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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind
Alfred Starr Hamilton (1914-2000), whose poetry has just been resurrected by The Song Cave in the collection A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind, is an embodiment of a recognizable fringe, the outsider artist.
The outsider, a familiar if not always friendly creature, is often little unhinged; she—I take up the feminine pronoun in honor of our most famous poetic outsider, Emily Dickinson—tends to be fixated to the point of obsession with an artistic pursuit, though she may not define it as such; she is reclusive, and in that seclusion comes to invent a deeply personal syntax and vocabulary that seems out of step with contemporary literary practice. A glass pane is the preferred distance separating her from life, though she will steal out into the night, a shadowy figure on the shadowy grass, to admire the moon, or to lament that she doesn’t live on it. Occasionally, the outsider works her way, almost inevitably through the intermediary of a sympathetic and patient admirer, toward the center, though on the rare occasions this happens, it happens posthumously.
The similarities between Dickinson and Alfred Starr Hamilton may go no deeper than their fascination with bees, but both in their own particular and peculiar way are representative of the outsider type. Dickinson’s story is well known, Hamilton’s unknown. He spent the greater part of his adult years living in a boarding house—appropriately called the Walden House—in Montclair, New Jersey. (“He pays $40 a month for a linoleumed cell in a rooming house,” wrote Jonathan Williams in an impassioned plea to raise money to help Hamilton fight a charge of vagrancy brought against him in 1975.) He produced voluminously, displaying the intense focus common to this type: during the 1960s, Hamilton mailed roughly 45 poems a week to the offices of Cornell University’s literary magazine, Epoch—which, under the editorial hand of David Ray, had published a smattering of his poems—and although a collection of his work was published by the Jargon Society in 1970 and he had a brush with modest renown a decade later, he has remained largely unrecognized.
This is partly because Hamilton confounds. Was he a crackpot? A genius unsullied by the academy? A little bit of both? Is he a symbol of a subterranean America—a more modest, less vociferous version of his contemporary Allen Ginsberg? (In one of the few circulated anecdotes about his personal life, we learn that in 1961 Hamilton was fined $25 for sitting in a park during an air raid drill.) Can we see Hamilton as New Jersey’s answer to Robert Walser?
His work, like Walser’s, has been called mystic, naïve, humble. He wrote obsessively of loneliness and the moon and the night: what is lonelier than the moon, what keeps us closer to ourselves than the night? He loved the word “golden”; he asked more questions than he answered—and he asked a lot of questions; his odd syntax is capable of jarring the reader into a sudden shifting awareness of the world: “During Chicago,” he wrote of a stay in that city and of another city, that it is shaped by “the waistline of the river’s end.”
Much of his work, it seems, has been lost. He typed each poem once, without making copies. The poems he mailed off were said to fill shoebox upon shoebox in the homes of his inundated recipients. As can be expected of such fecundity, his work ranges from the inane to the profound. As if aware of this, he kept his poems short. They range from a single line to a page, rarely longer. There is a beguiling simplicity to his verse. He seems at times with his repetitions to verge on the nursery rhyme. “The Cardinal in the Bush” begins with the following stanza:
I wanted to know more about the cardinal
I wanted to know more about what the cardinal did
I wanted to know more about the cardinal in the bush
Despite the sense of curiosity evident in these lines, there is little childlike about Hamilton’s wonder. Even to call him naïve is to miss the point, or at least not to hit it straight on. There is more hard-earned wisdom than naïveté in the couplet that comprises “Even the Deep Sea.”
Even the deep sea
Laughs at a day of despair
Although Hamilton could be fit into the category of the gentle oddball without much damage to his character, there are hints of sharper edges, even if they have been smoothed by time’s melancholy flow. (Time is another of Hamilton’s obsessions.) Unable or unwilling to work, he survived on a modest inheritance. He claimed he lived on a frugal budget of $80 a month, which could not have contributed much to his comfort. Money is, of course, the great Moloch that hounds those who, like Hamilton, find themselves at the mercy of the muse. Is there any wonder that he defines poetry as “the story of the search for freedom”? Poverty need not corrupt a man, but it seldom leaves him unscathed. This is apparent in “Night,” one of the most haunting poems in Dark Dreambox.
I kept a typewriter
I carried a little dark suitcase around
I asked the proprietor for some of a little space
I was a stranger
I was always moving about
I knew there was lightning on the moon
I hammered golden letters against the wilderness
I hammered golden letters against the night
I held this light to myself
I had so little to say to all the rest
Hamilton is an austere figure at the margins of a literary culture that has little room, and even less time, for genuine eccentricities. He stands there, holding his light to himself, illuminating a world that is close to ours and sometimes like it, but nevertheless strange and mysterious. His work, as Geoff Hewitt alludes in his introduction to the Dark Dreambox, is just that: a locked box requiring not a single key but a jangling set. The equivalencies we’re used to in works that constitute the Tradition are largely absent in Hamilton’s poetry. His metaphors are his own, his symbols homemade. (“I live over a stove,” he says in an autobiographical note appended to this volume.) This originality is partly responsible for the distance between the poet and his peers. It’s also what separates him from us. It strands him.
If we’re willing, though, we can find our way to him. His gentleness and compassion provide the most satisfying approach. These qualities are evident in “A Crust of Bread,” a poem that elevates Hamilton above the concern of cash and accolades.
why, I often wondered
why was I a poet,
first of all
most of all, I wanted
to have been a bird
if I could have been a bird
but I wanted the starlings
to have been fed,
first of all
A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind is a testament to the perspicacity and daring of the Song Cave’s editors, Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal. That Alfred Star Hamilton’s work has been given a second life is an affirmation that poetry exists as much outside as inside of the academy, and that art—as untutored and oblique as it may be—makes no distinction between a boarding house in suburban New Jersey and the hallowed halls of academia.