Poet laureate Van Duyn charms Howard audience


Growing up in rural Iowa, Mona Van Duyn wrote her poetry in secret, never showing it to parents, friends or teachers.

"I wished to be a normal child; I didn't want to be thought of as some kind of oddity," Ms. Van Duyn, 71, the current poet laureate of the United States, said last night.

Although she's never shown those early poems to anyone, her other works have brought her international acclaim and nearly every major literary prize, including a Pulitzer in 1991 for her book of poems "Near Changes."

Ms. Van Duyn read from her works before an audience of about 120 at Howard Community College. The reading was sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, known as HoCoPoLitSo.

Ms. Van Duyn shared the stage with an old friend, poet Henry Taylor, a professor at American University, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry in 1986.

In introductory remarks, Mr. Taylor praised Ms. Van Duyn's ability to know when to treat a subject seriously and when to add a touch of humor. He also said that Ms. Van Duyn is unique as a poet because she's comfortable writing metrical poetry as well as free verse.

"The results are poems I go back to with the kind of pleasure that makes you able to forget everything around you for hours at TC time," Mr. Taylor said. "That's what poems are for." Ms. Van Duyn is known for her keen observations of the details of everyday life and for her poems about marital life.

Before reading a poem called "Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat in the Kitchen," she said she didn't think of it as a love poem when she wrote it, but that "a better critic than I did."

The poem, Ms. Van Duyn said, is about cooking spaghetti with her husband, Jarvis Thurston, professor emeritus of literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

This is the first stanza: About half a box/ I say, and the male/ weighs his pasta sticks/ on our postal scale.

Ms. Van Duyn was named the nation's first female poet laureate in June and began her duties in October, succeeding Joseph Brodsky, the Russian emigre poet and 1987 Nobel prize winner.

"I accepted it as the highest honor I have yet received in my entire writing career," she said of the appointment.

Ms. Van Duyn and her husband live in St. Louis and she comes to Washington for a week each month to carry out her duties as poet laureate.

As poet laureate, she is required to give one major reading and lecture during the year. She also serves as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and she selects poets to read their works in the library's annual reading series.

Ms. Van Duyn said she knew at a very young age that she wanted to be a poet. A professor in her freshman English class at the University of Northern Iowa encouraged her to pursue writing. "He introduced me to older students who wrote poetry and I began to feel this is something a person can do," she said.

Ms. Van Duyn was one of several prominent poets asked by the Washington Post to write a poem for President Clinton's inauguration.

Another one of her recent poems was about former first lady Barbara Bush. It was inspired by a picture of Mrs. Bush giving Hillary Rodham Clinton a tour of the White House before Mr. Clinton's inauguration. Ms. Van Duyn said she sent the poem to Mrs. Bush and received a warm thank-you.

"It seemed to me that only in this country could a change in the highest power in the country be accompanied by such genuine kindness," Ms. Van Duyn said.

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