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Van Duyn, Mona

VAN DUYN, Mona

Born 9 May 1921, Waterloo, Iowa

Daughter of Earl G. and Lora Kramer Van Duyn; married Jarvis Thurston, 1943

The first woman named as poet laureate of the U.S. (1992), Mona Van Duyn was educated at the University of Northern Iowa (B.A. 1942) and the University of Iowa (M.A. 1943), where she was an instructor at the Writer's Workshop from 1943 to 1946. In 1946 she joined the faculty of the University of Louisville, leaving there in 1950 for a lectureship at Washington University in St. Louis. She later served as poetry consultant to the Olin Library Modern Literature Collection at Washington University, and was appointed Visiting Hurst Professor there in 1987. In 1973 she taught at the Salzburg (Austria) Seminar in American Studies; she also taught at the Breadloaf Writers Conferences. Van Duyn and her husband founded Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature and coedited the journal from 1947 to 1967.

Van Duyn has received an impressive array of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1991, and the prestigious Bollingen Prize (1971). She has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1966, 1985), the Academy of American Poets (1981), and the Guggenheim Foundation (1972). In addition to honorary degrees from Washington University and Cornell College, her honors also include the Shelley Memorial Prize (1987); National Book Award (1971); Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, from Poetry Magazine (1968); Borestone Mountain Poetry Prize (1968); Hart Crane Memorial Award (1968); Helen Bullis Prize from Poetry Northwest (1964); and the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize (1956). In 1985 Van Duyn became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Van Duyn has been compared to such diverse poets as William Shakespeare, John Donne, Robert Browning, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. Well received by critics, her work of almost four decades is frequently characterized as formalist. Examining the quotidian, her poetry is sometimes called "domestic," a designation she decries for its sexism. She writes of married life and ordinary people, and speaks of love and its losses, often using ventriloquism to speak the stories of her family members. Sweet but painful, her poems provide glimpses into suburban life. Conventional in subject matter, they lack postmodern cynicism. Drawing from Greek mythology, the Bible, and employing colloquial language, her poetry combines the usual with the unusual.

Her seventh book, Near Changes (1990, Pulitzer Prize, 1991), asks, "How can human love be unfearing?" and asserts Van Duyn's belief in an essential goodness in human community. Even as she accuses the earth of "uncaring" in the "The Accusation," she resolves that "no lie can conceal the truth / that our kind was built to be caring." This world view permeates Van Duyn's work. Praised for its seemingly effortless crafting of formality, storytelling, and wit into a poetics of transformation, Near Changes marks her passage from middle age.

To See, To Take (1970, National Book Award, 1971) contextualizes the poet-speaker within a larger world, concentrating on observations of middle-class suburban life. Merciful Disguises: Published and Unpublished Poems (1973) acknowledges, in "Open Letter, Personal," that "We know the quickest way to hurt each other," but insists nevertheless, "We love." Van Duyn reveals the disguises we use to distance ourselves from our deepest sorrows, to keep ourselves going despite the pain of living. In Letters from a Father and Other Poems (1983) Van Duyn projects an anecdotal, epistolary style as she explores relationships with aging parents. Autobiographical, the poems are without the high egocentricism of the confessional poets, and break through personal pain to celebrate joy and compassion.

Emphasis on the power of love and its healing properties remains a hallmark of Van Duyn's poetry. Preferring hope to despair, her work offers a vision where love peers through rage as it confronts the impossibility of satisfying human desire, quietly bringing gentleness to a world accustomed to hardness.

With Firefall (1993) Van Duyn takes up the familiar domestic topics with gentle cynicism, writing in "We Are In Your Area" about the ceaseless requests for old household goods which she is very reluctant to discard: "old clothes that have learned our old bodies, / old dear castiron skillets, the old chairs / we sit on, reand recovered since the fifties." In "The Marriage Sculptor" she imagines the broken halves of one wrecked marriage transformed into two happier marriages, not ignoring the pain of "Time's tempests" but seeing "a larger work" in the human lives "stronger than Time." Van Duyn's favorite themes of love and loss converge in this volume at an emergency room, in a National Park (Yosemite, scene for the "Falls" of fire in her anchor poem), in the deathbed of a poet (several, in fact), in beginnings and endings (each has a separate poem here). These poems are comforting because they acknowledge pain as part of the process of living, not something to be escaped but something to be savored for what we can learn from it—from her.

Van Duyn has forged an equal place for women as poets in the 20th century not simply because of what she has done, but because of what she has not done. She has not insisted on special feelings or rights; she has not expected her readers to separate values from human experience or to divide those of one gender from the other. She has honored intimate family relationships and aging without shrinking from or exaggerating the difficulties of adjusting to either of these. Van Duyn encourages the reader to hope by showing the eternal present in the everyday, "Firefall still blazing bright in memory."

Other Works:

Valentines to the Wide World: Poems (1958). A Time of Bees (1964). Bedtime Stories (1972). If It Be Not I(Poems 1959-1982) (1993).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

CA (1974). CANR (1982, 1998). CLC (1975, 1977, 1991). CP (1991). DLB (1980). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

APR (Nov.-Dec. 1973). Antioch Review (Spring 1970). Carleton Miscellany (Spring/Summer 1974). Nation (4 May 1973). NR (6 Oct. 1973, 31 Dec. 1990). NYT (11 Jan. 1971, 21 June 1991). NYTBR (21 Nov. 1965, 2 Aug. 1970, 9 Dec. 1973, 18 Nov. 1990). Parnassus (1991). Poetry (Oct. 1990). Sewanee Review (Winter 1973). Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 1965, Winter 1974). WP (10 April 1991, 15 June 1992). WPBW (6 Jan. 1974).

—LOLLY OCKERSTROM,

UPDATED BY KATHLEEN BONANN MARSHALL

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