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News / Clark County News

Late poet’s influence lasts Friends will gather to mark 100th anniversary of Mary Barnard’s birth, promote legacy she left in Vancouver

The Columbian
Published: December 6, 2009, 12:00am
4 Photos
Steven Lane/The Columbian
Mary Barnard is known for her translation of the works of the Greek poet Sappho.
Steven Lane/The Columbian Mary Barnard is known for her translation of the works of the Greek poet Sappho. Photo Gallery

A group of friends will gather today to share birthday cake and swap memories about a woman who, though no longer with them, left a lasting impact that reached far beyond her Clark County roots.

Today marks the centenary of late Vancouver poet Mary Barnard’s birth, and friends remember her as a member of the literary elite and a native Northwesterner who could write as beautifully about a highway bridge as she could the shoreline.

“What we want to do is bring her name back to the people in Vancouver and let them know we had a true gem in our midst,” said Sue Hennum, 81, of Salmon Creek, a friend of Barnard’s since the mid-1970s.

Barnard was born in Vancouver on Dec. 6, 1909 and lived much of her life here, with the exception of a few years in Buxton, Ore., and 20 years in New York City. She died in 2001 at the age of 91.

A graduate of Reed College in Portland, Barnard travelled in the circles of Modernists Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.

She first made the acquaintance of Pound when, in search of a mentor, she went to the library and looked up his address in Italy to send him some writing samples. They corresponded over several decades, with the elder poet offering critiques and introducing her to other writers, publishers and key figures among the literary elite.

Barnard’s published career began in 1940. Thirty-two of her poems were included in New Directions’ “Five Young American Poets” series, putting her alongside such notable names as Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, W. R. Moses and George Marion O’Donnell.

Barnard melded a Modernist sensibility with her Northwest upbringing. Her father was a timber broker, and images such as a logging trestle, an axe and a plank provided inspiration for her poetry.

“She was a careful observer with a great eye for the telling detail,” said Washington state Poet Laureate Samuel Green. “‘Logging Trestle’” seemed a wonderful poem to me, for example. It seemed such an odd choice for subject matter, but she pushed it very far using just ordinary imagery.

“It helped me to remember I could write about ordinary things around me, and see the extraordinary in them.”

In keeping with the Modernist school, her verse wasn’t flowery or ornate.

“Everything is spare, crystal-clear and to the point,” said Betty Bell, Barnard’s friend and literary executor.

That directness translated into her life as well as her writing.

“She didn’t like anything effusive. It was like her poetry. She didn’t like anything superfluous or fluffy,” said Bell, 70, of Vancouver.

Barnard’s friends remember her as a serious writer and scholar. She wrote several books of original poetry, including “Time and the White Tigress,” which won the 1986 Western States Book Award. She also published nonfiction titles on mythology and genealogy and penned a literary memoir, “Assault on Mount Helicon.”

“It’s not a tell-all. She told all about her literary life, but that was it. But it was very interesting,” Hennum said.

Barnard is perhaps best known for her translation of the Greek poet Sappho. Published in 1958, it’s still in use today, and Ralph Fiennes’ character read from it in the 2008 Academy Award-nominated film “The Reader.”

Green remembers reading Barnard’s Sappho translation in beginning Greek classes.

“What I remember loving about Barnard’s translations was how beautifully they sounded in the mouth,” said the 61-year-old co-editor of Brooding Heron Press and Waldron Island resident.

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Barnard wrote and researched up until shortly before her death. She never married and had no children. She focused heavily on her work, but her interests were broader than writing. Friends recall her intelligence and her passion for art history, classical music, travel and tracing her family’s Nantucket roots.

Barnard wasn’t particularly chatty or social, Hennum and Bell said, but she was dear to those she let into her world.

“She was a wonderful friend, very honest, very kind, with a dry wit,” said Bell, who along with Hennum is planning the private 100th birthday party in honor of Barnard. “I always learned so much from her. I was very fortunate to be one of her friends.”

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.