Van Duyn protested the application of the label “domestic” to her work, noting that male writers who write about their spouses and the events of their daily lives, as she often did, are never labeled that way. In fact, she frequently found her subjects in literature, including the subject of poetry itself, as well as in history, mythology, and even newspaper items. Nevertheless, her subject matter frequently came from her daily life, its various events, her family, her travels. At the heart of her achievement is the fact that those domestic events, even those she treats with considerable humor, become metaphors for the complex statements she makes about the world and the place of people in it.
Van Duyn is a formal writer, almost always using rhyme (often slant rhyme) and frequently using regular stanzas. The volume Firefall (1993) may serve to illustrate the diversity she achieves. The first poem in the collection, “A Dog Lover’s Confession,” is prefaced by a lengthy note that identifies it and several other poems in the book as “Minimalist sonnets.” She explains that she has kept the Petrarchan or Shakespearean conventions in these works while shortening the conventional ten-syllable line length. She sometimes also added an extra quatrain.
“Miranda Grows Up” works like a sort of inverted Petrarchan sonnet with two-syllable lines, and several similar poems are included in a section called “Minimalist Sonnet Translations of, or Comments on, Poems by Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, Arnold.” The collection also contains works in quatrains and other stanza forms as well as some poems partly in prose.
Rhyme is everywhere in Van Duyn’s work. In “Christmas Present for a Poet,” for example, she manages to find seventeen rhymes for the word “hornet” (after originally claiming she can find only “hairnet”); they range from “hornat” (“horn at”) to “howornate” to “hearnot” to “hernit” (in the phrase “her nit-wit”). The poem is partly a joking apology for a Christmas-gift shirt that made the recipient look like a hornet, but, typically, the work becomes more than that. Van Duyn considers the implications of the shirt’s golden bars on the dark background to suggest that they are like forms in poetry, like the strands of a hairnet that keep neat what they confine. The shirt was bought as a bargain, she claims, and is not the miraculous weave she would like to have sent, but, like life, it is a bargain of which the best must be made.
Poetry that uses humor and a modest subject to talk about something more serious is typical of Van Duyn. In “Mockingbird Month” (from Near Changes), for example, she describes a July in which, apparently ill, she is confined to a house where she spends her time listening to a mockingbird. At first she admires its virtuosity, reads about its abilities to imitate, and notes that it bullies the neighbor’s cowardly cat. By the end of the month, however, her feelings have changed. She says the lesson is both for art and art lover: When the bird sings all night, she begins to long for silence and concludes that she should also husband her own “apprentice words.”
In “In Bed with a Book” (from Near Changes), Van Duyn uses the detective novel, her favorite sort of escape reading, to talk about death. The first stanza of the poem describes the novel’s crimes; bodies are found everywhere. The second stanza asks a serious question: What difference does it make that these dead are denied the joys of human experience? In the third stanza, the speaker notes that all the novel’s mysteries will be answered with the detective’s solution tomorrow night. Meanwhile, surrounded by her loved ones, the speaker is falling asleep, a sleep she calls a “little rehearsal,” evidently a rehearsal for the same death that fills the novel.
Van Duyn’s work is filled with pictures of family life—an aunt in Texas who describes her apocalyptic religious visions in her chatty letters, a grandmother’s series of memories of immigrant life in the Middle West in the late nineteenth century, a speaker’s sudden awareness of her love for her husband of many years. By the same token, Van Duyn also makes generous references to the literature of others, to history, and to mythology. Christopher Smart, Alexander Pope, Plato, and Graham Greene all find places in her work, sometimes alongside more immediate references to the speaker’s private life.
The nature of love and its place in people’s lives is one of Van Duyn’s most compelling themes. In “Three Valentines to the Wide World,” from her first collection, an eight-year-old child asks whether God’s hobby is love. Van Duyn’s later poems repeatedly answer that question affirmatively and suggest that humans are at their best when they, too, share love, however raggedly they manage to do it.
“Quebec Suite” concludes with the speaker identifying the loon, which is lonely in its solitude and spends its days calling across the water to its mate, as her favorite bird. In “The Stream,” the speaker recalls her mother, who died a night after she and the daughter had shared a special lunch. Now the speaker knows that she will never be able to talk to her mother about love, that she can no longer be sure even what love is. Yet she knows that although love may be stained by abuse, still, like a narrow underground stream, its existence hidden and even unsuspected, it continues to press its way to the surface.
“Three Valentines to the Wide World”
First published: 1959 (collected in Valentines to the Wide World, 1959)
Type of work: Poem
The three parts of this long poem attempt to define the interrelationship between love, beauty, and art.
“Three Valentines to the Wide World” is the first poem in Van Duyn’s first book. In looking at the poem’s three parts, the reader should remember that a valentine is a short love message, and Van Duyn has addressed these messages to the world, emphasizing in her title the world’s vastness.
Part 1 is written in twelve-line stanzas, each stanza composed of three rhymed quatrains. That the rhyme is often slant rhyme (listening is rhymed with chastening, for example) does not diminish its effect.
The first stanza describes an eight-year-old child, awkward and graceless, who stands scratching a scab on her knee. In the second stanza, she asks her profound question without even...
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