Mary Barnard Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 973 words.)