Mona Van Duyn | Critical Review by Doris Earnshaw

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Mona Van Duyn.
This section contains 713 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Doris Earnshaw

Critical Review by Doris Earnshaw

SOURCE: A review of If It Be Not I: Collected Poems 1959–1982, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 135.

In the following review, Earnshaw praises If It Be Not I, noting a few "shortcomings," but declaring the collected poems "rich, wise, and beautiful."

It is of course fascinating to hear the voice of an American woman poet, born in the same decade (1920s) as Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, who avoids politics altogether, including the politics of feminism and of the Vietnam War. Mona Van Duyn is a heartland poet, born in Waterloo, Iowa, and living in St. Louis, whereas Rich was raised and educated in sophisticated East Coast surroundings and Levertov was raised and educated in England by her Welsh mother and Russian-Jewish/Christian father. After decades of university teaching while publishing single poems and several collections with modest circulation, Van Duyn gained a wider audience when she received the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Near Changes. In 1992 she was appointed by the Librarian of Congress as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Responding to the wide interest in her work, Knopf has now issued in one volume her six previously published books of poems: Valentines to the Wide World (1959), A Time of Bees (1964), To See, To Take (1970), Bedtime Stories (1972), Poems (1965–1973) (1973), and Letters from a Father and Other Poems (1982).

What was she writing about all those decades, if not the rousing public affairs of postwar America? Certain themes recur: thrift is valued, waste deplored; beauty is merciless, love and art are compassionate; the human animal owes much to other animals and likewise to flowers and fruit; the visceral and real outshines the abstract; surface and texture hold truth. She catches a moment with lyric and narrative intensity: "The Voyeur" places us with a woman undressing in an isolated cabin; she feels a large animal gazing at her; she finishes undressing slowly and contemplates seeking him in the woods for mating. Levertov's gift for metaphor is often stunning; the reader becomes breathless with the wide-stretching connections of her imagery. But her [Levertov's] style is marked by extremes: delicious humor countered by obtuse and clotted abstraction, brilliant showers of metaphor and a low-key talky tone that disguises her mastery of rhythm and rhyme. She can write a poem on canning pears that delights you, all the more as you realize by the last line that you have read a perfect sonnet.

Like Rich and Levertov (and Marianne Moore among others), Van Duyn has several memorable poems on marriage. However, in her case the poems are written from within the marriage bond—she has that rare experience for a poet, a single lifetime marriage. "Toward a Definition of Marriage" imagines five analogies: marriage is a landfill like a World's Fair island; an artlessly digressing poem; amateur duelists (my favorite!); a circus whose animals parade reluctantly, never completely trained; and windy oratory, because marriage is the politics of love. The poem wanders aimlessly, like the marriage she describes, but endears itself to the willing reader.

Bedtime Stories takes us via a grandmother's talk into American rural folklore in dialect, recalling James Whitcomb Riley, but darker. We hear the accents of old German settlers telling of strange events and common hardships. Speaking of hardships, there are enough poems about illness and hospitals to make the reader understand that Van Duyn has fought her own tigers. Unlike Sexton and Plath, she has no mother-child poems, but the struggle for coherence of a highly gifted poet in an antipoet, toxic society must have had similarities. In one line she observes, "There is too much roughage."

Kenneth Burke has written in his introduction to Howard Nemerov's New and Selected Essays (1985) about what it is to be a "Nemerovian poet," and Mona Van Duyn belongs, I believe, to the category he describes. It concerns duplicity and the mix of three professions: teacher, scholar, poet. Some of the annoying, rather juvenile treatments of serious subjects seem better suited to classroom presentation to eighteen-year-olds, and the references to grants for travel, academic meetings, and her excessive borrowings betray the nonpoet roles of teacher and scholar. These shortcomings aside, most of the poetry here is rich, wise and beautiful. Van Duyn's "merciful disguises" reward the reader.

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This section contains 713 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Doris Earnshaw
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