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Mona Van Duyn

Mona Van Duyn first published "Memoir" in the summer 1988 issue of the Yale Review. Subsequently, the piece appeared in her 1990 poetry collection, Near Changes, for which Van Duyn earned the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1991. Near Changes was Van Duyn's seventh published collection of poetry. She first introduced readers to her work with her 1959 publication of Valentines to the Wide World. Since 1990, Van Duyn has published two additional collections, Firefall (1993) and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982 (1993).

Like much of Van Duyn's work, "Memoir" is written in a strict poetic form. In this case, Van Duyn uses a form called the sestina, which is a thirteenth-century poetic form based on the number 6. As a sestina, the poem's first six stanzas are made up of six lines each, and the same six words (or a near derivative) serve as the final words in the work's first thirty-six lines. Van Duyn intentionally highlights and repeats the words "ear," "sound," "eye," "lose," "words," and "print" throughout the work as a way to explore the idea that the printed word is an invaluable safeguard against the loss of art and poetry with the passage of time. Dedicated to Harry Ford, Van Duyn's editor, "Memoir" is a tribute to the editor's role in this preservation process.

Author Biography

Mona Van Duyn (pronounced "Van Dine") was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on May 9, 1921, to Earl George and Lora (Kramer) Van Duyn. She grew up in Eldora, Iowa, a small town with approximately thirty-two hundred people. As a young girl, Van Duyn was an avid reader who developed an affinity for poetry at a young age. Despite keeping most of her poetry writing secret, she published her first poem when she was in the second grade.

Van Duyn attended Northern Iowa University, where she earned her bachelor's degree in 1942. She completed her master's degree the following year at Iowa State Teachers College, which is now the University of Northern Iowa. Also in 1943, Van Duyn married Jarvis A. Thurston. Together, the couple founded and edited Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature from 1947 through 1967.

Van Duyn published her first collection of poetry in 1959 in Valentines to the Wide World. She followed this collection with several others, including A Time of Bees (1964), To See, to Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Merciful Disguises (1973), Letters from a Father, and Other Poems (1982), Firefall (1994), and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–82 (1994).

As an accomplished writer, Van Duyn has earned many accolades for her work. In 1992, she became the first woman to serve as the United States Poet Laureate, and in 1991 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Near Changes, in which "Memoir" appears. Her other distinguished awards include the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, Poetry (1956), for Three Valentines to the Wide World; the Helen Bullis Prize, Poetry Northwest (1964 and 1976); a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1966–1967); the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Poetry (1968); first prize in the Borestone Mountain Awards (1968); the Bollingen Prize, Yale University Library (1970); the National Book Award for Poetry (1971) for To See, to Take; a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellowship (1972–1973); the Loines Prize, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1976); the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America (1987); the Hart Crane Memorial Award from American Weave Press (1968); and the Ruth Lilly Prize from Poetry and the American Council on the Arts (1989).

Washington University and Cornell College conferred Honorary Doctor of Letter degrees on Van Duyn in 1971 and 1972 respectively. Also to Van Duyn's credit, she became a fellow in the American Academy of Poets in 1981, and in 1985 she became one of its twelve chancellors who serve for life. In 1987, the National Institute of Arts and Letters also invited her to be a member.

In addition to writing poetry, Van Duyn has been a university instructor, lecturer, and adjunct professor at the State University of Iowa, the University of Louisville, and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Van Duyn retired from teaching in 1990.

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

The first line of the first stanza begins "so the earshell beseeches the eye / to find the sounds it would lose, / and the eye prays that flying words / will be trapped in the amber of print." Here, the ear becomes like the shell whose "silence wants to be sound." Both the shell and the ear are keepers of sound. The ear's sounds, or the poetry it hears, are like the silence within the shell. It is not silence. It is a sound wanting to be heard. The ear feels an urgency, as indicated by the word "beseeches," to covet sound and to share in the responsibility of retaining and sharing what it hears. Fearing that it might fail to hold onto, lose, or forget what it hears, the ear requests help from the eye. In turn, the eye hopes that the "amber of print" will help it permanently preserve the words it sees. Van Duyn uses the image of amber in the final line because it is a fossilized resin produced by a pine tree. As a fossil, amber, like the published works of writers, will last well into the future. In this opening stanza, Van Duyn highlights the idea that the only way to secure the safe transmission of poetry to future generations is to collect and publish it. Poetry that is simply heard may be lost, just as "flying words," or poetry that is scattered and uncollected, may be lost as well.

Stanza 2

Van Duyn continues in the second stanza with "Like a pine the man who will print / what plays through his needle-branched ear / towers, his resin wraps words / and the resonant shape of their sound / that a dry heart has to let loose." Van Duyn figures Harry Ford as a pine tree and thus makes him the source of the "amber of print" mentioned in the previous stanza. Just as amber comes from a pine tree, so published words come from Ford. He takes what he hears from the hearts of poets who are compelled to share their life experiences, opinions, feelings, and thoughts and preserves them in a permanent record, a book, which is not mistakenly made of paper, another by-product of a tree. Van Duyn describes Ford's ear as "needle-branched," suggesting that it is like the branches and needles on a tree. Tree branches and needles are the visual elements on a tree that prove its life. Branches grow as trees age, and their needles are evergreen. In a similar way, Ford's ear confirms life—in this case, the lives that the poets he publishes present through their work. Like the shell, his ear is both the keeper of sound and the vehicle through which that silent sound is shared. He hears their poetry, edits it, and publishes it so that it can be enjoyed by others.

Giving Ford more credit than simply being a historian or scribe, Van Duyn concludes the stanza with "He will pass through art's strict needle's eye." Whereas "eye" in the first stanza referred to the human eye, it is used here in conjunction with needle and thus evokes the image of the sewing needle and the eye through which thread is passed for sewing. If Ford is to pass through this eye, then he becomes like the thread, that which physically connects pieces of fabric. Thus, in addition to giving Ford accolades for preserving poetry for posterity, Van Duyn commends him for the unique ways in which he puts together the tapestry of his writers' art.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, Van Duyn continues, "When the poem arrives at the eye / of the hurricane, hush of print / retrieves what the blind wind would lose." Using the images of the wind and a hurricane, Van Duyn again alludes to the way in which poetry can be scattered or destroyed. Thankfully, the "hush of print" can save it from being lost or ruined. She concludes that once poetry is published, "the heart becomes all ear / and the deaf-mute world hears the sound / of its own green, resplendent words." When Van Duyn says that "the heart becomes all ear," she refers readers to the "earshell" and "needle-branched ear" images that appeared in the first two stanzas. By circling the reader back to these two images, she conveys the notion that once one's writing is formally put into print, the heart, like the earshell or conch shell, is emptied and free to take in new life and to share its sounds with those who will listen. In sharing those sounds, or poetry, the heart becomes like the "needle-branched ear," which continues to be evergreen, confirming life. Through the writing of poets, the "deaf-mute world," or those who do not hear and speak about life like poets and their editors do, are able to hear about their own lives.

Media Adaptations

  • On October 7, 1992, Van Duyn read from Near Changes and Firefall in the Montpelier Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. From Near Changes, Van Duyn read "Near Changes," "The Block," "A Dog Lover's Confession," and "At the Mall." This sound recording is available through the Library of Congress using the call number RWC 9783.

For Van Duyn, poetry divorced from life has no value. In stanza 4 she says, "Who gives up the world for words / gives creation a bad black eye / in uncoupling sense and sound." In "uncoupling sense and sound," one separates feeling, intuition, wisdom, and meaning from poetry and in doing so removes the perceptions and opinions about life that Van Duyn sees as an integral part of poetics. Sound or poetry that is absent of such qualities lacks depth and consciousness and is an insult to the art of poetry writing.

