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Mona Van Duyn, first female poet laureate

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. -- Mona Van Duyn, the nation's first female poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner, died yesterday morning at her home from bone cancer. She was 83.

A writer of poetry since the second grade, Ms. Van Duyn published nine volumes and won a Pulitzer for ''Near Changes" in 1991. The following year she became the sixth poet and the first woman named US poet laureate, an eight-month position appointed by the Librarian of Congress since 1986.

''I know the Library of Congress has been embarrassed for not having a woman," Ms. Van Duyn said at the time. ''I think if I could convince them I was really a man, they would say, 'Don't come.' "

Her most recent book, ''Selected Poems," was published in 2002, a collection of work from three decades including verses dealing with apparently mundane subjects such as renewing a driver's license or a puppy.

''Characterized by candor and compassion, Van Duyn's poetry depicts the pleasures and drudgeries of middle-class American life, an approach that at its best becomes an exploration of the spiritual and psychological dimensions of that life," the New York Times said in its review of the collection.

''A pioneer of the poetry of the suburbs -- now a common mode in which the ordinary is routinely revealed as extraordinary -- Van Duyn also knows that the ordinary is frequently just that," it said.

Ms. Van Duyn's literary talents were quickly apparent to Jarvis Thurston, who married her months after they met in a writing class in 1943.

''When I asked to see some of her poems, I loved them immediately," Thurston said yesterday. ''She said, 'You didn't offer to marry me until you'd seen my poems.' "

Ms. Van Duyn won a National Book Award for her collection of poems ''To See, To Take" in 1971. The year before, she was awarded the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, one of many honors for her poetry.

Her other works include ''Firefall" (1994), ''Merciful Disguises" (1973), and ''Bedtime Stories" (1972). Her first book of poetry, ''Valentines to the Wide World," was published in 1959.

Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa. She studied at the University of Northern Iowa and received a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1943.

She was a member of the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis for decades, developing a reputation for strong instruction of young writers. Her husband is a former chairman of the English department.

Thurston, 90, said his wife stopped writing about eight years ago. He said she had a nervous breakdown in 1949 and periodically struggled with psychiatric problems throughout her life. He said her medication often made it difficult to continue with her work.

Ms. Van Duyn was also co-founder and editor of the literary magazine Perspective.

Material from Reuters was used in this obituary.

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