Poet Laureate: to Create Art that Is Rooted in Love

According to Mona Van Duyn, love and art hold and keep things, while time takes them away. Art, she says, is beautifully patient. Time, however, is full of urgency. "Dear reader," time insists, there is nothing immortal about us. "We must move. . . . We must care right away!"

Winner of all the major literary prizes, including the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, Mona Van Duyn has been named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress. She is the first woman to hold that title.


Born in Iowa in 1921, Ms. Van Duyn has held distinguished lectureships, among them the Salzburg (Austria) Seminar in American Studies, the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Breadloaf Writing Conference. She has received a number of honorary doctorates, has founded and co-edited Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature, and has published seven books of



Her poetry is intensely passionate, but it isn't confessional. Her poems have been described as substantial, palpable, but as keeping the proper distance of art. Because several of her poems deal with home and family, some critics have called her a domestic poet.

In an interview, Ms. Van Duyn talked about herself as a poet. "I have tried to write the way I thought was best and the way I could write," she said. She has been satisfied with her work, she added, but she has been irritated when called a domestic poet. It's not a critical term, she explained; it's a limiting term.

As with all poets, Ms. Van Duyn will not be limited. "I starve now for a ration/ of dreams, I've never learned to live/ without 'N dream," she writes in a poem. "All through the filth and anger/ of childhood I ate them like a calming sugar . . ." ("Cinderella's Story").

It would be more accurate to say that Ms. Van Duyn is a brilliant poet. Her poems are difficult, many of them heavy with references to Freud, Henry James, Plato. The poems themselves are complex metaphors, spread in many directions; they allude to the Bible, Greek mythology, contemporary literature, even nursery rhymes.

From her first book, "Valentines to the Wide World," to her most recent, "Near Changes," Ms. Van Duyn's recurrent theme is that art and love are the only two forces that make life worth living. Art and love justify life and create life, ordering disorder, harmonizing disharmony. In so doing, they become modes of reality. Poets, the act of poetic creation, and the poem remake the universe.

As Ms. Van Duyn sees it, love is most intimately related to the transforming qualities of art. In poetry, as in love, nothing is easy. The power to create, moreover, can be the enemy of sanity, just as the wish to be healthy often wars with creativity. Yet, she says, "These are the best and the most satisfying aims we can have: to love life and each other with commitment; to create art that is rooted in that love."

She explains the creative moment as one that delights in itself, doubles back on itself. Creation begins in "the reaching of the whole mind to see what is coming toward us, what we are coming toward. . . . I feel your bodies smell, and shove/ and shine against me in the mess of the pitching boat." ("Open Letter, Personal")

The poem honors the formed use of language, particularly its sound and its meaning, she says. The poet, "stung by beauty in the lips and eyes without mercy, . . ." spends his life's best effort shaping language into a patterned experience. "This effort assumes a caring about other human beings, a caring which is a form of love. The poem, like love, "lies in the valley of its saying." ("An Essay On Criticism")


Like love, like falling in love, the poem befriends, Ms. Van Duyn continues. "By consent, never by coercion, . . . slowly, deeply, seriously [poetry] moves another person."

Ms. Van Duyn dedicates "To See, To Take," the poetry collection which won the prestigious National Book Award in 1971, to poets, to the brave new ground they continually try to establish.

In one of Shakespeare's beautiful insights into human possibility, she writes, Prospero casts off his magic cloak and bequeathes to Miranda, his daughter, a world transfigured only by romantic love. The modern Prospero bequeathes to his daughter a stripped-down, informal world. "Somewhere between these two versions of magic appear the transformations of poetry, small, desperate and precious."

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.


The legal children of a literary man


remember his ugly words to their mother.

He made them keep quiet and kissed them later.

He made them stop fighting and finish their supper.

His stink in the bathroom sickened their noses.

He left them with sitters in lonesome houses.

He mounted their mother and made them wear braces.


He fattened on fame and raised them thin.

But the secret sons of the same man

sprang up like weeds from the seed of his word.

They eat from his hand and it is not hard.

They unravel his sweater and swing from his beard.

They smell in their sleep his ferns and roses.


They hunt the fox on his giant horses.

They slap their mother, repeating his phrases,

and swell in his sight and suck him thin.

-! (From "Merciful Disguises")