Stanza 4

Introducing "Detective Time" in the fourth stanza, Van Duyn suggests that the separation of "sense and sound" is just one danger poetry faces. With the line "Detective Time takes his voiceprint, which ends behind bars," Van Duyn conjures the image of a police detective putting someone in jail. In this case, "Detective Time" seems to take its own voice prisoner. This line can be read metaphorically to mean that, as time passes, the unique experiences of those living in that time are permanently locked away. They are put behind bars and are thus unable to communicate with the outside world. Without the help of editors like Ford, such accounts would be lost for good. Ironically, Van Duyn finishes the stanza with "Nature's ear knows it was little to lose." For nature, the loss of one voice seems minor. One would think that Van Duyn would disagree with this perspective. Her use of the word "voice-print," which indicates that the voice is unique, and thus valuable, suggests that such a loss would be great. Yet, by placing time and nature in the same stanza, Van Duyn raises ideas about eternity and life's natural cycles. In the context of an eternal cycle of birth, life, and death, one person's story does indeed seem "little to lose" because that person's experience will likely be reflected in the universal story of life that everyone experiences. Like the conch shell, nature's ear tells a collective story about the place from which it came, not the individual story of the shell's individual inhabitant.

Stanza 5

In stanza 5, Van Duyn turns to the topic of the relationship between poets and Ford. She describes him as having "child-cheeks" and an "Orphic ear." "Child-cheeks" perhaps pertain to his youthful appearance, and "Orphic ear" refers to his experience as a poetry editor. In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a poet and musician whose poetic and musical talents convinced Pluto and Persephone to free his wife from Hades. Van Duyn credits Ford with an "Orphic ear" and thus implies respect for his poetic skills. Implicit in this respect is a trust for his editorial input about poetry. She says, "The heart must be mud-mum," or silent, or it might "lose face." One way to read this is that, at some point, poets must quiet their hearts and stop producing the sounds of poetry, or writing, or they run the risk of embarrassing themselves. If they ceased to write, they would then be able to open their hearts to the editorial suggestions offered by Ford's "indelible imprint." In making his mark on their work, Ford ensures that readers can better understand it. Van Duyn continues, "Love's incoherence is sound," meaning that the feelings of the heart do not always make sense when they are expressed as sound, or as poetry. Ford is a "god without words," and in the silence afforded by the writing and editing process, Van Duyn seems to suggest that he skillfully ensures the coherence of the poet's work.

Stanza 6

In the sixth stanza, Van Duyn wonders if there is any sound that will prevent time from destroying the writing of poets. She asks, "In a deathly silence, what sound / amends Time's law that we lose?" Her answer is "That memoir read from fine print." Ultimately, Van Duyn suggests that the sound of poetry read aloud saves the art from destruction. Sight and sound work together to preserve poetry that was created from the musings of the heart, or "love's beautiful babble." For Van Duyn, the art of poetry has human value. It "fixes the world I-to-eye," meaning that it makes the world right, by bringing the self into focus for the world to see. Through poetry, people can read about the things of life, theirs and others. Reciprocally, these lives are the fodder for poetry. It is no mistake that Van Duyn selected "Memoir" as the title of this work. To her, poetry itself is a memoir, something that recounts the stories of people's lives. These stories are the breath that "beats the drum of our ear," meaning that they are the inspiration and the heart that give the ear something to hear and in turn, like the conch, something to share.

Stanza 7

In poetic terminology, the final stanza is called an envoy (or envoi), which, according to The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, is "a short concluding stanza" that serves "as a pithy summing-up of the poem." The seventh stanza reads: "Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose." "Memoir" is a tribute to Van Duyn's editor, Harry Ford. She dedicates the work to him and proceeds to applaud his knowledge and experience as an editor who publishes the heartfelt work of poets. Though the closing stanza is relatively easy to understand, Van Duyn presents this same idea in the preceding six stanzas in a more complicated manner.

"Memoir" begins, "As the conch tells the human ear / silence wants to be sound." This opening phrase conjures the image of a person holding a shell to his or her ear to listen to the sound of the ocean that emanates from within its empty hollow. This phrase makes an ironic association between silence and sound. Instead of being silent, the shell, which is devoid of life, speaks the sounds of the place from which it came and the place in which it was inhabited by life. This image can be likened to that of the "dry heart" that Van Duyn mentions in the next stanza. Both the heart and the shell symbolically speak the sounds, or words, of their past experience and both want to be heard or perhaps, in the case of the heart, understood or remembered.


Preserving the Poetry

One of the major themes explored in "Memoir" is the ability of the printed word to ensure that poetry is not lost with the ravages of time. Van Duyn introduces this theme in the first stanza when she says, "so the earshell beseeches the eye / to find the sounds it would lose, / and the eye prays that flying words / will be trapped in the amber of print." This opening stanza reflects the fear that poetry that is simply heard or seen in "scattered" places will be forgotten, misplaced, or otherwise lost. Van Duyn's use of the words "beseeches," "prays," and "trapped" signal this fear. By using these particular words, Van Duyn makes readers feel the urgent need and desperation of the hope that the words and sounds "will be trapped in the amber of print" or put into a permanent record, in this case a book. Van Duyn goes on to recognize "the man who will print" what the "heart has to let loose." She praises his ability to give the world the opportunity to hear "its own green, resplendent words." In the final stanza, Van Duyn summarizes her admiration for her editor, Harry Ford, saying, "Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose." To Van Duyn, Ford is an expert at his craft. He has sound judgment and a well-respected ear and an eye for quality poetry that many poets through the years have entrusted with their poetry.

Poetry as an Oral and Visual Art

Throughout "Memoir," Van Duyn uses the words "eye," "ear," "sound," and "print" repeatedly. As four of the words that she selected to use as the ending words in each of the first six stanzas, these words play an obvious yet critical thematic role in the piece. One contribution these words make to the work is their ability to convey the important point that poetry is both an oral (or aural) and visual art. Poetry is thought to have begun as an oral performance art and with the advance of literacy it became a visual-based art as well. In a poem that praises her editor for preserving poetry in permanent printed collections, Van Duyn does not forget the form's history or the important role that recitation and listening still play in the creation and enjoyment of poetry. She opens the sixth stanza with the question, "what sound / amends Time's law that we lose?" and follows it with the answer: the "memoir read from fine print." For Van Duyn, poetry is still clearly an oral (and aural) art.

The Personal Nature of Poetry

Van Duyn mentions the "heart" in four of the seven stanzas. In the second and seventh stanzas, her use of the word clearly indicates the belief that poetry is a very personal art that reflects the heart and soul of its writers. In the second stanza, Van Duyn figures the heart as the creator of poetry when she writes that it is the "dry heart" that "has to let loose" the words that her editor, Harry Ford, will preserve in the "amber of print." In the final stanza, Van Duyn states, "Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose." This line suggests that poets are strongly attached to their writing and that they are thankful that editors like Ford keep it alive by publishing it in books. One can understand this attachment in two ways: first, poets can be seen as caring about the art and form of poetry; second, they can be seen as being deeply connected to the ideas and feelings they express through the use of the form.


Many of the images that Van Duyn uses in "Memoir" come from nature. In the first two stanzas, she introduces the "conch," "amber," and the "pine" tree. These are powerful images that support the work's strongest theme: the preservation of poetry. The conch shell as described by Van Duyn holds a "silence that wants to be sound." In its written form, poetry is like the conch. It is silent, yet as an originally oral form, it begs to be read aloud or to be heard. Like the conch shell, which houses life, poetry can be seen as a container of life, as seen by poets. Van Duyn's statement that silence wants to be sound can potentially mean that poetry wants to be heard and not forgotten. The image of "amber" toward the end of the stanza confirms this reading. In this stanza, Van Duyn writes about the hope that poetry, or words and sounds, will be trapped in the "amber of print." Amber is a fossilized resin and therefore takes on the symbolic meaning of something permanent and preserved for eternity. Finally, Van Duyn likens her editor to a pine tree. She says, "Like a pine the man who will print." A pine tree is of course a producer of amber, and not mistakenly pine trees are logged for use in papermaking. Through the use of the pine tree image, Van Duyn figures her editor as the source and creator of both paper and the "amber of print." In the end, he is the one who ensures that poetry will continue to be heard because he publishes books of poetry that will stand the test of time.



