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Poet Laureate Mona Van Duyn Dies at 83

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2004; Page B06

Mona Van Duyn, whose lyrics of love, everyday life and the transcendent power of art made her one of the nation's most honored poets, as well as the first woman to be named poet laureate of the United States, died Dec. 2 of cancer at her home in St. Louis. She was 83.

She wrote with the sensibility of a small-town midwesterner who was married for more than 60 years, combining the thoughts and humor of ordinary people with elegant poetic forms. Her poems often ended with a subtle insight of universal human concern.

Mona Van Duyn, a midwesterner whose work was narrow in scope, often was called a "domestic poet," though she disliked it. (AP)

Perhaps because of her retiring nature, her limited output -- she wrote only nine volumes, most of them slender -- and a lifetime spent outside the orbit of New York's literary circles, Ms. Van Duyn didn't reach wide public recognition until she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 at the age of 70 for "Near Changes."

The following year, she was named poet laureate, an annual appointment of the Library of Congress honoring an American poet's lifetime achievement. She was the first woman to hold the post, which was created in 1985. Six women had been poetry consultants before the selection of Ms. Van Duyn (pronounced "Van Dine").

In an address to the Library of Congress in 1993, she spoke of why poetry matters in modern society.

"The private aspects of the wild and the unique are saved for the poems," she said. "Iconoclasm is saved, hoarded, for language -- for forms on the page."

Although she disliked the term, Ms. Van Duyn often was called a "domestic poet" because of the relatively small canvas on which she worked. Her subjects included time, love, art and, as she once put it, "the wintry work of living, our flawed art."

She typically began with a quiet observation from daily life, followed with a comment that could soothe or bite, as in "Late Loving":

Over, in the shifty face you wear,

and over, in the assessments of your eyes,

you change, and with new sweet or barbed word

find out new entrances to my inmost nerve.

Her reputation grew through the years, as she won three of the most prestigious awards in poetry -- the Bollingen Prize, National Book Award and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize -- long before she received the Pulitzer. But, because of the outward modesty of her work, she was sometimes patronized, as in a 1973 review in the New York Times, for "writing as a housewife, putting up poems as another good woman might put up peaches."

"I use domestic imagery and extend that imagery through the whole poem," Ms. Van Duyn explained in a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, "but I'm not writing about that. It's simply used as a metaphor."

Poet Liz Rosenberg wrote in 1993 in the Chicago Tribune that Ms. Van Duyn "can speak with genuine grandiloquence or in the earthy voice of an old farm woman . . . Her best work stands up to the best poets -- there is grandeur in it."

Mona Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa, and grew up in the small town of Eldora. Her father, a onetime farmer, ran a filling station, and sometimes took her books away, telling her to play outdoors. Describing herself as the "the tallest female in the town and, for all I knew, in the world," she read every novel and book of poetry in her local library. Even after she had won a scholarship, she had to plead with her father to go to college, hoping to be a writer or a fashion designer.

She graduated from Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa University) and in 1943 received a master's degree from the writing program at the University of Iowa.

She taught at the University of Iowa and the University of Louisville in Kentucky before settling with her husband, also a writer and an English professor, in 1950 in St. Louis, where both taught at Washington University.

Ms. Van Duyn, who had written poetry since she was 5, battled depression for much of her life and, on occasion, was treated in psychiatric hospitals, but she did not dwell on these episodes.

"I have not found the subjects for my poems in my illness," she said in an interview with the reference publication World Authors. "It is the years of good health between depressions that I cherish, that seem to me most real."

Survivors include her husband of 61 years, Jarvis Thurston of St. Louis.

Known for the subtlety and elegance of her verse, Ms. Van Duyn occasionally delighted in wry wit, as in the closing lines of her "Sonnet for Minimalists":

The world's perverse,

but it could be worse.

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