Van Duyn, Mona (Vol. 116)
Mona Van Duyn 1921–
The following entry presents an overview of Van Duyn's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, and 63.
Van Duyn's verse reflects intense emotions and thoughts beneath a placid surface of domestic life. In strictly metered poems that often recount such mundane events as trips to the zoo, hospital visits, and grocery shopping, Van Duyn reveals a constant struggle with time and relationships. The poet commented in an interview that "one of my major obsessive themes was the idea of time as a taking away of things and love and art as the holders and keepers of things." In her work, Van Duyn endeavors to perfect both love and art, thereby maintaining the aspects of life that time erodes. Although they often address such topics as a failing marriage and stressful interactions with one's aging parents, Van Duyn's poems remain essentially optimistic, focusing on the preservation rather than the devastation of relationships. While occasionally rendered in a colloquial voice, Van Duyn's verse is most often distinguished by references to classical and eighteenth-century poetry, long lines, and complex rhyme schemes.
Van Duyn was born May 9, 1921, in Waterloo, Iowa. She attended Iowa State Teachers College, now the University of Northern Iowa, where she was awarded a B.A. in 1942 and an M.A. in 1943. The same year she completed her master's degree, Van Duyn married Jarvis A. Thurston, a professor of English. She has worked as an educator at the State University of Iowa, the University of Louisville, Washington University, and University College, and has been a poet in residence at the Breadloaf Writing Conference. In addition to numerous other awards and honors, Van Duyn was granted a National Book Award for Poetry in 1971 for To See, To Take (1970), received the Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes (1990) in 1991, and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1992.
In her first collection of poetry, Valentines to the Wide World (1959), Van Duyn introduces many themes that she would develop throughout her career. In the title poem, which ad-dresses a child's loss of innocence, the speaker discusses the possibility of rebuilding the child's worldview of hope and trust through art; Van Duyn suggests that an artist can recapture that which has been lost simply by re-creating it. The world of art, Van Duyn implies, can therefore justify the trials and disappointments of life. The poet also explores her recurring theme of marriage in Valentines to the Wide World. In the poem "Toward a Definition of Marriage," for example, she describes wedlock as a "duel of amateurs" that should endure despite hardships, emphasizing her belief that marriage is an essential component of civilized society. The title poem of Van Duyn's second volume of verse, A Time of Bees (1964), relates a story of bees that have died in the walls of a married couple's house. As the husband and a scientist-friend sift through the dead insects, collecting enzymes from their flight-wing muscles for an experiment, the wife watches, identifying with the few bees still fighting to live. The speaker views this episode as a clear illustration of the irreconcilable differences between men and women. Other poems in A Time of Bees deal with friendship, gardening, and mental illness. Considered until A Time of Bees as a "poet's poet," Van Duyn gained a wider audience with her next book, To See, To Take. The best-known poems in this collection are written in response to William Butler Yeats's sonnet "Leda and the Swan." "Leda" and "Leda Reconsidered" paint a less romantic picture of the myth than Yeats's elevated version. Van Duyn's lovers are perpetual strangers, destined to wrestle with the complexities of their relationship. Again, man and woman have little in common, but submit to love and its inherent difficulties. The title poem in Letters From a Father and Other Poems (1982), written in the form of six letters, describes in candid detail the physical ailments of the poet's aging parents and the symptoms that foreshadow their imminent death. A gift from their daughter, however, restores their interest in life. In Near Changes, Van Duyn's Pulitzer prize-winning collection, she again treats such topics as love, marriage, friendship, aging, and nature, but the poems are lighter in tone than her earlier works, aiming more at illuminating certain aspects of each topic rather than at communicating a sense of dissatisfaction or conflict. If Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959–1982 (1992) contains all of Van Duyn's previously published collected works up to, but not including, Near Changes. Firefall (1992), according to William Logan, "is very much a book of elegy and farewell, a catalogue of the ills and complaints of age, the losses endured and the losses still to be faced." In this volume, Van Duyn explores familiar subjects such as love, art, and death through elegy, epistle, interpretive responses to well-known poems by W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Robert Frost, and experiments with "minimalist" sonnets, a variation of the traditional forms.
