profile of the poet Saskia Hamilton, Barnard Magazine, 2008

 

It’s not possible to truly know how someone became who she is, but it’s certainly 

interesting to explore the influences that helped shape her. In the case of Saskia 

Hamilton, the influences include punk rock. 

 

Her Barnard colleagues and students know Hamilton as an assistant professor of 

English, the director of Women Poets at Barnard, and a published writer: Graywolf 

Press has published two volumes of her verse, As for Dream (2001) and Divide These 

(2005). She’s also the editor of The Letters of Robert Lowell , published by Farrar, Straus 

and Giroux in 2005. But at the height of the punk scene in the 1980s, when she was in 

junior high school in Washington, D.C., Hamilton was a fledgling songwriter for a punk 

band (her lyrics, she says, were unusable), as well as the bass player in an otherwise all- 

guy group. “I was the girl. The girl always got the bass,” she says, smiling. 

 

While music was (and still is) a significant part of her life, literature and poetry 

were also mainstays of Hamilton’s childhood. Her parents and grandparents 

frequently read to her, and not the typical children’s fare: They shared with her the 

wonders of Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and other poets to whom most 

people are introduced a bit later in life. “My grandmother used to read Yeats to me,” 

recalls Hamilton. “And I didn’t understand it all. I think I just took it in as music.” 

 

Her ability to hear poetry in this way may stem from Hamilton’s exposure to a second 

language. Her mother is Dutch, and Hamilton and her brother visited Holland every 

year as children. The trips included visits to Dutch art museums, which fostered a love 

of the painters Mondrian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and van Gogh. While she says her 

own Dutch was only “passable” at the time, Hamilton believes such exposure taught 

her to listen “at once abstractly and attentively.” She has noticed this approach to 

interpretation in students who are bilingual. “We always are listening for the rhythm of 

a sentence and the cadence of the voice, in addition to what the person is saying. This is 

true of nearly all who are interested in poetry,” she observes. 

 

Hamilton taught at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and at Stonehill College 

in Easton, Massachusetts, before joining Barnard’s faculty in 2003. As director of 

the esteemed Women Poets at Barnard, she welcomes the opportunity to challenge 

the traditional paradigm of poetry as a male-dominated sport, in part through the 

program’s highly respected reading series. Men are and have been invited to read, but 

when they do, she says, “it’s in the context of women’s contribution to art.” Besides 

the events, the program also awards the Barnard Women Poets Prize, a biennial award 

for an exceptional second collection of poems. It's typically this point, Hamilton 

notes, when “a poet’s voice begins to fully mature.” Women Poets will mark its 20th 

anniversary on April 8 with a reading by Lisa Williams, whose manuscript Woman 

Reading to the Sea was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the 2007 prize. 

 

Hamilton herself has garnered no small amount of acclaim for the style and content 

of her writing. The distinguished poet Jorie Graham has described her as “an extremely 

subtle and fierce” poet. Asked what inspires her verse, Hamilton pauses to reflect, then 

says that it’s many things, but at the moment she’s been thinking about Mondrian and 

reading British poet Geoffrey Hill, and ... “How about punk?” this reporter inquires. 

 

“It, like all music, is always there,” she says. “Always. Music never goes away.”