Van Duyn, Mona 1921–
Mona Van Duyn is an award-winning American poet, a critic, and a short story writer whose work has been called homey and sophisticated, colloquial and formal, sincere and witty, charming and tough. In her poetry, deceptively simple themes are handled with intelligence and skill. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
To See, To Take is arrival. It may not be a given judge's kind of poetry (making no attempt to be all things to all readers), but its quality only the perverse would doubt. It is poetry of an immense voltage; impatient (though not of technique), salty as tears or seawater, sorrowful, and terribly funny—"terribly" being the just word.
In point of fact, Miss Van Duyn's work is not best served by a straight-through reading of her book; the emotional impact of the poems piled on each other blunts sensibility. They are best realized read in isolation one from another. After and below that isolation appears a unity, an analyzed dossier of experience, and a technique coming to grips with naturally intractable material.
She is a tough satirist…. Like veins in a rock, satire and wit shoot through the body of the work; but in such poems as First Flight, The Pietà, Rhenish 14th c., and A Christmas Card After the Assassinations, there is an utter intention, without safeguards, without the second-thought of good taste and caution, which must just succeed or fail, and which succeeds. If any poetry can free us from the chic bond of with-it verse, this can and does. Instead of Composing a Poem on Pollution, she incarnates an illusionless passion for that earth, that world which we desecrate….
Instead of penning a pamphlet for a ladies' liberation league, she writes of the terrors of love. (p. 168)
Up to the present Mona Van Duyn has been, mostly, a poet's poet. A Time of Bees, and now the range and power of To See, To Take, ought to reach out to everyone who cares about poetry. (p. 169)
Josephine Jacobsen, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1971.
Mona Van Duyn's To See, To Take takes notice of where modern poetry has been going as much as it succeeds in evolving a style that is unmistakably Miss Van Duyn's.
To See, To Take is full of things to admire—generosity and intelligence, wit and love. Beyond that, it is an outrageous book in ways that only major books, and major writers, can afford to be. Both Shakespeare and Yeats are prominent here, not so much as literary ghosts, but as sensibilities with whom Mona Van Duyn has much to share. The multiplicity of Shakespeare and that perfect control of tone which Yeats displayed in poems like "Leda and the Swan," "Among School Children," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion" find their comparisons in the best poems of this book. (p. 250)
[One] of the pleasures for me in reading Mona Van Duyn has always been a largeness, and a largesse, which defines her work and which the process and progression explicit in the title, To See, To Take, confirms.
In A Time of Bees (1964), there are poems, or at least parts of poems, that do not work; sometimes an inventiveness of image becomes so self-generating as to threaten a larger unity within a poem. Sometimes a poem takes in so much as to forget when it might best conclude. But these faults not only occur less frequently in To See, To Take, but are forgiven and forgotten in the grand successes of the strongest poems in the volume.
To See, To Take makes out of potential risks—the welter of prose-like experience, in particular—the very substance of its art. When, in the conclusion of the poem for Randall Jarrell, "A Day in Late October," Mona Van Duyn resorts to prose,… the prose turns into a poetic prose, uniquely hers…. "Homework" is typical of Mona Van Duyn at her best. "A Sweating Proust of the pantry shelves": this is Mona Van Duyn finding her own intimacies, using her own memories, breaking down the old distinctions between poetry and prose in order to form a style recognizably hers. "Homework" uncovers the same strengths—her own savage indignation, her loving care—obvious in the other, longer poems in the book…. (pp. 250-52)
Neither the length of the volume nor the poet's ability to work in various poetic modes can disguise the essential lyricism of the book. To See, To Take is lyrical in the compression of form and in the relentless variations on love—its anatomy and chemistry, its relationship to art and neurosis, its power in the face of cold death. Mona Van Duyn fears her capacity to love and knows how love can hallucinate. But she is also one of those few poets who can carry in her poems the convincing impression of a very non-abstract physicality and of that joy before love, and before words, which all important poetry learns to convey. On every count by which I would approach and arraign it, To See, To Take comes out as one of the finest books to appear in American poetry in recent years. (p. 252)
Arthur Oberg, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by Arthur Oberg), Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973.
Squaring herself against her subjects, Mona Van Duyn writes with an intellectual heartiness that makes her unique. Her poems are gallant; they put forward a staunch chin. If she believed any less in "possibility" (so it seems) she'd collapse into the sardonic. Even as it is, irritation with life sweats from her poems. But, she says, she's "O.K." Indeed, she not only demands piety toward things as they are—after all, life is worth while: a disabused, muscular, make-do love sees to that; chanting the name of possibility, she scouts for it, if with no more design or progress, though with just as much fascination, as a child jumps—tries to jump—on his elongated shadow. Her poems have the kind of uncalculated balance—of hope and knowingness and love and resignation—that leaves us in the midst of complexity. (p. 221)
Van Duyn goes armored in her talent for extended metaphor, her moral sense, her analytical intelligence, her belief in herself and others ("I believe we are real"), her enjoying and forgiving love. If she is "in" life, she also breaks its Lilliputian threads. She is heaped on herself, has character. The world reckons with her. This is at once her appeal and, when left too much on her own, "aesthetically footloose," her limitation…. Her poems are reactions, not Kerr jars; "merciful disguises," not likenesses. They bustle with "personal motion," have little patience for the slow curve and turn of the earth. (pp. 221, 223)
When she concentrates on the world around her, Van Duyn puts you there; her mind opens up and includes it. But she prefers to look short of it, in midair, at summary impressions and generalizations, which she can embody in her own forms, manipulate, subordinate. Sucked but saved from dark particulars, these are translated into semitransparent conceits…. Van Duyn's imagination has a grave verve. All but drab, it yet is strong and precise, has an unassumingness that gives it weight.
At least, when she concentrates…. Devoted to her own "personal motion," she sometimes runs past the point, past clarity. (pp. 224-25)
Another liability: Van Duyn's almost Victorian expansiveness involves dawdle, feels heavy. Contemporary and fashionable as she is in respecting disorder, in being temperately intemperate—no "death by aesthetics" here—still she leaves you hungering for aesthetic necessity. Lacking both a driving obsession and a cock-spring poetics, conceiving a blank page as an opportunity for ingenious if "responsible" expatiation, she brings you to the verge of the fidgets as she knots and knots again her macrame poems, abandoning one recognition for still another, reluctant to leave anything unobserved. She covers the ground, all right, but you feel that it is just there, passive, to be covered. (p. 227)
Calvin Bedient, "Personal Motion," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974, pp. 221-27.
Merciful Disguises: Published and Unpublished Poems is in reality a collected poems, the work of three decades. Here Van Duyn shows that to be a woman is not easy and to love is difficult, if not "harrowing."… [Whether] wife, poet, friend, godmother, daughter, Mona Van Duyn never loses herself in the infantile, though her lines in their rapid smoothness may appear a bit glib. Always intelligent, she uses wit and learning to name flowers, foods, maladies or remedies. She is filled with a sense that "the world blooms."… But the world of nature, she knows, brings no easy comfort. Van Duyn is as much urban poet as rural. She knows that love and friendship are at least as complex as the newt; that Rauschenberg matters as much as Leda; that the poet at least has the "merciful disguises of metaphor," that there is responsibility for the poet since he/she is out of Eden and should have learned the "deviousness" of love "and found in Word its wiliest metaphor." What love for the word can't do, hate of man surely won't succeed in doing. But she knows marriage; knows she is as much victim as victimizer…. Mona Van Duyn, in her knowledge of her poetic power, does not have to cry "kill kill kill." Through her wit, her fluency of language (occasionally too fluent), the shape of her paragraphs, the sureness of her often intricate rhymes, she hasn't the need to stab when she can say: "I can: the sensualist." (pp. 124-25)
Harriet Zinnes, in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1974 by Carleton College), Spring/Summer, 1974.