Sometimes, even a poet laureate is at a loss for words

June 24, 1992|By Toni Y. Joseph | Toni Y. Joseph,Dallas Morning News

Less than 24 hours after being named America's first female poet laureate last week, Mona Van Duyn could barely move her lips. Her mouth muscles were weak from repeating the same story to reporters calling from Washington, Beijing and every point in between.

Yes, the 71-year-old St. Louis resident feels honored. Yes, she is surprised.

Ms. Van Duyn, who won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, says the media attention surprises her even more than the appointment.

"I've given interviews to the Washington Post and the (New York) Times," Ms. Van Duyn says. "CBS sent a crew, 'Nightline' was going to send a truck out, the Chinese wire service phoned . . . This is more intense than the Pulitzer."

As the Library of Congress' sixth poet laureate consultant in poetry, Ms. Van Duyn will spend her year promoting poetry, a task she's pursued most of her adult life. She assumes her new duties in October.

She'll also be responsible for selecting young poets to read their work at the Library of Congress, the nation's most prestigious reading space. The appointment requires that she give one reading and one lecture during her year. Ms. Van Duyn plans to commute to Washington for one week each month.

Ms. Van Duyn succeeds Joseph Brodsky, 1991-1992 poet laureate, and a long list of men. The Library's first consultant in poetry, Joseph Auslander, held the post from 1937 until 1941. Six women -- Leonie Adams, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Jacobsen, Maxine Kumen and Gwendolyn Brooks -- served as poetry consultants. The title, poet laureate was added in 1985.

Her gender is significant, she says, because female poets often are overlooked by anthology editors and prize judges.

"I don't want men to be squeezed out in any way, shape or form," says Ms. Van Duyn, "but women are represented in a shockingly small way. Something remains in editors' minds that a woman has to be a great poet to be included in an anthology with men who are so-so poets."

She is adamant about increasing the visibility of women in poetry, and urged jurors to select another woman when she was first chosen a few months ago. She turned down the honor then because her husband, Jarvis Thurston, was seriously ill.

"I could not think about what seemed like a trivial thing compared to my husband's survival," she says. He has since recovered.

That Ms. Van Duyn was approached a second time is a testament to the respect she's earned over the years, says Harry Ford, her longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

"She was the clear choice of the jury," Mr. Ford says. "We're delighted."

The jury had much to consider. Since 1959, Ms. Van Duyn has published seven volumes of poetry. "Near Changes," her most recent, won last year's Pulitzer Prize. An obscure figure among the general public, Ms. Van Duyn is well known in her field. She has received almost every major honor and prize -- the National Book Award, the $25,000 Ruth Lilly Award and the Bollingen -- awarded in contemporary poetry.

Critics praise Ms. Van Duyn's wit and intellect. She is most often described as a "domestic poet," as her work frequently focuses on marital and familial love.

The accolades stimulate Ms. Van Duyn's creativity, Mr. Ford says. In a 1981 interview in "Contemporary Authors," she expressed concern that ideas for poems were getting harder to come by.

"A few years ago, she said she thought she'd never produce another book," he says. "Then she wrote one, and that won a Pulitzer."

Although this latest achievement will leave less time for writing, Ms. Van Duyn says she is ready for the challenge. Still, the honor adds weight to an already heavy schedule of readings and lectures. Before her selection, she had agreed to almost a dozen appearances over the next year.

But she's not complaining. The demand and publicity reflect the nation's appreciation for poetry, she says. "It's amazing what an enormous interest in poetry there is," Ms. Van Duyn says. "People certainly fill huge auditoriums and balconies to hear poetry read."

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