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On Van Duyn’s Poetry

William Logan

Mona Van Duyn’s best poems are a little clumsy in their charmed matter-of-factness; the warrant of their honesty eases the slight roughness of their intellect. She could make poems from table scarps and newspaper cuttings, as Auden used to do; and indeed her poems, like his, are often just intelligent talk: sociable and even chatty, never accidentally revealing, fondhearted if somewhat prickly, and inclined to tug on your lapels. She lacks his intelligent ear. Her poems slouch off toward prose without some formal obligation to attend to. …

… Few poets have found such inspiration in the ordinary domestic guilts – if there were no suburbs to feel guilty in, Mona Van Duyn would have had to invent them (a newspaper buried under a sycamore’s shed bark has inspired two poems, one of them a sestina). …

Her brisk, slightly wacky sense of language is the fitful and intimate counterpart of a grace achieved through awkwardness. In the beauty of their ungainliness, her poems have some of the lightness – the longing beneath the lightness – of Elizabeth Bishop’s. Van Duyn’s poems are doughier, more thorough and thoughtful, less injured, and finally less moving because not open to being moved without the intercession of language. Van Duyn is a poet who can’t think until she writes, and can’t feel until she thinks. This is not unusual for poets living through language – a poet’s deliberated intentions often exist only in the dream life of critics.

Van Duyn is a poet more at ease in her resolutions than her premises, but no matter where her poems begin (and they often seem to begin with dogs) they end in the mute regard of love: A poem may start with the invention of horseradish, but it ends in "married love." The theme so infuses her work, lurks so readily around every corner, that its sudden appearance comes to seem a faded punch line; yet her endings have such forbearance, such hedged gratitude, that the poems have more dignity than they perhaps deserve.

Van Duyn has an unusual poetic intelligence – it is not pristine like Yeats’ or Merwin’s or Stevens’s, not an intelligence that might have been perfectly content had the world never existed, that acts as if the world does not exist outside poems (as if the world were the idea of the poem). It is an intelligence not corrupted by the everyday, only a little soiled by it: intimate with disappointment, with sultry and sour detachment, with the failing garden and the poisoned dog, full of minor joys and partial surrenders.

From William Logan, "Late Callings," in Parnassus 18:2 /19:1 (1993), 318-319, 321.

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