The sestina is a poetic form that is believed to have been invented in Provence by a poet named Arnaut Daniel. Daniel was a member of Richard Coeur de Lion's court (Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted) and was respected as one of the best troubadours of the time. Following Daniel's use of the sestina, both Dante (1265–1321), author of The Divine Comedy, and Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), poet and founder of humanism, adapted the form as well.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press in 1436. What preceded the printing press? How did the printing press revolutionize the way people communicate with one another?
  • Today, the publishing industry faces a new revolution: electronic books or e-books. Research the progress that has been made on this front. How do you think the availability of e-books will impact the publishing industry?
  • Visit your career center to research the educational requirements for working as a writer or an editor. Do most colleges and universities offer majors for students who would like to work in these fields? What are these majors, and what types of courses would you take if you selected one of these majors? How do you think a college degree would help you enter the publishing industry?
  • Contact printing businesses in your area to ask if they would give your class a tour of their facilities so that you can see firsthand how printing presses work. What kinds of technical advances in the printing process have there been since the 1400s? How has the use of computers impacted the printing industry?
  • Write a poem using the form of the sestina.
  • Write a historical overview about the twelfth-and thirteenth-century-French troubadour poets. Where in France did they come from, primarily? Whom did they produce poetry to entertain? What were the names of some of the most famous and respected troubadours? Did they write and/or perform poetry? Find out if there were any female troubadours and discuss how their poetry differed from their male counterparts.
  • Poets use many forms to write poetry. Research the following forms: the villanelle, the pantoum, the sonnet, the ballad, the heroic couplet, and blank verse. Where did each form originate? Who is credited with creating or popularizing the form? Do certain poets favor each form?

The word "sestina" comes from the word sesto, which is Italian for sixth. The name of the form is appropriate in that a poem written as a sestina is based on the number 6. In its most traditional form, a sestina includes six stanzas each written with six unrhymed lines followed by a final stanza, called an envoy, with three lines. One of the sestina's unique qualities is its repetition of the words that end the first six lines of the poem. Writing in this form, poets reorder the first stanza's end words and use them as the end words in the subsequent five stanzas. In a formal Provençal sestina, the pattern of the end words is as follows: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA. In the seventh stanza, the end words appear again; however, this time they are put in the following order: AB, CD, EF.

Van Duyn employs this medieval form in "Memoir," using the end words "ear," "sound," "eye," "lose," "words," and "print." Though she stays true to the traditional pattern in the first six stanzas, Van Duyn improvises slightly by using words that are visually similar to or that contain one of the six original end words. For example, in the second stanza, she substitutes "loose" for "lose," and in the fourth stanza "print" becomes "voiceprint." In the fifth stanza, "imprint" replaces "print," and in the sixth stanza, "words" shows up as "Foreword." In the seventh stanza, Van Duyn breaks entirely from the traditional form in which two words appear in each line in the original AB, CD, EF order. She uses all six words in the stanza; however, she creates a new pattern with them. Van Duyn crafts the first line with four of the six original words ("sound," "ear," "eye," and "print") in the order BABCF, and in the second and third lines, she uses the remaining two words, "words" and "lose" in the order E, D.

Historical Context

Politics and Economics

The eighties were a conservative era for Americans. Republican Ronald Wilson Reagan, an ex-movie star and a former California governor, became the nation's fortieth president in January 1981, after a record low voter turnout of 54 percent of registered voters. Serving two terms, Reagan implemented "supply-side" economic policies and trumpeted a major tax cut. The nation's first Republican-led Senate since 1948 supported Reagan's efforts. In retrospect, Reagan has become known for lowering personal income taxes on individuals, sustaining a low rate of inflation, increasing the government's expenditures on the military and defense, reducing social program funding, and forging a cooperative relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Many Americans also still remember the assassination attempt on Reagan's life just sixty-nine days after he first took office. At the close of Reagan's term, the United States had enjoyed its longest peacetime prosperity; however, it faced both trade and budget deficits.

Yuppies as Social Icons

In the United States, the 1980s have become known as the "me decade." Encouraged by the nation's economic success, Americans developed an appetite for the "good life." Young urban professionals became the social icon. Yuppies, as they came to be known, epitomized the "good life" mind set. They were motivated by money and played hard, enjoying the luxuries that their financial freedom afforded them.

Democracy: An International Phenomenon

Anti-Communist sentiment in the United States was high in the 1980s, perhaps in part because of the strong rhetoric used by President Ronald Reagan. No friend to Communism, Reagan supported anti-Communist efforts throughout the world, including those in Central America, Asia, and Africa. In addition to strongly condemning Communism, Reagan worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate each country's intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The two signed a treaty in 1987, signaling a tremendous advance in the United States's relationship with the Soviets. Gorbachev continued to please the world's superpower with his democratic social reforms, known as glasnost, and his market-focused economic and governmental policy changes, known as perestroika. Like the Soviet Union, other nations also began to embrace democratic principles during the 1980s. Throughout the world, democratic movements were taking shape, challenging and even toppling totalitarian Communist governments in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Rumania. In 1989, the Berlin Wall that isolated West Berlin from Soviet-controlled East Germany fell. Its destruction literally and symbolically signaled the end of the barriers that divided East and West within Germany and internationally. The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was ending.

The Rise of New Formalism in Poetry

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, a shift occurred in the type of poetry being written by young poets in the United States. Instead of publishing work written in free verse, a form of poetry with no specific rhyme, meter, or other technical requirements, young poets began to publish work written in traditional poetic forms, like that of the villanelle and sonnets. In Can Poetry Matter?, Dana Gioia identifies the intent of these new formalists to reach "a general audience that poetry had long ago lost," rather than to please "the elite readership of critics and fellow artists." By deviating from the current status quo in contemporary poetry, these new formalists, according to Gioia, sought to "break the cultural deadlock strangling their art." While some argue that this new movement was simply a continuation of the formalist movement of the 1940s and 1950s, Gioia notes that the aesthetics of the two schools are actually quite different. Gioia suggests that, in addition to selecting different audiences, the new formalists and the old guard took "the tone, style, and subject of their work in fundamentally different directions." Of the writers of the earlier formalist movement, Gioia writes, "Their work was intellectually demanding, aesthetically self-conscious, emotionally detached, and intricately constructed." Contrarily, she notes that, although the new formalists "remained committed to the standards of excellence embodied in high culture," they "looked to popular culture for perspective" and sought the "accessible genres, the genuinely emotional subject matter, the irreverent humor, the narrative vitality, and the linguistic authenticity" it offered.

