It was during 2009, while living in Berlin, that I first wrote to acclaimed American poet Marvin Bell - Iowa's first poet laureate, and poetry guru of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Bell is the author of 24 volumes of poetry and is widely considered one of America's most innovative and accomplished writers. His former students include luminaries such as Rita Dove, Joy Harjo, Jorie Graham, James Galvin and John Irving. I know this because immediately after hitting send, launching an embarrassing early poem into his inbox, I googled him ... then facepalmed. I didn't expect him to reply, but he did - an encouraging email with an offer to mentor me in poetry if I could get to the US.
I never made it to the US, but Bell and I stayed in touch. He sent me the manuscript of his 1994 The Book of the Dead Man, a collection which virtually redefined poetry in the US. His "32 Statements about Writing Poetry", another emailed treasure, gave me the courage to keep writing.
As statement number 19 says, "You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed". Number 20, also insightful, points out that "At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them".
Whenever I felt lost as an artist, I'd write to Bell and he'd unfailingly send reinforcements. Today I know there are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets out there, who are writing today because of this one man, this one voice - coming to them from some American town, saying "Keep going! I believe in you."
A few weeks ago, Bell submitted three new poems to The Canberra Times. Accompanying them was a simple note, addressed to students, friends and close acquaintances, saying he is desperately ill and his chances for recovery unknown. "I got to 83," he wrote. "Not bad."
Returning to one of his earlier collections, A Probable Volume of Dreams, I find an elegy to Bell's father:
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.
It occurs to me that Bell's entire oeuvre has prepared him for this moment. He has examined death from so many angles, and in such detail, that it arrives now as an old friend.
In an interview with Stanley Plumly and Wayne Dodd, in the Ohio Review, Bell explains, "I would like to write poetry which finds salvation in the physical world and the here and now, and which defines the soul, if you will, in terms of emotional depth - and that emotional depth in terms of the physical world and the world of human relationships."
There is no clear line between Bell's exploration of poetry and his wish to understand the emotional dimensions of the human soul. The light he threads into his poems, is the same light he shares with fledgling poets - part of his grand vision to vivify poetry, to entrench it within the thinking of our time.
As I write this, there are many poets in different countries hoping that 2020, the shittiest year in living memory, will not take Bell - but it might. And if it does, the literati will begin evaluating his contribution to poetry. I'd like to get in first: Marvin Bell will be remembered as a firefly in the dark, a trailblazing poet, devoted to lifting up others. His vision of poetry as a transcendent force, a pathway to truth, is rare among contemporary writers.
Bell's technical achievements, particularly his expansion of poetic form, should not be overlooked, but it is his gentleness, his generosity of spirit, and his luminous poetic eye that will define him as an artist, and as a human being too.
- Judith Nagala Crispin is TheCanberra Times poetry editor.
- See Bell's poem, When I Opened My Eyes, on Page 34.