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Van Duyn, Mona 1921–2004

Van Duyn, Mona 1921–2004

(Mona Jane Van Duyn)

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "van dine"; born May 9, 1921, in Waterloo, IA; died of bone cancer December 2, 2004, in University City, MO; daughter of Earl George (in business) and Lora G. (Kramer) Van Duyn; married Jarvis A. Thurston (a professor of English), August 31, 1943. Education: Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), B.A., 1942; State University of Iowa, M.A., 1943. Politics: Independent. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, sewing, reading.

CAREER: Poet and educator. State University of Iowa, Iowa City, instructor in English, 1943–46; University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, instructor in English, 1946–50; Washington University, St. Louis, MO, lecturer in English, 1950–67; writer. Poet-in-residence, Breadloaf Writing Conference, 1974 and 1976; lecturer, Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, 1973, and Sewanee Writing Conference, 1990 and 1991. Adjunct professor, Washington University, 1983; Visiting Hurst Professor, 1987. Poetry consultant, Olin Library Modern Literature Collection.

MEMBER: National Academy of Arts and Letters, Academy of American Poets (chancellor, 1985), American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

AWARDS, HONORS: Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, Poetry, 1956, for Three Valentines to the Wide World; Helen Bullis Prize, Poetry Northwest, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966–67, 1985; Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Poetry, 1968; Hart Crane Memorial Award, American Weave Press, 1968; first prize, Borestone Mountain Awards, 1968; Bollingen Prize, Yale University Library, 1970; National Book Award for Poetry, 1971, for To See, to Take; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972–73; Loines Prize, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1976; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1981; Sandburg Prize, Cornell College, 1982; Shelley Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, 1987, for body of work; Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Modern Poetry Association, 1989; Missouri Arts award, 1990; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1991, for Near Changes; Golden Plate award, American Academy of Achievement, 1992; St. Louis Award, Arts and Education Council, 1994; named U.S. Poet Laureate, 1992–93. Honorary D.Litt., Washington University, 1971, Cornell College, 1972, University of Northern Iowa, 1991, University of the South, 1993, George Washington University, 1993, and Georgetown University, 1993.


Valentines to the Wide World (also see below), Cummington Publishing (New Rochelle, NY), 1959.

A Time of Bees (also see below), University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1964.

To See, to Take (also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970.

Bedtime Stories (also see below), Ceres Press (Woodstock, NY), 1972.

Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (includes Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, to Take, and Bedtime Stories), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.

Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.

Near Changes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

Lives and Deaths of the Poets and Non-Poets, privately published, 1991.

If It Be Not I: Collected Poems (includes Valentines to the World, A Time of Bees, To See, to Take, Bedtime Stories, Merciful Disguises, and Letters from a Father and Other Poems), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Firefall, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Matters of Poetry, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1993.

(Author of introduction) Donna Masini, That Kind of Danger, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994.

Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Poems represented in anthologies, including The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, edited by Oscar Williams, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1957; Midland, edited by Paul Engle, Random House (New York, NY), 1961; and The Honey and the Gall, edited by Chad Walsh, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.

Contributor to periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Poetry, Western Review, Atlantic, New Republic, Poetry, Yale Review, and New Yorker. Founder and editor with husband, Jarvis Thurston, Perspective, 1947–67; poetry advisor, College English, 1955–57.

SIDELIGHTS: Mona Van Duyn was a distinguished writer whose honors include a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, and a term as the United States' official poet laureate. "She is a poet of great wisdom, skill, and versatility," affirmed a contributor to Virginia Quarterly Review. Elizabeth Frank, meanwhile, described Van Duyn in a Nation appraisal as "a poet who usually tries harder than any of her contemporaries to coax affirmation out of the waste and exhaustion of modern life." Another enthusiast, Susan Ludvigson, wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that "Van Duyn's poems are about people—people whose ordinary lives include sickness and death, disappointment and despair, as well as faith and humor and love." Lud-vigson added, however, that "the commonness of [Van Duyn's] subjects is misleading, for the poetry encompasses far more than such a catalogue suggests." To Ludvigson, Van Duyn's poetry constitutes "a generous mixture of the ordinary and the unusual, the natural and the sophisticated." Another writer, Doris Earnshaw, noted in World Literature Today that "we feel in [Van Duyn's] poetry the joy of the lighted water and the air," and Jane Augustine commented in Contemporary Poets that Van Duyn's poems "get 'down to the bone' of human experience."

Van Duyn published her first poetry collection, Valentines to the Wide World, in 1958, and readily established herself as an authoritative presence. "Her voice is already assured," noted Ludvigson, "her manner confident." John Woods, meanwhile, wrote in Poetry that Van Duyn "appears to be a fully-engaged poet" and contended that she assumes "several attitudes, several voices." Another reviewer, W.D. Snodgrass, wrote in Hudson Review of Van Duyn's "quiet and eccentric music," and he deemed her poems "peculiar and gracious."

