In addition to her prizewinning writing, she was known for editing the correspondence between the poet Robert Lowell and the writer Elizabeth Hardwick.
Saskia Hamilton, a prizewinning poet who also shed new light on the tumultuous relationship between the poet Robert Lowell and the writer Elizabeth Hardwick with a 2019 book compiling their letters and those of their friends, died on June 7 at her home in Manhattan. She was 56.
Her brother John Hamilton said the cause was cancer.
Professor Hamilton joined the English department at Barnard College in 2002 and was made a vice provost in 2018. In a memorial posting on Barnard’s website, Linda A. Bell, provost and dean of the faculty, said that her poetry was “alive to the details of the quotidian.”
“They ask us to notice ‘those arcadian hours we make together,’” Professor Bell wrote, quoting a line from Professor Hamilton’s poem “This Hour” (2017). “In charting small everyday moments, they call our attention to the beauty of the ordinary world.”
Professor Hamilton’s first poetry collection, “As for Dream,” was published in 2001. Its poems, many about loss, were enigmatic and fragmentary, as with “In the Hospital”:
Will you hand me the bulbs?
I have to plant them, he said, but I can’t reach them.
The attendant came in and adjusted a dial.
Still she did not get up from the chair.
You know, were his last words,
You really are very lazy.
“Hamilton’s restraint in all these poems not only nudges the reader to slip into something akin to the current of her ‘dream,’” Leslie Ullman wrote in a review in Poetry magazine, invoking a word used in the titles of several of the poems, “but it also has an air of challenge, as though she dares one to ask for more.”
Three more collections followed, including “Corridor” in 2014.
“Hamilton writes short, smart, sometimes enigmatic poems that seem carved out of driftwood, or old bones,” David Orr wrote in The New York Times when he chose that volume as one of the 10 best poetry books of 2014.
Professor Hamilton, whose honors included an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021, was also acclaimed for illuminating the work and lives of other writers, especially Mr. Lowell. In 2005 she published “The Letters of Robert Lowell,” in which, as Charles McGrath wrote in a review in The Times, “we hear the voice of Lowell the person, not Lowell the formidable public figure.”
Three years later came “Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” which she edited with Thomas Travisano. It covered 30 years of correspondence between the two Pulitzer-winning poets.
Her most discussed book was “The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle,” which used letters to explore a controversial element of Mr. Lowell’s career. In 1970 he took a teaching appointment at Oxford in England, leaving behind Ms. Hardwick, his wife at the time, and their daughter.
He began a relationship there with the Anglo-Irish writer Caroline Blackwood, and his marriage dissolved. Mr. Lowell drew from letters Ms. Hardwick wrote to him in this period for the poems in “The Dolphin,” a collection that won him his second Pulitzer. That appropriation was widely denounced, including by friends of Mr. Lowell’s like Ms. Bishop and the poet Adrienne Rich.
Ms. Hardwick, who died in 2007, had thought her letters had been destroyed, but they turned up in the Lowell archive at Harvard. The correspondence, Professor Hamilton wrote in her introduction, represented “a debate about the limits of art — what occasions a work of art; what moral and artistic license artists have to make use of their lives as material.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2020, Professor Hamilton, who had known Ms. Hardwick, talked about feeling her presence while working on the letters.
“You just have the sense that she’s looking right back at you,” she said. “Overhearing her letters. She knows you’re going to be there one day. It’s a very different quality than writing for posterity, writing self-consciously because you think you’re important. It’s knowing your neighbors are looking in the window.”
Professor Hamilton was born on May 5, 1967, in Washington. Her father, John, was a writer and editor; her mother, Elise Wiarda, is an artist and therapist.
As a senior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Professor Hamilton participated in the first convocation for young poets at Indiana University, an event financed by the philanthropist Ruth Lilly. She walked away with the top prize at the event, $15,000, which she used to help finance graduate school at New York University. She received a master’s degree there and a Ph.D. at Boston University.
She taught at Kenyon before joining the Barnard faculty. In addition to her brother John and her mother, she is survived by a son, Lucien Hamilton, and three other siblings, Claudia, Emma and James Hamilton.
Professor Hamilton’s poetry often dealt with difficult subjects. “She used beautiful words to limn grief and loss,” Professor Bell said in her post on the Barnard site.
Professor Hamilton’s first collection was especially concerned with these themes. In a 2001 interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican, she spoke of her experience in writing those poems.
“Once one starts to meditate on loss in the biggest way, one is trying to imagine what the experience of dying is like,” she said. “Is it dramatic or so quiet that it’s almost like the transition from one dream to another?”