Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
Mona Van Duyn (pronounced “van dine”) was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on May 9, 1921. She has said that neither of her parents was interested in poetry. She recalls that she read constantly as a child, particularly fairy tales, in spite of the fact that her father would take books out of her hands to urge her to play outdoors. At school, she saw poetry used as a punishment for badly behaved students who had to stay after school to memorize it. Still, she developed an early love for poems. Although her father did not want her to attend college, she was allowed to go (on a scholarship she had won) after carrying out a long campaign of nerves to persuade him.
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It was only in college, at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa), that Van Duyn received encouragement to write. One of her English teachers, Burt Boothe, took her writing seriously, encouraged her to publish, and focused her reading. She received a B.A. in 1942 and an M.A. from the University of Iowa in 1943. In 1943, she married Jarvis A. Thurston, a professor of English.
Van Duyn held several teaching positions from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, notably at the University of Iowa, the University of Louisville, and Washington University in St. Louis. With her husband, Van Duyn founded and edited Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature between 1947 and 1967. She gave up teaching in 1967, saying that teaching took too much of the same energies she needed for writing; she subsequently confined her teaching to summer writing courses. She also gave many poetry readings.
Van Duyn’s first book of poems, Valentines to the Wide World, was published in 1959. Her second was A Time of Bees (1964), followed by To See, to Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Merciful Disguises (1973), and Letters from a Father, and Other Poems (1982). All of her work up to Near Changes: Poems (1990) has been collected in a volume called If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982, published in 1993. Firefall was also published in 1993.
Recognition for Van Duyn’s work has taken the form of several important grants, prizes, and appointments, including service as poetry consultant for the Olin Library Modern Literature Collection at Washington University (where her papers are housed). She was one of the first five American poets to win a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1966), and she has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972). In 1970, she won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry.
In 1971 To See, to Take won the National Book Award. In her acceptance speech, Van Duyn talked about the nature of poetry and the poet’s work, saying that in poetry’s concern for both sound and sense, it pays tribute to language refined by patterns. Poets inform those patterns with their own voices in an effort to share their experiences with others. To do that requires a caring about others, “which is a form of love.” Her volume Near Changes won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1991.
In 1992, Van Duyn was appointed poet laureate by the Library of Congress. In an interview, she commented on the position’s requirements, saying that her first task was to give a public reading of her work and later a public lecture. Additionally, she hoped to give recognition to young poets by inviting them to read in the Library of Congress’s reading series. She noted that her wide experience as a contest judge would prepare her well to make decisions about potential readers’ merits. In the same interview, she protested the label “poetess,” but she also noted that of the thirty-one poetry consultants named by the Library of Congress before “poet laureate” was added to the title in 1985, only six had been women. She was the first woman to have been named U.S. poet laureate.
In talking about her work habits, Van Duyn commented that she did extensive revising during the composition of a poem, writing a few lines out in longhand, typing the lines, revising them, and then going on to the next lines. Van Duyn said that she wrote only when she had ideas, although she admitted that the system of a daily writing schedule had some appeal for her when ideas seemed scarce. In her later career, she said she no longer relied on feedback from other writers about her work in the way she did as a beginning writer, before she had established her voice. The poet succumbed to bone cancer in 2004.