Mona Van Duyn

1921–2004
Mona Van Duyn
Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa and earned degrees from Iowa State Teachers College and the University of Iowa. A distinguished writer whose honors included a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, and a term as Poet Laureate of the United States, Van Duyn was co-founder and co-editor of the journal Perspective, a Quarterly of Literature in 1947 with her husband, Jarvis Thurston. A long-time lecturer in the University College adult education program at Washington University, Van Duyn was named the Visiting Hurst Professor in 1987.Elizabeth Frank once described Van Duyn in the Nation as “a poet who usually tries harder than any of her contemporaries to coax affirmation out of the waste and exhaustion of modern life.” Known for its formal precision and exacting intelligence, Van Duyn’s work has been described by the poet Alfred Corn as “one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry.”

Van Duyn published her first poetry collection, Valentines to the Wide World, in 1958. The book heralded Van Duyn’s enduring themes, including life in suburbia and domestic concerns. “Toward a Definition of Marriage,” in which Van Duyn compares married love to a novel, a circus, and a collection of old papers, is an example of her witty appraisal of such subject matter. In her next book of poems, A Time of Bees (1964), Van Duyn addresses gardens, friendship, and life in a mental institution. “Using her characteristic half rhymes, sometimes in quatrains, sometimes in couplets, Van Duyn creates poems impressive for their intelligence and their determined attempts to find reason in an unreasonable world,” noted Susan Ludvigson in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

In 1970 Van Duyn received the National Book Award for her third poetry collection, To See, To Take. William Logan once described Van Duyn’s investment in the “minor joys and partial surrenders” of middle-class suburban life, and the collection confirmed her mastery of the terrain. Notable among the poems in this collection is “Marriage, with Beasts,” “in which a couple’s tour of a zoo prompts a consideration of love.” David Kalstone, writing in the New York Times Book Review, contended that To See, To Take “has a special rhythm, swinging out, exploring, detaching itself,” and he hailed “Marriage, with Beasts” as “funniest and eeriest of all.”
 
Van Duyn’s next collection was Bedtime Stories (1972), a series of recollections from the perspective of the author’s grandmother and related in the narrator’s Germanic dialect. Writing in Ploughshares, Lorrie Goldensohn observed that the poems in Bedtime Stories showcase Van Duyn’s affinity for “agrarian domesticity,” and she noted “a necessary event in the larger life of these poems: the subversion of their maturities and finish into new vitalities.” Van Duyn’s later volumes include Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (1973), which includes verse from her earlier collections; Letters from a Father, and Other Poems (1982), a series of six poems structured as missives from father to daughter; Near Changes (1990), which features her poem celebrating her fifty-year marriage to Thurston, “Late Loving.” In Poetry, Alfred Corn stated that, “‘Late Loving’ must be the most moving (and honest) poem ever written about marriage approaching the golden anniversary.” Likewise enthused, Edward Hirsch wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Van Duyn “has a gift for making the ordinary appear strange and for turning a common situation into a metaphysical exploration.” He concluded that in Near Changes Van Duyn “has ‘fixed’ her world with pathos and wit.” Van Duyn received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for the collection.

In 1992 Van Duyn became the official Poet Laureate of the United States. That same year, the poet published If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, a formidable volume amassing her previously published verse. Van Duyn also commemorated her appointment as Poet Laureate with the publication of a collection of new poems, Firefall (1992), which included verse she described as “minimalist sonnets.” Rachel Hadas, observed in the New York Times Book Review that Firefall “varies the pace… with skinny ‘minimalist sonnets’ that capture large themes… with aphoristic slimness.” Ben Howard, meanwhile, wrote in Poetry that though Van Duyn’s book “breaks no new ground,” it nonetheless “speaks a human, forgiving spirit, rich in warmth and moral wisdom.” Van Duyn’s last publication before her death in 2004 was Selected Poems (2003). A Publishers Weekly critic summarized Van Duyn’s art as “acutely emotional poems about deceptively ordinary domestic experiences.” And Richard Wakefield, concluded his Seattle Times appraisal by affirming that Selected Poems “illuminates many brave new worlds and shows us that they are beautiful not in spite of but, often, because of their imperfections.”



