Mona van Duyn

Poet of American suburbia
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The Independent Online

Mona van Duyn, poet: born Waterloo, Iowa 9 May 1921; married 1943 Jarvis Thurston; died University City, Missouri 2 December 2004.

The growth of American suburbia in the boom years after the Second World War rapidly spawned its own literature, whose greatest practitioners have been novelists - most notably John Cheever and the increasingly celebrated Richard Yates (author of the bleak but brilliant Revolutionary Road). But poets, too, were affected by the burgeoning ancillaries to American cities, from Scarsdale to Pasadena, and among the poetic pioneers was Mona van Duyn.

Van Duyn found much to write about in the lives of middle America, without ever making the common mistake of finding the ordinariness of the ordinary profound. As one critic noted, Van Duyn "knows that the ordinary is frequently just that". With self- deprecating humour, she once described herself as the "Proust of the pantry shelves", yet she managed to create a distinctive voice of her own without the surrealist affectation or sheer eccentricity that so many middle-class writers, living in middle-class places, assume in a desperate effort to spice things up.

There is a matter-of-factness to the van Duyn voice which can seem awkward and in the poet William Logan's estimation even "clumsy" - although even Logan acknowledges how often her poems reveal "a grace achieved through awkwardness".

Van Duyn's subjects were love, marriage, houses, everyday life, but their almost banally commonplace descriptions can suddenly give way to aphoristic power, as in "Woman Waiting":

Over the gray, massed blunder of her face

light hung crudely and apologetic sight

crossed in a hurry.

As her friend and fellow poet Howard Nemerov remarked, "Her poetry begins domestic and ends universal." For van Duyn, domestic imagery was only a means and kind of metaphor.

In her work there is a deft and deflating sense of humour, too, as in the finishing couplet of "Sonnet for Minimalists": "The world's perverse,/ but it could be worse" or the account of a visitor to her cabin in Maine who turned out to snore:

A sound we dreamed and woke to, over the

snuff

of wind, not loud enough to scare off the roof

the early morning chipmunks . . .

 

. . . Sleeping, he mentioned death

and celebrated breath

Van Duyn's background was, unsurprisingly, almost a caricature of American rural convention. She was born in the Iowa town of Waterloo and grew up in the small town of Eldora (population 3,200), where her father owned a gas-station. Although he discouraged her writing and even took her books away at times (of her parents van Duyn's husband was later to say, "She hated them both"), van Duyn was a voracious reader at the town library and wrote poems in a secret notebook. The tallest girl in town, she remembered her education as thorough if old-fashioned; when you got in trouble at school, she recalled, "one was made to stay after school and learn a poem".

Taking a BA at Iowa State Teachers College in 1942, van Duyn then received an MA from the University of Iowa in the following year, where she met her husband Jarvis Thurston. Smitten by her from the start, Thurston later explained that he decided to marry her as soon as he read her poems, and theirs was an enduring union of great mutual support.

In the early years, van Duyn's career was second to Thurston's and he was the breadwinner; this was not simply traditional sexism at work, however, for van Duyn was a fragile personality, who suffered a severe nervous breakdown early on in their marriage in 1949 and was hospitalised on several occasions later in life for depression. Mental illness held no romance for her, unlike many of her poetic contemporaries - as she said firmly in an interview, "It is the years of good health between depressions that I cherish."

After several years in Louisville, Kentucky, where Thurston taught as an assistant professor and van Duyn as an instructor, the couple moved in 1950 to Washington University in St Louis. Here Thurston joined the English Department, where he eventually became Chairman. Van Duyn also taught, though less grandly, as a lecturer in the adult education programme. Her first book of poems, Valentines to the Wide World, came out in 1959.

Effectively an unofficial version of Iowa Writers programme, Washington assembled a quite extraordinary cast of writers happy to teach in its conventional academic programmes - William H. Gass, Stanley Elkin, Donald Finkel, Howard Nemerov, John Morris, Naomi Lebowitz, and van Duyn herself, were just some of the long-term faculty members there.

It was an enormously fertile, healthy and helping environment for any writer, quite notably free of the usual rivalries and competitiveness. Van Duyn was especially known for her encouragement of young writers. Her increasing fame as a poet resulted in an attachment as an adjunct professor to the Department of English in 1983, and she became a visiting name professor in 1987.

Her work always appealed to the givers of prizes. She won the Bollingen award in 1970 on the basis of just two collections of poems; To See, To Take (1970) won the National Book Award, and 20 years later, in 1991, Near Changes won the Pulitzer Prize. Part of her success, doubtless, was due to her gender, but this says more about the lingering sexism of America's poetry establishment than it raises any questions about van Duyn's talent. As late as 1973 a reviewer in The New York Times could patronise her as "writing as a housewife, putting up poems as another good woman might put up peaches". She was named the first woman Poet Laureate of the United States in 1992 and, as she laughingly noted, "I know the Library of Congress has been embarrassed for not having a woman . . . if I could convince them I was really a man, they would say, 'Don't come.' "

Never prolific, as she grew older van Duyn wrote less, and her poems were more occasional than heartfelt, until in recent years she did not write at all - something her husband attributed to the effects of medication she took for her psychological difficulties. The modest, unpretentious nature of her work - regardless of the prizes it garnered - will not increase it chances of survival, although the slowly surfacing emotion of certain key poems may help them last. As in "The Stream", a poem about her last visit to her senescent mother in a nursing home, which conveys a daughter's lifetime of heartbreak in the simple phrase "as if":

" . . . You know I'll call

Every Sunday and write a lot. Try to eat well -"

 

Tears stopped my voice. With a girl's grace

you sat up

And, as if you'd done it lifelong, reached out

to cup

 

My face in both your hands, and, as easily

As if you'd said it lifelong, you said "Don't

cry,

 

Don't cry. You'll never know how much I

love you."

Andrew Rosenheim

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