Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1662

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.

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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 advises Barnard about her social life, mentioning a “likely lad” who “needs something above the average to look after him.”

Yet Pound’s stylish instructions on the art of poetry and his maverick social outlook are not all that he had to offer. Taken together, Pound’s letters form a chart of the invention of the modern study of metrics, a history of the modernist progression from meter toward measure as a calibration of rhythm. In conjunction with a selection of letters sent to other correspondents, Pound’s letters to Barnard are like a literary history of a submerged but vital current in American literature, the Whitman-Pound-Williams-Olson tradition largely ignored until it burst into view with the publication of the groundbreaking anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 in 1960.

Pound’s isolation in Italy as World War II approached undoubtedly made the letters important for him, and his suggestion that Barnard get in touch with Williams and Moore was meant not only to augment Barnard’s education but also to assist two other great writers struggling on the fringes of recognition. Moore was anchored to her invalid mother in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village and Williams was committed to his medical practice in Paterson, New Jersey, as well as to his writing. He rarely reached New York City in spite of its tantalizing proximity.

In the mid-1930’s, all three of these writers still faced considerable difficulties in getting their work into print in a form or forum that pleased them, and they were still almost entirely ignored by the conservative critics, who tended to celebrate the familiar. The only reaction to their work that they could trust was from their incisive friends, and while the rather hermetic nature of this situation did not seem to affect Moore that much, Williams shared Pound’s conception of the poet as part of a venerable tradition in which the artist was like a learned counselor for his city-state (the Greek polis) and, like Homer, a storehouse of knowledge for his culture as well as a commentator on the current political and social health of his community. At Pound’s suggestion, Barnard wrote to Moore and Williams in 1934; while their letters to her are not as striking as Pound’s, these writers’ impact on and importance in American literature can be seen in Barnard’s accounts of their developing friendships.

Moore’s prose has some of the distinctive attributes of her poetry—a quality of composure that suggests infinite patience and an almost unique fusion of formality and friendliness. The letters to Barnard are both amiable and elevated, as if she is genuinely extending herself while reserving some private space as a gesture of respect both for Barnard and for her self. Her comments are keenly observant, sometimes unexpectedly ironic, and practical, perhaps a tacit recognition of the extra obstacle she and Barnard faced as women in a clearly patriarchal aesthetic hierarchy. Moore sounds as much British as American in her letters, but a kind of British transposed to America centuries ago and evolving on another track in a different environment.

Williams seems the “old soul so kind and meek” of Allen Ginsberg’s memorial “Death News” in his letters, a caring, gentle man who is sensitive to the fact that he is dealing with a fairly fragile young writer. The strength of his spirit is shown in his exaggerated compliments for Barnard’s work at a time when his own discouragement about publication is palpable. His enthusiasm might seem indiscriminate except for his impressive record of judgment. Among others, he strongly supported Ginsberg, Moore, and Olson. Throughout Williams’ letters and comments to Barnard, there is a current of conviction about what Williams believed both politically and poetically; in her contacts with him in later years, Barnard offers a sympathetic view of an older man still “keen-eyed” (to use Ginsberg’s term) despite illness and the infirmity of advancing years. His warmth and his tentative counsel are conveyed in letter after letter:Anyhow, I didn’t mean you were precious to a fault. I meant what you know as well as I do what I meant. In a way it’s in all your poems. At [its] best it’s fineness, delicacy—the best, maybe, that’s in you. You can’t get away from that. But it can turn sour too if you don’t watch it. That’s all I meant. Take it easy. Don’t believe me and don’t, for the luv of Pete, ever act on what I say without waiting a year, at least, to pass first!!!

Through her comments and observations, ranging from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1950’s, Barnard is like an American Boswell, close to and confidante of greatness but still living in the provinces. Her sense of tact and taste is beyond anything James Boswell might have considered, but her relationship to Pound and others is similar to Boswell’s connection to Samuel Johnson—that of a student to a master. Then, in the last section of the book, she moves from apprenticeship to full mastery of her craft. As she studies the fragments of Sappho’s poems and the available information on the Greek poet’s cultural background and religious tendencies, all that Pound has shown her coalesces with the work of her entire life into a profound understanding of the poet. Her translation of Sappho is well received and in her concluding chapters, her prose becomes tighter, deeper, and more critically acute as she speaks with the confidence of an accomplished author. In her final pages, her tolerant but precise views of Pound’s notorious politics, Williams’ somewhat odd ideas about women, and Moore’s rather sad, claustrophobic life have a power that has been previously held in reserve. Although her natural inclination to submerge her opinions and accomplishments is still in evidence, the final stages of her life mark her emergence from the shadows of Mount Helicon into the light of its summit.

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Critical Context