Mary Barnard’s work shows the influence of the modernists transposed to a minor key. Although it lacks the cosmopolitan effusiveness of Pound or the cultural skeet-shooting of T. S. Eliot or the secret ambition of Williams, it nevertheless sets forth a legitimate agenda and succeeds in convincing its readers that although it is small as an oeuvre, it is by no means slight. Moreover, the scope belies the small size. If one believes with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that one of the distinguishing characteristics of high art is its ability to pack maximum content into minimum space, then the miniatures of Barnard offer more aesthetic satisfaction than their collective heft would suggest. By invoking the mythical within the ordinary and the everyday within the mythical, she created a resonant parallel device for treating the subjects of her choice: childhood, the meaning of change, the pervasiveness of limits, humanity’s relation to nature and to its past, and the fate of women.
Although she wrote essays and fiction as well as translated from the Greek, these endeavors provided—to use one of her favorite images—a spring from which to enlarge and refresh her poetry. In its classical approach to hidden truths about human nature, it bears resemblance to such earlier writers as Léonie Adams and Louise Bogan. Her translations of Sappho show what can be done to breathe life into revered but seldom-read classics, and the autobiographical Assault on Mount Helicon is an important and engaging document of literary history and literary survival from one who wrote from “the far shore” but was nevertheless in the midst of one of the great cultural revolutions of modern times. Her honors and awards include the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1935 and the Western States Book Award for Poetry in 1986 for Time and the White Tigress.