Mark Van Doren Van Doren, Mark (Vol. 6) - Essay

Van Doren, Mark (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Van Doren, Mark 1894–1972

Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, critic, and editor, was also a novelist, short story writer, playwright, scholar, and teacher. His restrained and enduring verse is said to be Emersonian with modern metaphysical and humanist concerns, individual, while clearly in the American tradition of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. As critic, anthologist, and teacher, he was an influential force in American literature. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

[To open Collected and New Poems] at random is to be constantly surprised by the workmanship and shine of a given poem. I observe, too, that typing Van Doren as a pastoral poet will not do in the light of his varied subjects and eclectic intelligence. One discovers, for instance, How Such a Lady, which compares with the best character studies of Robinson or Ransom. Or Northern Philosopher, the poem on Kierkegaard, which rivals Auden for penetrating treatment of a historical figure. Or Winter Tryst, which in its excellence simply puts comparisons out of mind. Van Doren's eminence, justly earned, can only increase as his true range becomes evident to his future readers. (p. 115)

Robert B. Shaw, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1970.

Mark Van Doren created an American poetry of common lives and objects, finding inspiration in the landscape of New England. (p. 375)

He is a poet of place, creating wonder from common things, finding miraculous the true apprehension of ordinary experience….

Dominating his poetry are images of circles, often fused with motion ("Here he circled after corn/Before the oldest man was born") or with the process of visual perception ("For I can see a circle of grey shore,/and greyer water, motionless beyond"). Reading his poetry can have dizzying and magical effects wrought by imagery of suns, moons, water wheels, centers, circumferences, objects that turn, spin, revolve and whirl, moving as the imagination moves.

Although Mark Van Doren wrote wisely about the works of Shakespeare and Dryden, his poetry is rooted firmly in an American tradition heralded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he admired….

Van Doren's fascination with spheres recalls Emerson's belief, set forth in his essay, "Circles," that the imagination's apprehension of the unending rings in nature enabled the soul to grow. Emerson assumed that the poet was a seer, standing at the center, courageously accepting the challenge to submit to his vision….

Mark Van Doren's visionary poetry is an American tradition, his seeing speakers resembling Eliot's Tiresias, Moore's tireless observers, and the perceiving speaker of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Accepting his vision's risk as an act of faith, he wrote a quietly adventurous poetry. He was, as Marianne Moore wrote of Henry James, "intrinsically and actively ample … reaching westward, southward, anywhere, everywhere," with a mind "incapable of the shut door in any direction." (p. 376)

Grace Schulman, "Mark Van Doren as an American," in The Nation (copyright 1973 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), October 15, 1973, pp. 375-76.

Mark Van Doren's life seemingly came full circle in the oriental sense of attaining a final transcendent wisdom; his perfection in so many areas makes us almost believe again in that 17th-century devotion of Donne's that death shall be no more. While the poems in Good Morning were "written from the acknowledged end," as Richard Howard says in his interesting essay-foreword, "the awareness of the threshold beside him, like Pascal's abyss, does not cause Mark Van Doren to recoil, to withdraw from life. Rather it is as if the very energy and impulses of his being, remembered, imagined, speculated upon, brooded over—were closer to language, to the one embrace he has always mastered, than ever before." (p. 29)

William F. Claire, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 3, 1973.

In the Beginning, Love: Dialogues on the Bible is a delightful, reflective ramble through the theme of love in the Old Testament in the company of two great friends [Mark Van Doren and Maurice Samuel]. And what company! Themselves unmistakably lovers of the Bible, Van Doren and Samuel, both deceased in 1972, brought to bear on their subject the immersion of two lifetimes in literature and art, ancient to modern, Jewish to Gentile. Some sample chapter or subdivision headings: God's love for man; man's love for God; man's love for man; the love of husband for wife; Aristotle on friendship; Rembrandt and Tobit; Skinner's rats and the human heart.

Your professional exegete, however, should be advised to put aside his science as he picks up this book, for Van Doren and Samuel display a charming innocence—whether genuine or feigned for the sake of their literary genre—of the results of modern Old Testament study. (p. 469)

Joseph J. De Vault, in America (© America Press, 1973; all rights reserved), December 15, 1973.

How appropriate that a man who devoted his life to the values of literature, who wrote so perceptively about the achievements of others and who taught so persuasively, should leave us this testament of his own last poems, Good Morning…. [They] breathe with a calm liveliness and directness the poet in him never had attained before. Indeed, the Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939, and the Collected and New Poems: 1924–1963 contain few poems as good as the ones in this slim volume. Poets rarely blossom as septuagenarians, but this one did.

The tone and quality of Van Doren's gifts are heard in the title-poem, "Good Morning." With a child's wonder, the author greets the day, the season and his readers: "Morning to all things that ever/Were and will be, and that are." The conclusion is like the end of a doxology, but with a difference, for the poet reverses the order and concludes with the things that are. His is the world of marches and marigolds, of sunlight and rain, of death and love; his poems echo the everyday of men, animals and plants. A stray cat, owl, mouse or horse is subject enough for a poem, or ferns growing in a ring: "it is how the new/universe holds its breath." The reader holds his breath as the miracle of transformation from thing to image to word takes place before his eyes. (pp. 469, 471)

The last poem in this collection, "Out of This Window," sums up the poet's vision of his world: "Out of this window/Is half the world:/A whale's eye,/Small and enormous." Through evening and night the poet watches, until: "Afterward/Stars. I see them all down." The strength of these lines and last verses is in their observation and the reflection that matures—patiently and honestly—from its contact with the real. And the poet is not afraid to say simple things simply….

Van Doren's poetry has not been much in vogue, but this volume should draw attention to the scope and beauty of his personality and writing…. Each poem is "the first poem ever" with "nothing to start from/Except the silence," but when it happens, old men recognize it and are glad, and young men repeat it to their children. Good Morning will endure. (p. 471)

James Finn Cotter, in America (© America Press, 1973; all rights reserved), December 15, 1973.

Good Morning: Last Poems by Mark Van Doren is a first-rate book of poetry. In this collection of poems written shortly before his death …, Van Doren sums up his latest attitudes and feelings about life, about death, and about all the world between.

Often criticized for being a middle-of-the-roader, Van Doren nevertheless writes from that unique position with authority, and we believe him; more, we understand and say yes to him…. But he is not always in the middle. Almost as often he treads the margin of erotic or tragic emotion. He does this best when describing little things…. He reveres all creatures: "Worms, flies; now/All created things, each/With its secret pride…." This is simple as breathing and being are simple. It is difficult to argue that "Waking up is being born/All over, as if the first time/Had not been half enough, had been—/Ridiculous—a kind of death." But better doubt the sunrise.

This book is also a testament of the poet's sure knowledge of death. And when he wrote of that sure knowledge his poems have a hardness that is unmistakable: "But the sound/In his throat was enough: as if the bottommost/Boards of the world were tearing loose."… Still, in the middle of terror, he seeks to see the world as good, as his, as one that would still be his; and in his seeking he asks, "How praise a world that will not be/Forever?" Van Doren's answer in "This Life of Mine" carries more than a hint of the blackness and despair that at times sought to overwhelm him as his own death drew nearer. But even here he fights. He will not be overwhelmed…. (pp. 180-81)

In his foreword, Richard Howard notes that "our modernist heritage" is "the orthodoxy of a terrible faith in excluded middles." Howard's placing Van Doren squarely in that excluded middle is exactly right. Mark Van Doren has seen the world and all of life and knows the margins as well as any man, but his life has drawn him as by a magnet back to the center of it all. And where that center is, is the content of all his poetry. Richard Howard calls it "that connective tissue, cartilage, sticking plaster." And it is in the style, too, that we find the center, the meanings, the sources of Van Doren's poems. His style, often compared to Dryden's, is his own, of course, but we may learn from it if we are not put off by "his ease, the imperturbable grace, the clarity and radiance of an undismembered self."

Van Doren leaves us with these poems as a reminder that the margins and center are one. That is why the poet can say: "This is the first poem. There was none/Before it. Do not misunderstand me. This/Is the first poem ever." (pp. 181-82)

J. T. Ledbetter, "A Farewell," in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1974, pp. 180-82.

Mark Van Doren's last book of poems [Good Morning] posthumously published, is an anomaly in this time of grim and annihilating tension and a literature almost entirely obsessed, thematically and structurally, with its furies. For about the poems there is—as there must have been about the man—a steady kind of serenity, an acceptance: of old age, of death, of loss, as of life. (p. 299)

[This is] the problem the poetry presents us: it is unfashionable. That is, it offers us nothing of the mode (or modes) or temper of our times. Neither does it address any of the great public problems that haunt all our public hours: power, oppression, plunder, both political and physical, of people as of the planet. It is, therefore, very hard to read and take seriously as contemporary verse.

The problem is compounded by some bad poems, too, to speak plainly. The style of the poems—formal, lyrical, simple and direct in diction, in statement, and in structure—allows slim, if any, margin for error, so failures and flaws are immediately and glaringly apparent.

BUT—the book deserves and rewards attention. There are remarkable successes in it, and its great one is in conveying, from the beginning onward, a sense of a man one feels privileged to have known, as these last poems permit us to know him.

Roethke wrote, "What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?" and struck a note to which we all respond. But in Van Doren what we discover is an extraordinary and level sanity, a nobility of soul at one with circumstance—even, and above all, the hard circumstance that makes these poems knowingly "Last Poems."

The awareness of approaching death, however, which everywhere pervades the book and is the foreground of all its actions, at the same time it sharply pains, also provides—with the utmost modesty on Mr. Van Doren's part—occasion for "soul to clap its hands and sing," as Yeats recommended for redemption from old age.

So these "Last Poems" (the book's subtitle) are called Good Morning, after the first poem, which bids good morning to the natural world—trees, wind, leaves, birds, grass, pond—all its appearances, and ends:

      good morning, mole
      And worm and nesting mouse—good morning,
      Morning to all things that ever
      Were and will be, and that are.

The song is more than cheerful. It is joyful—and its deep joy is in its last two lines which, acknowledging and celebrating the whole continuum of life, come to rest in the exact present: and that are. It's this tree and mole and nesting mouse, seen by this eye—which won't last much longer; so, for now, praise: good morning! (pp. 299-300)

[The poems] are quiet, gentle at their work, and fine—and as accepting of what they must lament as celebratory of what they praise. The volume may serve as a handbook for reaching past our biblical threescore years and ten with dignity and grace. (p. 301)

Anthony Ostroff, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Summer, 1974.

Mark Van Doren's last poems are so traditional they seem novel; some are so affecting they may become permanent. After his death, in December of 1972, friends found in his desk the poems which make up Good Morning. Though he might not have chosen to print them all, this uneven collection contains many lines that are as fine as any he ever wrote and some which mark a fitting culmination of his prolific career. True to the forms he employed for fifty years.

Mark Van Doren's graceful lyrics, while often tinged with thoughts of death, radiate to the end his openness to the possibilities of life. To view cloud mountains and the vastness of a night sky, these verses show, to smell moist earth and scan leaf-mosaics is to take man's measure by the perspective of a teeming universe; to frame reflection and wonder in well-wrought lines and to control them with rime does not constrict sensibility but makes it accessible, even (perhaps especially) to children. His is the voice of moderation, as Richard Howard notes in his valuable if overdrawn Foreword. The poet knows but avoids the extremes, seeking the middle way, the center which reveals the essence of things; hence the clarity, simplicity, and certain strength of his art. (p. 343)

Joseph Parisi, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1974.