Many critics labeled A Time of Bees, as well as many of Van Duyn's other works, "domestic," including James Dickey, who observed: "[Van Duyn] is a master … of the exasperated-but-loving, intelligent-housewife tone." David Kalstone noted: "Every poem [in To See, To Take] staves off the executioner, like the home canning to which [Van Duyn] compares her work." To See, To Take's straightforward, often wry poems prompted Thomas H. Landess to dub Van Duyn a "tough-minded" poet. He added: "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." Letters From a Father, published twelve years after To See, To Take, reinforced Van Duyn's reputation as a "tough-minded" poet. Robert Hass noted that the "detail [in Letters to a Father] is potentially gruesome, the story potentially sentimental, but there is something in the implied attitude of the daughter—her clear eye, amusement, repugnancy, fidelity—that complicates the whole poem and brings it alive, and it gets at an area of human experience that literature—outside of Samuel Beckett—has hardly touched." Alfred Com has asserted that for Van Duyn to have maintained her affirmations of the powers of love and art into the latter part of her career is a notable achievement. In assessing Near Changes, Corn declared: "To be older, tired, and still 'pleasure-hoping'; to be realistic and also subject to transcendent intuitions; to weigh the claims of love along with the claims of poetry; this is the vision informing Near Changes. During the past several decades Mona Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry, a poetry that explores, as [Wallace] Stevens put it, '… the metaphysical changes that occur, / Merely in living as and where we live.'"
Valentines to the Wide World (poetry) 1959
A Time of Bees (poetry) 1964
To See, To Take (poetry) 1970
Bedtime Stories (poetry) 1972
Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (poetry) 1973
Letters from a Father and Other Poems (poetry) 1982
Near Changes (poetry) 1990
Black Method (poetry) 1991
∗If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982 (poetry) 1992
Firefall (poetry) 1992
∗Includes the collections Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, To Take, Bedtime Stories, Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished, and Letters from a Father and Other Poems.
(The entire section is 82 words.)
SOURCE: "The Teeming Catalogue," in Poetry, Vol. 96, No. 1, April, 1960, pp. 47-51.
[In the following excerpt, Woods surveys some of the poems in Valentines to the Wide World.]
Mona Van Duyn appears to be a fully-engaged poet. She is not the house organ of any special lobby, but is trying on several attitudes, several voices [in Valentines to the Wide World].
About poetry she writes:
But what I find most useful is the poem. To find
some spot on the surface and then bear down until
the skin can't stand the tension and breaks under it …
Only the poem
is strong enough to make the initial rupture …
And I've never seen anything like it for making you think
that to spend your life on such old premises is a privilege.
I am sure that some of her passages are mistakes. In Part Three of "To My Godson, On His Christening," she writes:
Oh, we know our tongue tollings, baskets of wellwishes, won't
keep you back from your life. Still burnt from birth, you jump
toward that fire. Yet the pause we've programmed here is misleading,
whips me (balky, strange to...
(The entire section is 377 words.)
SOURCE: "Four Gentlemen, Two Ladies," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1960, pp. 120-31.
[In the following excerpt, Snodgrass provides a favorable appraisal of Valentines to the Wide World.]
At least in this present book, there are no large efforts comparable to Scott's "Memento" or "The U.S. Sailor with the Japanese Skull"; consequently there are no comparable major triumphs. At the same time, there are none of the failures or half-resolved poems; each of these poems seems achieved and delightful. Again, in developing her style, [Van Duyn] has not pushed (like Scott) toward a gnarled and crabbed lyricism; she moves instead toward a discursive style in which she tempers her natural awkward prosiness with a quiet and eccentric music. The result is something quite airy, peculiar and gracious. Here is the largest part of one of her poems on the christening of a godson:
I've thought that the dream of the world is to bring, and again bring,
out of a chaos of same, the irreplaceable thing,
so, when it dies, we may clap for that brilliant wasting….
This black bubble eye of a pike, ringed with gold,
that neck-wattle, leaf veining, shell crimp, tailfeather, holds
marvel enough. But it's we who're the perfect, pure manifold.
(The entire section is 650 words.)