Critical Overview

With a career spanning more than thirty-five years, Van Duyn has established herself as one of the great American poets. Her lengthy list of honors and awards speaks to the ongoing positive reception of her work; however, she is not without detractors. In "Mixed Company," which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1965, Robert Mazocco notes Van Duyn's technical acumen but says, "there's no intensity, no confrontation here, only the idea of such things." In "A Clutch of Poets," which appeared in the New Republic in 1973, Louis Coxe comments on Van Duyn's use of metaphor, saying that "it is so extended that it finally trails off into not much of anything. The poet seems unwilling to quit while she is ahead and goes on telling us past the point of interest or charm." Even those who offer high praise of Van Duyn's work, sometimes temper their comments with critical asides. Cynthia Zarin, who reviewed Near Changes in the New Republic article "Periscope Gaze" in 1990, notes that "there were some poems in which it seemed that Van Duyn thought perhaps too hard before she spoke. The labor was a little too apparent, and in some cases the poems simply went on too long." Despite such criticism, Zarin is also quick to point out that Van Duyn's work is "notable for its formal accomplishment and for its thematic ambition." Zarin is particularly complimentary of "Memoir," stating that it reveals a "new strength" in Van Duyn's writing. Calling "Memoir" a "remarkable sestina," Zarin uses it as an example of how Van Duyn's "poems now seem to be propelled by inner necessity rather than by a premeditated structure, by the imagination rather than by its aftermath, logical reduction." Similarly impressed, Jessica Greenbaum writes about Near Changes in the Women's Review of Books article "Intimations of Mortality." She comments that Van Duyn's "work is instantly recognizable for the intelligence with which she juggles rhyme, wit, formality, storytelling, analysis and emotion." Of "Memoir," Greenbaum notes Van Duyn's expert and complex use of language, pointing out that this poem "is intensely codified and requires uncoiling." Like Van Duyn's earlier critic, Thomas Landess, who called Van Duyn's lyrics "tough-minded" in his Sewanee Review article about To See, to Take, Edward Hirsch finds Near Changes replete with both cerebral and emotional intensity. In his New York Times Book Review article "Violent Desires," Hirsch calls Near Changes "a major addition to the corpus of [Van Duyn's] work." Taking this thought a step further, Alfred Corn, in his review of Near Changes in Poetry, concludes that "Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry."


Dustie Robeson

Robeson is a freelance writer with a master's degree in English. In this essay, Robeson discusses Van Duyn's affinity for formal poetry and poetry as a visual and aural art form.

Literary history is replete with distinguished "firsts" made by women poets. Although scholars believe that the art of poetry began around 5000 B.C., the first poet known by name was the high priestess of Inanna, Enheduanna, who lived from approximately 2285–2250 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Fast forward nearly four thousand years to 1650, and Anne Bradstreet makes her mark on literary history, this time in the United States. Bradstreet has the distinction of being the first published American poet. Fast forward yet again, this time to 1991, and Mona Van Duyn enters literary history as the United States's first female poet laureate.

In addition to sharing these notable firsts, these women are accomplished writers who used poetry as their means of expression. In doing so, they demonstrated an implied reverence and respect for the art's conventions and forms. For Van Duyn in particular, formal poetic structures seem to hold special interest, and writing in this formal style has become one of her trademarks. Although she does write some of her work in free verse, many critics refer to her as a formalist poet. In "Mixed Company," which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1965, Robert Mazocco is critical of Van Duyn; however, he notes that "she crosses all her t's, dots all her i's." Writing "Periscope Gaze" for the New Republic in 1990, Cynthia Zarin applauds Van Duyn's "thematic ambition" as well as her "formal accomplishment."

In "Out-of-Body Concentration," an article that appeared in Annie Finch's A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, Van Duyn comments on her affinity for formal poetry:

My love of poetry came from nursery rhymes and continued to be nourished on the rhymed verse in school anthologies of that day; college reading offered me an alternative love in the earlier surge of free-verse fashion . . . I have continued to write in both forms, according to the whim of the poem at hand. But I confess to a preference for the poems that come to me expressing, by whatever mysterious means . . . a wish to be formal.

Van Duyn continues, noting that, for her, writing a formal poem increases the personal satisfaction she feels, by "deepening and intensifying the out-of-body concentration, with its little flares of joy when the right word comes, which we all seek and find in writing poems of whatever kind." She goes on to say that while the writing of a free-verse poem leaves her free "to prepare a meal, sleep, have a drink with friends . . . a formal poem seems to follow [her] everywhere, makes [her] hard to live with, and gives [her] pleasure approaching the ecstatic."

Van Duyn's passion and regard for formal poetry are clear, and it is therefore not unexpected to find her allegiance to it manifested in her writing. On the surface, "Memoir" is a poem about the editor's role in preserving poetry for future generations. If one looks a bit more closely, however, "Memoir" can also be read as a poem about poetry itself. "Memoir" is about memory, an account of the past. In this case, the poem is the poet's memory of her relationship to the editor. The poem is also Van Duyn's statement about how publishing poetry preserves the life of which it speaks. More abstractly, "Memoir" can be seen as autobiographical in the sense that it is a poem that writes about itself, or a poem that writes about poetry.

In the final stanza, Van Duyn writes, "Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose." This is clearly high praise for her editor, whose sound judgment helps her publish the poetry that springs from her heart. On a first read, one might assume that it is the "words / that the heart cannot bear to lose"; however, read in another way, one can see that the "rhyme" also has a claim on Van Duyn's heart. As a basic unit of poetry that helps distinguish poetry from prose, rhyme can be read as a symbol for formal poetry and its conventions. Thus, this final stanza reveals not only Van Duyn's credit to Ford, but it calls attention to her affection for poetic form.

By writing "Memoir" as a sestina, which is a complex and regimented poetic form, Van Duyn further confirms her regard for formal poetry. In addition to writing in this strict form, she comments on the form's importance in the fourth stanza. She says, "Who gives up the world for words / gives creation a bad black eye / in uncoupling sense and sound." To understand Van Duyn's coded allusion to the sestina, one must a make brief foray into a literary discussion of the form. In Making of a Poem, editors Mark Strand and Eavan Boland say that the patterns of repetition in a sestina "are constructed across a selected number of key words, so that in the end the sestina becomes a game of meaning, played with sounds and sense," and in The Game of Love: Troubadour Wordplay, Laura Kendrick says that "The aesthetic of early Provençal lyric is one of complexity and richness of sound and sense." It seems to be no mistake then that in the fourth stanza Van Duyn writes about "sense and sound." The pair seem to be inherently associated with the sestina, and by writing about their uncoupling in a negative sense, Van Duyn suggests that either to separate sound from sense or to separate sound and sense from poetry is to damage the creation of the sestina or, more broadly, formal poetry. Indeed, it is the unity of these two elements that gives "Memoir" its rich complexity.

In addition to valuing the formal qualities of poetry, Van Duyn sees poetry as both an aural (or oral) and visual art. In "Memoir," she commends her editor for publishing poetry, or for presenting it in a visual form, when she writes about his role in preserving poetry in the "amber of print." For Van Duyn, as for the twelfth-century troubadours who popularized the form of the sestina, the printed word plays a necessary part in the creation of poetry. Kendrick notes, "The troubadours' linguistic play virtually required . . . the written text, which preserved, at least in part, the phonetic groupings of speech patterns." Whereas a verbal rendition of poetry allows the performer to be ambiguous about his word choices (for example, "which" sounds just like "witch," and "to," "two," and "too" sound the same), written poetry demands clarity. In the sixth stanza, Van Duyn seems to humbly thank her editor for this clarity when she says, "Love's incoherence is sound." Left unprinted, the product of her heart can be difficult to understand, or incoherent.

Despite her clear appreciation for the written word, Van Duyn reminds readers that poetry is inherently an art that is meant to be spoken and heard. Again, it seems no mistake that Van Duyn chose to write "Memoir" using the medieval form of the sestina. In The Game of Love: Troubadour Wordplay, Kendrick notes that

For the medieval reader, the written text of a lyric was only a semblance or visible sign of the oral text; in order to be understood, the images on the manuscript page needed translation into sounds. The medieval reader read aloud.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Valentines to the Wide World (1959) is Van Duyn's first collection of poetry.
  • Firefall (1993) is Van Duyn's latest collection of poetry.
  • If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982 (1993) presents a compilation of Van Duyn's poetry from her previous collections, including Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, to Take, Bedtime Stories, Merciful Disguises, and Letters from a Father, and Other Poems.
  • The Best American Poetry 2003 (2003), edited by David Lehman and Yusef Komunyakaa, provides readers with a survey of contemporary American poetry.
  • Edited by Aliki and Willis Barnstone, A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (1992) offers a survey of three hundred women poets from the earliest Mesopotamian poet Enheduanna to Gwendolyn Brooks, a twentieth-century African American.
  • Founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe, Poetry is a monthly publication devoted to printing the poetry of both up-and-coming and established poets.

