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Van Duyn, Mona (Jane)

VAN DUYN, Mona (Jane)


Nationality: American. Born: Waterloo, Iowa, 9 May 1921. Education: University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, B.A. 1942; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1943. Family: Married Jarvis Thurston in 1943. Career: Instructor in English, University of Iowa, 1944–46, and University of Louisville, Kentucky, 1946–50; lecturer in English, 1950–67, adjunct professor of poetry workshops, 1983, and Visiting Hurst Professor, 1987, Washington University, St. Louis; lecturer, Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, 1973. Poetry consultant, Olin Library Modern Literature Collection, Washington University. Editor, with Jarvis Thurston, Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature, St. Louis, 1947–67. Awards : Eunice Tietjens memorial prize, 1956, and Harriet Monroe memorial prize, 1968 (Poetry, Chicago); Helen Bullis prize (Poetry Northwest), 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1985; National Council for the Arts grant, 1967; Borestone Mountain poetry prize, 1968; Hart Crane memorial award, 1968; Bollingen prize, 1971; National Book award, 1971; Guggenheim fellowship, 1972; Loines award, 1976; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1981; Cornell College Sandburg prize, 1982; Shelley memorial prize, 1987; Pulitzer prize, 1991, for Near Changes; Golden Plate award, American Academy of Achievement, 1992; U.S. Poet Laureate, 1992–93; St. Louis award, Arts and Education Council, 1994. D.Litt.: Washington University, 1971; Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa, 1972; University of North Iowa, 1991; University of the South, Sewanee, 1993; George Washington University, 1993, and Georgetown University, 1993. Member: Academy of American Poets, 1983. Chancellor, Academy of American Poets, 1985. Address: 7505 Teasdale Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63130, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Valentines to the Wide World. Iowa City, Cummington Press, 1959.

A Time of Bees. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1964.

To See, To Take. New York, Atheneum, 1970.

Bedtime Stories. Champaign, Illinois, Ceres Press, 1972.

Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished. New York, Atheneum, 1973.

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

Near Changes. New York, Knopf, 1990.

If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959–1982. New York, Knopf, 1993.

Firefall: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1993.

Recording: Mona Van Duyn and Elliott Coleman Reading Their Poems in the Coolidge Auditorium, Gertrude Clarke Whittal Poetry and Literature Fund, 1971; Mona Van Duyn Reading Her Poems, Gertrude Clarke Whittal Poetry and Literature Fund, Library of Congress, 1990.

Other

Matters of Poetry. Washington D.C., Library of Congress, 1993.

*

Manuscript Collection: Olin Library, Washington University, St. Louis.

Critical Studies: "Mona Van Duyn and the Politics of Love" by Lorrie Goldensohn, in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 4(3), 1978; by Constance Hunting, in Parnassus (New York), 16(2), 1991; interview with Marianne Abel, in Iowa Woman, 11(3), autumn 1991; "Life Work" by Robert B. Shaw, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 44(1), spring 1994; "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Woman Poet Laureate" by Judith Hall, in Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), 52(1), winter 1994.

*  *  *

The awarding of the Bollingen prize in 1971 to Mona Van Duyn and her receipt of the National Book award in poetry that same year brought long overdue general recognition to this fine poet, whose insight, humor, and technical skill had seemed for a long time to be appreciated largely only in her native Midwest. Many national awards followed, and in June 1992 she was appointed poet laureate and consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress.

The appeal of her poems comes from the double sense of their adherence to the formal tradition of poetry while at the same time they get "down to the bone" of human experience. "The wintry work of living, our flawed art" is a basic theme. Her poetic craft emanates from, in fact is identical with, the conscious intelligence that everyone has and uses to shape everyday happenstance into meaningful experience: "The world blooms and we all bend and bring /from ground and sea and mind its handsome harvests." Poetry making thus becomes a metaphor for activities of living minds. "Join us with charity," she says in "To My Godson, On His Christening," "whose deeds, like the little poet's metaphors, /are good only in brave approximations, /who design, in walled-up workrooms, beautiful doors." In "Three Valentines to the Wide World" she calls the beauty of the world "merciless and intemperate" and suggests that against "that rage" we must "pit love and art, which are compassionate." The tension in Van Duyn's poems rises from two dualisms: the world seen as cruel but lovely, a "brilliant wasting"; and the tension between strict forms (often long-lined, slant-rhymed quatrains) and proselike statements that vary from Yeatsian elegance to Midwestern colloquialism.

Love and art pitted against the merciless world is a theme that enables Van Duyn to range wide and deep. She can be philosophical, ironic, elegiac, or penetratingly personal as she explores the tensions in this intermingling, which appear notably in poems on marriage. In one section of "Toward a Definition of Marriage" the marital relationship is described in literary terms:

It is closest to picaresque, but essentially artless...
How could its structure be more than improvising,
when it never ends, but line after line plod on...
But it's known by heart now; it rounded the steeliest shape
  to shapeliness, it was so loving an exercise.

The expanded parallelism between life and poetry is brilliantly developed in "An Essay on Criticism," in which the poet adapts Pope's eighteenth-century title and heroic couplet form to meditate philosophically while opening a package of dried onion soup in her kitchen. No tears fall from chopping real onions, and poetic words, abstract on the page, can wait for centuries until water is added from a later reader's tears to enliven them. But the poet's tears fall now, caused by life—a friend's confession of a secret love—not by poetry, and these tears, reminders of mortality, command her to command us that "… we must care right away!"

Caring deeply for her own childhood pain and for that of her ill and dying parents, she records family history in the persona poems of Bedtime Stories (1972) and in the elegies of Letters from a Father (1982), of which "The Stream," on her mother's death, poignantly expresses primal loss. In this volume concentration on family life is counterbalanced, as all along in her work, by poems based on travel, rendering a sense of wide-ranging life through observations of Spain, France, the Missouri Ozarks, and Maine, where she and her husband spent many summers. In the collection Firefall (1993) the elegiac mode predominates as friends die and old age comes on. But sure of her always supple craft, she also enjoys playing with poetic tradition by creating "minimalist sonnets" of fourteen very short lines broken into quatrains with a final two- or six-line stanza. These are terse, sometimes witty, sometimes reminiscent of Emily Dickinson.

The final elegiac poems are the strongest among the strong poems here. In "The Delivery" a cruel incident of childhood is seen as delivering her own self to her, a kind of birth. "Falls" invokes memories of firefall in Yosemite Park and of Niagara Falls, with both fire and water symbolizing her own creative livingness even as it implicitly falls toward death. The poem ends with lovely lines epitomizing her poetic triumph yet in depth of spirit almost suggesting an epitaph: "May one who comes upon a final book /and hunts in husks for kernel hints of me /find Niagara's roar still sacred to dim ears, /Firefall still blazing bright in memory." Let it be so.

—Jane Augustine

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