Valentines to the Wide World includes "Toward a Definition of Marriage," in which Van Duyn compares married love to a novel, a circus, and a collection of old papers. "When the poem ends," observed Ludvigson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "the conclusion of the poet is that … love remains the foundation of the marriage." Ludvigson acknowledged "Toward a Definition of Marriage" as "perhaps the finest piece" in Valentines to the Wide World.

In her next book of poems, A Time of Bees, Van Duyn addresses a range of subjects, including gardens, friendship, and life in a mental institution. "Using her characteristic halfrhymes, sometimes in quatrains, sometimes in couplets, Van Duyn creates poems impressive for their intelligence and their determined attempts to find reason in an unreasonable world," maintained Ludvigson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The essayist expressed particular praise for the title poem, wherein a married couple endeavors to rid their porch of bees. Ludvigson noted that a concluding episode, in which the female narrator expresses revulsion for the extermination of newborn bees, draws parallels with both "the mystery of love and … the differences between men an women." She deemed the poem "excellent."

In 1970 Van Duyn received the National Book Award for her third poetry collection, To See, to Take, which was described in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present as a volume "concentrating on observations of middle-class suburban life." Notable among the poems in this collection is "Marriage, with Beasts," "in which a couple's tour of a zoo prompts a consideration of love." David Kalstone, writing in the New York Times Book Review, contended that To See, to Take "has a special rhythm, swinging out, exploring, detaching itself," and he hailed "Marriage, with Beasts" as "funniest and eeriest of all." In addition, Kalstone acknowledged the entire volume for its "sustained skill and wisdom," and he praised it as a collection that generates "large, painful, powerful connections, and one in which we sense a whole life grasped, in the most urgent and rewarding senses of the word." Equally impressed, Arthur Oberg summarized To See, to Take, in a Southern Review critique, as "one of the finest books to appear in American poetry in recent years."

Van Duyn's Bedtime Stories marks a departure from previous poetry collections, for it presents recollections from the perspective of the author's grandmother and relates them in the narrator's Germanic dialect. Writing in Ploughshares, Lorrie Goldensohn observed that the poems in Bedtime Stories serve as further representations of Van Duyn's affinity for "agrarian domesticity," and she noted "a necessary event in the larger life of these poems: the subversion of their maturities and finish into new vitalities."

Van Duyn followed Bedtime Stories with Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished, which includes verse from her earlier collections. In a New York Times review, Harvey Shapiro contended, "The early poems [in Merciful Disguises] sometimes wobble unsteadily," but he noted that later poems prove "essayistic, discursive but powerful in their wisdom." New Republic reviewer Louis Coxe, meanwhile, saw the book as "a written-out diary of the poet as one of us: humorous, observant and lively."

Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, which Van Duyn published in 1982, includes a series of six poems structured as missives from father to daughter. In the initial poems, the father dwells on his ailments and those of his wife, but in later poems he comes to report increasingly on the birds gathering at the feeder provided by the daughter. "By the end of the poem," wrote Robert Hass in the Washington Post Book World, "there is very little information about physical debility, the note of self-pity is gone, and there are long reports about birds." Hass stated that the poem "gets at an area of human experience that literature—outside of Samuel Beckett—has hardly touched." Another reviewer, M.L. Rosenthal, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that the title poem is "so endearing, so unusual in its plain humanity, that one is tempted to take it at sentimental face-value and ignore the death obsession with which it begins." Richard Lattimore, meanwhile, wrote in Hudson Review that "it may be couplets, rhymed stanzas, even a sonnet—but whatever it is, [Van Duyn] dishes it out with practiced casual skill," and he called Van Duyn "a good poet to be writing, these days."

Van Duyn continues to consider life's more mundane aspects in Near Changes, a 1990 publication that Constance Hunting, writing in Parnassus, called "a consolidation and an advance of her talent." Notable among the poems in the collection are "Condemned Site," where she recalls five friends who have died, and "Late Loving," in which she reflects on a marriage nearing its fiftieth year. Alfred Corn, in his Poetry review, stated that "'Late Loving' must be the most moving (and honest) poem ever written about marriage approaching the golden anniversary." Likewise enthused, Edward Hirsch wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Van Duyn "has a gift for making the ordinary appear strange and for turning a common situation into a metaphysical exploration." He concluded that in Near Changes Van Duyn "has 'fixed' her world with pathos and wit." For this collection, Van Duyn received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

In 1992 Van Duyn became the official poet laureate of the United States, thus prompting Judith Hall, writing in the Antioch Review, to acknowledge her as "a poet of relationships recollected in tranquillity." That same year, the poet published If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, a formidable volume amassing her previously published verse. Reviewing If It Be Not I, Doris Earnshaw stated in World Literature Today that Van Duyn "can write a poem on canning pears that delights you, all the more as you realize by the last line that you have read a perfect sonnet."

