Born of parents who moved west from Indiana, a move inspired in part by the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, in 1905, Mary Barnard was born on December 6, 1909, in Vancouver, Washington. Her father ran a lumber mill, and Barnard was able to grow up happily in congenial surroundings. Her parents encouraged her early interest in poetry, and Barnard—unusual for her time—attended Reed College, where she took creative writing courses and graduated in 1932.
Twice during the 1930’s, Barnard took up summer residencies at Yaddo in upstate New York and met a number of writers, including Muriel Rukeyser, Kenneth Fearing, Eleanor Clark, and Delmore Schwartz. It was during this decade that she also began corresponding with Pound and Williams, who further encouraged her. In 1935, she won the Levinson Prize, and her poems were first collected in New Directions’ Five Young American Poets in 1940. From 1939 to 1943, she worked as curator of the poetry collection at the University of Buffalo, and from 1943 to 1950, she worked as a research assistant to Carl Van Doren and wrote fiction that appeared in such periodicals as Saturday Review of Literature, Kenyon Review, and Harper’s Bazaar. A Few Poems appeared from Reed College in 1952, and in the mid-1950’s she worked on her translations of Sappho. In 1957, simultaneously with the acceptance of her translations, she moved back to the West Coast and settled in Portland, Oregon. Her collection of essays, The Mythmakers, appeared in 1966.
The 1979 publication of her Collected Poems brought Barnard’s poetry to the attention of a new generation of readers. Both this book and her memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon, were widely reviewed and warmly received. Time and the White Tigress won the 1986 Western States Book Award for Poetry and prompted the jury to cite it as “an impressive achievement from a distinguished writer, and an admirable new American poem.” It was her last published poetry collection, and she died in Vancouver in 2001.