Mary Barnard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

Mary Barnard was born and raised in small towns on the western coast of the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, far from the urban centers of the modernist movement and even farther from the islands off the coast of Asia Minor where the Greek myths were created. Nevertheless, following the guidance and encouragement of the modernist Ezra Pound, she taught herself Greek and wrote an extraordinary translation of Sappho’s extant fragmentary lyrics. Barnard’s friendships with Pound, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and other important figures in early twentieth century American literary circles culminated in an informative, appealing, and sensitive memoir about her life as a writer and as a member of that literary community.

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Barnard spent her early years in Vancouver, Washington, and in Buxton, Oregon, where her father worked in the lumber industry. As an isolated child in a small mill town, she began to read as a form of companionship; she recalls that even in childhood she was “constantly looking, feeling, registering, and trying—always trying to find words that would capture something of the experience” of her life. She began to place some light verse in her high school paper and was introduced to contemporary poetry by Harriet Monroe’s anthology The New Poetry, first published in 1917 and revised several times. In 1926, Barnard sent some poems to the most prestigious literary journal in the country, Monroe’s Poetry, and was encouraged by a rejection slip that included the word “promising.” At Reed College, a progressive liberal-arts school in Portland where she enrolled in 1928, she majored in comparative literature, was impressed by Virginia Woolf’s dictum in A Room of One’s Own (1929) to “get on with the story,” and wrote as her senior thesis a group of original poems. Her first published work appeared in the national magazine College Verse in 1933. The onset of the Depression prevented her from entering graduate school. Then, in an act of audacious self-reliance, she looked up Pound’s address in the Vancouver Public Library and sent him six poems and a letter describing her ambitions. Pound’s immediate reply introduced her to an epistolary network that led to a self-directed education in both contemporary American literature and the classical studies Pound was pursuing in his idiosyncratic fashion.

In 1934, Barnard began to write “Sapphics” in the time between periods of employment by the Emergency Relief Administration. She published poems in Poetry in February, 1935, and in the New England Weekly later that year. Although she was unable to secure a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was awarded the Levinson grant (worth $100) from Poetry and, “delerious with joy,” used the money to make her first trip to New York City, in 1936. There, at Pound’s suggestion, she met Williams and Moore, placed two poems in American Prefaces, a journal from the University of Iowa, and secured the first of two summer residences at the Yaddo Writers’ Colony. She also met Robert Fitzgerald, whose translation of Homer’s Odyssey eventually appeared at the same time as her work on Sappho. After several months, she returned to Vancouver, where, as she later wrote, she found her situation “intolerable.” She remained in touch with the writers she had met, and her correspondence with them provided her with the support that was crucial to her as an artist. Pound, Williams, and Moore, too, were in a sense isolated because of their exclusion from the main line of American publishing at that time.

Barnard continued to publish poems in such important journals as The New Republic, and in August, 1938, she returned to New York with a manuscript that she hoped would appear as her first book of poetry. Through Pound’s intervention she went to work for James Laughlin, the pioneering, visionary young publisher who was in the process of founding the New Directions Press. In addition, she took odd jobs as a typist, researcher, and baby-sitter. Starting in 1939, she spent four years as the curator for the Poetry Collection at the Lockwood Library at the University of Buffalo, a modestly remunerated position that enabled her to put together an exceptional collection of original notes, letters, and manuscripts by some of America’s most important writers.

In 1940, Laughlin included her (with John Berryman and Randall Jarrell) in Five Young American Poets. In 1942, however, she reached a kind of plateau in her poetic development and concentrated primarily on other forms until 1950. After returning to New York City in 1943, she began work as a research assistant for Carl Van Doren, eventually assisting him with five books. In 1946, she published short fiction in Today’s Woman and Harper’s Bazaar and three “fables” in The Kenyon Review. One year later she began work on a novel, Ashe Knoll, which was eventually rejected by ten publishers. She experienced what she calls “Watershed Years” in 1949, 1950, and 1951. To satisfy her lifelong interest in Italian literature, she visited Europe in 1949, following an itinerary prepared by Pound that is loosely based on aspects of his Cantos. During a serious illness in 1951, which necessitated a long hospital stay in Vancouver, she taught herself Greek. Reading Salvatore Quasimodo’s translation of Sappho into modern Italian, she found a style for her own poetry, and with Pound’s guidance from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he was then incarcerated, she began her translation of Sappho’s lyric fragments. Her manuscript was turned down by several journals but accepted by the University of California Press in 1955 and published in 1958 to very positive reviews. She followed this success with further investigations of the origins of Greek myths, as well as her readable, informative memoir, in which she presented her literary friends in a sympathetic light.

Barnard continued to write poetry and published a few memoirs. She died in 2001 at the age of ninety-one as a result of complications from cancer.

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