When Saskia Hamilton ’89 was in graduate school, she worked as an assistant for Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell’s ’40 second wife. Hardwick, who was an accomplished writer in her own right, had Hamilton organize all of the documents of Lowell’s she had accumulated in her apartment. Among other things, Hamilton catalogued Lowell’s letters, and she learned the couple had broken up via transatlantic mail.
“I love letters,” Hamilton said. “They’re a primary source, but they don’t have the status of a literary work. But in them, you can find all sorts of haunting and interesting ideas.”
Hamilton will return to Kenyon, her alma mater and Lowell’s, over Family Weekend to give a poetry reading. She has published four collections of poems and has edited three books about Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick and their correspondences. Her most recent collection, Corridor (2014), was named one of the best poetry books of the year by the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. She teaches at Barnard College.
Letters are only one of Hamilton’s fascinations; another one, present in her poetry, is architecture. In her most recent collection, Corridor (2014), rooms, hallways and furniture take over where mental states leave off, acting as a self-conscious representation of the self. The speaker of her poem “In the Corridor” peers into a room, where a man is living his life. In “Compass,” the speaker wonders which way she should position her desk.
“Certainly I have a certain architectural sense of poetry,” she said. “This is something that’s long preoccupied me.”
Some of her strongest memories of Kenyon, she said, are of sitting in close groups around the tables in the campus’ small seminar rooms. When she returned to Kenyon to teach for a year in 2000, she was struck by all of the new students sitting where she had sat before them, and where others — Lowell included — have sat before her.
Recently, Hamilton has put her creative endeavors to the side to work on another book about Lowell and Hardwick’s letters, which will be published next year, as well as a book about the letters of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.
Still, she said, “I’m always hoping to write poems at the edge of the margins.”
The desire to produce art is an important one for Hamilton. In an era marked by political uncertainty, when she has seen many of her students raise questions about the opaqueness and usefulness of avant garde writing or wonder about their own authority to voice their opinions, she said she has urged younger poets to continue producing poetry if they feel the need to do so. Speaking is, itself, political.
“My answer is a very sort of deliberately small one, I suppose,” she said.