Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

One of the Healers

A tribute to Vereen Bell (1934-2021)

When Vereen Bell died on Tuesday, August 24, I posted a notice on my Facebook page that read as follows: RIP and homage to Vereen Bell, author of some of the very best books there are on Cormac McCarthy, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Lowell. He was a friend especially to younger members of the Vanderbilt English department and did his best to bring it into the 21st century.

Photo courtesy of Vereen Bell’s family

The responses from friends, writers, colleagues, and especially former students were immediate and wide ranging. Here is a representative list:

Sorry to hear this. I didn’t know him, but his Lowell book is one of the best.

Oh, no!! He was such a brilliant friend.

He had a beach house down here [in Florida]. I was lucky to spend a few evenings with him over the years. Wonderful and brilliant man.

That’s so sad to hear. He was so kind to [my wife] and me both during our years there.

I still remember his American lit class from about 24 years ago. RIP.

Oh, I’m so sorry to hear this. I adored him. Will never forget his readings of Frost, Eliot, Yeats, and Stevens, but most of all the great care (and wry humor) he gave to his students. Et lux perpetua luceat eis…

I’m so sorry to hear this news.

Oh, I’m so sorry. I enjoyed him very much.

This is so sad. I was speaking with Vandy freshmen tonight and thinking about what a tremendous influence on students he’d had, and on me.

Oh no, Mark. This is so terribly sad. He was always so kind to me when I was at Vanderbilt. He treated me like an equal. And he was such a scholar. A very generous scholar. I have such fond memories of us all drinking at Christmas parties. When the world was good and we were all Vanderbilt English.

I hate the thought that he is gone.

I won the prize named after his father [at Davidson College].

Oh my…thanks for sharing, Mark, though very sad. He was a great strength of the department while I was there. Loved his classes.

I’m so sad to read this. He was a wonderful teacher and human, and I loved taking his classes very much.

I’m so thankful he was my teaching mentor in grad school. I simply adore him, always will.

Vanderbilt was my favorite job partly because of him.

The world is a lesser place without him in it. He was an outstanding teacher and a great influence in many ways.

Oh no!

I decided as the responses accumulated to provide my own response to him as a teacher and mentor:

Ten years ago, when Vereen asked me to teach his “Yeats to Auden” modern poetry class after I had taught its subsequent class, “Auden and After,” for years, I said I would if he would share his notes. He invited me to his office, pointed at a substantial filing cabinet and said, “Well, that’s Yeats.” Over the years, until my own retirement, I was the beneficiary of his notes on Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens. I added Marianne Moore and H.D. to the course. Of Auden, I received from Vereen a beautiful line drawing of the great Wystan glowering down at me magnificently. I owe my knowledge of modern poetry to Vereen Bell. “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start,” wrote W.H. Auden in his elegy for W.B. Yeats. Auden would have called Vereen one of the healers. So he was for many of us.

My old friend Terri Witek, who earned both her bachelor’s degree and her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, replied: “Mark, you know I TA’d that class 4 times … One of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Vereen was just wonderful.”

Vereen was just wonderful and like no one else I have ever had as a colleague. He and his late wife Jane opened their home to us many times after my family and I arrived in Nashville in the 1980s. They knew and loved writers. (I can’t tell you how many I have first met at the Bells’ house.)  And they were especially welcoming to new members of the English department. Those of us who benefited from their hospitality, mentorship, and concern can and do look back on the years Jane and Vereen were with us as golden.


[Vereen Bell has a featured role in Kate Daniels’ 2016 essay “Phil Levine and the Burger Bitch.” Vanderbilt’s remembrance of Bell can be read here.]

One of the Healers

Copyright © 2021 by Mark Jarman. All rights reserved. Mark Jarman’s most recent book is Dailiness: Essays on Poetry. He is the author of 11 books of poetry, including The Herony and Bone Fires. He is Centennial Professor of English Emeritus at Vanderbilt University.