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
Firefall: Poems, 1993
Selected Poems, 2002
Mona Jane Van Duyn (van DIN), the first woman to be named poet laureate in the United States, was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1921. Neither of her parents was particularly literary, and her father used to urge her to stop reading (an activity Van Duyn learned to enjoy early in her life) and go outdoors to play. Van Duyn developed an early love of poetry despite its unsympathetic treatment by her parents and even by her teachers, who often used memorizing assignments as punishment for unruly students.
Mona Van Duyn
After her high school graduation, Van Duyn’s father tried to discourage her from going to college. She managed to leave home for Iowa State Teachers’ College (now the University of Northern Iowa) only after a long, intense campaign and only because she had won a scholarship. In college, Van Duyn’s writing finally received serious attention from one of her teachers; one of her English professors helped to direct her reading and urged her to begin trying to publish her work. She received her B.A. in 1942 and an M.A. from the University of Iowa in 1943, the same year that she married Jarvis Thurston, an English professor. During the next twenty-five years, Van Duyn held a variety of teaching posts at the University of Iowa, the University of Louisville, and Washington University. During the same period, she and her husband founded and edited Perspective, a literary journal.
Van Duyn’s first two books, Valentines to the Wide World and A Time of Bees, and the positive critical attention they received, led her to decide that teaching occupied too much of her energies. She ended her career as a full-time teacher in 1967, although she continued to conduct workshops and poetry readings.
After the publication of her second book, Van Duyn began to receive prizes and awards for her work. In 1966 she was one of the first five American poets to win a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1970 she won the prestigious Bollingen Prize for poetry. During this period, she also served as poetry consultant for the Olin Library Modern Literature Collection of Washington University (the university at which her own papers are housed). In 1971 To See, to Take won the National Book Award, and in 1972, the year of Bedtime Stories, Van Duyn received a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The volume Near Changes won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and in 1992 Van Duyn became the first woman appointed as poet laureate consultant in poetry by the Library of Congress. After the laureate appointment, she noted that she hoped to use her position to nurture younger poets by inviting them to read in the Library of Congress’s reading series.
Van Duyn has said of her work style that she writes only when she has ideas and does not try to maintain a daily writing schedule. When she is ready to compose, she proceeds by patient revision–composing a few lines, typing them out, and then revising them before she goes on to the next few lines. Van Duyn has drawn on all parts of her world for inspiration; her poems sometimes refer to her family life (she has protested the label “domestic,” noting that many men also write about their home lives without receiving such a label), but they also come from history, literature, the subject of poetry itself, and even newspaper items. Still, her most vivid work seems to center on household settings and to involve characters who seem like family members (Van Duyn is reserved about discussing her private life so no conclusions can necessarily be drawn about it from her poems). They become the means by which Van Duyn addresses the themes that dominate her work–love and the difficulties of experiencing love in a flawed world.
Van Duyn is a formalist who uses and adapts traditional forms such as sonnets (which she sometimes pares into “minimalist” sonnets) as well as other stanza forms. She also relies on rhyme (often slant rhyme), sometimes for witty effects. The range of Van Duyn’s subjects–from the detective story, to an aunt’s letters (which combine apocalyptic religious vision with family chitchat), to the death of an elderly parent in a nursing home, to references to Plato and Alexander Pope–gives her work room to address her central idea, that the poem is the vehicle that can lead readers to understand the world and their relationships to the other people in it.