A tribute held on November 2nd commemorated the life and works of the late Saskia Hamilton.

On Thursday evening, an event was held in the Diana Center’s Event Oval in honor of the late Saskia Hamilton, beloved poet and professor at Barnard College. The tribute featured readings by ten of her friends, colleagues, and students, each of whom shared anecdotes and personal remarks about their relationships with Hamilton, celebrating both her life and her work. 

Professor Hamilton began working at Barnard’s English Department in 2002, teaching classes in poetry and editing, and additionally took on the role of ​​Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Curriculum in July of 2018. She was also an accomplished poet, having penned four collections of poetry, including All Souls, which was posthumously released in September.

Read more about Saskia Hamilton’s life and work in Provost Bell’s statement here.

The event began at 7 pm, but guests were invited to arrive a few minutes in advance to enjoy light refreshments and get a chance to purchase copies of Hamilton’s poetry collections, which were being sold by the entrance. With jazz playing in the background as guests began to arrive and mingle, the room took on a solemn, yet warm atmosphere.

Provost Linda Bell began the tribute with welcoming remarks and recounted some of her personal experiences working with Professor Hamilton before inviting Jeff Shotts, her editor, to introduce the poetry and the ten readers. Shotts gave his own testimony about the poet, praising her “alert” and “unapologetically cerebral” approach to writing, and fondly recalling his experiences during their longtime collaboration. He then introduced the ten poets who would read selections from Hamilton’s work: Alice Quinn, Yanyi, Catherine Barnett, Maureen McLane, Maya Popa, Sharon Olds, Rosanna Warren, Susan Bernofsky, John Ryle, and James Fenton. 

Each of the readers took the stage to read two selections from Hamilton’s vast body of work: one piece from an older collection followed by a new poem from her latest collection, All Souls. In addition to the poems, they shared their own personal statements about Hamilton and how she had impacted their lives. Ranging from funny to poignant, each perspective shed further light on her kindness and passion for her work and for the people around her. One poet prefaced her reading saying that she “learned as much about friendship as [she] did about poetry from Saskia”. Through the voices of her students, friends, and colleagues, Professor Hamilton’s life and art were remembered and honored.

Following the readings, Catherine Barnett, a collaborator and close friend of Hamilton, delivered the closing remarks, thanking those involved with the tribute. She invited guests to stay for a reception following the final portion of the event, which was an audio recording from March 2023 of Hamilton reading six of her poems that were published in the New Yorker. Before playing the audio recording, Barnett shared a message that poet Louise Glück sent to Hamilton after hearing her last public reading. Glück described Hamilton’s reading as “one of the most powerful” she had ever heard, and that “the shapes of the sentences could be heard the way they’d be heard on a page”. 

Following the reading of Glück’s message, the audio recording was played. The room was silent as the six poems were read in Hamilton’s own voice. In the roughly six-minute-long recording, the magnitude of her artistry and passion were dispensed to the audience. After the final line of the final poem was read, a profound silence fell upon the room—no one seemed to know how to respond to Hamilton’s voice—her words still resounding, vibrant, hanging in the air. As the moment passed, one person began to clap, then two, and finally the entire room filled with applause. Someone turned on the jazz again, allowing the familiar melody of “Take Five” to bring the breath back into the space following Hamilton’s recording.

Read the six poems included in the audio recording here.

Hearing the artist herself read her work in her own voice was deeply affecting. I was especially moved by the final poem in the recording; the tenderness that unfolded from its words spoke to Hamilton’s extraordinary power over language and passion for her art. Though I never had the pleasure of knowing her personally, it was made abundantly clear through the stories shared by Hamilton’s colleagues and friends about her incredible talent and kindness that she was a truly remarkable person. Her impact on the Barnard community and the literary arts as a whole will not soon be forgotten. 

Video recording of this event will be made available on the Barnard Creative Writing Program’s Youtube channel.

Image via Barnard College