SOURCE: "Charms to Stave Off the Executioner," in New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1970, pp. 5, 22.
[In the following review, Kalstone offers a positive view of To See, To Take.]
To See, To Take, Mona Van Duyn's title, like our first verbs, sounds innocent at the outset, fierce and telling later on. Infinitives in certain languages are imperatives as well; and so they are here, in poems where seeing and taking are urgent as well as pleasurable activities:
And now, how much would she try
to see, to take,
of what was not hers, of what
was not going to be offered?
The subject of these lines is "Leda Reconsidered," the lady trying, in a reflective moment before the swangod takes her, to escape the fate of an earlier Leda in this same book who "married a smaller man with a beaky nose, / and melted away in the storm of everyday life."
Dwindling: it is as if all the poems in this not-so-slim volume were charms—successful ones—against that fate. Like Scheherazade's stories, they are accomplished, never ragged; and their restlessness, their driven quality, is apparent not in any hysteria or lapse in technique, but only in the felt necessity to continue the activity. Every poem staves off the executioner, like the home canning to which she...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
SOURCE: "Deer, Doors, Dark," in Southern Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 243-56.
[In the following excerpt, Oberg responds favorably to To See, To Take.]
Unlike [Peter] Russell's book, [The Golden Chain,] 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.
I had read To See, To Take before being invited to review it, and before the major prizes came. It has weathered all that attention in the manner that only important books somehow are able to do.
I have no preference for long poems to short poems, or large books to small ones. But one of the pleasures for me in reading Mona Van Duyn has always been a largeness, and a largesse, which...
(The entire section is 898 words.)
SOURCE: "As Three Poets See Reality," in The New York Times, Vol. 123, September 22, 1973, p. 22.
[In the following review, Shapiro provides a mixed review of Merciful Disguises.]
Mona Van Duyn's poems, crammed with reality, present a curious case. She has been much honored by the academy—a National Book Award and a Bollingen—but among the poets in New York she has few readers. That has to do with the nature of her reality: She writes as a wife, indeed as a housewife, putting up poems as another good woman might put up peaches (she can begin "An Essay on Criticism" with a description of making prepared onion soup). Her poems describe vacation trips to the mountains or the shore. She writes about female friends, children, relatives. All of this is patently unfashionable. Unfashionable also is the fact that her poems have subjects. More damning than that, there is the basic assumption in her work that it is possible to elicit meaning from the world.
The early poems [in Merciful Disguises] sometimes wobble unsteadily (reading this book, a collection of all her work to date, is a bit like watching an ungainly girl grow into a graceful woman) because of the disparity between the prosaic, even folksy, detail and the very learned, literary and skilled mind alive in the language, propelling the poem. The effect is of the rhetoric sometimes jumping away from the detail into its own...
(The entire section is 397 words.)
SOURCE: "Mona Van Duyn And The Politics of Love," in Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1978, pp. 3 1-44.
[In the following essay, Goldensohn examines Van Duyn's treatment of love and the female domestic experience in her works.]
A long time ago I watched Margaret Mead's film, Four Families, with a bunch of high school kids. While I sat there, wholly mesmerized by the dark flow of those domestic images with their latent and compelling content, the kids' responses had been quite different. "Is that all there is?" one prescient fourteen-year-old demanded: "Eating, sleeping, getting married, having kids and working?" The question is fair. Also a question that the very body of Mona Van Duyn's work tends to answer affirmatively; then, in a hundred fevers of dissatisfaction, ask again. Fortunately, question and answer are never so simple or final that we stop needing her additions and complications, or that large and eloquent garner of wit and good judgment which brings to her registration of ordinary life its extraordinary interest. A poet of both analytic and sensual intelligence, she asks for an alert reader, responsive to a leisurely, unforced diction, but with a fondness for paradigm and complex formal strategies—although her subjects rarely stray from that unhonored kingdom which, by so much, constitutes the heaviest weight of human experience, the domestic. Also, in Mona Van Duyn's care, the...
(The entire section is 3928 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 12, No. 36, September 5, 1982, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Hass commends Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.]
Duyn was born in Iowa and lives in St. Louis. Her selected poems, Merciful Disguises, was published in 1973, and has been reissued in paperback this summer by Atheneum. Letters from a Father, and Other Poems is her first book since that gathering. How to convey the flavor of the title poem and the others about her elderly parents? A friend of mine, a pacifist, vegetarian ecologist, from Seattle who works for the Forest Service and lives on tofu, alfalfa sprouts, and the idea of wild rivers, married a woman from a Dutch farming family in Nebraska. Last summer he went back there to meet his in-laws. When he returned, he looked shellshocked. I asked him what had happened. "It was awful," he said. "They ate these huge meat and potato meals starting at about two in the afternoon and then they just kicked back and set around for hours talking about goiters." This is the world that Van Duyn gives us in a suite of salty, baleful and weirdly tender poems.
"Letters from a Father" purports to be just that, six letters from a father to his daughter. The first of them begins with a front-line report from the was between time and the body. There is a tinge of...
(The entire section is 901 words.)
SOURCE: "A Common Sadness," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 88, March 13, 1983, p. 6.
[In the following review, Rosenthal provides a laudatory assessment of Letters from A Father, and Other Poems.]
Mona Van Duyn seems a naturally ebullient sort, a humorous love-welcomer who sturdily overbears disgust, resentment and the tears of things. Her style is anecdotal and expansive….
Mona Van Duyn is such an engaging spirit a reader almost forgets the dark awareness with which she copes. Her title poem, "Letters From a Father," starts her book off with an epistolary tale that has a happy ending—that is, for the time being. It consists of six successive "letters" from a small-town, country-bred, octogenarian father to his poet daughter. These highly colloquial letters, compressed and adapted to a loose line of five or six stresses and a pattern of alternating rhymes and half-rhymes, are handled masterfully. They begin as pure complaint, calculated to drive a daughter to distraction, with such details as: Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners, but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes what she passes is green as grass …
But they end with...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
SOURCE: "Poetry Chronicle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 210-11.
[In the following excerpt, Lattimore offers praise for Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.]
In her sixth book, [Letters from a Father, and Other Poems,] Mona Van Duyn writes mostly blank verse more on the order of Frost than Stevens or Aiken, but the language is a lot racier. Or it may be couplets, rhymed stanzas, even a sonnet—but whatever it is, she dishes it out with practiced casual skill. The heart of this collection is a cluster of poems from family history, about photographs, with letters and memories, with the handsome father and mother (and daughter) losing their looks and strength until "They are no longer parents. Their child is old." "Lives of the Poet" describes how our poet, newly married and in her first year of college teaching, received a letter from her mother:
I was fortunate enough to have
a mother who on one occasion
encouraged me by commissioning
a poem. Newly married, I
was tackling my first teaching job
when a letter came which said, in part:
"As writing is so easy for you
I want you to write a poem about
the San Benito Ladies Auxiliary
that I belong to....
(The entire section is 396 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Near Changes, in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October, 1990, pp. 47-50.
[In the following review, Corn offers a possitive assesment of Near Changes.]
You can't doubt she means it when, in a poem called "Glad Heart at the Supermarket," Mona Van Duyn says, "Dear friends, dear aging hearts that are stressed by young / surges and shocks of feeling, dear minds aquiver, / their stiffening vessels bulged with the rush of fresh / insights, jokes, dreams, may you live forever!" There is in this book a generous sense of community, the recognition that friendship is one of the principal lights along the path, especially toward the end. The sense of pathos is all the more piercing, then, in poems like the elegy mentioned earlier, "For David Kalstone," and the villanelle "Condemned Site," a lament for the death of five friends, one of its repeated lines, "In Love's old boardinghouse, the shades of five rooms are drawn." Life is like that: we watch as others walk the plank; and know that we are in the line to follow after them. Many of those who could have assisted us most, were they still here, have gone on ahead and cannot help. Near Changes is shot through with the pain of loss, and yet it isn't a sad book. The author really is capable of having "a glad heart at the supermarket," and we want to know why for more than esthetic reasons alone. Reading her books over the years, I've...
(The entire section is 1110 words.)
SOURCE: "Violent Desires," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, November 18, 1990, p. 24.
[In the following excerpt, Hirsh commends Van Duyn's "pathos and wit" in Near Changes.]
Mona Van Duyn has a gift for making the ordinary appear strange and for turning a common situation into a metaphysical exploration. She is, as she says, a poet of "serious play"—extravagant, large-spirited, querulous—a John Donne of the postwar American suburbs who combines a breezy colloquial formalism with an underlying violence of feeling. Her most characteristic poems move on the wings of extended figuration, worrying metaphors into conceits and crackling with odd, humorous rhymes ("The world's perverse, / but it could be worse," she writes in "Sonnet for Minimalists") that belie their darker emotional depths. Inventiveness is both sword and shield; wit is her weapon and protection. She is a poet of "merciful disguises."
Near Changes, Ms. Van Duyn's seventh book, is a major addition to the corpus of her work. As in her previous collection Letters from a Father (1982), she explores the metaphorical possibilities and implications that inhere in daily life. For example, in "Glad Heart at the Supermarket" (a reversal of "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket" by Randall Jarrell) a regular jaunt to market becomes an investigation into questions of familiarity, abundance, exoticism and otherness....
(The entire section is 477 words.)
SOURCE: "Methods of Transport," in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1991, pp. 377-89.
[In the following excerpt, Hunting faults some elements of style and tone, but offers a generally favorable review of Near Changes.]
Tietjens, Monroe, Bullis, Bollingen, Loines, Shelley, Crane, Lilly—what a long train of prizes and awards for the engine of poetry to pull! During a distinguished career, Mona Van Duyn has won them all. As well, she is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Then there are the fellowships and the honorary degrees…. A very long train indeed, traveling a steady track through a reliable landscape. For thirty years we have been privileged to watch its progress….
"Domestic" is an adjective frequently found in both positive and negative criticism of Mona Van Duyn's poetry. Her subjects are often grounded in the social occasions and preoccupations of the American middle class, a field of action by now considerably eroded. Such representative enterprises as cocktail parties, christenings, gardening, reading, and marriage have to an extent lost or mislaid meaning. (Death remains germane.) Over this shrinking but still recognizable terrain, Van Duyn flings a net of mythical, biblical, and classical allusion, interwoven with historical, philosophical, literary, and psychological references, the whole construct laden...
(The entire section is 1870 words.)
SOURCE: "The Collected Mona Van Duyn," in Chicago Tribune Books, April 11, 1993, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Rosenberg applauds Van Duyn's abilities as a poet, and praises If It Be Not I, but declares that Firefall "is not up to [Van Duyn's] own best standards."]
It's difficult to call "neglected" a poet who has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize and who is, currently, Poet Laureate of the United States. Yet for all that, Mona Van Duyn is perhaps more widely known than widely read, and that is a form of neglect that deprives us all. Nearly every poem in the generous collection If It Be Not I has at least one line of extraordinary beauty or of wisdom—often both—and what more dare one hope for from any one volume of poetry?
Van Duyn possesses both wit and passion, restraint and power, the art of composition and of marvelous storytelling. She can speak with genuine grandiloquence or in the earthy voice of an old farm woman, as in Bedtime Stories, an exceptional book of poems included in If It Be Not I. Her best work stands up to the best poets—there is a grandeur in it. Her "Garland for Christopher Smart," for example, is the same size as Smart himself, if a different flavor; but to reach an equal wildness and wit is no mean feat.
Van Duyn's best poems are peopled or landscaped; she sees...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
SOURCE: "Housekeeping," in The Village Voice, Vol. 38, No. 22, July 1, 1993, pp. 60-1.
[In the following review, Selman applauds Van Duyn's body of work, and offers favorable assessments of If It Be Not I and Firefall.]
When married couples came to my parents' home for card-playing afternoons, the husbands and wives parted at the front door like two rivers. The gulf between them seemed unnavigable—their card games were as different as their drinks, laughs, and speech levels. Women whose identities were usually defined by the consistency of their noodle puddings, were, until dinnertime, free. Literally: I remember my Aunt Ida rising up from the canasta table and, in an outrageous act of independence, lifting her dress and stripping off her girdle. My delight in Aunt Ida's act—her equivalent of a man rolling up his sleeves to deal the hand—has lasted over 20 years.
