Mona Van Duyn Van Duyn, Mona (Vol. 116) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mona Van Duyn 1921–

American poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.'"

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

John Woods (review date April 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 course and the speeding)
     off, in a halter of words, to run for your meaning.

Although "Each skull encloses / trinkets, museums of rarities, whole zoos of wishes," the mind has a limited willingness to catalogue such variety.

These poems are committed, also, to love, to love of the world. "Love is that lovely play / that makes us and keeps us," the eight-year-old girl is told. In her third "Valentine to the Wide World," she states that "Beauty is merciless and intemperate", but that one "against that rage slowly may learn to pit / love and art, which are compassionate".

In "The Gentle Snorer," when two had "dimmed to silence" in a Maine retreat, a three-weeks cabin guest brought back the world, as he snored. He "sipped the succulent air", and "sleeping, he mentioned death / and celebrated breath".

     He went back home. The water flapped the shore.
     A thousand bugs drilled at the darkness. Over
     the lake a loon howled. Nothing spoke up for us,
     salvagers always of what we have always lost;
     and we thought what the night needed was more of man,
     he left us so partisan.

W. D. Snodgrass (review date Spring 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

David Kalstone (review date 2 August 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 857 words.)

Arthur Oberg (review date Winter 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Harvey Shapiro (review date 22 September 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 397 words.)

Lorrie Goldensohn (essay date March 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3928 words.)

Robert Hass (review date 5 September 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 901 words.)

M. L. Rosenthal (review date 13 March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Richard Lattimore (review date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Alfred Corn (review date October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1110 words.)

Edward Hirsch (review date 18 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 477 words.)

Constance Hunting (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)

Liz Rosenberg (review date 11 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Robyn Selman (review date 1 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1844 words.)

Rachel Hadas (review date 18 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Ben Howard (review date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Judith Hall (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)

Doris Earnshaw (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Doris Earnshaw (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 719 words.)

Robert B. Shaw (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3193 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 141 words.)