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.'"