Career

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

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Valentines to the Wide World, Cummington Publishing (New Rochelle, NY), 1959.
  • A Time of Bees, University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1964.
  • To See, To Take, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Bedtime Stories, Ceres Press (Woodstock, NY), 1972.
  • Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (includes Valentines to the Wide World, A Time of Bees, To See, to Take, and Bedtime Stories), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1973.
  • Letters from a Father, and Other Poems, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
  • Near Changes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
  • Lives and Deaths of the Poets and Non-Poets, privately published, 1991.
  • If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Firefall, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Matters of Poetry, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1993.
  • (Author of introduction) Donna Masini, That Kind of Danger, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1994.
  • Selected Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Poems represented in anthologies, including The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, edited by Oscar Williams, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1957; Midland, edited by Paul Engle, Random House (New York, NY), 1961; and The Honey and the Gall, edited by Chad Walsh, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967. Contributor to periodicals, including Kenyon Review, Poetry, Western Review, Atlantic, New Republic, Poetry, Yale Review, and New Yorker. Founder and editor with husband, Jarvis Thurston, Perspective, 1947-67; poetry advisor, College English, 1955-57.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present,2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
  • Burns, Michael, editor, Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1998.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Gale (Detroit), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 116, pp. 397-432.
  • Contemporary Poets,7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II,Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980, pp. 334-340.
  • Modern American Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 315-317.
PERIODICALS
  • Antioch Review,winter, 1994, Judith Hall, "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Poet Laureate," pp. 141-146.
  • Books, July-August, 2002, Stephen Whited, review of Selected Poems,p. 79.
  • Hudson Review,spring, 1960, W. D. Snodgrass, "Four Gentlemen, Two Ladies," pp. 120-131; spring, 1983, Richard Lattimore, "Poetry Chronicle," pp. 210-211.
  • Nation, May 4, 1970; November 27, 1982, Elizabeth Frank, review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems,pp. 563, 565.
  • New Republic, October 6, 1973, Louise Coxe, review of Merciful Disguises,pp. 26-28; December 31, 1990, Cynthia Zarin, article on Mona Van Duyn, pp. 36-40.
  • New York Times,January 11, 1971; September 22, 1973, Harvey Shapiro, "As Three Poets See Reality," p. 22.
  • New York Times Book Review,November 21, 1965; August 2, 1970, David Kalstone, "Charms to Stave off the Executioner," pp. 5, 22; December 9, 1973; March 13, 1983, M. L. Rosenthal, "A Common Sadness," p. 6; November 18, 1990, Edward Hirsch, "Violent Desires," p. 24; July 18, 1993, Rachel Hadas, "Serious Poets," p. 18.
  • Parnassus,spring/summer, 1974; Volume 16, number 2, 1991, Constance Hunting, "Methods of Transport," pp. 377-389; February, 1992, William Logan, "Late Callings," pp. 317-327.
  • Poetry, April, 1960, John Woods, "The Teeming Catalogue," pp. 47-51; June, 1965; June, 1971; October, 1990, Alfred Corn, review of Near Changes,pp. 47-50; December, 1993, Ben Howard, "Masters of Transience," pp. 158-170.
  • Ploughshares,March, 1978, Lorrie Goldensohn, "Mona Van Duyn and the Politics of Love," pp. 31-44.
  • Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, review of Selected Poems,p. 65.
  • Seattle Times,June 30, 2002, Richard Wakefield, "Celebrating the Best of Mona Van Duyn."
  • Shenandoah,spring, 1994, Robert Shaw, "Life Work," pp. 38-48.
  • Southern Review,winter, 1973, Arthur Oberg, "Deer, Doors, Dark," pp. 243-256.
  • Tribune Books(Chicago, IL), April 11, 1993, Liz Rosenberg, "The Collected Mona Van Duyn," p. 6.
  • Village Voice,July 1, 1993, Robyn Selman, "Housekeeping," pp. 60-61.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review,spring, 1965; winter, 1974.
  • Washington Post Book World, January 6, 1974; September 5, 1982, Robert Hass, review of Letters from a Father, and Other Poems,pp. 6-7.
  • World Literature Today, spring, 1994, Doris Earnshaw, review of If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982, p. 135, and review of Firefall, p. 376.
OTHER
  • Poetry Daily, http://www.poems.com/ (August 13, 2002).
OBITUARIES: ONLINE
  • Associated Press Online, http://customwire.ap.org/ (December 3, 2004).
OBITUARIES AND OTHER SOURCES: PERIODICALS
  • Chicago Tribune,December 4, 2004, section 2, p. 11.
  • New York Times,December 4, 2004, p. A15.
  • Washington Post, December 4, 2004, p. B6.

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LIFE SPAN 1921–2004

Mona Van Duyn

Biography

Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa and earned degrees from Iowa State Teachers College and the University of Iowa. A distinguished writer whose honors included a Bollingen Prize, a National Book Award, and a term as Poet Laureate of the United States, Van Duyn was co-founder and co-editor of the journal Perspective, a Quarterly of Literature in 1947 with her husband, Jarvis Thurston. A long-time lecturer in the University . . .

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