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Critical Essay by Judith Hall
SOURCE: "Strangers May Run: The Nation's First Woman Poet Laureate," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 141-46.
In the following essay, Hall comments on Van Duyn's stature as the first woman ever named poet laureate in the United States and discusses critical opinions of Van Duyn's works.
When the position of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress was elevated, by an act of Congress, to the more classic-or anglo-or botanical-sounding poet laureate, the U.S. Congress (or was it simply the government's library staff?) could not agree to elevate, with the office, the incumbent Gwendolyn Brooks. The consensus was no; the debate unpublicized, and who was surprised? When Robert Penn Warren's name emerged, it may have had—in those days, soon described as long ago, the late '80s—a ring more historic or laudatory, at least fugitive, white, various, and questing. "But go on," he said, "that's how men survive."
Six years later, Americans, in our love of variety and evanescence, have welcomed and discarded as many laureates. Finally, in June, 1992, for some reason, the nation could accept a woman laureate: Mona Van Duyn. Why a woman? "I heard that Merwin wouldn't do it." One historian would listen, satisfied, and leave to write it down.
Others argue on: Why a woman? No one would expect a volunteer. After all, it was a job and salaried; the figure, $35,000, was defined by one official as "about half a salary" for poets. Money, so precisely introduced, will yield saliva. And when our government announces, however indirectly, that poets should receive about $70,000, I swallow. I gasp. I pour domestic champagne and compose something almost patriotic about Toast-R-Ovens and iced tea and the enduring consolations of amber waving grain.
And yet, the official sounds apologetic. The library will offer only half—half of what the poet may deserve. To work for half? Any man would hesitate today, after the salary was publicized, half-cocked. Or having done it, however briefly, he would turn from Washington, D.C., concluding that the "job" was "ill-paid, ill-defined, and ultimately ill-executed." Why a woman? Why now? To work for half … "Oh, yes, I see." Other historians would listen, unsatisfied, and leave. I see them walking to another institute, where they lean together, unobserved, and argue other reasons, more capricious or meritorious; why a woman poet laureate arrived.
But why Van Duyn? Perhaps that is easier to reckon than the timing of our first woman poet laureate. Before she was chosen, Van Duyn's books had won a Pulitzer, a Bollingen, and a National Book Award; such garlands, won together, were once considered the Triple Crown. Think of the poet strewn, at least as lavishly as Secretariat, with pink confetti and money and more domestic champagne. All this assurance, then, of merit, so consoling to American readers, may now prepare us for the poems. The poems?
Two volumes in 1993 heralded our first woman poet laureate: Firefall, new poems, and If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982. These, along with Near Changes (1990), constitute a reminder of all that she has given us and justify her laureateship. Each of these three books includes "praise for Mona Van Duyn"; a curious redundancy; the same hoorays selected for each book. I linger for a minute on these accolades, composed by younger players, and consider their use, as praise is always used, for advertisement.
Her poetry is "beautiful and exact," "accessible and profound," with several noting how long she has been working: for "several decades"; "since 1959." The woman works, you see, and has "ambition … intelligence," attributes that still might disconcert those who want a poet to be natural; so rushing in behind to ease the nervous reader, the blurbette soothes with "humor … ease … original without eccentricity."
Advertisements are designed to soothe the reader, long enough to buy the book, and yet I am puzzled, then concerned, to see how such reviews of Van Duyn's work, and then a murmuring opinion in the field, resemble these bland remarks. "However rich, [her voice] is never bland," hails the New York Times, with earnest vacuity, and goes so far as to announce, cheerfully, her "utter unsentimental love for the world."
Beautiful, accessible, unsentimental: a woman's triple crown? Thank God, no "eccentricity" confirmed in Janson type on all three books. Now the poems are safe for public consumption, composed, in fact, by the somehow more consoling Mrs. Jarvis Thurston. Think of Mrs. Browning, the first woman mentioned for England's poet laureate. Mrs. Thurston; Mrs. Browning; safe. And yet, if I were seeking a woman's poetry that was "beautiful, accessible, unsentimental," I might choose Anne, Countess of Winchelsea, or even (must there be another quarrel?) Edna St. Vincent Millay, our "unofficial feminine laureate," as Louise Bogan wrote impatiently.
"A great many of my poems have been misread by mostly male critics—I mean, most of the critics are male." said Mona Van Duyn (Mrs. Jarvis Thurston) in an interview, apparently her fifty-eighth, as the first woman poet laureate. She was seventy-one. "I use domestic imagery and extend that imagery through the whole poem, but I'm not writing about that. It's simply used as a metaphor. There's nothing insulting about that. I do write some domestic poems. So do the male poets. But it is a limiting term when it's used over and over for a poet who, aside from the few domestic poems she and they do write, uses domestic metaphor to describe ideas…."
Her tone is almost palpable fatigue, or is it anger? It is exasperating to defend the same ground fifty-eight times or dodge a well-meaning review that waters down a woman's work until it drifts away. Or accept a phantom surrogate, the blurb, when in it, one woman's verse resembles any other. Anne Bradstreet's, for example: "Tis the Work of a Woman, honoured and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious courteous disposition, the exact diligence in her place, and discreet mannaging of her family occasions."
The praise, "exact" and "mannaging" her family, in 1650, becomes in 1993 "exact" and "accessible"; "the searching intelligence of … the well-educated wife, good friend, and daughter." Van Duyn does indeed offer her American reader a persona in the guise of wife, friend, or daughter. She is complicit, to that extent, with social expectations; with the heterosexual reader in suburbia, who is comfortable and almost smug in middle-life, or later; who takes a little wit with bourbon after work.