Van Duyn's use of the sestina, which relies heavily on the interplay of sounds and the nuances of words, suggests that she similarly believes that poetry should be read aloud. In fact, she confirms this belief in the sixth stanza when she asks, "In a deathly silence, what sound amends Time's law that we lose?" She answers, "That memoir read from fine print." For Van Duyn, it is not simply the printing of poetry that prevents its loss; it is the process of reading that poetry aloud. As she notes in the very first stanza, "silence wants to be sound," meaning that poetry is meant to be shared verbally, not experienced in "a deathly silence." Van Duyn is clearly no stranger to what Kendrick characterizes as the "reductive" nature of the writing process or the "expansive" nature of reading, and it is precisely the complementary relationship between these two processes that Van Duyn seems to find necessary in the art of poetry. Kendrick continues:

The aurally oriented medieval reader was prone to recognize—or momentarily consider the possibility of—a great many puns based on identical or similar sounds with different graphic representations. Our visual orientation toward words . . . discourages us from considering alternate meanings, from engaging in this kind of wordplay as we read.

For Kendrick, and arguably for Van Duyn, sound (or oral renditions of poetry) adds depth and layers of meaning to the work. Thus, when Van Duyn says that "Love's incoherence is sound," she may also be pointing to the ways in which reading aloud heightens poetic ambiguities and thus enhances the complexity of the work. For those who are inclined to enjoy the intellectual pursuit of literary analysis, as one might presume Van Duyn is, this complexity is a welcome gift.

"Memoir"'s complexity has not gone unnoticed. Writing "Intimations of Mortality" for the Women's Review of Books in 1991, Jessica Green-baum describes "Memoir"'s complexity. She notes that Van Duyn's language is "intensely codified" and that the meaning of the poem "seems as hidden and tightly coiled as the principles of a nautilus shell." Indeed, "Memoir" is a challenging poem, yet it is not without its rewards. In addition to being a lasting tribute to one of the publishing industry's most highly regarded poetry editors, it provides readers with valuable insights about Van Duyn's reverence for poetic form and for poetry as a visual and aural experience. These points are important reminders about the history of the form, and in reading "Memoir" aloud, one becomes even more thankful for the "amber of the print" and for the silence that "wants to be sound."

Source: Dustie Robeson, Critical Essay on "Memoir," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Melodie Monahan

Monahan has a Ph.D. in English. She teaches at Wayne State University and operates an editing service, The Inkwell Works. In this essay, Monahan explores Van Duyn's diction as a means for understanding the layers of meaning in her poem.

In the sestina "Memoir," from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Near Changes (1990), Mona Van Duyn explores connections between the sense of sight and the sense of hearing. She connects these sensory perceptions to the processes of writing, reading, and publishing, which are themselves prompted by feelings, specifically memory of lost love. Van Duyn compares the longing to hear or receive communication from another person to the reception of printed text, which in being read conveys through the eyes the sounds of the written words and the voice of the speaker in the text. The poem's sounds in this way reach the reader through the reader's eyes. For her explication of the transmission of written/heard communication and the experience that is its impetus, Van Duyn chose the highly restrictive medieval French poetic form, the sestina. This form requires the repetition of six end-line words (end-line words are called teleutons). She employed simile (a comparison that uses "as" or "like"), metaphor (a comparison), and puns (wordplay using words that sound alike but have different meanings, called homonyms). Van Duyn also employed synaesthesia (a description of one kind of sensation in terms of another sensation or the mixing of sense perceptions).

The sestina consists of six stanzas and one final triplet (called the envoy). This poem form does not require end-line rhyme, but it dictates a precise order for the end-line words. The lines must place the end-words in correct order and at least some of the time be enjambed (enjambed lines run-on grammatically into the next line) in order to divert attention from the end-line word order. In the shifting order, each subsequent stanza's first line ends with the word that ends the previous stanza's last line; in this way, the stanzas seem hooked together. If one can identify the first stanza's end words as A, B, C, D, E, and F, then the teleuton order for the following five stanzas is as follows: F, A, E, B, D, C; C, F, D, A, B, E; E, C, B, F, A, D; D, E, A, C, F, B; B, D, F, E, C, A. Conventionally, the envoy's three lines must repeat the final three lines of the sixth stanza: E, C, A; the other teleutons, B, D, and F, must be buried in these three lines. However, Van Duyn departs from this pattern: in her envoy, the end-words are F, E, and D, and the first envoy line repeats in order, A, B, and C.

The first stanza of "Memoir" is one sentence that asserts, "silence wants to be sound." This idea is compared to what a "conch tells the human ear." The inanimate conch shell, something to look at, when placed to the ear, seems to whisper sounds reminiscent of the sea. (Thus, the shell seems to speak of what it has lost.) That the inanimate shell seems to resonate with a sound something like the sound of the sea suggests that "silence wants to be sound." In a correlative way, the outer ear ("earshell") begs "the eye to find the sounds" the ear "would lose"; that is, words disperse and fade away along sound waves, but words that are written down are "trapped in the amber of print." So what the ear may "lose" (not hear), the eye can retrieve if the words are written on paper. Just as the shell seems to have "caught" the sea, so too the page and ink catch words, which a person in the act of reading "hears."

Through the use of simile, the man who prints words, a publisher, is likened in the second stanza to a towering pine tree. His ability to "take in" the text is compared to the resin (or sticky sap) of the pine tree. That is to say, his appreciation of the text and decision to print it is based on his reception of it. His "inner ear" of imagination vibrates with the unheard yet imagined sound of these words. He is able thus to enclose these words, securing by his response to them the "resonate shape of their sound." (Describing a sound as having a shape is an example of synaesthesia.) The word "resin," which refers to the yellowish brown secretion from trees, connects back to the use of "amber" in the previous stanza; it also suggests a pun on "resonant" (to resinate is to infuse with resin; to resonate is to vibrate in response to sound waves). A writer is described here as a person with a "dry heart" who must "let loose" (express) words that adhere (or perhaps "cohere") in the printer's resonating reception of them. The "needle's eye" is an allusion (a figure of speech that refers to some literary figure, event, or text). The text suggested here is Matthew 19:24: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." The phrasing seems to imply that the man who hears and then prints the text is destined to fit through the narrow strictures of art and find a place in the secular heaven art itself creates.

In the third stanza, the published poem goes out into a windy world of indiscriminate sound waves. The eye or center of a hurricane is compared to the "hush of print" that "retrieves" what the "blind wind would lose." In this stillness at the center, the "heart becomes all ear" and the "deaf-mute world hears the sound." The reader's "heart" or center of sensitivity becomes "all ear," and full receptivity of the text transforms a "deaf-mute world" into a hearing one. The world that is unable to hear and to speak is now able through printed text to receive "its own green, resplendent words." (Giving words a color is another example of synaesthesia.) Through publication, then, people who are perhaps readers but not writers are able to receive the world through words; they gather meaning through this form of hearing and speaking. Moreover, their awareness may identify the world of sensation with the meaning it is given in the text. Quite literally, individuals cannot hear words unless their eardrums feel the vibration of sound waves. Thus it might makes sense to say sensation is perception.

Naturally sound and sense occur together, the fourth stanza continues. To "give up the world for words" is to separate the world from its own sounds (sense). Doing so also gives "creation" (the created world or the artist's creation) a "black eye." The meaning here may be that to separate meaning from the world in which it occurs is to strike a blow against or mar creation. "Detective Time" takes the "voiceprint" (instead of fingerprint) of anyone who commits this "crime," and the voiceprint (sound) ends up "behind bars" (in jail). Art—in this case the poem—succeeds to the extent that it draws the attention of the "deaf-mute world" to the world's own "resplendent words." That is to say, the poem articulates meaning that might otherwise be lost in the world at large.

In an interview with Steve Paul in the Kansas City Star, Van Duyn stated that some poems in Near Changes contain imagery that is "more complex and . . . less accessible" than her earlier work. Indeed, the fifth stanza may be an example of this inaccessibility. Here, the processes of writing and reading are connected to the feeling that precipitates them. The poem shifts its focus from sense (writing, reading) to inarticulate sensation, specifically love. The sound of this feeling is incoherent; it does not make sense. Feeling sinks into the "mudmum heart." Mud does not resonate; it engulfs, and to be "mum" is to be silent or to withhold secrets. In the sixth stanza love is described as the "beautiful babble" that forms the "Foreword" of the text.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker in the poem asks: "What sound / amends Time's law that we must lose?" The question contains a hint of the answer: a particular sound is able to "amend" (fix, restore, change) what over time has been lost. Memoir (not the memory itself but rather the text of that memory) "amends." Then the eardrum takes up the beat of the words let loose. Paradoxically, love causes the poet to express, to write. Expression casts the words into the world (into the wind); the words may be lost in sound dispersion or trapped in print. Publication (not broadcasting but printing) retrieves and fixes the words in place. In this way the text conveys meaning for the "deaf-mute world." Memoir, the text produced by memory, is an amendment to loss.

In poetry, diction (the choice and arrangement of words) plays an essential role, conveying often times the layers of meaning in a single text. Various definitions of a word and its usage in the text hint at the poem's layers of meaning. In the fifth stanza the poet's sleight of hand involves using coherent language to convey the incoherence of feeling. The syntax twists, and the meaning seems muffled.

By contrast, the envoy stands as a crystal clear statement or directive: "Sound ear and sound eye keep in print / any rhyme the world makes with its words / that the heart cannot bear to lose." Let it be the case, the speaker in this poem asserts, that the valid perceptions of ear and eye preserve in print that "rhyme" (or song) of the world that the heart of the writer cannot bear to lose (give up or witness as gone). Nature, like the whispering conch shell, lets us know "silence wants to be sound." The published text reflects the world's own sound and sense. Writing, publishing, and reading are the nets by which what has been loved is caught or saved. Living without printed words means letting what matters slide away, disperse into the wind, disappear.

In this collection of poems that are at least in part a reflection upon lost loves, the poem "Memoir" offers the poet's way of retrieving the past or refusing to give up what is only memory. In her essay "Matters of Poetry," Van Duyn describes writing poetry as "hard, lonely, glorious, transcendent play-work." The reward of this work for the reader, according to "Memoir," is the discovery of what the heart loves; the poem in being read reveals to the reader what the poet's heart holds.

Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on "Memoir," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Robert B. Shaw

In the following review excerpt, Shaw provides an overview of Van Duyn's career, focusing on her poetic persona and tone.

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 long intervals between some of her books have made her an elusive figure to a public with a short attention span. Happily, the three volumes reviewed here [If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, Near Changes, and Firefall] offer a simple remedy by bringing all her work at once into print. Beyond this, though, there remains the challenge of an audience's pet stereotypes, and it is here that Van Duyn's poems may even now make trouble for themselves by their refusal to flow into expected channels. She is an individualist both in her topics and her tone, always a good way to fend off easy celebrity.

Concerning topics: critics who are supple and acute in analyzing style can sound embarrassed, condescending, or simply at a loss when asked to consider content. I remember the nervous chuckles of some of my colleagues at Harvard in the '70's when Elizabeth Bishop proposed offering a course entitled "Subject Matter in Poetry." Poets are obliged to be practical in their thinking about this issue: they know they have to write about something, and the choice of material, for poets who are any good, is anything but random. It involves the discovery of subjects which will strike chords in the deep recesses of imagination as well as engaging the intellect's discursive powers. About such subjects the poet continually finds yet more to say, as Elizabeth Bishop did about travel and Marianne Moore did about animals. Gradually, by accretion and elaboration, it becomes clear that the fascination of such topics is not in themselves but in the underlying theme which emerges from the patterns and nuances of their repeated appearances. Any poem is "about" more than one thing, and its more vital meaning often is the less ostensible one.

Why can't readers remember this? Van Duyn's poems have in fact been sold short by those who have failed to see beyond their surfaces. Her "persona" in her writing seems to overlap largely with herself: an academic married to an academic, leading a comfortable upper-middle class life in Saint Louis. She has had the temerity to write poems about shopping, cooking, gardening, dogs, vacations. Practitioners of various brands of snobbery—social, political, intellectual—have shied away from subject matter presumed by them to have no depth. The dread word "domestic," once uttered, slams shut many reputedly tolerant minds. When W. H. Auden turned to deliberately mundane subjects in About the House and other later volumes, his willingness to venture into what were for him previously unexplored areas was viewed as a slackening of ambition. Richard Wilbur is another poet who has suffered from this kind of stock response. Like Auden, like Wilbur, Van Duyn in her best work demonstrates that any subject is as deep as the poet makes it.

Even if that were not so, it can be argued that domesticity has inherent if often unacknowledged profundities. It is, unsettlingly enough, what we all have in common, bohemian aspirations notwithstanding. Allen Ginsberg washes the dishes now and then, and for most of us such activities take up more time than we care to tabulate. Put domestic leisure together with domestic labor, and we have for our concern nothing less than what we often call daily life. It may seem at times less than stimulating, but it is not trivial, and one need not be an existentialist philosopher (or a novelist like Walker Percy) to apprehend rich possibilities mysteriously latent in everydayness. More than any other poet of her time Mona Van Duyn has made it her project to restore freshness to the familiar through close and caring attention to what most of us overlook.

She does this often with a welcome touch of civilized humor, but there is nothing apologetic in her tone, no self-consciousness like Cowper's mock-heroic "I sing the sofa." If we recall that Van Duyn's poems first appeared in quantity in the 1960's, we can see why her tone as well as her topics may have helped to marginalize her. Her writing must have seemed muted indeed compared with the piercing emotionalism of Sylvia Plath and other confessionalists, or the anti-war and subsequently anti-patiarchal anger of Adrienne Rich. It is not that Van Duyn never expresses negative feelings; rather, when she does so, she resists the starkness that results when such feelings are unreflectively allowed to dominate. Again, the parallel with Richard Wilbur is apt: until recently it was fairly common for critics to object that Wilbur didn't sound as if he had suffered enough. Having come to a historical juncture at which it is evident that there is more than enough suffering to go around, we may be readier than readers of the '60's were to appreciate poetry that can take the measure of grief and loss without being paralyzed by them, and can assign to ordinary goodness something closer to its true weight while pondering our experience on this planet.

Source: Robert B. Shaw, "Life Work," in Shenandoah, Vol. 44, Spring 1994, pp. 38–48.

Judith Hall

In the following essay, Hall comments on Van Duyn's stature as the first woman ever named U.S. poet laureate and discusses critical reception toward 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, and who was surprised? When Robert Penn Warren's name emerged, it may have had—in those days, soon described as long ago, the late '80s—a ring more historic or laudatory, at least fugitive, white, various, and questing. "But go on," he said, "that's how men survive."

Six years later, Americans, in our love of variety and evanescence, have welcomed and discarded as many laureates. Finally, in June, 1992, for some reason, the nation could accept a woman laureate: Mona Van Duyn. Why a woman? "I heard that Merwin wouldn't do it." One historian would listen, satisfied, and leave to write it down.

Others argue on: Why a woman? No one would expect a volunteer. After all, it was a job and salaried; the figure, $35,000, was defined by one official as "about half a salary" for poets. Money, so precisely introduced, will yield saliva. And when our government announces, however indirectly, that poets should receive about $70,000, I swallow. I gasp. I pour domestic champagne and compose something almost patriotic about Toast-R-Ovens and iced tea and the enduring consolations of amber waving grain.

And yet, the official sounds apologetic. The library will offer only half—half of what the poet may deserve. To work for half? Any man would hesitate today, after the salary was publicized, half-cocked. Or having done it, however briefly, he would turn from Washington, D.C., concluding that the "job" was "ill-paid, ill-defined, and ultimately ill-executed." Why a woman? Why now? To work for half . . . "Oh, yes, I see." Other historians would listen, unsatisfied, and leave. I see them walking to another institute, where they lean together, unobserved, and argue other reasons, more capricious or meritorious; why a woman poet laureate arrived.

But why Van Duyn? Perhaps that is easier to reckon than the timing of our first woman poet laureate. Before she was chosen, Van Duyn's books had won a Pulitzer, a Bollingen, and a National Book Award; such garlands, won together, were once considered the Triple Crown. Think of the poet strewn, at least as lavishly as Secretariat, with pink confetti and money and more domestic champagne. All this assurance, then, of merit, so consoling to American readers, may now prepare us for the poems. The poems?

Two volumes in 1993 heralded our first woman poet laureate: Firefall, new poems, and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982. These, along with Near Changes (1990), constitute a reminder of all that she has given us and justify her laureateship. Each of these three books includes "praise for Mona Van Duyn"; a curious redundancy; the same hoorays selected for each book. I linger for a minute on these accolades, composed by younger players, and consider their use, as praise is always used, for advertisement.

Her poetry is "beautiful and exact," "accessible and profound," with several noting how long she has been working: for "several decades"; "since 1959." The woman works, you see, and has "ambition . . . intelligence," attributes that still might disconcert those who want a poet to be natural; so rushing in behind to ease the nervous reader, the blurbette soothes with "humor . . . ease . . . original without eccentricity."

Advertisements are designed to soothe the reader, long enough to buy the book, and yet I am puzzled, then concerned, to see how such reviews of Van Duyn's work, and then a murmuring opinion in the field, resemble these bland remarks. "However rich, [her voice] is never bland," hails the New York Times, with earnest vacuity, and goes so far as to announce, cheerfully, her "utter unsentimental love for the world."

Beautiful, accessible, unsentimental: a woman's triple crown? Thank God, no "eccentricity" confirmed in Janson type on all three books. Now the poems are safe for public consumption, composed, in fact, by the somehow more consoling Mrs. Jarvis Thurston. Think of Mrs. Browning, the first woman mentioned for England's poet laureate. Mrs. Thurston; Mrs. Browning; safe. And yet, if I were seeking a woman's poetry that was "beautiful, accessible, unsentimental," I might choose Anne, Countess of Winchelsea, or even (must there be another quarrel?) Edna St. Vincent Millay, our "unofficial feminine laureate," as Louise Bogan wrote impatiently.

"A great many of my poems have been mis-read by mostly male critics—I mean, most of the critics are male," said Mona Van Duyn (Mrs. Jarvis Thurston) in an interview, apparently her fifty-eighth, as the first woman poet laureate. She was seventy-one. "I use domestic imagery and extend that imagery through the whole poem, but I'm not writing about that. It's simply used as a metaphor. There's nothing insulting about that. I do write some domestic poems. So do the male poets. But it is a limiting term when it's used over and over for a poet who, aside from the few domestic poems she and they do write, uses domestic metaphor to describe ideas. . . ."

Her tone is almost palpable fatigue, or is it anger? It is exasperating to defend the same ground fifty-eight times or dodge a well-meaning review that waters down a woman's work until it drifts away. Or accept a phantom surrogate, the blurb, when in it, one woman's verse resembles any other. Anne Bradstreet's, for example: "Tis the Work of a Woman, honoured and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious courteous disposition, the exact diligence in her place, and discreet mannaging of her family occasions."

The praise, "exact" and "mannaging" her family, in 1650, becomes in 1993 "exact" and "accessible"; "the searching intelligence of . . . the well-educated wife, good friend, and daughter." Van Duyn does indeed offer her American reader a persona in the guise of wife, friend, or daughter. She is complicit, to that extent, with social expectations; with the heterosexual reader in suburbia, who is comfortable and almost smug in middle-life, or later; who takes a little wit with bourbon after work.

This reader likes Van Duyn when she is decorous, self-mocking—poses she brings to "Notes From a Suburban Heart": "I love you, in my dimwitted way." Her poems may end on this girlishly ironic note or with apology or certainty, but these are strategies intended to distract with consolation from the jeopardy she knows. Van Duyn offers her reader half of what he seeks: the compensations of suburbia; but offered with this "helpless" expectation is her own perspective:

Peony stalks come up like red asparagus,
I said; my friend said they look like dogs' penises.
It was something misplaced I noticed, the color of a wound,
but she's right, it has something to do with love too in my mind.
("Peony Stalks")

This is quintessential Van Duyn—narrative draped around a rumination; accentual stanzaic pattern with end rhymes, slanted and supported by internal assonance. Suburbia; a friend; a garden, but with dogs' penises in it and wounds.

Van Duyn is a poet of relationships recollected in tranquillity. Although most of our poetry is set in solitude, she hedges hers with others, usually one other figure at a time. Or when, in "Three Valentines to the Wide World," the poem ends with a young woman witnessing her own "untended power," the experience is distilled in social terms; a parable in moonlight. And the rage and violation described are amplified by their mutation and the disturbing inevitability of her rhymed octaves....

Van Duyn's best work uses linguistic clarity as a response to long acquaintance with the irrational, the bereft, and the chronically beleaguered. In this way, only, her poetry resembles that of Elizabeth Bishop. This tension underneath Van Duyn's "accessibility" makes the stated goals for poetry—compassion, empathy (thus moral; Horatian)—more tenuous and provisional and moving.

One of her finest poems, "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," recollects the persona's relationship with her mother, the bond, defined by medical emergency, is chthonic and ecstatic....

The poem wrestles this battering, recreating it (fifty-eight rhymed couplets altogether), and then resolves the presence of this other maker. With humor (Freud's aggressive wit) and the accumulating energy of drama, the persona makes her way towards catharsis. . . .

No other poet has described so well the horror and adoration that a child feels for the parent's body. She continues this in "The Stream," an elegy for her mother, and in her epistolary novella-inverse, "Letters from a Father." The daughter, then, like Van Duyn's appearance as a wife or friend, is a guise, a metaphor, a remedy she fingers, swallows, revealing to the reader not transcendence but empathy—that more difficult release from solitude.

And yet, compassion is not yet understood as a species of authority. The poet even doubts it. She doubles back; apologizes ("Women don't usually wrestle, except for a comic or grotesque effect"). She "eases" over her own authority, her own "slow, entranced emergence / of things out of the ashes of their usefulness." A poet of relationships will be of use, willing to strain and wrap her art for a "Christmas Present for a Poet," "To My Godson, On His Christening," and "Lines Written in a Guest Book."

A charm, a generosity diminishes when rooted from its source, its passion. But who notices, within the smoky institutes and professional fraternities? "The Insight Lady" will arrive, bringing wit they understand; she sips the warm hors d'oeuvres with men. She's in; a woman made it in, but only half—not the half that is

. . . a monstrous face;
as broad as his chest, as long as he is
from the top of his head to his heart. All her
feeling and fleshiness is there.
("The Pietà, Rhenish, 14th C., The Cloisters")

That is the part her critics call "bizarre." Send that half—domestic champagne; the hiss of it like bees; a time of bees. That's how women survive.

