December 6, 1909 – August 25, 2001

Mary Ethel Barnard was born in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. She lived a good deal of her life there, except for a few early years in Buxton, Washington and 20 years in New York City. An only child of Samuel Melvin Barnard, a timber broker, and Bertha Hoard Barnard, she had a childhood rich in love, books, trips on back roads to logging mills, and summers at Ocean Park on the Washington coast. There she “liked best roaming the beach and the dunes by myself, making up lines of poetry or reciting to myself poems that seemed appropriate to the place…, but after I learned Greek it was Homer shouted into the noise of the breakers…Nowhere else have I ever been so alone and so little lonely.” (Assault on Mt. Helicon, University of California Press 1984).

From an early age she scribbled verse and stories, but she was too young and in too remote an area to be aware of the modernist poetry movement that was taking Europe and the east coast by storm. Ezra Pound and the Imagists in 1914 were proclaiming principles that Mary was to arrive at in her own time and by her own route. Although she had read in high school the Poetry anthology edited by Harriet Monroe, which included Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Elinor Wylie, Mary did not read the Imagists and the Modernists until the early 1930’s at Reed college, when one of the young professors there introduced her class to Eliot, H.D., Edith Sitwell, and Pound. Her purchase and perusal of Pound’s Personae won her over to free verse when she realized at its best, it was not just chopped-up prose, but contained the strict elements of Greek metric. This exposure to modern poetry, combined with a rigorous background in the humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (studies in history, Classical Greek and French, and all eras of literature) brought her at last to the creative territory she wanted to explore in her own writing.
Mary Barnard called herself “a professional poet,” and it is mainly her own poetry and poetic translations that will establish her reputation as part of the Modernist canon. But Barnard’s skill with language and clarity of thought found its way into other literary forms as well. She also produced solid prose works, both fiction and non-fiction, even a verse-drama. In one unique work, Time and the White Tigress, an essay-in-verse, she successfully bridged the gap between the science of astronomy and art. “The problem with Mary Barnard is that, so far, she has been unplaceable,” writes Sarah Barnsley, a young woman in England who is currently working on a PhD thesis about Barnard.

When Mary Barnard graduated in 1932 from Reed College, at the height of the Depression, she didn’t have much choice but to return to her parents’ home in Vancouver, where she was lucky to find a job working for the Emergency Relief Administration. While writing poetry in her spare time, the poems of Ezra Pound resonated in her mind. Desperately searching for a mentor, she looked up Pound’s address in the Vancouver (Washington) library Who’s Who and sent six of her best poems to him in Rapallo, Italy. Thus began a friendship that lasted until 1972 and a remarkable correspondence in which the older poet spared his young apprentice no slack in proscribing hard work and discipline as she honed her skills. “ You hate translation??? What of it?? Expect to be carried up Mt. Helicon in an easy chair?” (Letter from Pound to Barnard Jan. 22, 1934). At the same time, he generously opened doors for the isolated young poet of the West, advising her to write to Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, as well as recommending her to publishers like Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine and James Laughlin of New Directions. Her first big break came when her poem “Shoreline” was accepted by Morton Zabel for the February 1935 edition of Poetry magazine. More poems were published in April, and in November she was awarded the pretigious Levinson Award.

By this time Mary was anxious to “shake off the barnacles” and go to New York. When she finally scraped together enough money in 1936 to travel via train to New Orleans and then by ship to New York, she found many literary people eager to meet her and show her the ropes. Her arduous navigation through the publishing and literary world is well documented in her Assault on Mt. Helicon: A Literary Autobiography (University of California Press1984). She became friends with Williams, Moore, and many other artists that she met, some during two summers at Yaddo (1936 and 1938), the summer arts colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Mary Barnard’s list of published poems in major periodicals, such as The Saturday Review of Literature, The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and New Republic, as well as in the major poetry magazines, is impressive and too long to include here. (See Bibliography) By the time she was thirty, she had not only won Poetry magazine’s coveted Levinson Award, she had published her first collection of 31 poems “Cool Country” in the New Directions book, Five Young American Poets 1940, (along with John Berryman and Randall Jarrell). It was to be 39 years later when her own Collected Poems was published by Breitenbush Press (Portland, Oregon 1979). This book, evidence of her skill as a poet, won Barnard the Elliston Award for 1979.

Her expertise with verse is evident in other literary forms, among which is her best known work, Sappho: A New Translation (University of California Press 1958), written during a period of illness after she returned to Vancouver in 1951. Studying Greek and the fragments of Sappho alleviated the boredom of being bedridden, and besides it was Pound’s advice years before to study Greek metrics and to translate. Her clear, elegant poetic translation of the fragments of Sappho’s poetry was exactly what the Modernists, as well as the Greeks, were aiming for. Mary Barnard’s translation of the fragments of Sappho has never been out of print and is now in its second printing, having sold well over 100,000 copies.
Delving into the background for Sappho’s poems raised questions for Mary Barnard about the origin of myths. Not satisfied with theories put forth by the “authorities,” her own ten-year path of research led to the writing of The Mythmakers (Ohio University Press 1966). Out of this research grew important contributions in the field of ethnobotany. Independently Mary Barnard used ancient literature to explore the use of hallucinogenic plants in religious rituals. She not only correspondended with Gordon Wassen, the world authority on the mushroom, but developed an interest in astroastronomy and the calendar, including the Phaistos Disk.

