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Mona Van Duyn

Mona Van Duyn

Mona Van Duyn (born 1921) was the first woman to be appointed poet laureate of the United States, serving from October 1992 to May 1993.

On the occasion of Mona Van Duyn's appointment as poet laureate, the Library of Congress' Information Bulletin (June 29, 1992) described the background of the position: "The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate in order to afford each incumbent maximum freedom to work on his or her own projects while at the Library. Each brings a new emphasis to the position, which pays a stipend of $35, 000." Allen Tate (1943-1944), for example, served as editor of the library's now-defunct Quarterly Journal and edited the compilation Sixty American Poets, 1896-1944 during his tenure. Some consultants have suggested and chaired literary festivals and conferences; others have spoken at schools and universities and received the public in the Poetry Room. Before Van Duyn, six women had been poetry consultants: Leonie Adams, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Jacobsen, Maxine Kumin, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1921. She earned a B.S. degree from the University of Northern Iowa and an M.A. from the University of Iowa, where she took courses and taught in its famous Writers' Workshop in the 1940s. She had honorary doctorates of letters from Washington University, St. Louis, and Cornell College, Mount Vernon (Iowa). She founded Perspective: A Quarterlyof Literature with her husband, Jarvis Thurston, in 1947 and continued as coeditor into the 1970s.

Van Duyn taught literature and creative writing extensively. From 1950 to 1967 she was lecturer in English at University College, Washington University. She also taught at the University of Louisville. She lectured at the Salzburg (Austria) Seminar in American Studies and at the Sewanee Writers and the Breadloaf Writing Conferences.

She was widely honored before assuming the laureateship. Her prizes include the Eunice Tietjens Award (1956), the Harriet Monroe Award of Poetry Magazine (1968), the Helen Bullis Prize (1964) from Poetry Northwest, the Hart Crane Memorial Award from the American Weave Press (1968), the first prize in the Borestone Mountain Awards Volume (1968), the National Book Award (1971), the Bollingen Prize (1970), the Loines Prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1976), the Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America (1987), the Ruth Lilly Prize, the country's most remunerative award for poetry (1989), and the Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes in 1991.

The National Foundation for the Arts chose her as one of the first five poets to receive a grant. She held a Guggenheim fellowship in 1971-1972. In 1980 the Academy of American Poets voted her a fellowship and named her a chancellor in 1985. In 1983 the National Institute of Arts and Letters elected her a member.

Van Duyn's books include Valentines to the Wide World (1959), A Time of Bees (1964), To See, To Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Merciful Disguises (1973), Letters from a Father and Other Poems (1983), and Near Changes (1990), Firefall: Poems (1993) and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982 (1993).

Firefall, her tenth collection of poems, deals with her familiar themes of love, death, marriage, birth, "the flowering self, " and art. More than half of the poems are in a short-lined sonnet form that Van Duyn describes as a "minimalist sonnet." Critic Ben Howard wrote of Firefall that "Apart from its minimalist experiments the present collection breaks no new ground, but like the poet's earlier work it bespeaks a humane, forgiving spirit, rich in warmth and moral wisdom."

Of her poetry, Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry Magazine, said in his citation for the Lilly Prize: "From the publication of her first book, her mastery of the art was immediately apparent—her subtle intelligence and formidable technical skill, her gift of humor and satire, her formal elegance, and especially her understanding of the vagaries and vulnerabilities of the human heart."

"How refreshing to turn and return to the authentic lines of this poet when she speaks of love. Here we encounter a brilliant mind penetrating ever deeper beneath the surface to the core of feeling. Here we discover striking figures and uncanny metaphors which spark sudden recognition of our complex relations, with their shifting tensions, fears, and ambiguities. And here we delight in an artful music which echoes and sometimes ameliorates the conflicts of our most intimate desires."

Other critics were also complimentary. Kenneth Rexroth remarked of her Valentines to the Wide World that it was "… full of verbal and metaphysical wit, a wiry distortion of ordinary speech that communicates deeply felt and strongly evaluated experience." Carolyn Kizer called "Toward a Definition of Marriage, " which appears in Valentines, "… one of the finest long poems written by an American."

The British writer and critic Frank Kermode declared that she was "to me, a great belated discovery." J. D. McClatchy, critic and editor, wrote of her work: "Love is her subject, not the lyricist's love, but what she calls 'knowledge of love' or 'married love'—married, that is, as much to others and to the 'motley and manifold' as to the fitful, isolated self. Love as a paradigm of all human relationships."

He continued, "From the start, her poems have bristled with ideas, or, rather, with thinking, the sound of a voice talking sense. She knows we live by ideas—though those ideas are often confused with, or confused by, habit. She sees through all that, again and again. She knows, with William James, that ideas are made true by events. And in each poem her sense of things is held up to the incongruities of experience—all of them, from the unruly sex drive to a dirty kitchen counter."

A characteristic short poem is "The Talker, " from Merciful Disguises:

   One person present steps on his pedal of speech
   and, like a faulty drinking fountain, it spurts
   all over the room in facts and puns and jokes,
   on books, on people, on politics, on sports,
   on everything. Two or three others, gathered
   to chat, must bear his unending monologue
   between their impatient heads like a giant buzz
   of a giant fly, or magnanimous bullfrog
   croaking for all the frogs in the world. Amid
   the screech of traffic or in a hubbub crowd
   he climbs the decibels toward some glorious view.
   I think he only loves himself out loud.

Further Reading

Additional material on Van Duyn and the poet laureateship appears in the Library of Congress' Information Bulletin (June 29, 1992). Introductions to her books (listed in the text) are also informative. See also David Streitfeld, "Van Duyn Named New Poet Laureate, " in The Washington Post (June 15, 1992). She has contributed poems, criticism, and short stories to New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Yale Review, Critique, and Western Review.

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