Mona Van Duyn

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Mona Van Duyn Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3943

In an epigraph to one of her poems, Mona Van Duyn cited Norman O. Brown: “Freud says that ideas are libidinal cathexes, that is to say, acts of love.” For Van Duyn also, ideas were acts of love. Hers is a poetry shaped around the impact of ideas on one who is in love with them. To write poetry was, for her, to engage in an act of love. To write poetry was to make real the world, which, although it exists externally, becomes known only when the mind’s projections play over it. The life from which she wrote was the life of the mind; there are few overtly dramatic events in her poetry. Her mind was excited by language—hence the frequent literary references in her poems—but it was also excited by what is not-mind, everyday accidental happenings, intense emotions, whatever is irrational, recalcitrant, and unyielding to intellectual analysis or explanation. Her poems burst out of the tension between these polarities, the poem itself—often self-reflexive—being the only method she could find to maintain truth and sanity.

“Valentines to the Wide World”

A kind of poetic manifesto appears in an early poem, the second “Valentines to the Wide World” in the volume of that title, in which Van Duyn describes her dislike of panoramic scenes because they are too abstract; the vast view of nature provides only a useless exhilaration. She finds “the poem” more useful because its pressure breaks through the surface of experience and because it is specific. “It starts with the creature/ and stays there.” This “pressure of speech,” even if it is painful or akin to madness, is still what makes her appreciate her life, feeling that to spend it “on such old premises is a privilege.” In the third “valentine,” she sees the beauty of the world as “merciless and intemperate,” as a “rage” that one must temper with “love and art, which are compassionate.”

Compassion is an outstanding characteristic of Van Duyn’s poetry, both as motive and expression, and yet it is manifested through a wrestling with intellectual questions and an urge to apply her knowledge. Van Duyn’s long lines are particularly suitable for expressing discursive thought. Love and beauty are traditional themes of Romantic poets, but in Van Duyn, they are united with an affinity for the forms and emphases of literary classicism reminiscent of the eighteenth century, with its bent toward philosophizing in poetry and its allegiance to strict and rhyming forms, especially the heroic couplet.

“From Yellow Lake”

A classic philosophical problem therefore arose for Van Duyn in her early poems—the split between mind and body. In “From Yellow Lake: An Interval” (from Valentines to the Wide World), she expresses discontent with her body as an impediment to overcoming the separateness she feels. The language of the poem has theological undertones: The beetles are “black as our disgrace,” a reference to human sin and evil. Crows flying overhead become her dark thoughts, feeding upon “my mind, dear carrion.” The poet sees each creature as an analogue of something human—the turtle is “flat as our fate” and the pike’s “fierce faith” hooks him fatally on the fisherman’s lure. Having a modern mind, the poet cannot find any theological answer to her questioning of the meaning of the creation that painfully yet beautifully surrounds her. The poem supplies the only resolution: Summer has warmed her but she must go back to “the wintry work of living,” that is, the life of the mind of an ordinary human being, and “conspire in the nailing, brutal and indoors,/ that pounds to the poem’s shape a summer’s metaphors.” The notion of Original Sin has here been given a new twist: The animal body is “innocent,” a parable or metaphor, a natural “given,” and the summer is the warmth of love, whereas the mind is that which creates separation, which construes evil and perversely invents the forms of pain. The mind, even if separated from the natural world, is still the only thing she has to work with. Only the poem—actually the process of making a work of art—can heal the split between mind and body, winter and summer, pain and love, by creating reality through metaphor.

“To My Godson, on His Christening”

In part 1 of “To My Godson, on His Christening” (from If It Be Not I), Van Duyn continues in a mildly theological context to ponder her awareness of human imperfection (the classical definition of Original Sin), which not even the poet’s artistic effort can completely escape. Here “metaphors” are in effect charitable deeds, “beautiful doors” out of the walled-up room of existence that is everyone’s fated life. In part 2, a lexicon is the poet’s gift to the baby, to help him learn words, since his world will not come into existence until he can name it—that is, use language, the way God made the world by speaking the Word, the Logos. This remnant of Christian thought fades into the background as, in part 3, the poet’s mind concentrates on the uniqueness and transitoriness of each individual and of the species. This recognition nevertheless provides a “feast of awareness” and pleasure in the new life that is the positive aspect of the transitory; the reader is reminded that both dying and being born continue constantly. Being born means coming into a world of pain, but also into a circle of other people, who, like the poet, will oversee the child and care for him. This caring, whether religiously motivated or not, reveals the charity and generosity that is Van Duyn’s most characteristic and attractive attitude throughout her work.

A Time of Bees

Charity, of course, is a synonym for compassionate love, and love in Van Duyn’s poetry is a reiterated word and theme. The word “love” appears in all but three of the poems in A Time of Bees, the collection that followed Valentines to the Wide World. Van Duyn does not abandon the theme of poetry, but here unites it with the theme of love in the long poem “An Essay on Criticism,” a tour de force in couplets that echoes Alexander Pope’s eighteenth century poem of the same title and also explores the aesthetics of its day, leavening this subject matter with contemporary sensibility, idiom, and wit.

In the frame of this poem, the poet, about to open and cook a package of dehydrated onion soup, is interrupted by the arrival of a friend, a young girl who has fallen in love and has discovered “how love is like a poem.” In the dialogue that follows, many famous critical theories of poetry are cited and explored. The girl in love speaks first. She clutches the poet’s arm “like the Mariner,” an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which the poet employs to join an intense, even obsessed, Romantic view of poetry in one embrace with the classic love of intellect and rationality.

After the girl leaves, the poet continues to talk to herself as if gripping “a theoretical Wedding Guest”—a reference to Coleridge again—and to grapple inwardly and intellectually with various aspects of the interaction between life and art. She takes the side of the poem, “for I believe in art’s process of working through otherness to recognition/ and in its power that comes from acceptance, and not imposition.” At this point, she finds tears falling into her onion soup, but onions did not cause them; the thought of love did. The poem has to be completed in a human reader’s heart. In the complex punning of the last line—tears as “essay” (attempt)—life is asserted to be victorious over art, but poem making is plainly what maintains their intricate and fruitful balance.

To See, To Take

In To See, To Take, Van Duyn endeavored to step away from autobiographical reference and to elucidate her concerns by adopting the technique of the persona. In “Eros to Howard Nemerov,” for example, she speaks through the traditional personification of love, the Greek god, who is addressing the representative modern American poet with a humorous eye turned on the posturings and vagaries of hippie love in the 1960’s. Van Duyn’s observant eye and sense of humor led her directly to satire in “Billings and Cooings from ’The Berkeley Barb,’” a satire still apropos now that “personal” want ads have become institutionalized. Many Van Duyn poems begin with newspaper quotations as epigraphs, a method she used to initiate subtle and accurate political and social commentary; by this device she avoided the obvious or propagandistic rhetoric that often mars overtly “political” poetry.

Van Duyn cannot be said to have been entirely apolitical, but her focus was always personal. Personal love, individual consciousness of passing time was what she stressed. The theme of the passage of time emerges particularly in this volume in two memorial poems, “The Creation” and “A Day in Late October.” In “The Creation,” Van Duyn mourns a friend’s death; as art is a metaphor for life, she sees the friend’s life as having been taken away as a pencil drawing is erased. “A Day in Late October,” written after the death of Randall Jarrell, asserts the primacy of death, life’s inseparable companion, over art—the art of poetry—by means of an extraordinary divagation for this poet: She breaks out of the poetic form altogether and falls back on prose, which is a kind of death of poetry, to express “what cannot be imagined: your death, my death.” Death and the passing of time cannot fail to reinvoke a sense of the preciousness of love; the word “love” is repeated as often in this collection as in the previous one.

Despite her adoption of the persona to avoid excessive “personality,” two fine poems in this volume spring from autobiography, a mode in which she has both sharpened her technical skills and widened her attitude of appreciation. “Postcards from Cape Split” show her gift for straightforward description of the natural world. The facts of the place where she is vacationing in Maine carry their own intrinsic symbolic weight, so simply stating them is enough. The central motif of “Postcards from Cape Split” is abundance—unearned richness exemplified by hillsides covered with heliotrope, the sea surrounding the house whose interior mirrors the sea, a plethora of villages and shops, generous neighbors, flourishing vegetable gardens. The poet is dazzled and appreciative: “The world blooms and we all bend and bring/ from ground and sea and mind its handsome harvests.” The mind remains a primary locus, but the emphasis here is on contentment and gratitude; the world’s unasked for generosity is indispensable.

The second autobiographical poem, “Remedies, Maladies, Reasons” strikes quite a different note, although its power also stems from a straightforward statement of facts—the facts of Van Duyn’s childhood. It is a record of her mother’s acts and speeches that imposed on the child a view of herself as weak, ill, and in danger of dying. The record is brutal and nauseating; it continues in the mother’s letters describing her own symptoms simply quoted in her own words, so overwhelming a body hatred and self-hatred that it is miraculous that the poet survived it. The word “remedies” in the title has a heavily ironic ring, but by the time the poem ends, it has taken another turn of meaning: Implicitly the act of making a poem from these horrors relieves them. It provides a remedy by evoking the sight of her mother as an attractive woman and as the mother the child wanted, who came in the night when called and defended the child against her felt enemy, sickness. The poem’s last line—“Do you think I don’t know how love hallucinates?”—constructs a complex balance, reasserting that love still exists but has maintained itself internally by a costly distortion of external fact. Without overtly referring to poetry as an aid, this poem is a remarkable testimony to the capacity of shaped language to restore a sane perspective and to enable one’s mind to open to revision of memory, an act of love that is analogous to revision of the language of a poem.

