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May 21, 1991New York Historical SocietyFrom the Academy Audio Archive

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)


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 of the film, meet the minors and leads,
enter their time and place, their wills and needs,
hear in our chests the click of empathy's padlock,
watch the forces gather, unyielding world
against the unyielding heart, one longing's minefield
laid for another longing, which may yield.
Tears will salt the left-over salad I seize
during ads, or laughter slow my hurry to pee.
But as clot melts toward clearness a black fate
may fall on the screen; the movie started too late.
Torn from the backward-shining of an end
that lights up the meaning of the whole work,
disabled in mind and feeling, I flail and shout,
"I can't bear it! I have to see how it comes out!"
For what is story if not relief from the pain
of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?
Minds in their silent blast-offs search through space--
how often I've followed yours!--for a resting-place.
And I'll follow, past each universe in its spangled
ballgown who waits for the slow-dance of life to start,
past vacancies of darkness whose vainglory
is endless as death's, to find the end of the story.

From Firefall, by Mona Van Duyn, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1992 by Mona Van Duyn. Used with permission.

From Firefall, by Mona Van Duyn, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1992 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

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,


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