
Sailing to the end of the
Stocked with grain
and gooks black with God's
turned back, rather than sail
on the Sabbath,
Six days, was the consensus
was enough for anyone.

As I became more famil-
iar with Bell's poems, I
wondered how he had come
to achieve a voice different
from all the other Jewish
poets I had read. Recently, I
had an opportunity to talk
at length to him and I asked
him about the origin of that
He went back into his
past. "I was raised," he said,
"a Jew, and I was Bar
Mitzva, and my father was
proud of me when I read
from the Torah, and I was
happy to make him proud of
me. I was conscious of that
and it meant something to
me. But in addition to that,
my father was one of those
immigrants from the Uk-
raine who believed in as-
similation. The pendulum
was swinging in that direc-
tion and he urged me to
honor my Judaism but to
grow in my own way. I guess
that's what I did."
For Bell, assimilation
came easy. Unlike the
other poets named above,
he was reared in a small
town on Long Island
away from a major met-
ropolis. There were only
a few resident Jews
there. Bell grew up
among Italians and
Poles. He went to
Alfred University in
Rural New York, which,
while he was there, was
sufficiently isolated that
the school used to import
a rabbi from Connecticut.
After Alfred, Bell went to
Chicago long enough to get
one of his two master's de-
grees, and then he moved on
to Iowa City where he has
spent the past two decades.
All this is to say he was
never into an urban Jewish
orientation, and in some
ways he's remarkable for
simply being a country boy
at heart, one, however, with
plenty of sakhel.
That country-boy ease is
as apparent in his casual
manner as it is in his poems.
He knows that ways of the
city, but his poetry evokes a
love of the countryside and
an empathic rapture with
Is there a danger that his
Jewish roots will, because of

Stock Speculation

An adviser to the Finance
Ministry estimates that
700,000 Israelis speculate
on the Tel Aviv stock ex-
change. Israel does not tax
profits from trading in

his assimilated ease, influ-
ence his poetry less in the
future? Bell doesn't think
so. The Jewishness in his
verses today is more im-
plicit and elss obvious, al-
though one has only to look
into his most recent volume
of poems, "These Green
Going To Yellos"
(Athenaeum), to find some
fairly authentic Jewish
pieces, including "The Last
Thing I Say," and "Flor-
If you're a devotee of
Jewish poetry and you're
looking for something
different, read Marvin Bell.
His may be the only major
Jewish poet's voice to come
out of small-town rural

Friday, May 20, 1983 21




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