Here’s a poet we don’t hear a lot about these days. Virginia Hamilton Adair had written her first poem at — wait for it — age two. Her father, Robert Browning Hamilton, wrote poetry as well as selling insurance alongside, at one point, Wallace Stevens. Adair described, in an interview, that she had been read ‘The Iliad’ while she was still in her crib — per her father’s instructions.
Throughout her life, she wrote thousands of poems. What is fascinating about her career is that, after having published in the early years, she didn’t have a thing published for nearly fifty years. It is believed that she retreated from that part of the literary world — though she continued in other areas through teaching and lecturing — due to a disillusionment with how the publishing industry functioned then (not that different from now, perhaps).
In the course of those intervening fifty years, she married, had children, continued her professorial career and dealt with her husband’s suicide. Douglass Adair was a Professor of History, Editor of the William & Mary Quarterly and a revered scholar. In 1968, he, inexplicably, shot himself in their bedroom while Virginia was preparing dinner downstairs in the kitchen. She wrote many poems about this. ‘One Ordinary Evening‘, particularly, was singled out for much praise. It starts with a description of a content couple, lying together on a sofa and ends with these wrenchingly sad lines:
later that year
you were dead
by your own hand
blood your blood
I have never understood
I will never understand.
Then, in her eighties, as she started losing her eyesight to glaucoma, she published her first collection, ‘Ants on the Melon‘. Of this late blooming, she wrote:
Two decades of my youth, I lived on fire
trapped in a deep delirium of desire
I was the spirit’s wastrel and a fool,
and I have taken fifty years to cool.
The above is from her final collection, ‘Living on Fire‘, which is also where we get this weekend’s poem. There are many other gems in this collection and the poet deserves our admiration and salutation for being able to give us works with such creative fire well into her eighties. Don’t you think?
Her poetry is unpretentious, even though she was known to be fiercely intellectual and able to speak/read in multiple languages. Given her time of life when these collections were published, many of them are ruminations on a life lived, times passed, faith, religion and so on. Yet, it is the everyman quality that makes them worth reading again and again. Among her many influences were the East Coast greats like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and the transatlantic T S Eliot.
Adair wrote two poems on porches in her final collection. We’re considering the first one, though both are equally wonderful in their imagery and their harkening back to rituals and traditions lost forever.
In the US, up till about the 1970s, porch culture was still prevalent across the country, particularly in the South. Sitting out on front porches in the evenings after work was a way to stay cool and to socialize with neighbors and passersby. As air-conditioning units became more common, people started to spend more time indoors. The proliferation of TV channels and cable also encouraged this change, no doubt. There are still little towns where “porch society” exists, but, for the most part, porches are now decorative and all the socializing has moved to the privacy of the backyard. So, Adair’s poem is an elegy to this particular loss of porch society and socializing. It is so well-written that, even for those of us who did not grow up with porches, it evokes a deep sense of nostalgia. Sadly, with the way roadways and traffic have formed all around our homes in the present day, the experience of sitting on a front porch and taking in the beauty of an evening is lost forever for most of us — the pollution and noise is likely to be way too much. So, beyond a sense of nostalgia, there is also a sense of losing something we never got to experience.
What I particularly like about this poem is how all the images build on the sense of calm, beauty, silence, contentment. Not one word or phrase jars so that we quickly sink into and inhabit the quiet world being described. That’s what the best poems do — draw us easily, and with no effort on our parts, into the worlds they’ve created.
The speaker starts the first verse with a bucolic image of what porches looked like in those past days — inviting, comfortable, homey wicker chairs and fragrant, hanging flower baskets. The reference for porches as “chapels of rest” gives an immediate sense of quiet and calm. And, the description of the setting sun’s oblique rays as long arms reaching out indicates a gentle and friendly warmth.
The chapel analogy is carried further in the second verse where the speaker tells us that people spoke softly or in prayer-like hushed tones (in their outdoor voices, as we’d say nowadays, I suppose). And, because the day was drawing to an end, even the children, like birds returning to their nests, settled down in silence.
The oneness with nature that started with the sun in the first verse continues in the third verse with a description of ancient trees as loving protectors encircling the people sitting on their porches. The part about how the evening is drawing down like “violet eyelids lowered over the day’s brightness” is another restful and beautiful image. The delicious sleep that is welcome after a long day’s work.
And, the final verse shows us just how the people on the porch are deep under that twilight spell of stillness and serenity. No one wants to move to do the necessary lighting of the lamps. The intimate, motionless communion with the setting sun has enraptured them all — companions old and young. The simple pleasure of it all is so overwhelming, so complete, that all they can think of as the next best thing is sleep, which the speaker describes as a “ceremony”. And, what else can it be after this grand, sensual feast they’re having?
After reading something like this, I don’t know many who won’t shut off their TVs, computers or devices of an evening and step outside their door, even if it is the backdoor, to enjoy their private and personal bit of heaven. How about you?
In those days the front porches
with their wicker chairs and hanging baskets of flowers
became chapels of rest at the day’s end,
long arms of the setting sun reaching out to us.
Talk came in soft murmurs like a prayer.
The children gathered from their games
to sit in silence on the wooden steps.
The trees were ancient guardians around us
and the closing down of evening was like violet eyelids
lowered over the day’s brightness.
“We should light the lamps,” someone said.
But who would care to spoil the quiet ritual
of sundown, nightfall? Somewhere just ahead
lay the ceremony of sleep.
~ Virginia Hamilton Adair, from ‘Living on Fire‘.
Some Links about Porches
— A 1975 essay by Richard H Thomas, ‘From Porch to Patio‘, describing the transition in American society from the semi-public gathering place in front of a house to the private space in the back.