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Van Duyn, Mona (1921—)

Van Duyn, Mona (1921—)

American poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. Born on May 9, 1921, in Waterloo, Iowa; daughter of Earl George Van Duyn (a businessman) and Lora (Kramer) Van Duyn; University of Northern Iowa,B.A., 1942; University of Iowa, M.A., 1943; married Jarvis A. Thurston (a professor of English), on August 31, 1943.

Selected works:

Valentines to the Wide World (1959); A Time of Bees (1964); To See, To Take (1970); Bedtime Stories (1972); Merciful Disguises (1973); Letters from a Father, and Other Poems (1982); Near Changes (1990); If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982 (1994); Firefall (1994).

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate Mona Van Duyn began writing as a child. She was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1921 and grew up in Eldora, a small town where she spent much of her time in the public library. She kept notebooks full of poetry in elementary and junior high school and, in the second grade, had a poem published in a newspaper. Her early reading included formal poetry, but in college she began reading free verse and devoting herself more seriously to writing.

Alison Carb Sussman writes that Van Duyn is known for the "blend of formalism and colloquialism in her tough-minded, witty, and sometimes humorous work." Exploring the connections between life and art, she often uses domestic imagery to probe what lies beyond, which has caused some reviewers to describe her as a "domestic poet," a term she dislikes. She believes that she is thus labeled simply because she is a woman. Only about one-fourth of her poems are domestic, she said, adding, "I find my richest hunting ground for poems in that place where the undomesticated feelings, snapping and snarling, run round the domestic ring."

Praised for her "exceptionally crafted" and "polished and elegant" work as well as her "warmth and intellect," Van Duyn creates poems about love that are tempered with an equal amount of violence and destruction, often presenting women as victims of violence. She believes this emphasis may come from her upbringing: her father, a businessman who was not particularly interested in her, took books away from her and demanded she play outside instead. He also wanted her to marry a local boy and not go to college; however, she finally persuaded him to allow her to attend school on the scholarship she had won. His lack of approval or love, she believes, may have contributed to her view of love and struggle as intertwined.

After receiving her B.A. at the University of Northern Iowa, she earned an M.A. at the University of Iowa, where she met and married Jarvis A. Thurston, a professor of English. She taught English there and at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where her husband was also hired. In 1947, they founded Perspective: A Quarterly in Literature, which Van Duyn edited from 1947 to 1967. From 1950 through 1967, she taught English at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During the 1970s, she taught and lectured at various other universities in the United States and in Salzburg, Austria.

Van Duyn's impressive number of honors began accumulating with the 1956 Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine. In addition to several regional poetry awards in the 1960s, Van Duyn earned a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1966, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, and the Hart Crane Memorial Award from American Weave Press, both in 1968. She won Yale University Library's Bollingen Prize in 1970, and in 1971 her book To See, To Take, a collection of verse from three of her previous volumes plus some uncollected work, won the National Book Award for Poetry. To her growing list of accolades, she added a Guggenheim fellowship in 1972 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters' Loines Prize in 1976. She became a member of the Academy of American Poets in 1981, and one of 12 chancellors for life in 1985. Cornell College in Iowa honored her with the Sandburg Prize in 1982, and the Poetry Society of American awarded her the Shelley Memorial Prize in 1987. Her finest recognition came in 1991 when, at age 70, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, Near Changes. In 1992, she became the first woman poet laureate (consultant in poetry) for the U.S. Library of Congress.

Van Duyn once told journalist Steve Paul: "There are writers, not just poets, who theoretically believe that words are more important than the world … that the world doesn't exist without the word. I think I am a little more oriented toward love of the actual world than many writers are. No poet has to give up the world for words. The words exist to praise the world, to define it and clarify it."


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

Sussman, Alison Carb. "Mona Van Duyn," in Newsmakers 1993. No. 2. Louise Mooney, ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.


The papers of Mona Van Duyn are collected at the Olin Library at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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