In the spring of 1992, the Library of Congress broke precedent, naming Mona Van Duyn its first female Poet Laureate. To be sure, there had been six women who served previously as “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress” – Louise Bogan, Leonie Adams, Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Jacobson, Maxine Kumin, and Gwendolyn Brooks – in the forty years before the title was upgraded by an Act of Congress in 1986. But none in the years since. In an interview at the time Van Duyn commented, “I know the Library of Congress has been embarrassed for not having a woman. I think if I could convince them I was really a man, they would say, ‘Don’t come.’”
Coming on the heels of her 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes, though, and having won every other major poetry prize, including the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Award, the appointment was warranted and, some would argue, overdue. Yet it was not to be a happy match, as anyone familiar with her Midwestern shyness and the complex, sometimes brutal, honesty of her poetry might have anticipated. Unlike most of the more recent Poet Laureates, who seem to take easily to their position as “the nation’s official lightening rod for the poetic impulse of Americans” (taken from the official job description on the Library’s website), Van Duyn was extremely uncomfortable in this, as in any public role. In fact, it is difficult to find any mention of Van Duyn’s activities as Poet Laureate. Beyond her ground-breaking appointment, I could find only a single mention of her “innovative pairing of emerging with established poets” in the Library’s annual reading series. Her first such program, in November, 1992, presented Dorothy Barresi, who had recently won the Barnard Prize for her first collection, All of the Above, and who has gone on to publish two more critically acclaimed collections, with Robert Pinsky, who has since also been Poet Laureate, among other honors. An interesting beginning but, beyond this, I could find no record of later pairings – surely a less than auspicious record. Moreover, the Library was undergoing restoration at the time, and it was a disappointment to Van Duyn not to be able to hold events in the grand and beautiful traditional locations as she had hoped. Plus, like Laureates Mark Strand and Joseph Brodsky before her, she saw a frustrating lack of support at the Library which made the position difficult. Then in January, Bill Clinton’s decision to overlook the current Poet Laureate and choose the poet Maya Angelou for his first inauguration, while understandable, was a disappointment (if not a slap in the face). In the light of what came later, it’s worth revisiting Van Duyn’s unofficial poem for the occasion, “For William Clinton, President-Elect,” published in a Washington Post interview (January 5, 1993). By way of introduction, Van Duyn offers, “ Most of us know ourselves to be imperfect human beings, yet far too many of us expect our leaders to be perfect. Any flaw is pounced upon and used to humiliate or destroy the leaders. And this is wrong. But at the same time we need the idea of perfection as something continuously to strive for.” Van Duyn’s farewell address as Poet Laureate was titled with her usual pithiness “Help Urgently Wanted, 500 Honest, Talented Reviewers of Poetry Who Will Receive No Salary and Find No Place to Publish Their Reviews.” The essay, revised and expanded by Van Duyn, was published in an excellent but thus far the only volume of critical work about her in print to date, Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn, edited by Michael Burns (University of Arkansas Press, 1998). In this essay she paints a realistically grim picture of the decreasing number of poetry reviews and the discouraging effect of this on poet’s careers. It is a thoughtful and insightful take on an important issue, one which the intervening almost fifteen years have done little to amend, and it is well worth reading, albeit a sobering experience. Despite being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Georgetown College and a Star in the St. Louis Hall of Fame that spring, all in all, her term as Poet Laureate was not a happy year. Toward the end of it, Van Duyn confessed she would “scream and run as far as possible” to avoid having to serve a second year.
As ill-suited in some respects as Van Duyn was to be Poet Laureate, in other ways she was eminently qualified. Born in 1921 and raised in rural Iowa, smack dab in the middle of the country, her parents allowed her to attend college only after she won a scholarship from Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa). Earning a B.A. in 1942, she then enrolled at the University of Iowa, earning her M.A. in 1943. The same year she married a fellow student who was to become her husband of over 60 years, Jarvis Thurston. After a few years in Louisville at the University of Kentucky, where they founded Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature, they moved to St. Louis, where they both taught at Washington University for many years. Van Duyn published her first collection of poetry, Valentines to the Wide World, in 1959. Seven poetry collections followed, winning many awards, and a Selected Poems in 2002. On December 2, 2004, she died at home of bone cancer after a brief illness.
