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Nous avons eu cette idée
de planter nos mains au jardin
Branches des dix doigts
Petits arbres d'ossements
Tout le jour
Nous avons attendu l'oiseau roux
Et les feuilles fraîches
A nos ongles polis.
Ne se sont pris au piège de nos mains coupées.
Pour une seule fleur
Une seule minuscule étoile de couleur
Un seul vol d'aile calme
Pour une seule note pure
Répétée trois fois.
Il faudra la saison prochaine
Et nos mains fondues comme l'eau.
N'allons pas en ces bois profonds
A cause des grandes fontaines
Qui dorment au fond.
N'éveillons pas les grandes fontaines
Un faux sommeil clôt leurs paupières salées
Aucun rêve n'y invente de floraisons
Sous-marines et blanches et rares.
Les jours alentour
Et les arbres longs et chantants
N'y plongent aucune image.
L'eau de ces bois sombres
Est si pure et si uniquement fluide
Et consacrée en cet écoulement de source
Vocation marine où je me mire.
O larmes à l'intérieur de moi
Au creux de cet espace grave
Où veillent les droits piliers
De ma patience ancienne
Pour vous garder
Solitude éternelle solitude de l'eau.
Her early writings were considered part of the deep image movement that also included the works of Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, and Clayton Eshleman, among others. She also cites William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg as influences. Her later work is more personal and conversational in the Williams mode.
She is best known for a series of poems collectively known as "The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems."
She received considerable attention in the 1980s for controversial comments linking New Formalism with Reaganism.
Wakoski is married to the photographer Robert Turney, and taught creative writing at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, retiring in 2011.
Diane Wakoski, described as an "important and moving poet" by Paul Zweig in the New York Times Book Review, is frequently named among the foremost contemporary American poets by virtue of her experiential vision and her unique voice. Wakoski's poems focus on intensely personal experiences—on her unhappy childhood, on the painful relationships she has had with men and, perhaps most frequently, on the subject of being Diane Wakoski. This is not to say, however, that her work is explicitly autobiographical. She has invented and incorporated personae from mythology and archetype as a liberation from what she has called the "obsessive muse," that spurs writers to face their personal terrors and turn them into art.
Occasionally some critics have found Wakoski's thematic concerns difficult to appreciate, especially the recurring "anti-male rage" theme noted by Peter Schjeldahl in the New York Times Book Review. Wakoski's poems, according to Schjeldahl, "are professionally supple and clear . . . but their pervasive unpleasantness makes her popularity rather surprising. One can only conclude that a number of people are angry enough at life to enjoy the sentimental and desolating resentment with which she writes about it."
Many other critics, however, believed that it is through this very rage and resentment that Wakoski makes a significant statement in her work. James F. Mersmann, for example, commented in Margins that Wakoski's poetry "gives us a moving vision of the terrible last stages of a disintegrating personality and a disintegrating society, and it painfully embodies the schizophrenia, alienation, and lovelessness of our time." Douglas Blazek concluded in Poetry that Wakoski's poems have the "substance necessary to qualify them notches above the works of creative 'geniuses,' 'stylists,' and 'cultural avatars' who have little to say."
The stylistic and structural aspects of Wakoski's poetry are as unique as her poetic statement. Often described as prosy, her poems are usually written in the first person. Rosellen Brown wrote in Parnassus that Wakoski "is a marvelously abundant woman" who sounds in her poetry "like some friend of yours who's flung herself down in your kitchen to tell you something urgent and makes you laugh and respect her good old-fashioned guts at the same time."
"Diane's style of writing," said in Margins, "reminds me of the baroque style of dress . . . the huge flounces, furbelows, puffed sleeves, trailing skirts, tight waist, heaving bosoms and stylishly protruding buttocks, all carried off with great elegance of movement and poise." In Mediterranean Review, critic Robert DeMaria found that, "stylistically, [Wakoski] has a marvelous and distinctive voice. It lingers in one's mind after one has read her. . . . Her timing is excellent, so excellent that she can convert prose into poetry at times. And most of what she writes is really prose, only slightly transformed, not only because of its arrangement on the page, but because of this music she injects into it."
While the structure of Wakoski's poems appears to be informal and casually built, her artistic control is tight. As suggested in the Hudson Review, "Wakoski has a way of beginning her poems with the most unpromising materials imaginable, then carrying them on, often on and on and on, talkily, until at the end they come into surprising focus, unified works. With her it is a question of thematic and imagistic control; I think her poems are deeply, rather than verbally, structured." In Contemporary Literature, Marjorie G. Perloff spoke of Wakoski's purpose in writing nontraditionally structured poems, saying that Wakoski "strives for a voice that is wholly natural, spontaneous, and direct. Accordingly, she avoids all fixed forms, definite rhythms, or organized image patterns in the drive to tell us the Whole Truth about herself, to be sincere."
"Although Wakoski's poems are not traditional structures," said Debra Hulbert in Prairie Schooner, "she builds them solidly with words which feel chosen, with repetition of images throughout a poem." This repetition, an element that critics mention often, makes its own statement apart from the individual themes of the poems. "Repetition," remarked Gloria Bowles in Margins, "has become Wakoski's basic stylistic mode. And since form is an extension of content (et vice versa) Wakoski's poetic themes have become obsessive. Repetition is a formal fact of her poetry and, so she suggests, the basic structure of our lives."
Wakoski's poems often rely on digressions, on tangential wanderings through imagery and fantasy, to present ideas and themes. Blazek observed that "many of her poems sound as if they're constantly in trouble, falling into triteness, clumsiness, or indirection. She is constantly jumping into deep water to save a drowning stanza or into burning buildings to recover disintegrating meaning, always managing to pull these rescues off, sometimes with what appears to be a superhuman determination, drawing gasps from witnesses who never lose that initial impression of disaster." But, he said, these "imaginative excursions and side-journeys (she can get strung-out in just about any poem over a page long) are well-founded in her life—they're not just facile language cyclone-spinning itself to naught. They are doors into her psyche."
Toby Olson, writing in Margins, believed that "one of the central forces of . . . [Wakoski's] poems proceeds from a fundamentally serious playfulness, an evident desire to spin out and open the image rather than to close the structure. . . . One of their most compelling qualities is their obsessiveness: the need at every turn to digress, to let the magic of the words take her where they will, because they are so beautiful, because the ability to speak out is not to be taken for granted, is to be wondered at in its foreignness, is to be followed." Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Mark Harris observed: "In many of Wakoski's poems the obsessive muse focuses on the idea of beauty. Taken as a whole, her work may be regarded as a linguistic/poetic quest for beauty."
The "magic" of Wakoski's words is also wrought through her use of imagery and through her creation of a consistent personal mythology. Commenting on two of the poet's earliest works, Coins and Coffins and Discrepancies and Apparitions, Sheila Weller wrote in Ms. that the books "established [Wakoski] as a poet of fierce imagination. She was at once an eerie imagist (always the swooping gulls, deciduating hands, the hawk that 'pecks out my eyes like two cherries'); and a rapt parablist, reworking Wild West legend and cosmological symbols, transmuting fairy-tale scenes ('three children dancing around an orange tree') into macaberie ('Do you see the round orange tree? . . . glinting through the leaves, / the hanged man'). These poems are vivid landscapes—as diabolic as Dali, as gauzy as Monet."
In Poetry, described Wakoski as "a fabulist, a weaver of gorgeous webs of imagery and a teller of archetypically glamorous tales [who has] always attempted self-definition through self-mythologizing. 'The poems were a way of inventing myself into a new life,' she has said." "The myth of herself," said H. Zinnes in World Literature Today, is of "one 'clothed in fat,' with an ugly face, without wit, brilliance or elegance, but having some 'obsession for truth and history.' This plain seeker after love . . . is of course a poet with a great deal of wit. . . . a poet who in her work and life is not merely searching for a lover," although many of her poems touch on this theme.
Harris wrote: "Wakoski's preference for single words and rhythms that mirror the patterns of speech can mislead the reader into reading her poems too literally. This mistake in turn leads the reader to consider her themes trivial, for by reading on only the literal level, one misses the substance and complexity provided by the emblematic level. . . . The strength of the poetry . . . is that both sides of a paradox can be presented together, equally and simultaneously, a situation that life cannot duplicate. At its best, Wakoski believes, poetry employs the objects, events and experiences of life in a way that allows the reader to experience their emotional substance. Her emblematic use of language is one of her methods for obtaining this result."
Wakoski's personal mythology embraces many archetypal figures as well, including George Washington, the king of Spain, the motorcycle mechanic, the "man in Receiving at Sears," Beethoven, the "man with the gold tooth," and the "man who shook hands." These characters, most of whom appear more than once in Wakoski's canon, serve as symbols, emblematic of emotional states, past experiences, fantasies, and, sometimes, of real people in the poet's life.
George Washington, for example, appears in The George Washington Poems, a collection Weller called "witty, caustic takes on the male mystique. In a voice by turns consciously absurdist and tremulously earnest, she takes the first President as her 'mythical father-lover,' romanticizes and barbs 'the militaristic, penalizing, fact-over-feeling male mind that I've always been afraid of and fascinated by.'" Wakoski speaks to George Washington in the poems with various voices—as Martha Washington, as a bitter child whose father has left home, as a lover left behind in the Revolutionary War. As Norman Martien explained in Partisan Review, "the George Washington myths serve to express the failure of a woman's relations to her men, but the myths also give her a means of talking about it. Partly because 'George' is so distant, he can be a safe listener. . . . [and] he can allow her a voice that can reaffirm human connection, impossible at closer ranges." This theme of the failure of relationships, of betrayal by others (especially men), is a central concern of Wakoski's, and many of her mythological figures embody one or more of the facets of human relations in which she sees the possibility of betrayal or loss.
The figure of the motorcycle mechanic in The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems symbolizes, as Wakoski says in her dedicatory statement, "all those men who betrayed me at one time or another." According to Zweig, the book is "haunted by a curious mythology composed of mustached lovers, 'mechanics' who do not understand the engine humming under [the narrator's] skin, the great-grandfatherly warmth of Beethoven and George Washington, to whom she turns with humor but also with a sort of desperation." In this book, said Eric Mottram in Parnassus, Wakoski "operates in a world of women as adjuncts to men and the erotics of bikes; the poems are survival gestures." According to Weller, the book "made . . . women start at [Wakoski's] power to personalize the paradox" of male-female relationships—"their anger at the rejecting male archetype . . . yet their willing glorification of it . . . The book's theme is the mythology and confusions of . . . love, and the fury at betrayal by symbols, envy, lovers, and self."
The theme of betrayal, and its resulting pain, also appears in Inside the Blood Factory. Here, as Zweig observed, Wakoski writes "poems of loss. The loss of childhood; the loss of lovers and family; the perpetual loss a woman lives with when she thinks she is not beautiful. These losses [create] a scorched earth of isolation around her, which she [describes] harshly and precisely. . . . From this vulnerable retreat, a stream of liberating images [emerges] to grapple with the world and mythify it." Peter D. Zivkovic, writing in Southwest Review, believed that Inside the Blood Factory is "significantly more than a memorable reading experience. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about . . . [the book] is the consistent strength of the individual poems. There is not," Zivkovic concluded, "a single weak poem in the volume—an achievement worthy of Frost and other American giants." Fourteen years after Inside the Blood Factory, Wakoski produced Saturn's Rings and The Magician's Feastletters. Saturn's Rings is a collection of surrealist poems loosely connected by the metaphorical theme of self-banishment and characteristic self-scrutiny. Holly Prado noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Fearing decay, ignorance, and the inevitability of death, Wakoski writes with the intensity of someone fiercely alive, who still wants to unscramble failures, loneliness, the image of herself as the homely girl who was never acceptable." Noting the limitations of her shorter pieces in the collection, Paul Oppenheimer commented in American Book Review on the concluding series of eleven poems from which the title of the collection derives: " Saturn's Rings . . . is an often captivating, often self-pitying cry from the depths. . . . The cry is especially moving when uttered in the bright, chromic voice of Wakoski's most surrealistic lines. She is fine at depicting the possibility that 'the world / is flying out of control,' and that we may be living in 'a disintegrating time.'" In The Magician's Feastletters, arranged in four sections that parallel the four seasons, Wakoski uses food as a metaphor for love and deprivation. Though tending toward abstraction, noted the concreteness of Wakoski's imagery and description of everyday items. He wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Wakoski [begins] to reverse a whole system of frozen values geared to affirm youth/sexuality/summer/product and to denigrate aging/impotence/winter/soul. Especially in the light of current fashions in American poetry (where empty description is as touted as pretentious nonsense), Wakoski's poetry is extremely valuable."
The Collected Greed, Parts 1-13 and Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 bring together examples of Wakoski's finest writing over a twenty-five-year period. The Collected Greed is an assemblage of poetry from previous installments of Greed published between 1968 and 1973, with the addition of two previously unpublished parts. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review Kenneth Funsten offered high praise for "The Greed to Be Fulfilled," one of the new sections. Here Wakoski traces her personal quest for purpose and completion in a surreal glass house where she revisits George Washington and representations of and the king of Spain. Funsten wrote, "The confessional voice of the self-centered ego reaches a new plane of maturity when it decides that intellectual things, not emotional ones, are what matter." Throughout the collection Wakoski explores various manifestations of greed, defined by her as "an unwillingness to give up one thing / for another," as quoted in Funsten's review.
In the 1990s Wakoski produced Jason the Sailor and The Emerald City of Las Vegas, both belonging to the "Archaeology of Movies and Books" series that began with Medea the Sorceress in 1991. In Jason the Sailor, consisting of poems, letters, and excerpted texts by Camille Paglia, Nick Herbert, and Jeremy Bernstein, Wakoski explores archetypal love, betrayal, and the dynamics of male-female relationships, concluding, as quoted in a Kliatt review of the work, "Women need men, the other halves of ourselves." The Emerald City of Las Vegas similarly examines the mythology of modern America in casinos and through excerpts from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that the book represents Wakoski's "inner conversation about what it means to be a woman, to be no longer young, to be a poet." The fourth book in the series is Argonaut Rose, in which Wakoski writes of her own history and popular culture. Library Journal reviewer Graham Christian said that she "remains an interesting poet to watch."
The Butcher's Apron: New and Selected Poems, Including "Greed: Part 14" focuses on the purchase, preparation, and enjoyment of food. Some of the poems read as recipes, as in "Braised Short Ribs." Wakoski writes of food failures, such as a pumpkin pie that won't set, and food she ate as a child. Library Journal contributor Judy Clarence wrote that the volume is pervaded by Wakoski's "feminine gentility," and felt that it should not be read in one sitting, but should "be dipped into now and then, as if one were sticking a finger into a pot of honey." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commended the work for its "plainly spoken, autobiographically grounded line."
Wakoski lives and works in East Lansing, Michigan. She is planning another extensive sequence of poems, possibly running to multiple volumes. In her work "The Blue Swan: An Essay on Music in Poetry" she summed up the process of poetry writing: "first comes the story. Then comes the reaction to the story. Then comes the telling and retelling of the story. And finally . . . comes boredom with the story, so that finally we invent music, and the nature of music is that you must hear all the digressions."
Poet and educator. British Book Centre, New York, NY, clerk, 1960-63; Junior High School 22, New York, NY, teacher, 1963-66; New School for Social Research, New York, NY, lecturer, 1969; writer-in-residence, California Institute of Technology, 1972, University of Virginia, 1972-73, Willamette University, 1974, University of California, Irvine, 1974, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1975, Michigan State University, 1975, Whitman College, 1976, University of Washington, 1977, University of Hawaii, 1978, and Emory University, 1980, 1981; member of faculty at Michigan State University, 1976.
- William Carlos Williams Award for her book Emerald Ice.
- Guggenheim Foundation grant
- National Endowment for the Arts grant
- Fulbright grant
- "Red Bandana", echonyc
- "A Valentine for Ben Franklin Who Drives a Truck in California". Poetry Foundation.
- The butcher's apron: new & selected poems, including "Greed: part 14". David R. Godine Publisher. 2000.
- The Archaeology of Movies and Books sequence:
- Argonaut Rose. David R. Godine Publisher. 1998.
- The Emerald City of Las Vegas. David R. Godine Publisher. 1995. Jason the Sailor. David R. Godine Publisher. 1993.
- Medea the Sorceress. David R. Godine Publisher. 1991.
- Argonaut Rose. David R. Godine Publisher. 1998.
- Emerald Ice : Selected Poems 1962-1987. David R Godine Pub. 1988. The rings of Saturn. Black Sparrow Press. 1986.
- The Collected Greed. David R. Godine Publisher. 1984
- Waiting for the King of Spain. David R. Godine Publisher. 1980.
- Cap of darkness: including looking for the king of Spain & Pachelbel's Canon. Black Sparrow Press. 1980.
- The man who shook hands. Doubleday. 1978.
- Virtuoso literature for two and four hands. Doubleday. 1975.
- Trilogy: Coins & coffins: Discrepancies and apparitions; The George Washington poems. Doubleday. 1974.
- Dancing on the grave of a son of a bitch. Black Sparrow Press. 1973.
- The motorcycle betrayal poems. Simon and Schuster. 1971.
- The Magellanic Clouds. Black Sparrow Press. 1970.
- Inside the blood factory. Doubleday. 1968.
- Coins & coffins. Hawk's Well Press. 1962.
- Leroi Jones, ed (1962). Four Young Lady Poets: Carol Bergé, Barbara Moraff, Rochelle Owens, Diane Wakoski. Totem Press-Corinth Books.
- Towards a New Poetry. University of Michigan Press. 1980.
Bell was born in New York City and raised in Center Moriches, Long Island. He earned his bachelor's degree from Alfred University, his master's degree from the University of Chicago, and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
He is the author of more than 16 books of poetry. Notable books of poetry including The Book of the Dead Man (Copper Canyon, 1994) and Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2. (Copper Canyon, 1997)
Bell's second book, A Probable Volume of Dreams, was awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1969. Other honors for his work include Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and Fullbright appointments in Yugoslavia and Australia. In 2000 Bell was appointed as the first Poet Laureate for the state of Iowa.
Bell taught for many years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as the Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters. He currently is an emeritus faculty member. Over a long career Bell has held numerous visiting lectureships at universities, including Goddard College, Oregon State University, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Washington. He currently serves on the faculty of the Masters in Fine Arts in writing program at Pacific University in Oregon.
Bell's list of former students include Marilyn Chin, Rita Dove, Norman Dubie, James Galvin, Jorie Graham, Joy Harjo, David St. John, and James Tate.
Bell has written poems protesting the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and given readings for Poets Against War.
He currently lives in Port Townsend, Washington and Iowa City.
American poet and critic Marvin Bell "is a poet of the family. He writes of his father, his wives, his sons, and himself in a dynamic interaction of love and loss, accomplishment, and fear of alienation. These are subjects that demand maturity and constant evaluation. A complete reading of Bell's canon shows his ability to understand the durability of the human heart. Equally impressive is his accompanying technical sophistication," commented William M. Robins in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The son of a Jew who immigrated from the Ukraine, Bell has written frequently of distance and reconciliation between people, often touching on his complex relationship to his heritage.
His A Probable Volume of Dreams opens with a poem addressed to the poet's father, initiating a dialogue that continues throughout Bell's works. "Although Bell is never narrowly confessional, it is important to note just how much the death of the father—his profound absence and presence—helps shape Bell's poetry and create possible worlds. The father: Bell's own dead father, and his growing sense of himself as a father who has sons and who, like him, will someday die," wrote Arthur Oberg in American Poetry Review. In addition to this motif, the poems "tell how unlinear life and art are, how 'progress' is a deception of the nineteenth century, how increasingly distant the finishing line for the poet-runner proves to be," Oberg observed. A Probable Volume of Dreams won the Lamont Award from the Academy of American Poets in 1969.
Bell's concern with the self and its relationships, a focus of his earlier poetry, gradually gave way to reflections on the self in relation to nature in books such as Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See.Speaking of this development to Wayne Dodd and in an Ohio Review interview, Bell noted that attention to nature has always been an integral part of his life. He grew up among farmers, so the rural life that so fascinated other writers during the 1960s back-to-nature movement was not Bell's inspiration. His first work came from his interest "in what language could make all by itself. . . . And I was interested in relationships between people. I wrote one whole book of poems-in-series about the relationships between a couple of people, or among several people. But now, for whatever good reasons, I am interested in allowing nature to have the place in my poems that it always had in my life."
For Bell, the change in subject matter signaled a change in attitude, both personal and cultural. He once explained, "Contemporary American poetry has been tiresome in its discovery of the individual self, over and over and over, and its discovery of emotions that, indeed, we all have: loneliness, fear, despair, ennui, etcetera. I think it can get tiresome when the discovery of such emotions is more or less all the content there is to a poem. We know these things. . . . So I sort of write poetry nowadays from some other attitudes, I think, that came upon me without my ever really thinking about them. I think, for example, that it's ultimately pleasanter and healthier and better for everyone if one thinks of the self as being very small and very unimportant. . . . And I think, as I may not always have thought, that the only way out of the self is to concentrate on others and on things outside the self."
Bell has sometimes referred to this development as an achievement of poetic modesty. He told Dodd and Plumly, "There is a kind of physical reality that we all share a sense of. I mean, we might argue about what reality is, but we all know how to walk across a bridge—instead of walking across the water, for instance. And it seems to me that one definition of modesty in poetry would be a refusal to compromise the physical facts of what it is that is showing up in one's poems," Bell explained.
Speaking of his personal aesthetic, he told the interviewers, "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." Regarding style, he added, "I'd like to write a poetry which has little if any insistence about it, as little as possible. I would like to write a poetry which doesn't seem either to button-hole the reader, or demand too much allegiance, or demand that too much of the world be given up for the special world of the poem."
Reviewers have commented that Bell's more recent poems fulfill these aspirations. , writing in the Georgia Review, remarked, "I am impressed by this poet's increasing ability to perceive and praise small wonders. There is life and health in . . . [his verse], and if sometimes Bell's expression is quiet and reserved, his talent is not. Altogether, Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See demonstrates an important transitional phase for the poet—a subdued, graceful vein that enables him to 'speak of eyes and seasons' with an intimacy and surehandedness that informs and gratifies. . . . I believe Marvin Bell is on a track of the future—a mature, accessible and personalized venture into the mainstream of contemporary American verse." Of the same book, wrote in Parnassus, "Many poets have tried to appropriate into their poems a gritty, tough-talking American character, and to thereby earn for themselves some . . . 'authenticity'. . . . In Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, Bell has found within his own voice that American voice, and with it the ability to write convincingly about the smallest details of a personal history."
Bell's subsequent works have elicited from critics an appreciation of the poet's blending of precise descriptive powers with deceptively simple grammar and syntax. In reviewing These Green-Going-to-Yellow, Richard Jackson commented in the American Book Review that Bell's strategy of deploying words and phrases in unusual contexts has resulted in "an increasingly expansive and colloquial language that is willing to gather in larger fragments of the world without the 'new critical' necessity of neatly tying each bit together on the surface of the text." The poet's linguistic maturity has also been singled out in discussions of the 1987 anthology, New and Selected Poems. For several critics, the less private and self-referential later poetry contained in this volume has made Bell one of the most arresting of contemporary writers. A Poetryreviewer noted that Bell "is a discreet master of withheld information. His writing has a distinctive enough flavor to make us feel we know him well after turning the last page of this book; but . . . of the events and circumstances of his life the poems say very little directly." And a contributor to American Poetry Review related: "It is Bell's later poetry, far less private and solipsistic, and far more abundantly intelligent and astonishing [than his earlier poetry,] that has made him one of the best poets now working."
The subsequent collection, Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000, further allows readers to trace Bell's growth, remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who said, "This selection shows a poet progressing to the peak of his powers." The text, which contains selections from A Probable Volume of Dreams, The Escape into You, and Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See, among others, highlights subjects consistent throughout Bell's body of work. Poems included in this collection touch on the death of Bell's father, his identity as a Jew, his experiences in the military, as well as his relationships with his wives and children. In an article for the North Stone Review, James Naiden noted that Nightworksplaces Bell in the more comprehensive context of poetic tradition. "While the 'father poems' and poems otherwise exhuming the past, as it were, illustrate the incantatory ghosts in Bell's oeuvre," wrote Naiden, "there are also acknowledgments to his prolific forebears, such as . . . and, of course, ." These and other "kindred poets . . . provide clarity to [Bell's] voice by their own leave-taking, the offering of a poet to give voice where otherwise there is silence." In addition, the poems in the collection strike a balance between what Naiden termed "common experience" and Bell's personal history, as well as his connections to others. In her North Stone Review assessment of Bell's The Book of the Dead Man, Carol Ellis similarly remarked that in the interplay between Bell's "Odysseus," the dead man, and nature, "communion creates community," emphasizing that "the dead man is in a state of constant knowing because he is never out of touch with the world."
Bell's use of humor has continued to develop over the years. "Humor in the fifteen new poems contained in New and Selected Poems is of the sort that deflates our facile reductions of experience," observed an essayist for Contemporary Poets. "Marvin Bell's work satisfies a need for every kind of laugh and reminds us that comedy is at least as tough as tragedy. From the outset, however, he has been modulating the balance of amusement and profundity in his poetry. Early on his wit was, by turns, clever and probing, tending at one moment to trivialize his work, at another to deepen it. But over the long haul he has exerted mature control."
In 1994 Bell published what some reviewers regard as his most radical work, The Book of the Dead Man, which consists of a sequence of thirty-three poems on various facets of life, narrated by the anonymous title character. Stan Sanvel Rubin wrote in Prairie Schooner that Bell has fashioned in this work "a dazzling linguistic Chinese box, at once alluring and elusive, which shows up for once and for all (maybe) the emptiness of 'Language Poetry' and, in fact, much recent experimental and postmodern writing." averred in Poetry that "Bell is really out there—trying to invent a new kind of poetry, something like an epic with only one character." Richard Jackson, in an appraisal for the North American Review, termed The Book of the Dead Man "one of the most complex, most original books in a long time." Jackson added that Bell deals with both internal and external forces but does not see them as necessarily separate: "The counterpointed vision also means that to talk about the cosmos is to talk about the self and its tiniest sensations, to talk about government is to talk about the self's needs—one thing is always seen in contrast to several other things." The critic concluded, "What The Book of the Dead Man does, by its verbal pyrotechnics, is redefine sensibility, and this is the most essential thing any poetry can do. . . . This is an astounding feat. There's not a greater gift any poet or poetry can bring." In Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Volume Two, Bell continues in an similar mode, darkly rendering what a Publishers Weeklycontributor described as "the thin line that separates the real from the unreal, the illuminated from the dim, the living from the dead."
