Marvin Bell was born in New York, New York, on August 3, 1937, and grew up in Center Moriches, on the south shore of eastern Long Island. He earned a BA from Alfred University, an MA from the University of Chicago, and an MFA from the University of Iowa.
Bell’s debut collection of poems, Things We Dreamt We Died For, was published in 1966 by the Stone Wall Press, following two years of service in the U.S. Army. His following two collections were A Probable Volume of Dreams (Atheneum, 1969), a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets; and Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See (Atheneum, 1977), which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Since then, Bell has published numerous books of prose and poetry, most recently Vertigo: The Living Dead Man Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2011); 7 Poets, 4 Days, 1 Book (Trinity University Press, 2009), a collaboration with six other poets, including Tomaz Salamun, Dean Young, and Christopher Merrill; and Mars Being Red (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. He has also published Old Snow Just Melting: Essays and Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 1983), as well as Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry with William Stafford (Godine, 1983).
About his early work, the poet Anthony Hecht said,
Marvin Bell is wonderfully versatile, with a strange, dislocating inventiveness. Capable of an unflinching regard of the painful, the poignant and the tragic; but also given to hilarity, high-spirits and comic delight; and often enough wedding and blending these spiritual antipodes into a new world. It must be the sort of bifocal vision Socrates recommended to his drunken friends if they were to become true poets.
Later in his career, Bell created the poetic form known as the “Dead Man poem,” about which the critic Judith Kitchen has written: “Bell has redefined poetry as it is being practiced today.”
Beginning in 2000, Bell served two terms as Iowa’s first poet laureate. His other honors include awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Poetry Review, fellowships from the Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts, and senior Fulbright appointments to Yugoslavia and Australia.
Bell taught for forty years for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, retiring in 2005 as Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters. For five years, he designed and led an annual Urban Teachers Workshop for America SCORES. He also served on the faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program and taught at Goddard College, the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, and Portland State University.
Bell has influenced generations of poets, many of whom were his students, including Michael Burkard, Marilyn Chin, Rita Dove, Norman Dubie, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Grenier, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Mark Jarman, Denis Johnson, Larry Levis, David St. John, and James Tate.
Marvin Bell also frequently performed with the bassist, Glen Moore, of the jazz group, Oregon. He lived in Iowa City and Port Townsend, Washington, until his death on December 14, 2020, in Iowa City.