Women alone together can be wholly their own stories. Personas are lifted, girdles are shed, makeup isn't as thick. As a child, I found this kitchen-realism was infinitely more interesting than my father's universe of hollered business deals and Delta 88's. Though the women I knew in the suburbs were not educated in the traditional sense, their lives were full of accomplishment. One had been a Ziegfeld Girl, one ran a lingerie store in Grand Central, one bested the mob in a candy business, and one put her son...
(The entire section is 1844 words.)
SOURCE: "Serious Poets," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 98, July 18, 1993, p. 18.
[In the following excerpt, Hadas reviews If It Be Not I and Firefall, and surveys Van Duyn's career.]
Mona Van Duyn is a Midwesterner, and her poetry speaks expansively; her lines are loaded like a cornucopia with the things of this world. A wonderful early poem, "Three Valentines to the Wide World" (1959) posits a distrust of unwieldy generalities: I have never enjoyed those roadside overlooks from which you can see the mountains of two states. The view keeps generating a kind of pure, meaningless exaltation that I can't find a use for … a statement so abstract that it's tiresome.
Simply to see and say is never enough. However rich, Ms. Van Duyn's voice is never bland; particularity inflects her love of the world. Firefall, her new collection, varies the pace of the work with skinny "minimalist sonnets" that capture large themes (love, aging) with aphoristic slimness. But in her best and most ambitious poems, Ms. Van Duyn allows her capacious vision the space it needs to sweep the scene, taking in every detail until some kind of epiphany deepens the tone and moves the poem beyond the mundane. "The Stream" is one example; another is "The Delivery," the final piece in Firefall. In familiar smells and muddle of voices, mashed potatoes, dimming light, hamburger, thick...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
SOURCE: "Masters of Transience," in Poetry, Vol. CLXIII, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 158-70.
[In the following review, Howard offers praise for Firefall.]
Over the course of her long career Mona Van Duyn has maintained two quite different allegiances. A celebrant of the world as well as the spirit, she has trafficked freely between privileged moments and domestic routines, the glories of changeless art and the pile of soiled laundry. "Forever the spirit wants to be embodied," she reminds us; but for Van Duyn the spirit's embodiments are, as often as not, ungainly and unseemly—the "spraddled fern of celery top," the "bloodclot of an over-ripe tomato." Likewise the sources of art, which give rise to beauty and pleasure, are themselves unpleasant and unbeautiful. "What fertilizes but muck?" she asks in "Rascasse," a hymn of praise for the hogfish, "the ugliest fish in the world," whose prized "essence" is the indispensable ingredient for "first-class bouillabaisse." "[W]hat gives comfort, what creates, but ugliness?" Inhaling the "stench" of "some boggy burning," she kneels at the "unpraised heart of being, of essence."
Firefall is Van Duyn's tenth collection of poems. In forms, themes, and tonal values it is of a piece with her earlier work, although more than half of the forty-four poems have been cast in what the poet calls the "minimalist sonnet," by which she means a sonnet...
(The entire section is 929 words.)
SOURCE: "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Woman Poet Laureate," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 141-46.
[In the following essay, Hall comments on Van Duyn's stature as the first woman ever named poet laureate in the United States and discusses critical opinions of Van Duyn's works.]
When the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress was elevated, by an act of Congress, to the more classic-or anglo-or botanical-sounding poet laureate, the U.S. Congress (or was it simply the government's library staff?) could not agree to elevate, with the office, the incumbent Gwendolyn Brooks. The consensus was no; the debate unpublicized, and who was surprised? When Robert Penn Warren's name emerged, it may have had—in those days, soon described as long ago, the late '80s—a ring more historic or laudatory, at least fugitive, white, various, and questing. "But go on," he said, "that's how men survive."
Six years later, Americans, in our love of variety and evanescence, have welcomed and discarded as many laureates. Finally, in June, 1992, for some reason, the nation could accept a woman laureate: Mona Van Duyn. Why a woman? "I heard that Merwin wouldn't do it." One historian would listen, satisfied, and leave to write it down.
