When Jean Rhys was told that her novel Wide Sargasso Sea had won both of what were then Britain’s most prestigious literary awards—the W.H. Smith prize and that of the Royal Society of Literature—her bleak reaction to the good news was that it had come too late. That was in 1966, when Rhys was seventy-six years old, and Wide Sargasso Sea was her first published work in more than a quarter of a century. But she had had five books in print before she disappeared from sight at the beginning of World War II, and that makes her positively precocious by Virginia Hamilton Adair’s standards. Adair is now eighty-three and Ants on the Melon is her first collection of poems. Yet even if her book wins all the prizes it deserves she is unlikely to complain that recognition has come too late because public recognition has never been what she was after. She has written poetry all her life—she began when she was six—but only for the purest of reasons: to please herself and to make sense of her life, and also because she loves the possibilities and discipline of the art.
Ants is not a big book; it contains a mere eighty-seven poems. But those eighty-seven have been selected from literally the thousands Adair has written, and this gives the collection an extraordinary authority. In part, it is the authority that comes with age: because Adair has waited so long to bring her poems together, there are no hesitations, no uncertainties; her voice is clear, assured, varied, and utterly her own.
Age also brings with it another kind of authority: it allows even a slight form to carry a great weight of experience.
Hearing the footsteps of thieves
in the dark downstairs:
what are you looking for?
It has already been stolen
over and over
I listen to my breath stumbling
in the dark rooms of my lungs:
What does it hope to find?
take it and welcome
while I sleep
That is called “Break In” and it is hard to know which came first, the event or the metaphor. Was it real thieves who frightened Adair in the night or the sound of her uncertain breath? The power of the poem is in the way one becomes the other without any noticeable change of gears, and a bewildering range of emotions—first a flicker of fear, then disdain, then weariness—is registered in ten quiet lines.
Poetry, especially the kind of lyric poetry Adair writes best, is usually a young person’s gift. That is not because the young are necessarily more available to their feelings than the old, but because they are more convinced by them, less savvy, less bemused by all the qualifications that come with experience and seem natural to old age. Part of Adair’s achievement is that she has not withdrawn into some turtle shell of indifference. Her poems “read” young—intellectually alert; open to feeling, full of life and curiosity—and when you add that freshness to the long perspective of age the results are extraordinarily moving. Writing about her widowed grandmothers, for instance, what she remembers most vividly is not their “black shoes, black hose, black veils,/black god-knows-what-else never seen” but their color and vitality:
I see the other at the backyard pump
with a bowl of surplus pancakes
for the birds: orioles, tanagers,
jays and cardinals, wild with color
and competition. I hear her cries
of laughter as her blacksleeved arms
hold the hotcakes aloft
among the dip and swirl of brill- liant wings.
Like the birds, the poem itself is “wild with color and competition”—the poet’s competition with herself in the effort to bring the beloved old ladies back to life.
Adair’s authority comes, too, from the fact that, published or not, she has always been a wholly professional poet. According to the poet Robert Mezey, her neighbor in Claremont, California, who persuaded her to publish Ants on the Melon, she served a long apprenticeship in her craft. When she began writing as a child, poets were still expected to know about meter and rhyme. At secondary school, she wrote verse in Latin as well as English, and at Mount Holyoke, where she won all the poetry prizes, she did “a rigorous year-long course in versification.” This stern training in the basic techniques of verse was, to her, like practicing scales is to the musician; it gave her the skills to do whatever she wanted. Whence her subtle, unobtrusive rhymes and the liquid inner rhythm of her verse, her instinct for the way each line of poetry moves and has its natural length and inflection:
Slow scythe curving over the flowers
In yesterday’s field where you mow,
My cool feet flicked
The dew from the daisies, hours,
Hours ago! Ages and ages ago
They flicked the dew
From the yellow and snow-colored flowers you leisurely mow.
It takes years of hard work and practice to write with such ease and simplicity and deftness. It also takes the poetic equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch.
