I became friends with the poet Mona Van Duyn and her husband Jarvis Thurston at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 1974. Mona won many awards for her poetry, including a Pulitzer, and she was the first woman poet laureate of the U.S. Mona and Jarvis managed a literary journal called Perspective (founded in 1947). They are credited with first publishing many writers who went on to win major awards and become widely recognized. They taught at Washington University in St. Louis and it was because of them that I went to Wash. U. in 1976 to study for my Ph.D. Although I never completed the degree, I had a terrific two years at Wash. U. and while I was there I went to the home of Mona and Jarvis every Sunday evening for a visit. We would sit in the living room and chat and tell stories. When we became friends, I was in my early 20s and Mona and Jarvis were in their early 60s, so I was destined to outlive them by many years. Fortunately they lived a long time. Mona died of bone cancer in 2004. She used to write the most hilarious and moving holiday letters. In fact, she is the person who originally inspired me to write my epic holiday letter each year.
Last week, I googled Jarvis Thurston to see if he was still living before sending him my holiday letter and I discovered that he died in 2008 at the age of 93. (I’m surprised that my holiday letter to him last year didn’t bounce back to me.) The thing I remember best about Jarvis is his storytelling. He could easily compete with Garrison Keillor. He was raised out in the wilds of Utah back when there were only a half a dozen people living there. His growing-up stories, especially about the animals his family owned, were hilarious. He and Mona could not have children and they were not able to adopt because Mona had had a psychotic episode when young, which prevented her from passing the test by the adoption agencies in those days. Their children were their many students and protégés (like me). Mona was a fragile person and Jarvis dedicated his life to loving and nurturing her. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jarvis for caring for Mona so well that she was able to write her magnificent poetry. When I googled Jarvis, the first hit I got was an article by Tom Finkel, son of poet Don Finkel, who also taught at Wash. U. (I studied with Don). Tom tells about going to visit Jarvis on the night before Jarvis died. Jarvis was not conscious or responsive. Tom heard a woman’s voice coming from Jarvis’s room as he mounted the stairs and when he entered the room he discovered that Jarvis’s caregiver had placed a CD in the CD-player of Mona reading her poetry aloud. I am comforted to imagine that Jarvis slipped out of the world while listening to the voice of his beloved Mona reading her poetry.
Here is the link to Tom Finkel’s article about Jarvis.: