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Virginia H. Adair, 91; Published Her First Book of Poems at 83

September 19, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, who was said to have entered the literary world "like a comet" in 1996 when, at age 83, her first collection of poems was published to wide acclaim, died of natural causes Thursday in Claremont. She was 91.

Although she wrote poetry throughout her life, Adair, who taught English at Cal Poly Pomona for many years, published only three volumes of work, all as an octogenarian living alone in a one-room apartment in a Claremont retirement village.

The first, titled "Ants on the Melon," was her greatest critical success, selling 70,000 copies, according to her daughter and literary executor, Katharine Adair Waugh. That total was extraordinary for a genre in which sales of one or two thousand are considered respectable.

Her admirers included prominent poets such as A. Alvarez, who wrote in the New York Review of Books that Adair possessed "the poetic equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch." The New Yorker gave her a glowing write-up, calling her rhymes "ingenious" and her humor "saucy and unsparing." Time magazine said "Ants" might be "the year's finest volume of verse."

The triumph of a newcomer, even for one who came so late to fame, often stirs resentments in the highly competitive poetry world. Some poets and critics said the praise for Adair was overblown and argued that the story of her life -- her decades of solitary toil, her blindness from glaucoma and the suicide of her husband, historian Douglass Adair, in 1968 -- was irresistibly compelling and warped views of her literary merit.

"She seems to me to be a curiosity rather than a genuine discovery," poet J.D. McClatchy told the New York Times as the raves poured in for "Ants on the Melon."

Adair seemed as unruffled by the shrugs and scorn as she was by the phenomenon of her success.

"It's hard for me to say what I think about it because it's kind of embarrassing," she told the New York Times in 1996. "I think the stuff is very good -- technically very good. And I think it's interesting to a lot of people.... But I think it's the fact that I'm 83 and living here in one room and that I'm blind and I'm also kind of gamy. I think they gambled on this book, and I think part of it is this old nut, a character."

Born in New York City in 1913 and raised in New Jersey, Adair was an only child whose father, a poet, read her Alexander Pope's "Iliad" through the bars of her crib. When she was 2 or 3, her parents, who had been talking to her about a cannon, heard her say, "She looked at the canna and jim-jamma-jane," a line that so charmed them they declared it a poem. It was the first of thousands she would compose throughout her life.

By the early 1930s, she was studying at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, where she was twice named the most promising poet in the Ivy League. At Radcliffe, in 1936, she earned a master's degree. She was influenced by Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, who often visited her classes, as well as by Emily Dickinson and Wordsworth. She began to publish her poems in her 20s in magazines such as the New Republic, the Saturday Review of Literature and the Atlantic Monthly.

She met her husband at Harvard, where he was a law student before taking up history, and they were married in 1937. His academic career took them to New Haven, Conn.; Princeton, N.J.; and Williamsburg, Va., before they moved to California in 1955 so Douglass could teach at the Claremont Graduate School. Two years later, she began teaching at Cal Poly.

Along the way, they had three children. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by sons Robert of Pomona and Douglass of Thermal, Calif., four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

She was always writing poems, but did not publish them for about 50 years. One reason was to avoid what she feared would be the corrupting influence of an audience and possible fame, both of which had weighed heavily on her husband in his career. He had been a success at 25, when he wrote an influential book, "The Power to Govern," with Yale Law professor Walton Hamilton. Virginia Adair believed that the pressures of early glory may have contributed to her husband's suicide, and she mused that late-life success bore its perils, too. "To be acclaimed young is heady/later on a drag," she wrote in her poem "Red Camellias."

Another reason for her reluctance was her children, whose unhappiness over sharing her with poetry had a fracturing effect.

"They didn't like me for writing. It took time from them," Adair told the New Yorker in 1995. "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."

Yet she continued, writing in traditional forms as well as free verse. Her children inspired many poems, as did her New Jersey childhood, her academic life, and the love she shared with her husband.

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