Adair was brought up in a household in which poetry was part of the air she breathed. Her father, Robert Browning Hamilton, was an amateur poet—his poem “Along the Road” was very famous in his time—and one of her earliest memories, she told Mezey, is of looking through the bars of her crib while her father read to her from Pope’s version of the Iliad. He went on reading poetry to her, or reciting it from memory, all through her childhood on the assumption that poetry was one of the necessary pleasures of life. Necessary but not sufficient. Like Wallace Stevens, Adair’s father wrote poetry but had trained as a lawyer and earned his living as an insurance executive, specializing in surety bonds. As it happens, he and Stevens knew each other but, according to Mezey, when Virginia asked him if they had ever talked about poetry, he answered, “Certainly not.” His shocked reaction—like Marianne Moore’s sniffy dismissal of poetic pretension, “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”—was a fine antidote to literary self-importance and ambition, and his daughter never seems to have found any good reason to disagree with him.
Not that that stopped her publishing when she was young and starting out on an academic career. She went to Radcliffe for her MA, then to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to start a Ph.D., which she never completed, perhaps because she was too entranced by the sheer buzz of being young:
I wear a ring with seven small diamonds
and a couple more, a little larger.
I am in love with at least two men,
the trumpet of Louis Armstrong,
scholarship, ritual, ice-skating
at 10 below zero, drinking Manhattans,
dancing, Wisconsin lakes and woods,
being in love with almost everything.
A crisis looms ahead: a June marriage;
but 10 months are too endless to be real
She went back east to marry Douglass Adair, a handsome and talented young historian whom she had met at Harvard, and, once they were married, she did what well-brought-up young women, however gifted, were supposed to do in those days: she adjusted her career to her husband’s, followed him to wherever he was appointed, raised a family, did a little teaching, and went on writing poetry in her spare time. To judge from the poems, it was a good marriage, full of wit and passion, and she does not seem to have felt diminished by its demands.
She was also sporadically publishing poems in the usual places—The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The Saturday Review—and they were establishing a reputation for her among people whose judgment she valued. But literary fame was not what she wanted. “To be acclaimed young is heady,” she wrote, “later on a drag.” Adair seems to have had several good reasons for not wanting to be famous, some of them personal, some aesthetic. She came of age as a writer at a time when American poets, having finally severed their English connections and taken off on their own, were intensely preoccupied with style and stylishness. Yet she herself remained strangely uninfluenced by the prevailing modernist fashions. There is no trace in her work of Eliot or Pound or Stevens or Moore or Williams or even of Ransom, although her early fans included Gordon Chalmers, who brought Ransom to Kenyon: In Ants on the Melon, only some relatively dull poems she wrote during a spell in England, in the 1950s, show signs of outside influence; they are smooth and sonorous and heavily rhymed in a manner that was in favor with the British traditionalists at that time. In a way, Adair herself is a traditionalist—if that is what striving for excellence as something beyond fashion and personality means—but her casual, witty, powerful voice is wholly her own, and maybe she was afraid that it wouldn’t be heard by an audience with fixed ideas of how a “modern” poem should sound. She wanted to make it new in her own way without getting trapped into repeating herself in order to please her readers.
Her private reasons for not publishing a book were more complicated. She told Alice Quinn of The New Yorker that her three children resented her poetry:
They didn’t like me for writing. It took time from them. Sometimes, I’d think, If I don’t get half an hour to myself, I’m going to go crazy. I could hear Douglass sort of shooing and shushing the children: “Now, don’t disturb Ginny. She’s writing.” And I knew at that moment that they hated me for wanting to write, and I even hated Douglass for shooing them.
She also learned about the corrosive effects of ambition from her husband. Douglass Adair was a distinguished historian, a brilliant writer, a brilliant lecturer, who published articles and held desirable professorships—at Williamsburg, where he edited the prestigious William and Mary Quarterly, and at the Graduate School in Claremont. His academic reputation was unassailable, his colleagues admired him, and, because he was an unusually charismatic lecturer, he was, Adair has said, “beset by female students.” But somehow it wasn’t enough. “I think my husband was really sort of tortured by a desire for fame,” Adair told The New York Times. That torture is the subject of a wry and bitter poem called “The Professor Sings of Love”:
Then when the great job came through
It was for her, not me.