Bell's volume of essays, Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews, is concerned with themes typical of the author's poetic works, particularly mutability and decay. Virginia Quarterly Review contributor Thomas Swiss commended Bell's prose, saying Bell "writes with style: clean, metaphoric prose that's readable and instructive. He writes simply without condescending and without ignoring the complexity of the issues he examines." The volume also presents valuable insights into the author's poetic process. Bell writes, as quoted by Swiss, "I'll tell you right now the secrets of writing poetry. . . . First, one learns to write by reading. . . . Number two, I believe that language, compared to the materials of other art forms, has only one thing going for it: the ability to be precise. . . . And the third and most important secret is that, if you do anything seriously for a long time, you get better at it."
Poet and educator. University of Iowa, Writers' Workshop, Iowa City, IA, visiting lecturer, 1965, assistant professor, 1967-69, associate professor, 1969-75, professor of English, 1975—; University of Iowa, Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters, 1986—. Visiting lecturer, Oregon State University, 1969, Goddard College, 1972, University of Hawaii, 1981, and University of Washington, 1982; University of the Redlands, Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest writing fellow, 1991-92, 1992-93; Woodrow Wilson visiting fellow, St. Mary's College of California, 1994-95, Nebraska-Wesleyan University, 1996-97, Pacific University, 1996-97, Hampden-Sydney College, 1999, West Virginia Wesleyan College, 2000-01; Birmingham-Southern College, 2000-01, and Illinois College, 2001-02. Judge for various writing competitions.
- American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature
- Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships
- Senior Fulbright appointments to Yugoslavia and Australia
- Flannery O'Connor Professor of Letters at the University of Iowa
- Iowa's first Poet Laureate
- National Book Award Finalist
- Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets
- Mars Being Red Copper Canyon Press, 2007.
- 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book (poems), Trinity University Press, 2009.
- Rampant (2004)
- Nightworks: Poems, 1962-2000 (2000)
- Wednesday: Selected Poems 1966-1997, Salmon Publishing (Ireland), 1998.
- Poetry for a Midsummer's Night, Seventy Fourth Street Productions (Seattle), 1998.
- Ardor: The Book of the Dead Man, Vol. 2 (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1997.
- A Marvin Bell Reader (selected prose and poetry), Middlebury College Press/University Press of New England, 1994.
- The Book of the Dead Man (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1994.
- Iris of Creation (poems), Copper Canyon Press, 1990.
- New and Selected Poems, Athenaeum, 1987.
- Drawn by Stones, by Earth, by Things That Have Been in the Fire (poems), Athenaeum, 1984.
- These Green-Going-to-Yellow (poems), Athenaeum, 1981.
- Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (poems), Athenaeum, 1977. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1992.)
- Residue of Song (poems), Athenaeum, 1974.
- The Escape into You (poems), Athenaeum, 1971. (Reissued, Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, 1994.)
- A Probable Volume of Dreams (poems), Athenaeum, 1969.
- Things We Dreamt We Died For (poems), Stone Wall Press, 1966.
Letters, Essays and Interviews
- "Letter to J. D. Salinger", Letters to J. D Salinger (edited by Chris Kubica), University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
- Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry (co-authored with William Stafford), David R. Godine, Publisher, 1983.
- Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews, U. of Michigan Press, 1983.
"Now and then a poet comes along whose work ranges across wide and diverse territories of form, attitude, and emotion—yet with the necessary intelligence that belies a deep, lifelong engagement with tradition—so that variance never seems mere experimentation or digression, but improvisation," wrote Midwest Quarterly contributor Matthew Miller. "Hayden Carruth is such an artist."
The Pulitzer Prize won by Carruth in 1996 for his collection Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey provided a grace note for a long academic and literary career that has seen the author become known as a proponent of twentieth-century modernism. Though recognized primarily as a critic and editor, Carruth is also, according to the Virginia Quarterly Review,"a poet who has never received the wide acclaim his work deserves and who is certainly one of the most important poets working in this country today. . . . [He is] technically skilled, lively, never less than completely honest, and as profound and deeply moving as one could ask." Characterized by a calm, tightly controlled, and relatively "plain" language that belies the intensity of feeling behind the words, Carruth's poetry elicits praise from those who admire its wide variety of verse forms and criticism from those who find its precision and restraint too impersonal and academic.
Commenting in his book Babel to Byzantium, speculated that these opposing views of Carruth's work may result from the occasionally uneven quality of his poetry. In a discussion of The Crow and the Heart, for example, Dickey noted "a carefulness which bursts, once or twice or three times, into a kind of frenzied eloquence, a near-hysteria, and in these frightening places sloughing off a set of mannerisms which in the rest of the book seems determined to reduce Carruth to the level of a thousand other poets. . . . [He] is one of the poets (perhaps all poets are some of these poets) who write their best, pushing past limit after limit, only in the grip of recalling some overpowering experience. When he does not have such a subject at hand, Carruth amuses himself by being playfully skillful with internal rhyme, inventing bizarre Sitwellian images, being witty and professionally sharp."
American Poetry Review critic Geoffrey Gardner, who characterized Carruth as "a poet who has always chosen to make his stand just aside from any of the presently conflicting mainstreams," said that such linguistic playfulness is typical of the poet's early work. He attributes it to Carruth's struggle "to restore equilibrium to the soul [and] clarity to vision, through a passionate command of language," a struggle that gives much of his poetry "a Lear-like words-against-the-storm quality." Continued Gardner: "I won't be the first to say Carruth's early work is cumbered by archaisms, forced inversions, sometimes futile extravagances of vocabulary and a tendency of images and metaphors to reify into a top heavy symbolism. . . . But the courage of [his] poems can't be faulted. From the earliest and against great odds, Carruth made many attempts at many kinds of poems, many forms, contending qualities of diction and texture. . . . If the struggle of contending voices and attitudes often ends in poems that don't quite succeed, it remains that the struggle itself is moving for its truthfulness and intensity. . . . Carruth uniformly refuses to glorify his crazies. They are pain and pain alone. What glory there is—and there are sparks of it everywhere through these early poems—he keeps for the regenerative stirrings against the storm of pain and isolation."
In his essay, Miller looked at one major influence on Carruth's poetry. "Carruth's relationship to jazz music has been lifelong," he noted, "and it has expressed itself on many different levels in his work." Carruth produced an essay, "Influences: The Formal Idea of Jazz," in which he described his personal feelings about the musical genre. He did read the prominent poets Ben Johnson, , and , but added that "the real question is not by whom I was influenced, but how." To Miller, Carruth's early grounding in traditional poetic forms prepared him to "improvise" later on, much like the way jazz musicians often study classical music early in their training: "The discipline must precede the rejection of discipline."
In Carruth's poetry, that means using an external, fixed poetic structure upon which to launch improvisation. But even when he works in a spontaneous, "jazz" mode, his "poetic improvisation does not mean the abandonment of form or rhyme," declared Miller, "nor does it limit itself to any particular attitude or emotion. . . . What improvisation ultimately amounts to is structure becoming a function of feeling, whatever that feeling may be." Miller pointed to Brothers, I Loved You All as a prime example of Carruth in his spontaneous prime.
Like many poets, Carruth also turns to personal experience for inspiration; however, with the possible exception of The Bloomingdale Papers (a long poetic sequence Carruth wrote in the 1950s while confined to a mental hospital for treatment of alcoholism and a nervous breakdown), he does not indulge in the self-obsessed meditations common among some of his peers. Instead, Carruth turns outward, exploring such "universal opposites" as madness (or so-called madness) and sanity or chaos and order. He then tries to balance the negative images—war, loneliness, the destruction of the environment, sadness—with mostly nature-related positive images and activities that communicate a sense of stability—the cycle of the seasons, performing manual labor, contemplating the night sky, observing the serenity of plant and animal life. But, as Gardner pointed out, "Carruth is not in the least tempted to sentimentality about country life. . . . [He recognizes] that it can be a life of value and nobility in the midst of difficult facts and chaos." Nor is he "abstractly philosophical or cold," according to the critic. "On the contrary," Gardner stated, "[his poems] are all poems about very daily affairs: things seen and heard, the loneliness of missing friends absent or dead, the alternations of love for and estrangement from those present, the experiences of a man frequently alone with the non-human which all too often bears the damaging marks of careless human intrusion." Furthermore, he said, "Carruth comes to the politics of all this with a vengeance. . . . [His poems] all bear strong public witness against the wastes and shames of our culture that are destroying human value with a will in a world where values are already hard enough to maintain, in a universe where they are always difficult to discover. Carruth does not express much anger in [his] poems. Yet one feels that an enormous energy of rage has forced them to be."
Concluded Alastair Reed in the Saturday Review: "[Carruth's] poems have a sureness to them, a flair and variety. . . . Yet, in their dedication to finding an equilibrium in an alien and often cruel landscape, Vermont, where the poet has dug himself in, they reflect the moods and struggles of a man never at rest. . . . His work teems with the struggle to live and to make sense, and his poems carve out a kind of grace for us."
In the 1990s, the appearance of anthologies and collections of Carruth's verse and prose allowed critics to assess his career as a whole. In reviewing Collected Shorter Poems, which appeared in 1992, Poetry contributor David Barber called attention to the rich diversity of the poet's oeuvre: "Hayden Carruth is vast; he contains multitudes. Of the august order of American poets born in the Twenties, he is undoubtedly the most difficult to reconcile to the convenient branches of classification and affiliation, odd man out in any tidy scheme of influence and descent." Somewhat deceptively titled, Collected Shorter Poems, which won the 1992 National Book Critics' Circle Award, is not a comprehensive volume but is comprised of selections from thirteen of Carruth's previously published volumes, together with many poems appearing for the first time. Writing in the Nation, Ted Solotaroff found the volume to be a welcome opportunity for giving a "full hearing" to "a poet as exacting and undervalued as Carruth generally has been." Solotaroff highlighted two characteristics typifying Carruth's poetic achievement. First, he describes him as a "poet's poet, a virtuoso of form from the sonnet to free verse, from medieval metrics to jazz ones." Secondly, Solotaroff drew attention to the moral seriousness of Carruth's work as a critic of contemporary poetry, claiming that the poet "has also been, to my mind, the most catholic, reliable and socially relevant critic of poetry we have had in an age of burgeoning tendencies, collapsing standards and a general withdrawal of poets from the public to the private sector of consciousness."
The 1993 volume Collected Longer Poems received similar praise from many critics, who felt that this collection contained much of the poet's best work. Anthony Robbins, commenting in American Book Review, characterized Carruth's poetry as being "grounded in the traditions of Romance, in entre-les-guerres modernism revised in light of mid-century existentialism, and in his own personal forms of nonviolent anarchism." Both Robbins and Bloomsbury Review contributor Shaun T. Griffin called attention to the importance of the volume's opening selection, "The Asylum," which details the poet's experiences of being hospitalized for a breakdown. Griffin judges these "among the most honest and harrowing in the volume," maintaining that "they ring with the compelling voice of despair; the wind floats through them, and the reader finds himself staring at the November landscape, leafless, dark, and dormant."
Carruth's prose discussions of poets and poetry were anthologized in the 1995 volume Selected Essays and Reviews. Spanning thirty years of his critical writing, this collection was enthusiastically received by critics, who singled out for particular praise the essays on , , and . In the following year, Carruth published Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995, a volume that centers on meditations of such themes as politics, history, aging, nostalgia, guilt, and love, a book that would garner not just the Pulitzer Prize but also the National Book Award in 1996. Another collection, Doctor Jazz: Poems, 1996-2000, was written as Carruth approached his ninth decade and includes a fifteen-page elegy to the author's daughter, Martha, who died in her forties of cancer. That poem in particular "refuses to release us until its final syllable," said Library Journal reviewer Fred Muratori.
In 1998 Carruth turned to a different form of self-narrative with Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays. These essays—the words of a self-described "old man in his cave of darkness, regretting his arthritis and impotence and failing imagination"—speak frankly of his often troubled life, including treatment for depression, debilitating phobias, and a nearly successful suicide attempt. Peter Szatmary, writing in Biblio, found the "fractured" nature of Carruth's life reflected in his prose: "At its best, [Reluctantly] isolates idiosyncratic clarity. At its worst it betrays arbitrary self-indulgence." In a similar vein, "fragmentary" was the word used by Ray Olson of Booklist to describe the memoir, though Olson also characterized the book as a "powerful autobiography." A Publishers Weekly critic had a similar impression, saying the Reluctantly shows that "although life is messy and unpredictable, it is possible to survive, to write well and to salvage from the wreckage a redemptive dignity."
Carruth once told Contemporary Authors:"I have a close but at the same time uncomfortable relationship with the natural world. I've always been most at home in the country probably because I was raised in the country as a boy, and I know something about farming and woodcutting and all the other things that country people know about. That kind of work has been important to me in my personal life and in my writing too. I believe in the values of manual labor and labor that is connected with the earth in some way. But I'm not simply a nature poet. In fact, I consider myself and I consider the whole human race fundamentally alien. By evolving into a state of self-consciousness, we have separated ourselves from the other animals and the plants and from the very earth itself, from the whole universe. So there's a kind of fear and terror involved in living close to nature. My poems, I think, exist in a state of tension between the love of natural beauty and the fear of natural meaninglessness or absurdity.
"I think there are many reasons for poets and artists in general to be depressed these days. . . . They have to do with a lot . . . [of] things that are going on in our civilization. They have to do with the whole evolution of the sociology of literature during the last fifty years. Things have changed; they've turned completely around. I don't know if I can say it briefly but I'll try. When I was young and starting to write poetry seriously and to investigate the resources of modern poetry, as we called it then, we still felt beleaguered; modern poetry was still considered outrageous by most of the people in the publishing business and in the reading audience at large. We still spoke in terms of the true artists and the philistines. We felt that if we could get enough people to read and and e. e. cummings and and other great poets of that period, then something good would happen in American civilization. We felt a genuine vocation, a calling, to try and make this happen. And we succeeded. Today thousands of people are going to colleges and attending workshops and taking courses in twentieth-century literature. Eliot and Stevens are very well known, very well read; and American civilization has sunk steadily, progressively, further and further down until most of the sensible people are in a state of despair. It's pretty obvious that good writing doesn't really have very much impact on social events or national events of any kind. We hope that it has individual impact, that readers here and there are made better in some way by reading our work. But it's a hope; we have no proof."
Carruth authored more than 30 books of poetry, four books of literary criticism, essays, a novel and two poetry anthologies. He served as editor of Poetry magazine, as poetry editor of Harper's, and as advisory editor of The Hudson Review 20 years. He was awarded a Bollingen Prize and Guggenheim and the NEA fellowships.
In 1992 he was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for his Collected Shorter Poems and in 1997 the National Book Award in poetry for his 1996 book Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey. Shortly after the debut of Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, he also won the $50,000 Lannan Literary Award. His later titles include the 2001 collection of poems Doctor Jazz and a 70-minute audio CD of him reading selections from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey and Collected Shorter Poems. Other awards with which he was honored included the Carl Sandburg Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the 1990 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Vermont Governor's Medal and the Whiting Award.
Noted for the breadth of his linguistic and formal resources, influenced by jazz and the blues, Carruth's poems are informed by his political radicalism and sense of cultural responsibility.
Many of Carruth's best-known poems are about the people and places of northern Vermont, as well as rural poverty and hardship, addressing loneliness, insanity, and death. One of his most celebrated poems is "Emergency Haying".
- Appendix A, 1963: a novel about adultery.
- The Voice That Is Great within Us, 1970: an influential anthology of American poetry.
- The Mythology of Dark & Light, 1982: a long poem published as a limited edition chapbook, later republished in Collected Longer Poems
- Mother, 1985: a long poem published as a limited edition chapbook, later republished in Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (1989) and subsequently gathered in Collected Longer Poems
- The Sleeping Beauty, (Copper Canyon Press, 1990)
- Collected Shorter Poems: 1946-1991, (Copper Canyon Press, 1992)
- Suicides and Jazzers, 1992
- Collected Longer Poems, (Copper Canyon Press, 1994)
- Selected Essays & Reviews, 1996
- Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, (Copper Canyon Press, 1997)
- Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, 1998
- Beside the Shadblow Tree: A Memoir of James Laughlin, (Copper Canyon Press, 1999)
- Hayden Carruth: A Listener's Guide, (audio CD) 2000
- Doctor Jazz, (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)
- Letters to Jane, (Copper Canyon Press, 2004)
- Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems, (Copper Canyon Press, 2006)