Marvin Bell, first Poet Laureate of Iowa, longtime Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor and first poetry editor of The Iowa Review, died on Monday, Dec. 14 after a months-long illness. He was 83.
Bell earned his MFA from the Writers’ Workshop prior to his 40-year tenure teaching there. His students included such luminaries as James Galvin, Joy Harjo and Juan Felipe Herrera. He was well-regarded, even beloved, as a teacher, inspiring an outpouring of verse this fall when former colleagues and students penned poems about him and participated in an online reading in celebration of Bell and his legacy.
His publication history spans 45 years and 21 books of poetry, as well as letters, essays and interviews, from 1966’s Things We Dreamt We Died For (Stone Wall Press) to 2011’s Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (Copper Canyon Press). His work was frequently introspective, following an impulse to understand the self and, through that, others and relationships to others, especially family. But he also turned small objects as keys to unlock global truths — often, elements of nature.
“This year, / I’m raising the emotional ante,” he wrote in “These Green-Going-To-Yellow,” “putting my face / in the leaves to be stepped on, / seeing myself among them, that is.”
Bell’s second book of poetry, 1969’s A Probable Volume of Dreams (Athenaeum), was awarded the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, his first in a career-long series of honors that included Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and Fulbright appointments, in addition to his two terms as Iowa’s Poet Laureate, a position he inaugurated in 2000. His 1977 collection, Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (Athenaeum) was a finalist for the National Book Award.
His use of language is marked by an enviable precision. He leaned into a conversational style that deceptively seemed almost to ramble — but each word carries its weight. This, along with his keen sonic sense, contributed to his reputation as an engaging reader, as well. Bell’s work lives on the page, but lends itself to performance with fullness on the tongue and a lilting quality.
A story wall in the Iowa City Ped Mall’s Black Hawk Mini Park features Bell’s poem “Writers in a Café,” a nod to Iowa City’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature.