Van Doren, Mark 1894–1972
Van Doren was an American poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, editor, critic, historian, and author of books for children. Best known for his lyric poetry, he has been likened to Robert Frost for his portrayal of the natural beauty of rural New England and to the transcendentalists for his humanistic and idealistic concerns. Van Doren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1940. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)
The poems of Mark Van Doren seem to be written in the rough music or muted undertone of a doubting intellect, the scraping, sad music of waves upon a rock barren of all but that dark music. But the imagery provides a mystical lighthouse evoking some altogether different world, even one which is acknowledgedly of the past, for many of the images relate to those things which, secular of nature, have disappeared or are about to disappear from a universe of the known objects into the unknown. Because of their being extinct in all but human consciousness which—if it is a poet's—has a remarkable power of retention and reproduction—or because they are already going, these most commonplace things are now rare, unique, lonely—and are hypostasized, in the poetry of Mark Van Doren, into a statement of divinity, an illusive substance more beautiful than the real and yet not unreal.
For it is humanized, existing in memory with such powerfulness that one may knock upon the door of a house which is already gone. The skeptic thus meets with the mystic, extreme opposite of being, and the two poles make the paradox of the poem. Van Doren is like that hero of whom he has written so well, the Don Quixote of the mournful countenance who continued to believe in a world of romance when it was gone…. [Realism] is a part of Mark Van Doren's poetic vision—but only that which ultimately collaborates with the fading vision of the ideal.
Things happen, in Mark Van Doren's poems, not in an objective time alone and not in the present but in a subjective past. As long ago as earth, As long ago as evening. As bird time, as mirth … The mood is elegiac in every poem, so quietly stated that the sorrow is like an almost silent voice, more like the shadow of the falling leaf than the falling leaf itself. In the poem "Like Son," for...
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"Immortal," a typical poem from [Van Doren's second volume, Now the Sky (1928)], satisfies certain major New Critical criteria: it is an impersonal, well-crafted verbal complex, characterized by irony, wit, and organic metaphor. It impressed readers at the time as a characteristically "modern" poem; it displayed Frostian stanza form, diction, theme, indirection and understatement. But between Now the Sky and Good Morning almost fifty years intervene—years which have given us such seminal poems as Four Quartets, the Cantos, all of Stevens' post-Harmonium poems, Williams' Paterson, Crane's Bridge, Lowell's Life Studies, Plath's Ariel, O'Hara's Lunch Poems, Ginsberg's Howl, and Berryman's Dream Songs. Van Doren taught both Ginsberg and Berryman at Columbia, but as an artist, he seems wholly unaware that the bucolic, delicately ironic New England world of his early poems has become an anachronism. The counterpart of "Immortal" in Last Poems is "This Ground So Bare," which begins:
This ground so bare, so beaten by winter,
Suddenly sends up delicate green,
Then blue, then yellow, and red, then white:
Secrets it was saving for us,
Wealth we didn't know we had.
Even the barest, most desolate winter landscape gives...
(The entire section is 485 words.)