Poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, who was said to have entered the literary world "like a comet" in 1996 when, at age 82, her first collection of poems was published to wide acclaim, died Sept. 16 in Claremont, Calif. She was 91. No cause of death was reported.
Although she wrote poetry throughout her life, Mrs. Adair, who taught English at California State Polytechnic at Pomona for many years, published only three volumes of work, all as an octogenarian living alone in a one-room apartment in a Claremont retirement village.
The first, called "Ants on the Melon," was her greatest critical success, selling 70,000 copies, according to her daughter and literary executor, Katharine Adair Waugh. That total was extraordinary for a genre in which sales of one or two thousand are considered respectable.
Her admirers included prominent poets, including A. Alvarez, who wrote in the New York Review of Books that Mrs. Adair possessed "the poetic equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch." The New Yorker gave her a glowing write-up, calling her rhymes "ingenious" and her humor "saucy and unsparing."
Some poets and critics said the praise for Mrs. Adair was overblown and argued that the story of her life -- her decades of solitary toil, her blindness from glaucoma, and the suicide of her husband, historian Douglass Adair, in 1968 -- was irresistibly compelling and warped views of her literary merit.
"She seems to me to be a curiosity rather than a genuine discovery," poet J.D. McClatchy told the New York Times as the raves poured in for "Ants on the Melon."
Mrs. Adair seemed as unruffled by the shrugs and scorn as she was by the phenomenon of her success.
"It's hard for me to say what I think about it because it's kind of embarrassing," she told the New York Times in 1996. "I think the stuff is very good -- technically very good. And I think it's interesting to a lot of people. . . . But I think it's the fact that I'm 83 and living here in one room and that I'm blind and I'm also kind of gamy. I think they gambled on this book, and I think part of it is this old nut, a character."
Mrs. Adair, whose father was a poet, was born in New York. She attended Mount Holyoke College, where she was twice named the most promising poet in the Ivy League.
She met her husband at Harvard, where he was a law student before taking up history, and they were married in 1937.
She was always writing poems but did not publish them. One reason was to avoid what she feared would be the corrupting influence of an audience and possible fame, both of which had weighed heavily on her husband in his career. He had been a success at 25, when he wrote an influential book, "The Power to Govern," with Yale Law professor Walton Hamilton.
Mrs. Adair believed that the pressures of early glory might have contributed to his suicide, and she mused that late-life success bore its perils, too. "To be acclaimed young is heady/later on a drag," she wrote in her poem "Red Camellias."
Another reason for her reluctance was her children, whose unhappiness over sharing her with poetry had a fracturing effect.
Critics seemed surprised at how sensual some poems were. In "One Ordinary Evening," she ranged from a description of an interlude of sublime intimacy with her husband to her bewilderment and sense of betrayal at his gruesome end, when he shot himself in front of her: "I have never understood," she wrote, "I will never understand."
After his death, she retired from teaching, discovered Buddhism and founded a Zen center.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Adair is survived by two sons; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.