Mary Barnard presented her initial education in a small Western town in the early days of the twentieth century as a preparation for the beginning of her real education: the initiation of her correspondence with Ezra Pound. Pound’s famous “Ezuversity,” a college of letters (literally) sent and received by Pound, had no specific guidelines for its applicants. Barnard demonstrates in the first part of her memoir (as she demonstrated to Pound with her letters) that she was qualified by both temperament and training. Pound’s fascination with language finds an analogue in Barnard’s recollections that she was “constantly looking, feeling, registering, trying—always trying to find words that would capture something of the experience.” She describes an almost visceral urge to complete unfinished quatrains in a song book and her excitement when she found a copy of The Art of Versification, which explained the basic rules of scansion, indicating a near-religious response to linguistic and syntactic order that approximates Pound’s devotion to metrics. In accordance with Pound’s dictum in ABC of Reading (1934) that poetry loses vitality when it is removed from song, she recalls her delight at the sound of spoken Greek when she heard a classics professor reciting at Reed College, lifting literature from the page into living breath, confirming her nascent belief that the reality of literature was as significant as any other version of real life.
Even with her background, however, there was something bold and audacious about her looking up Pound’s address in Who’s Who in the Vancouver, Washington, library and in requesting assistance from the man who “knew more about the techniques of writing poetry than any other living poet.” The combination of Barnard’s diffidence, ingenuousness, and daring struck a responsive chord in a man who, in his younger years, liked the effect of an outlandish gesture. Barnard was also moved by a kind of desperation when she, out of college in the midst of the Depression, read that W. B. Yeats in his twenties knew all the poets of his generation, while she was trapped in a small town and had no literary prospects.
The reply that Barnard received suggests that Pound was immediately impressed by her seriousness and understated confidence; although he was wary of an unknown with no references, his letter was a mixture of inquiry, encouragement, and cautionary admonition, combining the qualities of a tutor probing to see what a student needs with those of a master testing to see if a would-be disciple is worthy. Barnard herself reacted to Pound’s idiosyncratic style of expression with a mixture of awe, appreciation, and insight; the resulting exchange of letters offers one of the most revealing and attractive portraits of Pound that exists. Various versions of Pound appear (“the last rower”; “the solitary Volcano”; “the greater craftsman”) in the writing of all sorts of experts and observers, but the man who replied to Barnard is conspicuous in his individuality and humanness. He is like the graduate school teacher of whom every student dreams—wise, reasonable, and encouraging, in a style both stunningly singular and engagingly personal. Practically no other letter writer has been able to express so much of his “voice” on the page, a tribute to Pound’s exceptional powers of invention and his grasp of every possibility of typographic arrangement. Typically, Pound combines conversation and instruction: “You hate translation?? what of it?? expect to be/ carried up Mt Helicon in an easy chair? . . . If you learn to write proper quantitative sapphics in the/ amurikun langwidge I shall love and adore you all the days/ of my life . . . eh . . ./ provided you don’t fill ’em with trype.” When Barnard sent him some international reply coupons, Pound’s bluff humor reflected his pride (“My dear child/ Don’t send me coupons for return postage/ Times may be hard, but ‘dey ain’t that hard’”) and in a letter signed “yr venerable uncle/ Ez P,” he...
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During the early decades of the twentieth century, there were two competitive and almost mutually exclusive communities of literary thinkers in the United States. The more influential and better-known, the one which controlled university departments, was predominantly British in its orientation, formalist in its philosophy of composition, and classical in its methods of critical inquiry. The other, almost entirely invisible to the public and with practically no influence in publishing or scholarship, actually surrounded the English tradition, reaching back to multinational literary antiquity and forward to a future embracing the new world. Its approach to composition was not bound by traditional literary expectation, and its critical thinking challenged the concept of a formal confine that awaited the artist’s approach. It was, in Jerome Rothenberg’s words, “a counterpoetics that presents . . . a fundamentally new view of the relationship between consciousness, language, and poetic structure.” Most students of literature during that time were inclined by exposure, influence, and the circumstances of publishing toward the academic tradition. A few, in various unique and unusual situations, were drawn toward the “revolutionary” strain. Mary Barnard, seemingly suited by character, background, and training to follow a conventional literary career, became instead a part of an outlaw network of American artists whose radical sensibility and aesthetic daring and originality finally began to achieve appropriate recognition in the last decades of the twentieth century. Her memoir overlaps both literary communities in that she worked as an assistant for the historian Carl Van Doren, attended library gatherings (such as the Yaddo colony), and knew relatively mainstream figures such as Delmore Schwartz and E. E. Cummings, but her friendship with her correspondents and her contact with publisher James Laughlin, whom she met when he was starting the legendary New Directions press, form the most memorable part of her historical record. Her book is an indispensable account of the thoughts and feelings of several major figures in American literature at a time when they were still struggling beyond the bounds of the defensive, conservative, and self-enclosed world of American letters.