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Donald Hall, in the introduction to Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (1978), his account of Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, makes the modest claim, “There is a minor tradition in literature . . . [that] derives from curiosity about people we admire.” Hall places his book in the “genre of literary gossip” in an attempt to deflect criticism from those scholars who have tried to separate the written text entirely from the author’s life, but he also asserts that as a writer himself, “this book records a portion of my education”; he goes on to praise Hugh Kenner, “the best critic of modern literature,” who is not “paralyzed by fear of biographical heresy.” Hall’s comments are designed to prepare the reader for a personal response to four major figures in modern literature and for Hall’s description of his participation in their lives. The problem he addresses concerns the degree to which he inserts his own experiences amid his recollections, because the total removal of the “self” that learned from, was inspired by, and even became friendly with a legendary artist would be as great a deception as its elevation to an undeserved central position.

Mary Barnard, whose instinctive modesty is striking, especially among artists whose capacity for self-promotion has been enlarged considerably by modern American society, was faced with the problem of how much of her own life to include when she began to compose a book that would contain previously unpublished letters from Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. At the age of seventy, she realized that some of the prominent people she knew were disappearing “not so much into the grave, which would be only natural, but into unwieldy tomes written by people who never knew them.” Her correspondence had grown out of a desire to learn more about literature, and she felt an obligation to younger readers, who might share her desire to learn about the process of a writer’s life.

When Barnard began to write to Pound, Williams, and Moore, these writers were isolated from the central flow of American literary life and they maintained a correspondence, a lifeline connecting them to a circuit of inspiration and support. The circuit was small enough to admit other participants whenever there was a sufficient demonstration of interest and ability, and Barnard’s open, responsive, and intelligent letters claimed the attention of the people she admired. They recognized that she was the best kind of student they could have, a tie to the next generation when they were denied the possibility of teaching at American universities.

Barnard said that her original intention was to begin her “literary memoir” with the first letters she received from Pound and Williams, but she “realized that the reader needed to know where I started from and how I got to what proved to be my taking-off point.” This realization is crucial to the structure of her memoirs, which are divided into three parts and which follow a threefold pattern of organization. Like most memoirs, the book is a record of a journey, and in this case the course of the journey is the development and cultivation of the poetic perception which eventually enabled Barnard to imagine the creative psyche of Sappho and then to reinvent Sappho’s art in vital, contemporary poetic measures.

In terms of chronology, the book is divided into the years of her early life and education until her graduation from Reed College in 1933, the years from the beginning of her correspondence with Pound through her initial decision to learn classical Greek while recuperating from a serious illness in 1951, and a concluding section covering the years in which she completed her translation of Sappho’s poetry and visited her mentors. Behind this chronological arrangement, however, there is another pattern of organization which controls the narrative progression. It consists of three intermingled paths, including the development of Barnard’s mind so that she might fully appreciate the guidance of her teachers, the reaction of her teachers to their student’s growth, and the creative demonstration of her understanding of what she has learned. This structure raises the poets’ letters from important documents in American literary history to the level of a living testament to the dedication and ingenuity of artists committed to something beyond their own production; it also balances the tendencies of those artists who see themselves always in some kind of competition with their peers.

While the letters Barnard received are extremely interesting, the majority of the book is in Barnard’s words, and its appeal depends on Barnard’s ability to make her life interesting when she is not involved in a literary conversation. There is some flatness when connecting details are related, but Barnard’s own voice keeps the book alive through its decorous tone and its dry, if subdued, wit. The warmth and generosity of her approach is expressed in her dedication: “To my Young Friends,/ Fledglings/ in the Forests of Helicon.” Characteristically, Barnard offered her book, as she seems to have dedicated her life, to the Romantic myth of the young artist, fresh and hopeful and at the onset of an exciting quest. The highlights of the quest are the letters, pictures, illustrations, postcards, and other memorabilia reproduced in the text, but Barnard was successful in creating a narrative of “a feminine climber’s determined and sometimes partially successful assault on Mount Helicon” that a reader will be grateful to join.

Assault on Mount Helicon

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1946

Once when he was preparing to teach a course in minor writers at a New England preparatory school, Robert Frost remarked, “I’d like to get the boys acquainted with some of the fellows who didn’t blow their trumpets so loudly but who nonetheless sounded a beautiful note.” If one were to determine the justice of a writer’s claim to be of major significance by the deceptive but often applied criteria of his celebrity or the volume of his production, Mary Barnard would surely be regarded as a “minor writer,” but if one were also to consider the excellence of a writer’s work, the “beautiful note” Frost wished to celebrate, then Mary Barnard, the author of an exceptional translation of Sappho, might be more properly regarded as a “minor writer” of major interest.

It is unusual, in these brash and contentious times, to discover an author so diffident that one almost longs for an occasional lapse into arrogant bad taste or at least some overt display of the artist’s ego. Barnard’s “literary memoir,” Assault on Mount Helicon, is an account of a lifelong love affair with literature that is so consistently modest, warm, and generous that it seems to be the work of a person living in some early, more tranquil time. One might imagine that Barnard’s devotion to Greek poetry is part of an attempt to locate herself away from the furor of modernism in an unthreatening Attic retreat, and yet she is a knowledgeable, enthusiastic supporter and practitioner of modern poetics; was a correspondent and then-sympathetic friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; and a real pioneer in methods of re-creating the sensibility and artistic temperament of Greek mystery religions which directly defy the teachings of C. G. Jung, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sir James Frazer, and Sigmund Freud. She is, in other words, a woman whose recollections of her acquaintances in the realm of American letters and of her efforts under their direction to develop a style and voice are an important contribution to the intellectual history of American literature in this century.

The tone of the entire book is struck by the dedication:

To my Young Friends,Fledglingsin the Forests of Helicon

Characteristically, Barnard offers her book, as she has dedicated her life, to the romantic myth of the young writer, fresh and hopeful, in an idealized vernal wood amid a “poetic” landscape. Towering above, toward the summit of poetic achievement (the legendary Mount Helicon, home of the Muses), the mighty figures of Pound, Williams, and Marianne Moore stand as inspiration and guide. Like most memoirs, Barnard’s book is the record of a journey, and in this case, the course of the journey is the development and cultivation of a poetic perception which eventually enabled Barnard convincingly to imagine the creative psyche of Sappho and then to reinvent Sappho’s art in vital, contemporary poetic measures. The most compelling aspect of the memoir is the juxtaposition of Barnard’s composed, friendly, rather reserved style—“wrought with a purity of language, a clarity of balance and sense,” W. S. Merwin contends—with the jagged, singular personalities of Pound and Williams and the delightfully idiosyncratic, powerfully and hermetically logical mind of Moore. Barnard’s letters from Pound and Williams are like a superb textbook on the form of modern American poetics in midcentury, while her observations about these men and many others, including Delmore Schwartz, E. E. Cummings, Kenneth Fearing, Henry Roth, and Carl Van Doren, are an interesting amalgam of insight and genteel eavesdropping.

Even as a young child, Barnard knew her vocation. She recalls that she was “always trying to find words that would capture something of the experience so that [she] could put it down and keep it.” She remembers how she was drawn to complete unfinished quatrains she found in an early songbook and how excited she was when she found a copy of a handbook entitled The Art of Versification with its explanation of the basic rules of scansion. She describes her surprise and delight at the sound of spoken Greek when she heard a classics professor at Reed College reciting Homer and her pleasure in membership in the “Gawd-Awful Society,” where undergraduates read their “gawd-awful poetry and their gawd-awful prose.” Her college days were alive with the rapture of discovery, a familiar and reassuring emotion for anyone who shares her passion for literature, but through these years, she appears to have been following a road often taken. Then, in the kind of quietly audacious action that has marked her life, Barnard decided to write to Ezra Pound.

There may have been something ingenuous in 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,” but there is also a kind of seriousness and understated confidence in this gesture to which the poet probably wanted to respond when he received her letter in Rapallo, Italy, in 1933. Various versions of Pound appear in the writing of all sorts of experts and observers, but the man who replied to Barnard was conspicuous for his individuality and humaneness. In the letters that Barnard quotes, Pound resembles the graduate-school teacher every student wishes for—wise, reasonable, and encouraging, in a style both stunningly singular and engagingly personal. “Certainly DONT try to be profound,” Pound writes:

Say what you have to say and don’t worry re/ what you haven’t. Be content to learn your job// that is matter of grind and study of the MEDIUM, i.e., language and everything it consists of consonants, vowels, AND the relative duration of the different sounds, and of their agglomerates.Simply haven’t time to write criticism, this a.m.or indulge in perlite langwidge.I take it immediate answer is preferable to delay.

Barnard reproduces many letters and postcards not included in Pound’s published correspondence, and one can sense the excitement she felt as she labored to satisfy her mentor’s injunctions. One can see, as well, how important this correspondence was for Pound, cut off in Italy as the war approached, and for Marianne Moore, isolated with her invalid mother in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village, and for Dr. Williams, overworked in Paterson, New Jersey, and rarely getting to New York City in spite of its tantalizing proximity. In the late 1930’s, these three great writers were still largely ignored by the conservative critics of the literary establishment. The correspondence they shared was like a lifeline, connecting them all to a circuit of inspiration and support, and the circuit was small enough to admit Barnard.

At Pound’s suggestion, Barnard wrote to Moore and Williams in 1934. Moore’s replies were both reserved and amiable, keenly observant and strikingly original. Her language sounds as much British as American, as if it were descended from a kind of British English transposed to America centuries ago and evolving on another track in a different environment. Her ingenious syntax is startling in its clarity and composure:With regard to COLLEGE SCENE, might I say that defiance is helpful and to be emotionally compressed—even over-compressed—aids one later, by permeation; but the treatment which can protect one in the mood of least ostentation from verging on ostentation, is a delicate problem. The antipodal merit, concealment, is well used in THE SHELTERED FLOWER.

Williams is very much the “old soul so kind and meek” of Allen Ginsberg’s “Death News,” a caring, gentle man, very sensitive to the fact that he is dealing with a fairly fragile young writer, even to the point of exaggerating his praise. Running through Williams’ words is a current of trenchant conviction in what he is doing and in what he really believes both poetically and politically.

From the mid-1930’s through the mid-1950’s, Barnard maintained a correspondence with these writers, and the body of her memoir reproduces these fine letters, along with her comments and reports about her other literary contacts. She is something like a modern American Boswell, but her observations are always presented with an instinctive sense of taste and decency. She was present at the creation of some of the most important elements of the American literary cosmos, working for Charles Abbott on the Lockwood Library collection of American poetry at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1940, and assisting James Laughlin, the visionary founder and publisher of New Directions, when Laughlin operated out of a building in the Connecticut countryside which Barnard remembers as “not a cow barn.” She spent five years as a research assistant for Carl Van Doren, the eminent historian, and spent several years engaged in frustrating struggles with various publishers in an attempt to get some mystery stories into print. These incidents, and many others, offer a lively, episodic account of an eager, intelligent writer on the fringes of literary success. There is, however, an important aspect of Barnard missing in this period.

The missing factor is the mature artist of the Sappho translations. For nearly four-fifths of the book, Barnard writes from the perspective of her apprenticeship. In 1951, however, just past the age of forty, she was bedridden for months with a serious illness. She was determined to use this time of enforced idleness profitably, and she decided to satisfy a lifelong ambition to learn Greek. Upon her recovery, she continued her visits to Pound in Saint Elizabeth’s, and to Williams and Moore around New York, but, abruptly—or so it appears in this account—she was no longer the shy apprentice; instead, she had become a woman of strong judgment and real accomplishment. This crucial change in Barnard’s outlook is presented as a fait accompli, and the reader is bound to feel unsatisfied. More material in response to Pound’s pointed remarks about her social life (“As to MEN/ there was a likely lad passed through here six weeks ago/ needs something above the average to look after him. No need of yr/ tying up and being sunk by the iceman”) might have been revealing here, but even without an account of that part of her life which Barnard chooses not to disclose, the last fifty pages of her memoir are quite illuminating, as her prose becomes tighter, deeper, and more acutely critical.

Barnard’s explanation of her growing understanding of Sappho is frustratingly brief but fascinating. She had learned some Italian for a trip through Italy that Pound orchestrated, and she came to Sappho’s poetry through Salvatore Quasimodo’s translations. As she studied the fragments of Sappho’s poems and the available information on Sappho’s culture and religion, the work of Barnard’s life seemed to coalesce in a profound understanding of the poet. One wishes that Barnard would have omitted some of the repetitious detail she has included on various routine social encounters and amplified her examination of how she put Sappho’s lyrics into English. Nevertheless, her comments lead the reader to the translations themselves (Sappho: A New Translation, 1958), and they are an appropriate complement to Barnard’s memoir.

As Barnard’s memoir concludes, her tolerant but precise views of Pound’s notorious politics, Williams’ somewhat weird ideas about women, and Moore’s rather sad, claustrophobic life have a power that has previously been held in reserve. It is as if a secret, other book has been running under the surface of this one, a book that might have been intertwined with it. What remains absent, however, does not detract from the pleasure one obtains from what Barnard has offered.


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