The veteran of over fifty years in the literary world, Van Duyn’s career waxed and waned repeatedly. She herself saw her work as frequently out of sync with the prevailing literary winds and paid a price for it. “Mona got attention, but it was spasmodic,” according to Richard Howard (The Des Moines Register, August 29, 2006). Early in her career, when Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Berryman were establishing formalism as the post-war idiom, Van Duyn was drawn equally to free verse. In the late fifties and in the sixties, when free verse became the poetic expression of the beats and the anti-war movement, Van Duyn became more interested in formal verse. For example, her poem “Leda,” published in 1970 in To See, to Take, revisited the famous William Butler Yeats poem from a woman’s perspective in rhymed quatrains. In the same volume, however, she also revisited her own poem in a lengthy, sprawling free verse meditation, “Leda Reconsidered.” Through the seventies and eighties, Van Duyn explored middle age and then old age in vivid physiological and emotional detail, subjects many other writers frowned on as material for verse. Late in life she wrote a great many “Minimalist Sonnets,” a form she invented which retains the traditional rhyme schemes and number of lines while using half-length or shorter lines. One such poem about missing children ads, “‘Have You Seen Me?’” opens with the quatrain:
My face in your mail
is no longer me.
Stranger, don’t fail
to look carefully
Six equally brief, succinct, and devastating lines later, she closes with two couplets:
No one can see
what I saw or thought.
Someone wants me
to be where I’m not.
At her best, even in this abbreviated form, Van Duyn is interested in exploring and making vivid the overlooked, the too difficult to contemplate, the complex turnings of the heart and mind.
This rollercoaster aspect of her career amused Van Duyn when I heard her talk about it in 1990, although it must have reinforced her sense of being an outsider – as a rural girl educated in Iowa who spent most of her adult life in Missouri married to the same person since she was 23. Her work, too, is refreshingly at odds with that of most of her contemporaries. Underlying issues explored but rarely explicit in her work include a life-long struggle with depression, including a nervous breakdown and occasional treatment in psychiatric hospitals, and the disappointment of not being able to have children, coupled with the resulting sense of alienation this condition often produces. In “Birthday Card for a Psychiatrist,” first published in To See, to Take (1970), with characteristic wit and humor, Van Duyn writes:
Till Burnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane,
till time shall tell us what we really are,
till Responsibility, not Health, defines
the terms of living on this serious star,
to receive the trauma of birth and pass it on
is all we’re here for. Yet we hope you realize
we’re glad that forty years ago you came
to join in our neurotic enterprise.
(Merciful Disguises, 120-21)
Similarly, in “Late Loving” (Near Changes, 9-10), almost buried within this long, leggy free verse poem is one declarative sentence, “Our dogs are dead, our child never came true”: simple, direct, so easy to overlook amid the complicated wisdom elsewhere in this moving portrait of marriage. Here, irritation and competition are allowed their place, but also transcendence. Later in the same poem, she writes, “When you stand at the stove it’s I who am most stirred,” and then:
Daytimes, sometimes, our three-legged race seems slow.
Squabbling onward, we chafe from being so near.
But all night long we lie like crescents of Velcro,
turning together till we re-adhere.
Van Duyn has been criticized for being a “domestic” poet, as though such subjects were inferior for the exalted business of art, a criticism she found patronizing. “I use domestic imagery and extend that imagery through the whole poem,” she explained, “but I’m not writing about that. It’s simply used as a metaphor.” (Washington Post, December 4, 2004). Whether she is writing about a man “dressed as a duck / to promote a local radio station” (“Near Changes”) or her favorite detective novels (“A Reading of Rex Stout”), Van Duyn is always interested in the transformative power of the imagination in all its unpredictable – domestic or exotic – forms. In “Caring for Surfaces,” the elaboration of a housewife’s activities provides for a profound insight into essential differences between men and women. A lifelong “Fear of Flying” provides for a surprising riff on friendship; in a deceptively simple ekphrastic poem, “Goya’s ‘Two Old People Eating Soup’,” physical hunger conveys a need for something greater:
consumed the bowl
The red beans
rolled under my gums
and the carrots were blazing
with life, with life.
