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About this poet

On May 9, 1921, Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and raised in the small town of Eldora, Iowa.

She received degrees from Iowa State Teachers College and the University of Iowa. It was there she met Jarvis Thurston, whom she married in 1943, and with whom she founded Perspective, a Quarterly of Literature in 1947, a publication she co-edited until 1975.

Van Duyn's first collection of poems, Valentines to the Wide World (Cummington Publishing), was published in 1959, followed by A Time of Bees, which appeared as part of the University of North Carolina Press Contemporary Poetry Series in 1964.

She became close friends with the poet James Merrill, and from 1964 through 1981 the two engaged in regular correspondence, which included exchanging poems by mail.

In 1970, Van Duyn published To See, To Take (Atheneum), which received the National Book Award in 1971, followed by Bedtime Stories (Ceres Press, 1972). Her later collections include: Selected Poems (Knopf, 2003); Firefall (1994); If It Be Not I: Collected Poems, 1959-1982 (1994); Near Changes (1990), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize; Letters From a Father, and Other Poems (Atheneum, 1982); and Merciful Disguises (1973), which includes the bulk of her first four books.

About her work, the poet Alfred Corn has said, "Mona Van Duyn has assembled, in a language at once beautiful and exact, one of the most convincing bodies of work in our poetry." Cynthia Zarin has called her poetry "notable for its formal accomplishment and for its thematic ambition," adding that the "searching intelligence of the persona we have learned to know in her poems, combined with the humor, technical ease, and the blend of the abstract and the quotidian that the poet has made her own have resulted in that rare good thing: a strong, clear voice, original without eccentricity."

Van Duyn was awarded the Bollingen Prize, the Hart Crane Memorial Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, the Loines Prize of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Shelley Memorial Prize, and both the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize and the Eunice Tietjens Award from Poetry magazine, as well as fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Van Duyn has said, "I believe that good poetry can be as ornate as a cathedral or as bare as a pottingshed, as long as it confronts the self with honesty and fullness. Nobody is born with the capacity to perform this act of confrontation, in poetry or anywhere else; one's writing career is simply a continuing effort to increase one's skill at it."

She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1985, and served as the first woman Poet Laureate of the United States from 1992 to 1993, the year she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Mona Van Duyn died of bone cancer on December 1, 2004, in St. Louis, Missouri, where she had lived since 1950.

Selected Bibliography

Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
Firefall (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
If It Be Not I: Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)
Near Changes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
Letters from a Father, and Other Poems (Atheneum, 1982)
Merciful Disguises: Poems Published and Unpublished (Atheneum, 1973)
Bedtime Stories (Ceres Press, 1972)
To See, to Take (Antheneum, 1970)
A Time of Bees (University of North Carolina Press, 1964)
Valentines to the Wide World (Cummington Publishing, 1959)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Letters from a Father

Mona Van Duyn, 1921 - 2004

I

Ulcerated tooth keeps me awake, there is
such pain, would have to go to the hospital to have
it pulled or would bleed to death from the blood thinners,
but can't leave Mother, she falls and forgets her salve
and her tranquilizers, her ankles swell so and her bowels
are so bad, she almost had a stoppage and sometimes
what she passes is green as grass.  There are big holes
in my thigh where my leg brace buckles the size of dimes.
My head pounds from the high pressure.  It is awful
not to be able to get out, and I fell in the bathroom
and the girl could hardly get me up at all.
Sure thought my back was broken, it will be next time.
Prostate is bad and heart has given out,
feel bloated after supper. Have made my peace
because am just plain done for and have no doubt
that the Lord will come any day with my release.
You say you enjoy your feeder, I don't see why
you want to spend good money on grain for birds
and you say you have a hundred sparrows, I'd buy
poison and get rid of their diseases and turds.

II

We enjoyed your visit, it was nice of you to bring
the feeder but a terrible waste of your money
for that big bag of feed since we won't be living
more than a few weeks long.  We can see
them good from where we sit, big ones and little ones
but you know when I farmed I used to like to hunt
and we had many a good meal from pigeons
and quail and pheasant but these birds won't
be good for nothing and are dirty to have so near 
the house.  Mother likes the redbirds though.
My bad knee is so sore and I can't hardly hear
and Mother says she is hoarse from yelling but I know
it's too late for a hearing aid.  I belch up all the time
and have a sour mouth and of course with my heart
it's no use to go to a doctor.  Mother is the same. 
Has a scab she thinks is going to turn to a wart.