“New England autumns together—“
she murmured in my uneasy arms.
Already I felt winter on the way.
I wrote her, “I am not Prince Consort,
Nor was meant to be.”
Ever the good sport, Kate responded
I was witty and wise […]
Women, like teeth, should be strong
but not prominent.
The poem, of course, cuts both ways; Adair herself was assuredly no Princess Consort. But her marriage was more valuable to her than her literary career and, as with her children, her husband’s peace of mind mattered far more than a book.
As it happens, it ended tragically. After some thirty-five years of apparent happiness, without warning and for no obvious reason, Douglass Adair went upstairs one afternoon and shot himself. His wife had written tender, witty poems about their marriage—about making love (“Peeling an Orange”), about breeding like mice (“Where Did I Leave Off?), about family holidays (“Blueberry City”); even a poem about her hysterectomy (“By the Waters”) is full of life and appetite—and although the poems she wrote after his suicide are often baffled, angry, and desolate, they remain tender and witty:
Lying entwined with you
on the long sofa
the hi-fi helping
Isolde to her climax
I was clipping
the coarse hairs
from your ears
and ruby nostrils
when you said, “Music
for cutting nose wires”
and we shook so
the nailscissors nicked
your gentle neck
blood your blood
I cleansed the place
with my tongue
and we clung tight
pelted with Teutonic cries
till the player
lifted its little prick
from the groove
all arias over
in post-Wagnerian sadness
later that year
you were dead
by your own hand
blood your blood
I have never understood
I will never understand.
The poem is called “One Ordinary Evening,” and it is precisely the loving ordinariness of the scene, the contrast between Wagnerian erotic doom and the kind of carefree sex that begins and ends in laughter—“the player/lifted its little prick/from the groove/all arias over”—that makes the closing lines so shocking.
To write about a subject so desolating with such control and simplicity, to write a love poem to someone dead and gone as though he were alive and present—alertly, with humor and affection—is a triumph, above all, of a tone of voice. But a tone of voice implies a listener, and Adair says she was never much interested in the audience out there in the poetry-reading world. So whom was she writing for? Her answer would be that she wrote to please herself and that is the point of poetry. In other words, when any artist is at work, the last thing he has in mind is Freud’s shabby trio of motives—fame, riches, and the love of beautiful women—and even the impulse that sparks the work off becomes unimportant. All that matters is getting it right. A poet like Adair does not necessarily have a richer inner life than other people; she simply understands better how to express it in language.
Yet for a poem to exist properly there has to be a reader, someone who listens and understands and registers the subtleties. Even the most reclusive poet has an audience in his head and Adair sounds anything but reclusive. She is also astonishingly lacking in self-absorption and conceit. The voice that comes off the page is convincing because it is so immediate; she seems to be talking right to you, without fuss, without affectations, expecting a response. So when she claimed that she wrote only to please herself, perhaps she was implying that her internal audience was more discriminating than the fashion-conscious world of contemporary poetry. According to The New York Times, “acceptance by the public had never much mattered to her. ‘While my father was living, and he lived to 94,’ she said, ‘if I showed him things and he liked them, then I was satisfied.’ ”
Through her father, I think, the audience in her head extended to the poets both of them loved, especially Donne, Marvell, and Herbert. With her pure diction and faultless ear for cadence, she is most like George Herbert. But she also seems close to Zbigniew Herbert, the great Polish poet, who is likewise a master of clarity and irony. Indeed, while Adair’s voice is quintessentially American, she seems closest in spirit to contemporary poets from Central Europe, like Herbert and Miroslav Holub, who went on writing for their desk drawers, confident in their private values and sensibilities, knowing they had no audience while the Stalinists ruled the roost.
Writing beautifully is no guarantee of success. Andrew Marvell was famous in his time as a political satirist and for his Latin verse, but he had to wait three hundred years before he was recognized as one of the greatest lyric poets in the language. We are fortunate by comparison. Virginia Adair may be very old, but at least her wonderful first book has appeared while she is still with us.
May 23, 1996