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Mona Van Duyn and the Women of the Catbird Seat

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Yesterday would have been the 92nd birthday of Mona Van Duyn, and what better way to commemorate her legacy as the first female Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry than to spend it celebrating the women to have held the position?

Since an act of Congress changed the title of Consultant in Poetry to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 1985, there have been five female poets laureate: Van Duyn (1992-1993), Rita Dove (1993-1995), Louise Glück (2003-2004), Kay Ryan (2008-2010), and our current Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

As a young woman working in the Catbird Seat (and a writer myself in my spare time), I can’t help but feel a personal connection to the faces of the female poets laureate that dot our office’s walls.

Image of Mona Van Duyn that hangs on the wall at the Poetry and Literature Center.

Mona Van Duyn was born in 1921, less than a year after the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was signed into law by then Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. It seems almost impossible to think of the leaps made by the feminist movement in the course of Van Duyn’s lifetime, and in the two generations that separate Van Duyn (who was born the year before my own grandmother) from me.

Van Duyn’s poetry isn’t feminist in the way that theorists would describe more contemporary poets like Anne Waldman, Susan Howe, or Lyn Heijinian. Her poetry speaks to much subtler identity of the middle-class suburban life, and her place in it as a woman and a wife.

Re-reading her poems yesterday, I rediscovered a favorite: “A Time of Bees.” In the poem, two lines struck me: “It is the man who takes hold. I lived from bees, but his force / went out after bees and found them in the wall where they hid.” The speaker’s declaration that “It is the man who takes hold” challenged me immediately. But as I continued to read, I found the strength hidden in her words—the idea that though her husband lived by “his force,” the speaker understood her place in a larger world and lived “from bees” whose “grubby softness” she tells her reader “wants to give, to give.” I thought of the power of giving, of being soft and vulnerable rather than forceful and unnaturally apart from the mess and confusion of the rest of the hive-world.

I think of what it means to be a feminist today, and I think of the many changing faces of the women I know either from their poems, their art, or simply their friendship. I think of my sister who on occasion holds flies between tweezers to tell their sex for experiments, and doesn’t seem so far from the speaker’s husband who forces the bees out of their home. And I am so happy to have Mona Van Duyn, Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Kay Ryan, and now Natasha Trethewey—five women of five vastly different aesthetics and histories, roles and communities—to represent us. Only, I want more. More lines from female poets, more understanding of the feminine voice in all of its variations.

If you have a favorite line by Mona Van Duyn or any of our female poets laureate, share it in the comments and help us celebrate their voices.

Comments (3)

  1. Hi Caitlin

    Very nice piece. Thanks much for giving these poets their due and with such historical understanding and generosit.

    These consultants have been — and are — remarkable women and remarkable poets.


  2. I love this whole poem, but as a librarian, these lines are sweet!

    From Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967
    By Rita Dove

    As for the improbable librarian
    with her salt and paprika upsweep,
    her British accent and sweater clip
    (mom of a kid I knew from school)‐
    I’d go up to her desk and ask for help
    on bareback rodeo or binary codes,
    phonics, Gestalt theory,
    lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,
    the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;
    I would claim to be researching
    pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,
    But all I wanted to know was:
    Tell me what you’ve read that keeps
    that half smile afloat
    above the collar of your impeccable blouse.

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