Van Duyn commemorated her appointment as poet laureate by issuing a collection of new poems, Firefly, which includes verse she describes as "minimalist sonnets." Some critics expressed displeasure with the new collection. William Logan, for example, contended in Parnassus that "many of … [Van Duyn's] late poems have been driven by the moment rather than coming to embody it," and Liz Rosenberg claimed in Chicago's Tribune Books that "Firefall feels hastily put together." Rosenberg added, "Irony is Van Duyn's least becoming attire, and she wears it too often here." A more favorably assessment came from Robyn Selman, who wrote in the Village Voice that "Firefall contains some especially delightful shorter pieces." Another reviewer, Rachel Hadas, observed in the New York Times Book Review that Firefall "varies the pace … with skinny 'minimalist sonnets' that capture large themes … with aphoristic slimness." Ben Howard, mean-while, wrote in Poetry that though Van Duyn's book "breaks no new ground," it nonetheless "speaks a human, forgiving spirit, rich in warmth and moral wisdom." Another critic, Robert B. Shaw, perceived Firefly, in a Shenandoah essay, as evidence that Van Duyn "has grown more venturesome as a craftsman."

Van Duyn's more recent publications include Selected Poems, a 2002 collection that led Book reviewer Stephen Whited to note the poet's "devotion to accessible, domestic subjects." Similarly impressed, a Publishers Weekly critic summarized Van Duyn's art as "acutely emotional poems about deceptively ordinary domestic experiences." Another reviewer, Richard Wakefield, concluded his Seattle Times appraisal by affirming that Selected Poems "illuminates many brave new world and shows us that they are beautiful not in spite of but, often, because of their imperfections."



American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Burns, Michael, editor, Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1998.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 116.

Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980, pp. 334-340.

Modern American Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 315-317.


Antioch Review, winter, 1994, Judith Hall, "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Poet Laureate," pp. 141-146.

Books, July-August, 2002, Stephen Whited, review of Selected Poems, p. 79.

Hudson Review, spring, 1960, W.D. Snodgrass, "Four Gentlemen, Two Ladies," pp. 120-131; spring, 1983, Richard Lattimore, "Poetry Chronicle," pp. 210-211.

Nation, May 4, 1970; November 27, 1982, Elizabeth Frank, review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, pp. 563, 565.

New Republic, October 6, 1973, Louise Coxe, review of Merciful Disguises, pp. 26-28; December 31, 1990, Cynthia Zarin, article on Mona Van Duyn, pp. 36-40.

New York Times, January 11, 1971; September 22, 1973, Harvey Shapiro, "As Three Poets See Reality," p. 22.

New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1965; August 2, 1970, David Kalstone, "Charms to Stave off the Executioner," pp. 5, 22; December 9, 1973; March 13, 1983, M.L. Rosenthal, "A Common Sadness," p. 6; November 18, 1990, Edward Hirsch, "Violent Desires," p. 24; July 18, 1993, Rachel Ha-das, "Serious Poets," p. 18.

Parnassus, spring/summer, 1974; Volume 16, number 2, 1991, Constance Hunting, "Methods of Transport," pp. 377-389; February, 1992, William Logan, "Late Callings," pp. 317-327.

Poetry, April, 1960, John Woods, "The Teeming Catalogue," pp. 47-51; June, 1965; June, 1971; October, 1990, Alfred Corn, review of Near Changes, pp. 47-50; December, 1993, Ben Howard, "Masters of Transience," pp. 158-170.

Ploughshares, March, 1978, Lorrie Goldensohn, "Mona Van Duyn and the Politics of Love," pp. 31-44.

Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of Selected Poems, p. 65.

Seattle Times, June 30, 2002, Richard Wakefield, "Celebrating the Best of Mona Van Duyn."

Shenandoah, spring, 1994, Robert Shaw, "Life Work," pp. 38-48.

Southern Review, winter, 1973, Arthur Oberg, "Deer, Doors, Dark," pp. 243-256.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 11, 1993, Liz Rosenberg, "The Collected Mona Van Duyn," p. 6.

Village Voice, July 1, 1993, Robyn Selman, "Housekeeping," pp. 60-61.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1965; winter, 1974.

Washington Post Book World, January 6, 1974; September 5, 1982, Robert Hass, review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, pp. 6-7.

World Literature Today, spring, 1994, Doris Earnshaw, review of If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959–1982, p. 135, and review of Firefall, p. 376.


Poetry Daily, (August 13, 2002).

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