Others argue on: Why a woman? No one would expect a volunteer. After all, it was a job and salaried; the figure,...
(The entire section is 2078 words.)
SOURCE: A review of If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 135.
[In the following review, Earnshaw praises If It Be Not I, noting a few "shortcomings," but declaring the collected poems "rich, wise, and beautiful."]
It is of course fascinating to hear the voice of an American woman poet, born in the same decade (1920s) as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, who avoids politics altogether, including the politics of feminism and of the Vietnam War. Mona Van Duyn is a heartland poet, born in Waterloo, Iowa, and living in St. Louis, whereas Rich was raised and educated in sophisticated East Coast surroundings and Levertov was raised and educated in England by her Welsh mother and Russian-Jewish/Christian father. After decades of university teaching while publishing single poems and several collections with modest circulation, Van Duyn gained a wider audience when she received the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes. In 1992 she was appointed by the Librarian of Congress as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Responding to the wide interest in her work, Knopf has now issued in one volume her six previously published books of poems: Valentines to the Wide World (1959), A Time of Bees (1964), To See, To Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Poems (1965–1973) (1973), and Letters from a...
(The entire section is 702 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Firefall, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 376.
[In the review below, Earnshaw provides a laudatory review of Firefall.]
Firefall refers to the nightly bonfire that park rangers used to push over the high cliff in California's Yosemite Park to entertain tourists in the valley below. Van Duyn saw the spectacle when, as a girl, she toured the West with her family. The poem which relates this experience, "Falls," contrasts the cascade of fire with the waterfalls at Niagara Falls, also seen on a family tour. She takes both fire and water as fertilizing elements in her poetic creativity. The poem is placed near the close of the collection, the poet's first since Near Changes, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In addition to poems on Van Duyn topics (wisdom about life drawn from suburban Midwestern dailiness), Firefall contains a series of seven poems in a form she calls the "minimalist" sonnet. The traditional line length has been shortened, but other conventions are kept, except for an occasional added quatrain for a poem she calls "the extended minimalist" sonnet. Each poem responds to a classic and often-studied poem of Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Frost, Hopkins, and Arnold.
Some of the "minimalist" sonnets are intended to comment on the host poem with an interrogation or analysis. Some are "translations" into...
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SOURCE: "Life Work," in Shenandoah, Vol. 44, Spring, 1994, pp. 38-48.
[In the following review of If It Be Not I, Near Changes, and Firefall, Shaw surveys Van Duyn's career, declaring: "At the height of her powers, Mona Van Duyn continues to give fresh meaning to the fusty term 'a life work.'"]
Among the many talents of Mona Van Duyn a gift for self-promotion is not conspicuous. She has served as Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize, and yet it seems only recently that her reputation has begun to catch up with her achievement. Her innate modesty has been one obvious reason for this, but there are other more capricious ones as well. For one thing, the long intervals between some of her books have made her an elusive figure to a public with a short attention span. Happily, the three volumes reviewed here [If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, Near Changes, and Firefall] offer a simple remedy by bringing all of her work at once into print. Beyond this, though, there remains the challenge of an audience's pet stereotypes, and it is here that Van Duyn's poems may even now make trouble for themselves by their refusal to flow into expected channels. She is an individualist both in her topics and her tone, always a good way to fend off easy celebrity.
Concerning topics: critics who are supple and acute in analyzing style can sound embarrassed, condescending,...
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Dickey, James. "Of Human Concern." New York Times Book Review 70 (21 November 1965): 74-5.
Praises A Time of Bees, and calls Van Duyn "one of the best woman-poets around."
Graumnan, Lawrence, Jr. Review of To See, To Take. The Antioch Review 30, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 134.
Brief review in which Grauman praises To See, To Take and declares that Van Duyn's poems "matter precisely because they transform, because they transcend the local domestic moment to speak to us as do myths."
Webster, Harvery Curtis. A review of A Time of Bees. The Kenyan Review 27, No. 2 (Spring 1965): 380-81.
A highly laudatory assessment of A Time of Bees.
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