PoetryWeekend

Somewhere in the Back of the Stars Is the Poet Alfred Starr Hamilton

by John Yau on February 17, 2013

Alfred-Starr-HamiltonI.

In 1970, Jonathan William’s Jargon Society published The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton. Williams, who started the Jargon Society with David Ruff in 1951 and later went on to publish important books by Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Mina Loy and Lorine Neidecker, could always be counted on to do the unpredictable. He published What a Man Can See: Fables (1969) by Russell Edson, with drawings by Ray Johnson; Plum Poems (1972) by Ross Feld; and Bill Anthony’s Greatest Hits (1988) by William Anthony. He brought attention to photographers such as Doris Ullman, Lyle Bonge and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.  The Jargon Society even had a best seller: White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. Before Williams died in 2008, he had published 115 titles, 85 of which were books. If he believed in a writer or photographer he would find a way to publish a beautifully produced book by them, knowing it was unlikely to break even and probably wouldn’t sell more than two or three hundred copies. In his letters to me lamenting the ignorance of the American reader, he would often end with the pseudonym: “Lord Nose.”

I bought The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton shortly after it came out and had it in my possession for many years. Somewhere in the midst of moving from one apartment to another it got lost. So when the publishers Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal announced that their press, The Song Cave, was going to publish A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton, I preordered a copy. There was something about Hamilton’s poetry that I wanted to experience again. At a little over two hundred pages, it’s not a big book, especially once you consider the scale it could have been, as suggested in the book’s foreword, co-authored by Estes and Felsenthal:

In the early 1960s, after taking a brief trip to Ithaca with his family, Hamilton fatefully decided to submit poems to Cornell University’s literary magazine, Epoch. He sent roughly 45 poems each week to their office, which was unable to handle this quantity of work.  Eventually, under the leadership of David Ray and the editorial assistance of Geoff Hewitt, a number of Hamilton’s poems were published – which only encouraged Hamilton to send more. Apparently, there are boxes filled with Hamilton’s poems sitting around the offices and in the homes of Epoch’s editors for decades.

It was Hewitt who brought Hamilton to Williams’ attention. The Jargon Society’s publication of The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton made nary a ripple in the literary waters of mainstream poetry circles. I don’t remember reading any reviews or hearing of any poet championing Hamilton. I am sure his life didn’t change much, if at all.

As Geoff Hewitt writes in his lovely and poignant “Introduction,” “Alfred Starr Hamilton didn’t have a lot of savvy.”  This, of course, was another era, before you could have a career as a poet teaching creative writing in a university and selling your books to the students of other poets teaching creative writing.

There were clubs and cliques then, just as there are now. Hamilton didn’t belong to any of them, and his poetry cannot be grouped under any rubric, as Estes and Felsenthal point out in their “Foreword:”

Terms such as outsider, untrained, and peripheral have all been applied to the poetry of Alfred Starr Hamilton. In introducing his work to a new generation of readers, we hesitate to apply these labels exclusively, for fear that their connotations may hinder readers from perceiving his poems as fully and consciously constructed — the real thing.

Hamilton didn’t belong to any groups and his poems are not part of any literary tendency. Neither Marjorie Perloff nor Helen Vendler, the foremost poetry critics of the time  has ever mentioned him or his work. We know of Hamilton because of poets — in this case Estes and Felsenthal — not because of literary critics and theorists. They have literally kept his work alive.

II.

Hamilton’s poems are seldom longer than a page and many are less than a dozen lines. A number of them are lists structured around repetition. Each of the nine lines in his poem “The Little Shop Around The Corner” begins, “the moon was as hard as … ” Hamilton’s other mode was to ask a series of questions — a man talking to himself or a child who keeps asking questions because the answers are unsatisfactory. His poem “January Gallery” is a good example:

Did you say today?
Did you say tomorrow
Or the next day, or the day afterwards?
Did you say a picture at a January Gallery?
Did you say a glass eye for your mirror
For a club foot for a clump of wintery woods?
For a little lavender that stares back at you
Today and tomorrow, and days afterwards.

The sudden appearance of “a little lavender that stares back at you” in the next to last line, and the shift it causes, lets us know how attentive Hamilton is in the construction of a poem. For all his isolation and loneliness, Hamiton could be delightfully whimsical:

Nevertheless I’ve got a little stereo pencil
that goes, and it goes, and it goes like a little
car around town, and it stops, and starts, and

And in that isolation Hamilton doesn’t become solipsistic. He recognizes that he is essentially cut off from other human beings and comes to accept it. He writes because, as he says in an autobiographical note, “Poetry is the story of the search for freedom.”  And, in his poem “Night,” he states what he has discovered in his search:

I kept a typewriter
I carried a little dark suitcase around
I asked the proprietor for some or a little space
I was a stranger
I was always moving about
I knew there was lightning on the moon
I hammered gold letters against the wilderness
I hammered gold letters against the night
I held this light to myself
I had so little to say to all the rest

Hamilton was born in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1914, a little more than a decade before Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark in 1926.  He died in 2005, much of his work lost. Subsisting on an inheritance of 1,000.00 a year, he lived in rooming houses. He exists on the opposite end of the spectrum from Ginsberg, whose voice is public and declarative, addressed to anyone and everyone: “ “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”

Hamilton was another kind of witness. Here is his one-line poem, “A Carrot”:

I wanted to find a little yellow candlelight in the garden.

“Bubble Gum” is a four-line poem that ends with: “More like having the same salad over again.” His favorite word was “wonder.” Despite the harsh circumstances of his life, Hamilton seems never to have lost his sense of the marvelous.

A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton is available on Amazon and other online book sellers.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: