Although Mark Van Doren wrote more than one thousand poems, critics have not responded commensurately. Very few critics have seriously treated Van Doren’s poetry, although other poets have praised it and almost no one has made unfavorable comments about it. More than one critic has suggested that the volume of the work has discouraged criticism. Since Van Doren wrote many good poems but none which have been singled out for special merit, a comprehensive study of his work would be a lengthy task. Van Doren’s subject matter and style also vary so widely that choosing “representative” poems for study is virtually impossible. Finally, and most significantly, his poems can generally be grasped at first reading by any reader; unlike some of his contemporaries, Van Doren did not write poems requiring extensive annotation to be understood by the average reader. His poetry is therefore much more accessible than the work of many other modern poets, making the critic’s work as interpreter for the most part unnecessary.
Despite the variety of Van Doren’s poetry, some common themes do emerge. He frequently wrote about family and friends, love, death, animals, and nature—familiar poetic topics treated in a traditional manner. His imagery may be effective but is not startling or brilliant; his diction is precise but not unusual. His love for New England in general and his Connecticut farm in particular has caused critics to compare him to Robert Frost. Van Doren has also been compared to various other poets, from John Dryden to Edwin Arlington Robinson, but as Allen Tate observed, any traces of other poets are blended to create a unique body of poetry. Taken as a whole, Van Doren’s poetry is like no one else’s. It is highly personal in that it is centered around the events, people, concerns, and literature he knew well.
A complete study of Van Doren’s poetry reveals no poetic innovations or surprises; it is the work of a competent poet and careful craftsman. Several critics have accurately applied the term “lucidity” to his work. Even his most complex poems are not obscure, although they were written at a time in which obscurity in poetry often seemed to be considered more of a virtue than a flaw.
The most admirable quality of Van Doren’s poetry, says Richard Howard in his foreword to Good Morning, is his insistence that each poem be the first poem, as he says in “The First Poem.” This insistence probably accounts for the breadth of his poetry, for he approached each new poem as if it possessed not only newness but also primacy, and he regarded the poetry of others in the same manner as he regarded his own. At the same time, he acknowledged his debt to the many English lyric poets who preceded him and whose tradition he helped to continue.
“A Winter Diary”
Some of Van Doren’s poetry deals with typically American subjects. “A Winter Diary,” one of his longest poems, is a fictitious verse diary of a winter spent on his Connecticut farm. The poem is written in heroic couplets, the form which Dryden popularized in his poetic dramas. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker explains the reason for its being written: After a “certain winter” had ended, he wanted to record his many memories of it because he felt they were already beginning to fade.
Those memories begin with the end of the summer, when the...
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