Mona Van Duyn, a former instructor in the Department of English in Arts & Sciences, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and the nation’s first female poet laureate, died Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2004, of bone cancer at her home in University City, Mo. She was 83.
Van Duyn, who started writing poetry at age 5, earned a bachelor’s degree from Northern Iowa University in 1942 and a master’s from the University of Iowa in 1943.
That same year, she married Jarvis Thurston, Ph.D., now professor emeritus and former chair of the WUSTL English department.
In 1947, she and Thurston founded Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature while they were teaching at the University of Louisville.
When Thurston joined the WUSTL English faculty in 1950, the magazine moved with them to St. Louis. Van Duyn and Thurston produced it from St. Louis until it ceased publication in 1975.
Van Duyn lectured in English in University College from 1950-1967. She later served as poetry consultant for the Olin Library Modern Literature Collection and as the Visiting Hurst Professor of English in 1987.
She also taught poetry workshops as a visiting professor in the English departmen’s master of fine arts Writing Program in 1983 and 1985.
Van Duyn produced nine volumes of poetry, including To See, To Take (1970), for which she won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1971.
She served as poet laureate from 1992-93. In April 1991, she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her seventh book, Near Changes (1990).
“Mona wrote about what she knew — which were mostly everyday things and not-so-everyday books — and then put her thoughts down as simply and plainly as possible, considering the intricacies of her rhyme schemes and stanza forms,” said William H. Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities. “Yet the calm lines didn’t add up to the ordinary. Strange things happened in them: ‘We slapped the smirking mother and the swollen father and went to live in museums and anthologies.’
“Her tears, which she could unashamedly shed in her poems, were made of two parts salt water and one part vinegar,” Gass continued. “Her poems were wise because she didn’t pretend. She made sure her bitterness was beautiful. She made sure bad things could go out in a good dress. Good things she saw through like sonar through seas.
“After breaking our knuckles digging in bleak rock, she said ‘some of us sat and waited with whatever was in the world.’ She was someone to sit with. And had a hand to hold.”
The Academy of American Poets named her a fellow in 1980 and one of its 12 chancellors in 1985.
A member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996.
The funeral service was private.