Time and the White Tigress (Breitenbush 1986), was originally planned as a prose sequel to The Mythmakers, but Mary awoke one morning, sat down at her typewriter and found it flowed more naturally as poetry. The resulting verse-essay, consisting of poetry that both instructs and charms the reader as it easily goes back and forth between the abstract and the warmly human, won her the Western States Book Award for Poetry. Finally, in 1988, her interest in genealogical research resulted in Nantucket Genesis: The Tale of My Tribe (Breitenbush 1988), her family history. She found that it, too, lent itself to verse, interspersed with family documents. A set of postcards (“Later: Four Fragments”) and bus posters (“Thank you, my dear” from Sappho and “Soft Chains”) have been vehicles for her poetry.

It is no surprise that composers have found her poems easily adaptable to musical settings. In Pound’s earliest letters to Mary, he stressed the importance of the musical line and rhythm, elements which had attracted Mary to poetry as a young child. Her poem “Lai” was set to music in the 30's by the New York composer Edward Gershefsky, whom she met at Yaddo. “Sappho” has appeared at least twice in musical settings: one was composed by Sheila Silver for soprano and piano and performed at Wheaton College; the other Fragments from Sappho for piano, clarinet, flute and soprano, was composed by David Ward-Steinman and recorded with Phyllis Curtin on CRI records. Tibor Serly, a friend of Pound in Paris and Rapallo, and a resident of Longview, Washington in his later years, composed the Pleiades, a cantata for chorus and orchestra, which was performed in Portland in 1978. Thomas Svoboda, composer in residence at Portland State University wrote the cantata Journey for mezzo -soprano and baritone solo, choir, and orchestra, Op. 127, which was performed in Portland on February 13, 1987.

Mary Barnard loved to track down an answer or solve a problem by ruthlessly searching for the primary source. This love of sleuthing was evident not only in her fondness for detective stories, but also in her dedication to academic research. In the early 1940’s, she was the first curator of the Poetry Collection at the Lockwood Memorial Library in Buffalo, New York, laying the foundation for the first archive set up for books, manuscripts and letters of 20th century American poets. Not only did she write to poets, asking them for their working manuscripts, but she dug her way through W. C. Williams’ attic and perused book stalls in New York for letters and old poetry magazines. A tribute to her important work exists at Buffalo today (now State University of New York or SUNY at Buffalo), in the form of the Mary Barnard Fellowship for graduate students. One of these “fellows” has landed here in Portland and presently teaches English at Portland Community College. After four years in Buffalo, Barnard continued to engage in research, this time in New York City as research assistant to Carl Van Doren, the Pulitzer price winning biographer of Benjamin Franklin.

Mary Barnard’s foray down the path of prose fiction is a surprise to most people. While at Buffalo, she reviewed detective stories for a brief time and decided to experiment with writing some prose herself. Returning to New York, she was fortunate to have as her agent Diurmand Russell, a man devoted to promoting excellent writers like Eudora Welty. Russell was successful in placing her works in literary and popular magazines. In the late 1940’s, a wonderfully scary story “The Cat” was written for a friend; it was eventually published in the popular magazine Today's Woman. The next year it was reworked as a radio play and broadcast by Nelson Olmsted on his “Stories of Pacific Powerland” program. (An article about this appeared in a Jewett, Van Arsdol, and Beck INK column of the Vancouver, Washinton Columbian Jan. 6, 1983.) Three Fables, originally published in Kenyon Review in1948, later appeared in a slim volume of its own (Breitenbush 1983). Two of her mystery stories were published in Yale Review and Harper’s Bazaar, but several others have not yet been published or were lost, including a novella. Barnard also wrote an unpublished verse-drama.

In midlife, Mary Barnard returned to Vancouver, Washington, the place she had always called “home,” where she continued to devote herself to writing, when she wasn’t traveling extensively in Europe or to New York. This tall, quiet, rather shy, witty poet was lauded by her hometown institutions: Clark College, the YWCA, the AAUW, and the Clark County Arts Council all bestowed special awards upon her. In Portland, Oregon, she was featured in the 1994 Portland Poetry Festival, awarded a special achievement in literature from the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (OILA) and awarded an honorary doctorate by her beloved Reed College. She was honored by her state in 1982 when she received the Washington State Governor’s Award for achievement in literary arts. On a national scale, she was awarded the May Sarton Award for Poetry from the New England Poetry Club (1987), The Western States Book Award for Poetry (National Endowment for the Arts) for Time and the White Tigress (1986), the Elliston Award for Collected Poems (1979), two Yaddo fellowships (1936 and 1938) and the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (1935). In 1999, she discussed her Sappho translation on NPR’s “Book Club of the Air” with Ray Suarez. Her poems continue to appear in major anthologies, such as The Poetry Anthology 1912 – 2002. (See Bibliography)

All her writings shine to the core with her sharp observations, her clarity of thought and honesty of purpose, her love of stripping away the superficial and getting to the simple essence of things, her dry wit, and a true mastery of the craft of writing. In his review of Assault on Mount Helicon (New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1984) Malcolm Cowley commented on Mary Barnard’s “singular character as a poet among poets. In a little world split apart by rivalries and poisoned by gossip, she obstinately followed her own path, always modestly, always without the passion to be the first in fame. The two things she valued were devotion to poetry, and after that, personal warmth… . Without ever trying she projects the feeling that Mary Barnard would be a good person to have as a friend.” And indeed she was!

©Barnardworks 2004