If vision and revision are the loving acts that give rise to the making of a poem, the poem itself is the “merciful disguise of metaphor” that masks the horror and brutality of the world, making it possible for humans to live with its limitations. The most stringent and widespread personal limitation that love undertakes culturally is marriage. Marriage is to love what the heroic couplet is to poetry. Van Duyn has chosen—or has found herself unable to escape from—both rigors. In Valentines to the Wide World, she explores marriage as “the politics of love” in the wryly witty, rather lighthearted “Toward a Definition of Marriage.” At the end of To See, to Take appears the tough-minded, occasionally viciously clear-eyed poem “Marriage, with Beasts” in which one feels that the imagery of animals in a zoo, Swiftian in its satiric accuracy, hardly qualifies as “merciful disguise.” It is pitiless exposé.

Marital combat is elevated to a cosmic, mythic vision of antagonistic masculine and feminine principles in the previously unpublished poem “A View” in the last section of Merciful Disguises. The “you” and the “I” of the poem are driving through Colorado. The mountain with its “evergreen masculinity” is obliviously and continuously ascendant over the depleted “mined-out” female earth. The ending is covertly linked with marriage: The “you,” the car’s driver, male by cultural definition as well as presumably in fact, asks the “I” how she is, and she says that she is “admiring the scenery, and am O.K.” The “view” of the title is a pun indicating “opinion” as well as landscape; it is the closest that Van Duyn’s poetry—always centered on a woman’s consciousness—comes to embodying a feminist perspective as it presents a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the man’s state of well-being and the woman’s unending state of struggle and exhaustion.

Letters from a Father, and Other Poems

By the time of the publication of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems in 1982, the poet is far better than merely self-deprecatingly “O.K.” The complexity of her relationship with her parents resolved itself in the gentleness and forgiveness that came with their deaths in 1980, within three months of each other. The title poem, “Letters from a Father,” is a foreshadowing of those deaths as well as a revival and revision of the poet’s childhood memories. This poem’s power comes from its almost verbatim quotation of her father’s words, a technique that verifies the poet’s loving ability to give herself and her art wholly to someone else. She thereby redeems both the sad intractable fact of death and also the self-entangled contemporary language of poetry, which badly needs a reminder that it must have reference to something outside itself.

In “The Stream,” about the death of her mother, the poet returns to her original and perennial concern, love, and, in an extended metaphor, sees love as a narrow stream running below ground, held down, unseen, but finally finding its way up until it is visible. This vision of the stream of love also suggests the stream of time flowing toward death, a flow echoed by the long flowing line whose form—the couplet with slant end-rhyme, Van Duyn’s favorite—seems to constitute the same sort of facilitating obstacle that the rock and earth present to the underground stream of water. That water rises higher in a narrow tube is a physical fact; thus love rises under “the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay/ of old misreadings.” Her mother’s death has brought the stream of love to light, revealing to her “the welling water—to which I add these tears.”

The tears and the poem, as in the earlier but different context of “An Essay on Criticism,” join in felicitous confluence. The stringent form, when one gives in to it, is what produces genuine depth and maturation in life as well as in art. Van Duyn’s development as a poet has been steady and straightforward, even relentlessly undeviating, without sudden switches of style or experimental or uncertain phases. She has never gone back on her commitment to work with tight forms, to deal with the world’s pain, and to remain in love with the world despite its worst. “Since You Asked Me . . .” answers the question which must have been put to her a number of times: Why do you use rhyme and measure, since these are so old-fashioned and out of date? She says that she uses rhyme “to say I love you to language” and to combat the current linguistic sloppiness of “y’know?” and “Wow!” She uses measure because it is “not just style but lifestyle.”

Near Changes

In Near Changes, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Van Duyn continues an exploration of her own situation as survivor. The death of both parents, chronicled in Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, is part of a series of losses. In “The Block,” the large house she and her husband bought in 1950 “just in case” they might still have children gradually becomes part of a “middle-aged block” and then an elderly one, where widows now reside where once there were couples, and where Mr. and Mrs. Thurston watch other people’s grandchildren. This—like other long poems in this volume, especially “Glad Heart at the Supermarket” and “Falling in Love at Sixty-five”—demonstrates the absurdity of pigeonholing Van Duyn as a “domestic” poet. While her matter may include Coleman lanterns, lawn care, snow shoveling, bean curd, and complex carbohydrates, her meanings are as profound as those of any other poet drawn to the connections between life and death, constancy and change. The collection provides new evidence of her technical virtuosity as well: “Memoir, for Harry Ford” is a sestina; “Condemned Site,” a distinguished villanelle recounting the loss of five good friends, some of whose first names many readers will recognize as major twentieth century American poets.


