Mary Barnard was born December 6, 1909, in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, the only child of Samuel Melvin Barnard and Bertha Hoard Barnard. She grew up intimately acquainted with the vast beaches and forests of the Northwest, often accompanying her father on his business trips as a timber broker to the logging sites.
After graduation from Vancouver High School, she attended Reed College, graduating in 1932 during the Depression. She had no choice but to return home where she was employed by the Emergency Relief Administration. She continued to write poetry whenever she could, the sound of Ezra Pound’s lines, read the year before at Reed College, echoing in her mind. Desperate for a mentor and feeling geographically isolated, she went to the Vancouver library, found his address in Rapallo, Italy, and sent him six of her poems. His reply to the promising young poet began a special relationship, described by Mary Barnard as master and apprentice, which continued until his death. Although Pound was a strict taskmaster in poetic technique, he opened doors for his protégé by suggesting she write to publishers like Harriet Monroe and James Laughlin and poets such as William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.
By age 26, Mary Barnard’s poems were being accepted for publication by leading literary magazines, and in 1935 she was awarded Poetry magazine’s distinguished Levinson Award. In 1936, she scraped together enough money to go to New York and there met Williams, Moore, and many other leading lights of the modernist movement. Her visit to the East Coast was extended by an invitation to Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she met even more promising young artists. She returned to Vancouver, but in 1938, she received a second invitation to Yaddo, this time determined to stayed on in New York, even though that meant doing all kinds of work in order to live and write there. Her first poetry collection Cool Country, consisting of 31 poems, was published in Five Young American Poets (New Directions 1940), along with John Berryman and Randall Jarrell.
In 1940 Mary Barnard arrived in Buffalo, New York, to assume the position of curator for the Poetry Collection of the Lockwood Memorial Library. Through correspondence and contacts with many poets, she laid the foundation for one of the most unique and complete twentieth century poetry collections in the country.
After four years, she returned to New York City, this time writing various kinds of prose - fables, short stories, mysteries, and even a novel. Her excellent literary agent Diurmond Russell placed her shorter pieces in magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Yale Review, and Kenyon Review. During this period, Mary Barnard enjoyed her work as research assistant to Carl Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of Benjamin Franklin. She worked with him until his death in 1950.
In 1951, Mary Barnard found herself back in Vancouver for a time, ill with hepatitis, and reading Homer to stave off the boredom of bed rest. Taking Pound’s advice from several years before, she resumed work on Greek metrics, particularly those of the Greek poet Sappho. Mary Barnard’s clear but elegant translation of these fragments was exactly what the modernist poets, as well as the Greeks, were aiming for. Barnard’s Sappho: A New Translation was published by the University of California Press in 1958 and by 1994, it had sold over 100,000 copies. It has never been out of print and has recently been reissued.
Back in New York, Mary Barnard expanded the research she had done on the background of Sappho, which led her to raise questions about the origin and nature of myths. In her book The Mythmakers (Ohio University Press 1966), she presents a common-sense approach to mythology, exploring the role of astronomy and the use of hallucinogenic plants in ancient religious rituals.
Mary Barnard was not to see her book of Collected Poems published until her association in 1979 with James Anderson, a graduate of Reed and founder of Breitenbush Press in Portland, Oegon. . It was one of the most critically praised books of the year and won the Elliston Award for 1979.
In 1986, at age 77, Mary Barnard undertook a new poetic venture and wrote her unique essay-in-verse Time and the White Tigress. This charming book, with flowing lines based on her study of Greek metric and admirable linocuts by Anita Bigelow, won her the 1986 Western States Book Award for Poetry. In this work, Barnard successfully bridges art and science; it is at the same time highly abstract and warmly human.
Never one to be idle, Mary Barnard turned her love of research to her family genealogy tracing her origins to Nantucket. (In this process, she found she was actually a distant cousin of Ezra Pound!) Nantucket Genesis:The Tale of My Tribe was the creative result of this pursuit. Written in her own verse, interspersed with short historical documents, it is not only family history, but includes her own observations on the role of women during the movement west and the inheritance of property.
Mary Barnard received many honors for her work. In Oregon, she was given a special award by the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (OILA) and honored at the 17th and 22nd annual Portland Poetry Festivals. In her home state, she was the recipient of the Washington State Governor’s Award for achievement in the literary arts. She was given an honorary doctorate by her beloved Reed College. On a national scale, she was awarded the May Sarton Award for Poetry from the New England Poetry Club in 1987, the Western States Book Award for Poetry in 1986, the Elliston Award for her Collected Poems in 1979 and the Levinson Award in 1935, as well as two residencies at Yaddo. An entire issue of Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship in 1994 was devoted to Mary Barnard and her relationship to Pound. In 1999, she discussed her Sappho on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” in celebration of National Poetry Week. Eminent composers such as Tibor Serly and Tomas Svoboda,among others, have set her poems to music in major works. Her poems continue to appear in major anthologies, such as The Poetry Anthology 1912 – 2002. (See Bibliography).
Mary Barnard’s achievement as poet, writer, and thinker, though widely recognized, has not yet been given the place it deserves in the modernist literary canon of the twentieth century. Her lack of critical attention is a puzzle. Perhaps this is due in part to the difficulty of categorizing her, for she followed her own path of creativity and gave little thought to fame. One thing is certain: a mind and talent like hers is an American literary treasure which deserves to be rediscovered.
© Barnardworks 2004