III

The birds are eating and fighting, Ha! Ha!  All shapes
and colors and sizes coming out of our woods
but we don't know what they are.  Your Mother hopes
you can send us a kind of book that tells about birds.
There is one the folks called snowbirds, they eat on the ground,
we had the girl sprinkle extra there, but say,
they eat something awful.  I sent the girl to town
to buy some more feed, she had to go anyway.


IV

Almost called you on the telephone
but it costs so much to call thought better write.
Say, the funniest thing is happening, one
day we had so many birds and they fight
and get excited at their feed you know
and it's really something to watch and two or three
flew right at us and crashed into our window
and bang, poor little things knocked themselves silly.  
They come to after while on the ground and flew away.
And they been doing that.  We felt awful
and didn't know what to do but the other day
a lady from our Church drove out to call 
and a little bird knocked itself out while she sat
and she bought it in her hands right into the house,
it looked like dead.  It had a kind of hat
of feathers sticking up on its head, kind of rose
or pinky color, don't know what it was,
and I petted it and it come to life right there
in her hands and she took it out and it flew.  She says
they think the window is the sky on a fair 
day, she feeds birds too but hasn't got
so many.  She says to hang strips of aluminum foil
in the window so we'll do that.  She raved about
our birds.  P.S. The book just come in the mail.


V

Say, that book is sure good, I study
in it every day and enjoy our birds.
Some of them I can't identify
for sure, I guess they're females, the Latin words

I just skip over.  Bet you'd never guess
the sparrow I've got here, House Sparrow you wrote,
but I have Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows,
Pine Woods and Tree and Chipping and White Throat
and White Crowned Sparrows.  I have six Cardinals,
three pairs, they come at early morning and night,
the males at the feeder and on the ground the females.
Juncos, maybe 25, they fight
for the ground, that's what they used to call snowbirds.  I miss
the Bluebirds since the weather warmed. Their breast
is the color of a good ripe muskmelon.  Tufted Titmouse
is sort of blue with a little tiny crest.
And I have Flicker and Red-Bellied and Red-
Headed Woodpeckers, you would die laughing
to see Red-Bellied, he hangs on with his head
flat on the board, his tail braced up under,
wing out.  And Dickcissel and Ruby Crowned Kinglet
and Nuthatch stands on his head and Veery on top
the color of a bird dog and Hermit Thrush with spot
on breast, Blue Jay so funny, he will hop
right on the backs of the other birds to get the grain.
We bought some sunflower seeds just for him.
And Purple Finch I bet you never seen,
color of a watermelon, sits on the rim
of the feeder with his streaky wife, and the squirrels,
you know, they are cute too, they sit tall
and eat with their little hands, they eat bucketfuls.
I pulled my own tooth, it didn't bleed at all.


VI

It's sure a surprise how well Mother is doing,
she forgets her laxative but bowels move fine.
Now that windows are open she says our birds sing
all day.  The girl took a Book of Knowledge on loan
from the library and I am reading up
on the habits of birds, did you know some males have three
wives, some migrate some don't.  I am going to keep
feeding all spring, maybe summer, you can see
they expect it.  Will need thistle seed for Goldfinch and Pine
Siskin next winter.  Some folks are going to come see us
from Church, some bird watchers, pretty soon.
They have birds in town but nothing to equal this.


So the world woos its children back for an evening kiss.

From Letters From a Father and Other Poems, by Mona Van Duyn, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1982 by Mona Van Duyn. Used with permission.

From Letters From a Father and Other Poems, by Mona Van Duyn, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1982 by Mona Van Duyn. Used with permission.

Mona Van Duyn

Mona Van Duyn

Born in Iowa in 1921, poet Mona Van Duyn published many collections of poetry and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1992 - 1993

by this poet

poem
Part II

Setting the V.C.R. when we go to bed
to record a night owl movie, some charmer we missed
we always allow, for unprogrammed unforeseen,
an extra half hour. (Night gods of the small screen 
are ruthless with watchers trapped in their piety.)
We watch next evening, and having slowly found
the start
poem
The quake last night was nothing personal, 
you told me this morning. I think one always wonders, 
unless, of course, something is visible: tremors 
that take us, private and willy-nilly, are usual.

But the earth said last night that what I feel, 
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me. 
One small,