WTP Writer: David Hamilton

WTP Writer: David Hamilton

Poems Discovered More Than Written

By Emily Jaeger, WTP feature writer

Emily Jaeger

David Hamilton, whose poetry appears in WTP Vol. V #7, is the author of Deep River: A Memoir of a Missouri Farm (University of Missouri Press), Ossabaw (Salt Publishing), and numerous uncollected essays. He is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Iowa, where he taught for nearly forty years, edited The Iowa Review for several decades, and for a few years directed Iowa’s MFA Program in Nonfiction. It was by happenstance, when first joining the faculty at Iowa, that he was assigned to teach a Chaucer course in place of a professor on leave. For the next forty years, Hamilton taught Chaucer, sometimes even twice a year, and the poet left an indelible mark on Hamilton’s artistic process: “I began to carry him around in my head—my evolving version of him. He became a benchmark for much else.”

Chaucer also served as a benchmark while he was editor of The Iowa Review—Hamilton was able to uncover the roots of many contemporary trends, such as metafiction, in the classical poet’s work. Hamilton explains in an interview on Pieced Work: “I took some delight in being not so easily swept away by claims of newness. Chaucer had done it too, over and over.”

David Hamilton. Photo by Heather Fowler.

A large part of Chaucer’s appeal, and William Carlos Williams’s as well (another of Hamilton’s favorites), is their specific attention to language. Hamilton praises their concrete language and immersion in their surroundings: “They share a lot, you know: plainspokenness, playfulness, alertness to language and to their immediate world. A lack of pretentiousness, too: ‘Here I am, doing my thing, wouldn’t mind if you took an interest,’ and they’re on with it.”

These three elements—plainspokenness, playfulness, and a talent for layered understatement—are abundant in Hamilton’s own work, a memoir, Deep River, and a book of poetry, Ossabaw. “Oooff,” a poem published by Superstition Review, showcases Hamilton’s particular talent for humor: 


The childhood dream I dreamt most often
almost to suffocation
rolled up on me oh
so long ago
leaning slow-
ly over
like a bosomy grandmother
but softer more
like an enor-
mous marshmallow or
a university classroom and oooff-
fice building as a Claes Olden-
burg soft sculpture or
a giant’s shopping bag which she swings lower
and lower
then plops down encroa-
chingly as if I were
a dog leashed to a meter outside the gro-
cery store
but undifferentiated by limb or
more like a grape accidentally dropped then
plopped by her vagabond bag upon.

Hamilton’s tight line breaks, often mid-word, highlight the slight rhymes anchoring the poem that might otherwise go unnoticed: “oh/slow-/enor-/Old-/ooff-/encroa-/gro-”—a choking sound. Images of humble, everyday items also receive new life in startling metaphors—suffocation is like a grandmother’s bosom or marshmallows, or being chained like a dog “to a meter outside the gro-/cery store.” 

While “Oooff” takes place in an urban setting, both Ossabaw and Deep River are hailed as quintessential works of contemporary pastoral. About Ossabaw, Bob Hicok writes: “The abiding accomplishment of these poems is how they lend a voice to nature, Hamilton’s most common subject. With his fluid line and graceful imagery, he creates poems that seem discovered more than written. This is among the most difficult achievements, to extend consciousness into the world without trampling what it touches.”

In the poem “Titmouse Turns,” appearing in WTP, Hamilton is observing a small bird sitting on a limb above a feeder. But then Hamilton pivots off the moment, inward: “This one seems spent,/ a pensioner,/ like me, on his bench,/ in his park,/ in his morning coat,/ all gray, well-worn…” Indeed, the “consciousness” of this thoughtful poet can lend a complexity to otherwise ordinary moments, without doing just that, “trampling” them. Leaving them touched, but remarkably, unmarred.

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply