Mona Van Duyn, 1991 Pulitzer winner, is nation's first female poet laureate

June 15, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Mona Van Duyn, a writer admired for her intelligence and wit, was named poet laureate of the United States yesterday.

Her breadth can be seen in her latest collection, "Letters From a Father and Other Poems" (Atheneum), which presents images both of shared joy and the last decline of her aged parents, and in an observation of hers that might have sprung from Ogden Nash:

The world's perverse,

but it could have been worse.

In announcing Ms. Van Duyn's selection, the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, said, "I look forward to welcoming Ms. Van Duyn to the library, and I am particularly pleased to have a distinguished poet of such wide range joining us to promote public awareness of poetry and literature."

Ms. Van Duyn (pronounced like "dine"), the winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, becomes the sixth poet laureate and the first to be a woman, a circumstance remarked upon by both Ms. Van Duyn and a leading critic.

The critic was Alicia Ostriker, a professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of "Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America," who said the selection of a woman was long overdue.

"She is a brilliant poet who writes with a combination of warmth and intellect, which is all too rare in American poetry today," Professor Ostriker said of Ms. Van Duyn, who succeeds Joseph Brodsky, the emigre Russian writer.

Ms. Van Duyn's poetic description of visiting her mother in a nursing home, Professor Ostriker said, evokes "the complexity of the relationship between children and parents" and does it in a way that is both formalistic and deeply emotional.

Reached at her home in St. Louis, Ms. Van Duyn said she knew that Library of Congress selectors were "getting very nervous" about the absence of a woman as laureate.

Women, she said, have been neglected in American poetry for many years despite their achievements.

"Women," she said, "are not getting a good deal."

"I don't know why that is," she said. "Perhaps it is because younger women are able to teach or take the time to raise children. Even for older women, one's life is complicated. It is difficult to be called by a reporter or the Library of Congress when one is cooking a complicated recipe."

Ms. Van Duyn, who is 70, won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry last year for her collection "Near Changes" (Alfred A. Knopf). The poet laureate can make of the job what she pleases. She is not expected to compose a rhyme on an august event like the inauguration of a president (although she can if so moved), and if that giant panda at Washington's zoo ever has a cub, it is doubtful this muse will be moved.

She will commute to Washington for her duties and not move here for the $35,000-a-year job because of the ill health of her husband, Jarvis Thurston, professor emeritus of modern American and English literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

Her devotion to her husband aside, some critics have praised Ms. Van Duyn's poetry for its admiration of "married love," a description she disagrees with. "Since I am married, I write about being married," she said, "but if I were in another kind of a relationship, I'd write about that."

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