This reader likes Van Duyn when she is decorous, self-mocking—poses she brings to "Notes From a Suburban Heart": "I love you, in my dim-witted way." Her poems may end on this girlishly ironic note or with apology or certainty, but these are strategies intended to distract with consolation from the jeopardy she knows. Van Duyn offers her reader half of what he seeks: the compensations of suburbia; but offered with this "helpless" expectation is her own perspective:
Peony stalks come up like red asparagus,
I said; my friend said they look like dogs' penises.
It was something misplaced I noticed, the color of a wound,
but she's right, it has something to do with love too in my mind.
This is quintessential Van Duyn—narrative draped around a rumination; accentual stanzaic pattern with end rhymes, slanted and supported by internal assonance. Suburbia; a friend; a garden, but with dogs' penises in it and wounds.
Van Duyn is a poet of relationships recollected in tranquillity. Although most of our poetry is set in solitude, she hedges hers with others, usually one other figure at a time. Or when, in "Three Valentines to the Wide World," the poem ends with a young woman witnessing her own "untended power," the experience is distilled in social terms; a parable in moonlight. And the rage and violation described are amplified by their mutation and the disturbing inevitability of her rhymed octaves:
And if, in the middle of her life, some beauty falls on
a girl, who turns under its swarm to astonished woman,
them, into that miraculous buzzing, stung
in the lips and eyes without mercy, strangers may run.
An untended power—I pity her and them.
It is late, late; haste! says the falling moon,
as blinded they stand and smart till the fever's done
and blindly she moves, wearing her furious weapon.
Beauty is merciless and intemperate.
Who, turning this way and that, by day, by night,
still stands in the heart-felt storm of its benefit,
will plead in vain for mercy, or cry, "Put out
the lovely eyes of the world, whose rise and set
move us to death!" And never will temper it,
but against that rage slowly may learn to pit
love and art, which are compassionate.
Van Duyn's best work uses linguistic clarity as a response to long acquaintance with the irrational, the bereft, and the chronically beleaguered. In this way, only, her poetry resembles that of Elizabeth Bishop. This tension underneath Van Duyn's "accessibility" makes the stated goals for poetry—compassion, empathy (thus moral; Horatian)—more tenuous and provisional and moving.
One of her finest poems, "Remedies, Maladies, Reasons," recollects the persona's relationship with her mother; the bond, defined by medical emergency, is chthonic and ecstatic:
… She "hawks up big gobs
of stuff" that is almost orange. All of her tubes
are blocked. Her face turned purple. Lettuce she ate
was "passed" whole, "green as grass" in the toilet.
She "came within an inch" of a "stoppage," but mineral oil
saved her from all but "a running-off of the bowel."
Sniffing her mucus or sweat or urine, she marvels
anew at how "rotten" or "rank" or "sour" it smells.
There's never been any other interesting news.
Homer of her own heroic course, she rows
through the long disease of living, and celebrates
the "blood-red" throat, the yellow pus that "squirts"
from a swelling, the taste, always "bitter as gall,"
that's "belched up," the bumps that get "sore as a boil,"
the gas that makes her "blow up tight as a drum,"
the "racing heart," the "new kind of bug," the "same
old sinus," the "god-awful cold"—all things that make
her "sick as a dog" or "just a nervous wreck."
The poem wrestles this battering, recreating it (fifty-eight rhymed couplets altogether), and then resolves the presence of this other maker. With humor (Freud's aggressive wit) and the accumulating energy of drama, the persona makes her way towards catharsis:
I still see the mother I wanted, that I called to come,
coming. From the dark she rushes to my bedroom,
switching the lamp on, armed with pills, oils, drops,
gargles, liniments, flannels, salves, syrups,
waterbag, icebag. Bending over me,
giant, ferocious, she drives my Enemy,
in steamy, hot-packed, camphorated nights,
from every sickening place where he hides and waits.
Do you think I don't know how love hallucinates?
No other poet has described so well the horror and adoration that a child feels for the parent's body. She continues this in "The Stream," an elegy for her mother, and in her epistolary novella-in-verse, "Letters from a Father." The daughter, then, like Van Duyn's appearance as a wife or friend, is a guise, a metaphor, a remedy she fingers, swallows, revealing to the reader not transcendence but empathy—that more difficult release from solitude.
And yet, compassion is not yet understood as a species of authority. The poet even doubts it. She doubles back; apologizes ("Women don't usually wrestle, except for a comic or grotesque effect"). She "eases" over her own authority, her own "slow, entranced emergence / of things out of the ashes of their usefulness." A poet of relationships will be of use, willing to strain and wrap her art for a "Christmas Present for a Poet," "To My Godson, On His Christening," and "Lines Written in a Guest Book."
A charm, a generosity diminishes when rooted from its source, its passion. But who notices, within the smoky institutes and professional fraternities? "The Insight Lady" will arrive, bringing wit they understand; she sips the warm hors d'oeuvres with men. She's in; a woman made it in, but only half—not the half that is
… a monstrous face;
as broad as his chest, as long as he is
from the top of his head to his heart. All her
feeling and fleshiness is there.
("The Pietà, Rhenish, 14th C., The Cloisters")
That is the part her critics call "bizarre." Send that half—domestic champagne; the hiss of it like bees; a time of bees. That's how women survive.
This section contains 2,010 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)