Source: Judith Hall, "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Woman Poet Laureate," in Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter 1994, pp. 141–46.

Alfred Corn

In the following review of "Near Changes," Corn praises Van Duyn's vision and corpus of work.

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 is all the more piercing, then, in poems like the elegy mentioned earlier, "For David Kalstone," and the villanelle "Condemned Site," a lament for the death of five friends, one of its repeated lines, "In Love's old boardinghouse, the shades of five rooms are drawn." Life is like that: we watch as others walk the plank; and know that we are in the line to follow after them. Many of those who could have assisted us most, were they still here, have gone on ahead and cannot help. Near Changes is shot through with the pain of loss, and yet it isn't a sad book. The author really is capable of having "a glad heart at the supermarket," and we want to know why for more than esthetic reasons alone. Reading her books over the years, I've often been struck by Mona Van Duyn's special genius for the Good Life. The pleasures of the senses are readily hers; she is generous; has a habit of finding the amusing side to things, of enjoying life's absurdities without falling into scorn; and Lady Luck has given her—she knows the case is rare—a lifelong love with whom she need not put up a false show of perfect competence or unshakable serenity. "Late Loving" must be the most moving (and honest) poem ever written about marriage approaching the golden anniversary.

If in my mind I marry you every year
it is to calm an extravagance of love
with dousing custom, for it flames up fierce
and wild whenever I forget that we live
in double rooms whose temperature's controlled
by matrimony's turned-down thermostat.
I need the mnemonics, now that we are old,
of oath and law in re-memorizing that.

And she has friends. I enjoyed the peek into behind-the-scenes daily life in the midwestern Athens of Washington University, whose citizens, distinguished writers and their spouses, are decipherably nicknamed here and portrayed from an unaccustomed angle. In this scheme there are an appealing "Peggy" and "Howie," and another freefloating character known only as "the Insight Lady," subject to blinding intuitions with an absurd tinge to them. It is a world inhabited by an enlightened middle class, and Mona Van Duyn is one of the poets helping a portion of the reading public that went against its natural grain for several decades find its way back to familiar perspectives and virtues. Gone are the hash pipe, the Harley Davidson, and the crushed velvet gipsy dress. Well, we gave it a try, they can say, apparently without retrospective condemnation of self or others. The daily round between household, supermarket, library, and bed isn't, in any case, an entirely placid business, as Van Duyn well knows. The unconscious mind remains anarchic, especially for the artist who depends on its oracular powers. Van Duyn's startling metaphor for the unanticipated invasion of the irrational is worked out brilliantly in "Falling in Love at Sixty-Five," where the poet, drifting toward sleep in the wild by the light of a Coleman lamp, is assaulted by swarms of nocturnal insects:

the bared part of me becoming a plan
for plates of an insect book whose specimens
rearranged themselves fiercely over and over again.
For as long as the lantern lasted they would have kept coming,
as if the great darkness had smiled at that tiny dawn
and had hurled them in fistfuls straight at the speaking light
in answer to what was being insisted on.

Van Duyn will never be entirely satisfied, though, with the vatic, if only for the reason that it doesn't sound good in verse.

Who gives up the world for words
gives creation a bad black eye
in uncoupling sense and sound.
Detective Time takes his voiceprint,
which ends up behind bars. Nature's ear
knows it was little to lose.

A wonderful poem titled "The Ferris Wheel" casts the debate between mystery and realism in spatial terms. "The Ferris Wheel" gains by being read in tandem with "First Flight," a poem written nearly twenty year ago. In both poems Van Duyn meditates on the pleasures and dangers of being off the ground, suspended at a superior vantage point above Mother Earth. With "The Ferris Wheel" of course each ascent is followed by a corresponding descent, though the narrator's swing sometimes pauses a while at the top before sinking down again. This is a rich metaphor for the cyclical activity of the imagination, first yearning toward transcendence and then yielding to the realism of terra firma. Yet the metaphor is qualified by several factors: the narrator has her spouse with her, as well as the bag of groceries (including root vegetables) she intends to cook for dinner. These go up with her and provide an anchor even at the pinnacle of the ascending cycle; moreover she finds herself looking down at the fair rather than up at the stars. Meditations on the rise as well as during the plunge downward are given resonance by allusions to Chaucer, Wordsworth, Yeats, and Graham Greene. And when she is at last deposited on the ground, a glow of transcendence follows her; it hasn't all been merely the brief salvo of a Roman candle.

The exit platform.
She lifts her sack to leave and in the doorglass
by some great mirroring gift of the lights,
stronger than love, stranger than love,
she sees for life upon her own shoulders and neckstem
an image which replaces her own wherever she seeks it:
another's "tired, pleasure-hoping" face.

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 one beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry, a poetry that explores, as Stevens put it, ". . . the metaphysical changes that occur, / Merely in living as and where we live."

Source: Alfred Corn, Review of Near Changes, in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October 1990, pp. 47–50.


Corn, Alfred, "Review of Near Changes," in Poetry, Vol. CLVII, No. 1, October 1990, pp. 47–50.

Coxe, Louis, "A Clutch of Poets," in New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 13–14, October 6, 1973, pp. 26–28.

Gioia, Dana, "The Poet in an Age of Prose," in Can Poetry Matter?, Graywolf Press, 1992, pp. 249–53.

Greenbaum, Jessica, "Intimations of Mortality," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 4, January 1991, p. 14.

Hirsch, Edward, "Violent Desires," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 95, November 18, 1990, p. 24.

Kendrick, Laura, "Reading Troubadour Verse: The Adventure of the Signifier," in The Game of Love: Troubadour Wordplay, University of California Press, 1988, pp. 31–42.

Landess, Thomas H., Review of To See, to Take, in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXXI, No. 1, Winter 1973, pp. 150–52.

Mazocco, Robert, "Mixed Company," in New York Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 5, April 8, 1965, p. 18.

Paul, Steven, Kansas City Star, May 26, 1991.

Preminger, Alex, Frank J. Warnke, and O. B. Hardison Jr., eds., The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, Princeton University Press, 1986, p. 68.

Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland, eds., The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 22.

Van Duyn, Mona, "Matters of Poetry," in Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn, edited by Michael Burns, University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

—, "Out-of-Body Concentration," in A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, edited by Annie Finch, Story Line Press, 1994, pp. 227–28.

Zarin, Cynthia, "Periscope Gaze," in New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 27, December 31, 1990, pp. 36–40.

—, Near Changes, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Further Reading

Burns, Michael, Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn, University of Arkansas Press, 1999.

This book offers a collection of criticism about Van Duyn's work.

Finch, Annie, A Formal Feeling Comes: Poetry in Form by Contemporary Women, Story Line Press, 1994.

Finch's work is a compilation of poetry written by women who use traditional poetic forms. The book includes introductory comments by each poet, including Mona Van Duyn.

Greenbaum, Jessica, "Intimations of Mortality," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 4, January 1991, p. 14.

Greenbaum praises Near Changes and briefly mentions the complexity of the language Van Duyn uses in "Memoir."

Padgett, Ron, ed., The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, Teachers & Writers, 2000.

Padgett gathers writing about approximately seventy poetic forms. In addition to defining each form, the writers of each section summarize the form's history and provide examples of it.

Strand, Mark, and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, W. W. Norton, 2001.

In addition to providing readers with a description and history of many poetic forms including the sestina, the sonnet, blank verse, and the ballad, Strand and Boland offer a host of poems exemplifying each form.

Zarin, Cynthia, "Periscope Gaze," in New Republic, Vol. 203, No. 27, December 1990, pp. 36–40.

Zarin reviews Near Changes and applauds Van Duyn's skilled writing in "Memoir."