Firefall (along with If It Be Not I) was published on the occasion of Van Duyn’s appointment as U.S. poet laureate. In this volume, she continues to develop major themes of her lifework, among them love and marriage, friendship, work, travel, stewardship, and the luminous quality of the ordinary. Many of the poems are about the work of other poets and poetry itself. The volume includes a number of what she calls “minimalist sonnets,” poems that preserve the fourteen-line count and the conventional rhyme patterns of Italian and English sonnets, but reduce the number of syllables and otherwise “deconstruct” the venerable form. “Summer Virus” is an attractive example of what she can do with such minimalism, as her rising temperature brings both mind and body to a state of “incandescence.”

The book takes its title from a phenomenon she describes in “Falls,” a memoir in free verse that begins in the flatness of her native Iowa and then takes her to the mysterious “firefall” of Yosemite (which she explains in one of her rare notes) and the “thunderous boasts” of Niagara, to college, to books, and to a lifetime of writing poems—a waterfall of words. “Falls” ends in a formal quatrain, in which a poet toward the end of her career invokes the “kernel hints” of her that the future reader may find among the “husks,” returning to the Iowa cornfields among which the memoir begins.

Selected Poems

In 2002, Alfred Knopf released a collection of Van Duyn’s poems, Selected Poems. The poems in this work originally appeared in Van Duyn’s earlier collections, including Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, To Take, Bedtime Stories, Merciful Disguises, Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, Near Changes, and Firefall. Selected Poems showcases nearly one hundred of Van Duyn’s poems, providing readers with a sampling of her most celebrated and beloved pieces, including “Three Valentines to the Wide World,” “Notes from a Suburban Heart,” “Remedies, Maladies, Reasons,” “Bedtime Stories,” “Midas and Wife,” “Photographs,” “The Insight Lady of St. Louis on Zoos,” and “Falls.”

In “Notes from a Suburban Heart” (originally appearing in A Time of Bees), Van Duyn furthers her themes of love and life in the domestic sphere by ruminating on tasks such as buying and using lawn fertilizer in the summer, feeding the birds during winter, and the flowers’ tentative blooms in the spring. The narrator loves her life, which Van Duyn chronicles by moving through the seasons, thus emphasizing that while the seasons change, the narrator’s life and her fondness for it remain the same.

“Midas and Wife” (originally appearing in Merciful Disguises), re-envisions the myth of King Midas, the ruler who turned whatever he touched to gold. Van Duyn gives both life and voice to Midas’s wife. She opens the poem with mentioning how King Midas loved—and somewhat envied—his wife for her ability to touch objects freely, especially living objects such as the grass and birds. In the poem, the queen tells Midas she cannot bear not being touched by him, and he goes from room to room and touches whatever his wife has touched in an effort to feel connected and close to her. The queen implores Midas to touch her; he does, and she turns into a statue. Then Dionysus releases Midas from his curse (just as the god does in the myth). Many versions of the Midas myth do not focus on or even mention the queen, or the love between Midas and his wife. Van Duyn’s modification of the myth emphasizes the theme of love and the role of woman as wife, both important elements in Van Duyn’s canon.

Van Duyn had not published a new collection of poems since Firefall, and some readers wondered about the release of Selected Poems since the book was an assemblage of previously published pieces. Some critics felt Alfred Knopf’s releasing Van Duyn’s Selected Poems without including any new work was a means to honor and highlight Van Duyn’s former status as poet laureate. One reviewer, Henry Brian of The New York Times, suggested that while Selected Poems does not provide readers with any new material by Van Duyn, the book proves informative to her fans for another reason: The collection shows which poems were Van Duyn’s favorites.

A poet of ideas

In a lecture delivered at the Library of Congress in 1993, Van Duyn discussed the difficulty women poets have had in getting published and understood. As successful as she was, she noted that,Blinded by the assumption that women do not have thoughts, do not write about ideas, reviewers who are incredibly talented at understanding the most difficult and private poetry of their own sex announce blithely that a poem of mine about the need for form in life and art is about walking a dog, or an analysis of friendship is about shopping for groceries.

She wondered in fact whether such reviewers even consider the possibility of metaphor. As light as her touch and as familiar as her subject matter could be, all but the most casual reader must recognize that Van Duyn is indeed a poet of ideas, one of the most accomplished and distinguished poets of her time.

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Mona Van Duyn American Literature Analysis


Van Duyn, Mona (Vol. 116)