Mona Van Duyn

1921 –

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.