CLAREMONT, Calif. -- Poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, who published her first collection of verse to wide acclaim at the age of 83 after years of writing in private, died Thursday in Claremont. She was 91.
Ms. Adair, who also taught English at California State Polytechnic University, produced three volumes in all, but her first, "Ants on the Melon," caused the biggest stir. After glowing reviews in The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Time magazine, the book sold 70,000 copies, an enormous amount for the genre, said her daughter Katharine Adair Waugh.
"She has arrived in our world like a comet," poet Galway Kinnell remarked after reading her work.
Admirers praised Ms. Adair's inventive rhymes and humor while others argued that her compelling story as a blind widow toiling away in secret obscured views of her literary merit. Ms. Adair took both the accolades and criticism in stride.
"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. . . . 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."
She was born in New York City in 1913. Ms. Adair studied at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and later earned a master's degree at Radcliffe. She published some poems while in her 20s in several notable magazines and was twice named the most promising poet in the Ivy League.
In 1955, she and her husband, historian Douglass Adair, moved to California so he could teach at Claremont Graduate School. Ms. Adair went to teach at Cal Poly Pomona two years later.
She retired, however, after her husband committed suicide in 1968.
"I have never understood," Ms. Adair wrote of his death. "I will never understand."
Afterward, Ms. Adair discovered Buddhism and founded a local Zen center. She continued writing, but it was only after Pomona College's resident poet sent her work to several influential editors that she was published. Her other volumes are 1998's "Belief and Blasphemies" and 2000's "Living on Fire."
Even after losing all sight in 1992, she kept writing on an old Olympia typewriter with the help of volunteers. She stopped composing about a year ago.
Besides her daughter, she leaves two sons, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.