Van Duyn, Mona 1921–
Ms. Van Duyn is an accomplished American poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Despite its breathless title, To See, To Take is a collection of remarkably tough-minded lyrics. As a matter of fact, I can think of no contemporary poet who looks at the world with a steadier eye than does Mona Van Duyn. Not only does she fail to flinch in the face of what is distasteful or awry, but more importantly she never has visions. I have the feeling that she could wring a chicken's neck or kill a hog with a degree of equanimity….
I do not wish anyone to think that she is callous or insensitive to the hardships and nuances of human existence. On the contrary, her chief province is the world of everyday experience, of birthdays and minor illnesses, of the pantry and the zoo—a world of feeling which she sees as subtle and various. Yet the feeling she treats is always related to events which are substantial, palpable; and in this respect she is remarkably unspoiled by those abstractions which plague too many of her contemporaries. She tends to think in terms of models rather than paradigms; hence she is not forever trying to correct the condition of man to an ideal which exists only by inference in the "angelic imagination".
For this reason the secular puritans of our time may want to conclude that Miss Van Duyn's poems, with their well-cut images, domestic scenarios, and political unconcern, are less than demanding, that she is merely doing the kind of thing that Alexander Pope said a poet ought to do. Yet I believe she is much closer to Wordsworth's poet than to Pope's, possessed as she is of more than usual organic sensibility….
Mona Van Duyn is clearly a poet who has found her voice, and for this reason she comes to the reader with confidence and authority. She may alter her tone from poem to poem, vary her diction to accommodate a change in mood or situation, but she is always herself—present and accounted for in every line. And by "present" I mean the whole person: heart, mind, and body. For this reason the appearance of To See, To Take is an important event, worthy of notation on anybody's literary calendar. It would be hard to find a recent volume which contained so many excellent poems.
Thomas H. Landess, in Sewanee Review (© 1973 by The University of The South), Winter, 1973, pp. 150-53.
The tone [of the poems in Merciful Disguises] is wry, acquiescent, even renunciatory, and perhaps not so merciful, for it signifies a determination to trust in appearances, to use the senses, the wits, even the record, which we call the past, of the senses and wits of others. These are unfashionable utilizations in our poetry, for they imply an abandonment of certain ecstatic potentialities. There is a moment at the end of "Marriage with Beasts," her final, finest poem in her third book, To See, To Take, when Mona Van Duyn suffuses with her rueful wit that very abandonment, when she articulates precisely those defeats which her endemic trust in possibility rises from….
[In] Mona Van Duyn's poetry, the worst has already happened, the struggle is past, leaving the sick and the wounded all over the place, and the poet confronts, or edges in on, or takes from behind, a post-lapsarian world, the world of other people. Hegel called it hell. Here what is required, what is in fact wreaked, is expedience, testimony, formal difference, measurable submission, patience, salvage, adjustment, literalism after dreams and inspirations, charity of the imagination, a room with a clock, intelligent domesticity, chastened rearrangements, storms of fresh possibilities, hinges and disproportions; "I believe," Mona Van Duyn says, "in art's process of working through otherness to recognition."
That is why there are so many people in her poems, and when there are not people there are impersonations. Merciful Disguises brings together not only her first three books—Valentines to the Wide World (1959), A Time of Bees (1964), To See, To Take (1970)—but adds the spiels of a chthonic crone masquerading as a grandmother's Bedtime Stories (1972), as well as 18 Unpublished Poems (1965–1973) which include some of her most characteristic work. Characteristic because masked, dissimulating, disguised. The thing about a disguise, at least about Mona Van Duyn's, is that you always know it is a disguise: larvatus prodeo, as Descartes said—I advance wearing a mask. And pointing to it. It gives her, as she so accurately puts it, "the look of a woman / with a context in which she can put / what comes next."…
Mona Van Duyn interpolates God's world in accents of unmistakable conviction, indeed, she convicts God. When poetry reaches this pitch of its own process, loss becomes fruitful, the grass grows on the plain.
Richard Howard, in American Poetry Review, November/December, 1973, p. 9.
Mona Van Duyn's poems in "Merciful Disguises," a fine gathering of three decades' work, are comedies of definition. Though she often stands before us in her "skin of need," she is not a confessional poet fingering her emotional sores, for even when she writes about mental illness, "the whole monstrous ferny land of my nerves," she keeps the delicate propriety of distance….
She is a brainy poet. Mistrusting stridency, she surveys the "shifting and lustrous" perimeters of the moral life where passion and reason cross, unearthing motives, defining value, noting how character survives intolerant time….
Mona Vay Duyn is a love poet, not of courtship or sexual windfalls, but of the bittersweet aftermath, the slow dying of feeling and its fitful replenishments….
In reporting the spectacle of marriage, that medley of guile, anger and courtesy, "Merciful Disguises" includes the rankness of animal life, the human mess, for Miss Van Duyn knows the dangerous poverty of not living in the physical world. In a fallen world, her poems contend, against "brilliant wasting" and death, man can marshal "shapes, storms of fresh possibilities." By which she means the hilarious masks of Eros, the wry benedictions of love….
Mona Van Duyn is a wily master of extended images. She hives the honey of metaphor. Her mischievous quatrains and slant rhymes artfully escape from the traps of regularity. As her syntax opens large spaces in which her speculative intelligence can play, as the "half-demented 'pressure of speech'" relaxes into light irony, the textures of experience—the world's "motley and manifold"—find their comely form. To examine the linked atoms of desire and disguise with clarity of analysis, as Miss Van Duyn does, is to be an expert in moral optics and an artist of "difficult wholeness"….
Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1973, p. 4.
The immense talent of Mona Van Duyn received somewhat belated national recognition when, in 1971, she received the National Book Award for her third volume. Until then, her work had appeared in few anthologies, and had received too little wide critical notice. She is a poet of great wisdom, skill, and versatility; she is able to sustain locally intense language over long narrative and meditative poems, in a variety of modes and voices. It is especially gratifying to have "Bedtime Stories" in a major collection [Merciful Disguises: Published and Unpublished Poems]; these haunting reconstructions of an old woman's stories first appeared in a limited edition. They make a significant contribution to contemporary poetic narrative. It would be unfair to say that with this volume Mona Van Duyn has arrived, for she has been here for more than twenty years, writing some of the finest poetry we have.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), p. xi.
There are many poems in Merciful Disguises that are charming, delightfully witty, and subtle; the poet's voice, moreover, is entirely her own: bemused, discriminating, detached, yet full of concern for those she loves. Going through the poems in sequence, however, I have the oddest sense that I am always reading the same poem. For one thing, there is astonishingly little development in verse technique….
But it is not just a matter of verse form. Thematically, Van Duyn's range is fairly narrow: she generally begins with a specific observation, situation, or object, and then deduces delicate little insights from what she has just seen or thought about. But the gain in understanding, the looked-for epiphany is often so minor that one wonders whether it was worth the poet's trouble to bring her reader around to her position….
What Mona Van Duyn's poetry lacks, in short, is the quality the Russian Formalists called factura or density. If poetry is, as Pound put it, "language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree," hers has a fairly low voltage. Too often, poems that begin with dazzling metaphors peter out because they go on for too long.
Van Duyn's tendency to overelaborate a fairly simple theme is reflected even in her verse line, which is almost always peculiarly long (10 to 15 syllables), run-on, and characterized by an unusually large amount of function words, conjunctions and pronouns. There is little phrasal or clausal repetition, sound patterning, or ellipsis, and the long, rambling lines are so lightly stressed that the net effect is that of ordinary prose….
Marjorie Perloff, "Sometimes a Great Notion," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 6, 1974, p. 3.