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Mona Van Duyn On Why Interest in Poetry is Increasing

(excerpt from "Matters of Poetry," an address to Library of Congress by Van Duyn as U. S. Poet Laureate on May 7, 1993)

… We live in a mass culture whose attitude and philosophy are commercial. Its aim in far too many things is to make the greatest profit by producing for the average and by changing fashions in everything in order to force masses of people to keep buying new things. Individuals are compressed, homogenized into gigantic groups: voters, consumers, teens, Yuppies, senior citizens, ethnics, Wasps, etcetera. Everything from TV programs to shoe sizes are produced for only the greatest number. When fashionable colors and textures change to stimulate sales (for clothing, for redecoration of the house, from carpets and refrigerators to bathtowels), certain colors and styles are "in" and others simply unavailable. No self wishes to be medium, no self is average, no self wishes to dress or decorate a home in colors and textures dictated by commerce. Instead of living with others like aleaf on a tree which is seen only as a leafy mass, each self wishes to live in a world that illustrates the title of Rosanna Warren’s book of poems, Each Leaf Shines Separate.

Expression of the self in amateur poetry is an attempt to validate the self and its perceptions, its inmost feelings and thoughts. …

… Many of those who seek help in workshops in order get published have a dream, I think, not so much of devoting the most intense part of their lives to the hard, lonely. Glorious, transcendent work-play of writing poetry, but of appearing before the world as a poet. It is a dream of individual freedom, an unexamined, perhaps even unconscious need in a country where even the individualizing first name of a human being has been reduced to the uniformed and meaningless: "My name is Jean; I am your waitress for the evening." It does not in any way resemble the hippie rebellion in which youth divided itself from age by dressing alike, acting, talking, wearing their hair, eating, living alike. The point of this dream is the expression of freedom and uniqueness of a self. Need I say that, though some few professional poets have felt free to express outwardly their quirky selfness, it is the strong inner sense of self, usually protected from the public eye, saved from and dedicated to the poems, that is characteristic of most successful publishing poets/ Most of them are happy to be indistinguishable in public, leading quiet, domestic lives. The private aspects of the wild and the unique are saved for the poems. Iconoclasm is saved, hoarded, for language – for forms on the page.

From Mona Van Duyn, "Matters of Poetry," in Michael Burns, ed. Discovery and Reminiscence: Essays on the Poetry of Mona Van Duyn (Fayetteville: U Arkansas P, 1998), pp. 136-138.

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