(Letters from a Father, 35)
In perhaps her most famous poem, an extended sequence titled “Letters from a Father,” she interweaves crude imagery of her parents’ physical decline, which opens “Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake,” with the saga of how their love of life is rekindled by observing the birds their daughter, and then they, lure to their window. The final section, parallel to but in contrast to the first, opens, “It’s sure a surprise how well Mother is doing, / she forgets her laxative but bowels move fine. / Now that the windows are open, she says our birds sing / all day.” The final word, though, the last line, a coda, belongs to their daughter, the poet, “So the world woos its children back with an evening kiss” (Letters from a Father, 3-6). This is Mona Van Duyn at her best—a poet who takes her own world and transforms it for our use.
Two years before she was named Poet Laureate, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks as her student at the first Sewanee Writers’ Conference. A tall, large-boned woman, her thick, blond-turned-white hair in an old-fashioned pageboy with bangs, her lined faced a bit craggy, Van Duyn on first impression seemed larger than life. Wearing white pedal pushers and red sneakers (Adidas, I think), a cigarette constantly in hand or mouth, she did not make small talk, but neither was she intimidating. In the workshop sessions, she let her husband do most of the talking. He was hard to please, though not nearly as much as Howard Nemerov, who brought his students to tears. Van Duyn seemed reluctant to pass judgment or discourage – born perhaps from her own struggles as a writer. Come my private conference – the quarter to half hour for which one goes to these conferences – she was gracious, complimentary about my work in what I thought was a perfunctory way. And I thought – well – that’s it, but then she started to talk quietly about her early struggles as a writer, and as a woman, with her childlessness, which was the subject of my own work at the time. At one point she confessed, “The pain goes away, but the want never goes away entirely.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Here was a poet whose work had given me so much, whose work I revered, telling me what I could expect, how hard it had been, how hard it was. And would continue to be. On the back of that borrowed porch, I felt humble beyond belief at this great gift. To this day, sixteen years later, I still feel deeply grateful.
I suspect I am not alone in this, for this was Mona Van Duyn’s great achievement. Using her formidable mind but never losing touch with the real world of her middle class roots and life, she presents a world on the page which is complicated, nuanced, tricky, and she looks on human life with the unflinching eye of one of the birds, in this case of prey, she so admired. More curious than fearful, never losing her sense of humor or over-simplifying the richness of existence, wary, always, of clichés, fascinated by the absurd in the everyday, Van Duyn cared passionately about craft and used it to write profoundly from and about both the heart and the mind. As Howard Nemerov wrote, “It is not only that the best of her poems teach us so much about life, but that life, over a long time, teaches us the truth of these poems.” Look at all her work, please, pick poems at random or read through from the first collection to her last, Firefall, published in 1993. These poems show the influence of her time in Washington, DC, as Poet Laureate and the perspective this experience lead her to bring to her own work and life. Especially read the long poem, “Falls” (Firefall, 74-78), which is simultaneously a creative coming-of-age poem and an ars poetica. Here, this most American of poets presents the seminal events of her childhood which lead to her life as a poet – the Firefall at Yosemite National Park and Niagara Falls – in words every poet, every person, can understand:
. . . a time came when I heard the roar
and eagerly bent my mind to the waters’ will
that filled my fleshy chambers to their core.
Wild for the blind, helpless confinement to send me
over the lip in a will-less fall, thrown
from my safe, observant stand, tossed, rammed,
broken, drowned perhaps—but love alone,
however strong and skilled, could build no barrel.
My field unamplified as the voice of one bird’s
in the corn, I fall, rise, praise, fall,
sowing and tilling my single crop— Words. Words.
Poetry Collections by Mona Van Duyn
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, 1993
Selected Poems, 2002
Originally published in Volume 7:4, Winter 2006.
Andrea Carter Brown is the author of three books of poems: Domestic Karma (chapbook, Finishing Line Press, 2018), The Disheveled Bed (CavanKerry Press, 2006), and Brook & Rainbow (chapbook, Sow's Ear Press, 2000). She is co-editor, with Margaret B. Ingraham, of the poetry anthology Entering the Real World: VCCA Poets on Mt. San Angelo (Wavertree Press, 2011). Brown is winner of the Rochelle Rattner Memorial Award, the James Dickey Prize from Five Points and the River Styx International Poetry Prize, as well as residency grants from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is an editor for the DC-based press The Word Works, and lives in Los Angeles. To read more by this author: Andrea Carter Brown's Intro to DC Places Issue, Summer 2006.