When Betty Bell was in her 40s and wondering whether she “still had a mind, after raising three sons,” she said, she enrolled at Reed College and studied modernist poetry — the imagistic writings of early to mid-20th century masters like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.
Her literary passion was noted by a neighbor, who said: “There’s a woman right down the road from us, on Evergreen Highway, who went to Reed and knew all those modernist poets personally.” The neighbor wound up inviting to lunch poetry student Bell and accomplished prizewinning Vancouver poet Mary Barnard.
“I was really nervous,” said Bell, who thought this renowned writer and thinker might leave Bell’s brain in the dust. What she discovered, she said, was a new friend who proved to be kind, straightforward, humble and simply “a really nice person,” she said.
She was also brilliant and fascinating, said Bell, who learned the story of Barnard’s life and poetry over the next couple of decades. Bell, who’s now 80, will tell those stories and read from Barnard’s poetry at 4:30 p.m. today at the Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver. The event is in honor of National Poetry Month.
The local landscape influenced Barnard and her poetry deeply, Bell said. Barnard’s father was a timber broker who took her on forest explorations, and her family took frequent trips to Long Beach; the poetry she went on to write is rich with imagery of the Pacific Northwest: waves and sand dunes, forests and fog, planks and axes.
If You Go• What: “The Life and Works of Mary Barnard,” a talk by Betty Bell. • When: 4:30 p.m. today. • Where: Clark County Historical Museum, 1511 Main St., Vancouver. • Admission: $5; $4 for seniors/students.
Fable of the Ant and the WordInk-black, but moving independently across the black and white parquet of print, the ant cancels the author out. The page, translated to itself, bears hair-like legs disturbing the fine hairs of its fiber. These are the feet of summer, pillaging meaning, destroying Alexandria. Sunlight is silence laying waste all languages, until, thinly, the fictional dialogue begins again: the page goes on telling another story. — Mary Barnard
“She was very concerned with portraying ideas and things as they are — in language that’s precise and crisp,” Bell said. “There’s no folderol, no decoration. They’re not flowery, they’re clear and concrete. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy, either.”
Barnard was born on Dec. 6, 1909, graduated from Vancouver High School and then Reed College, where she studied everything from ancient Greek poetry to the latest ideas and language of those 20th-century modernists. Then, she returned to Vancouver “in a state of depression,” Bell said. “She needed a mentor. She needed somebody to bounce her writing off, and there was nobody like that here.”
So Barnard did the sensible thing: She went to the Vancouver public library and looked up the address, in Italy, of famous expatriate American poet Ezra Pound.
“She sent him a batch of poems, and he must have been impressed,” Bell said, because Pound responded by providing Barnard introductions to many of that era’s leading literary figures in New York City, where she traveled to seek her fortune.
“At age 27, she moved to New York, all on her own,” Bell said. “It was hard for her. She was poor, and she worked very hard” to thrust herself into the swanky scene despite being rather introverted. “She wanted to make a name for her poetry, but she was shy. She knew she was a duck out of water. She was modest. She went to all the parties, but she was not an outgoing, social person.”
Despite that hindrance, Barnard stayed on the East Coast, where she found work as a poetry collection curator and research assistant; she also achieved her dream of publishing in respected literary journals and winning major awards. She branched out into short stories, detective fiction and even a novel. She toured Europe and met Pound in person.
But eventually, illness drove her back to Vancouver and her family in the 1950s. According to Bell, she was convalescing in bed when she decided to take the advice of her longtime mentor, Pound, and turn her attention back to ancient Greek poetry and language.
That resulted in “Sappho: A New Translation,” the book that’s become Barnard’s major literary legacy. Published in 1958, the book has never gone out of print; a classroom scene in the 2008 movie “The Reader” features Ralph Fiennes’ character reading Barnard’s translation of Sappho.
Barnard also went on to write several books of original poetry, including “Time and the White Tigress,” which won the 1986 Western States Book Award for poetry; she also wrote about mythology, science and her own genealogy, publishing eight books in all. One was literary autobiography, “Assault on Mount Helicon.” She lived out her life in Vancouver and died in 2001, at age 91.
Somehow, Bell said, the celebrated Vancouver writer has slipped toward obscurity again. “That’s sad,” she said.
“Mary never married and had no descendants,” Bell said.
One day when the friends were having tea, Barnard stunned Bell by asking her to become her literary executor.
“I had no idea what a literary executor is,” Bell laughed, but since Barnard’s passing, Bell has been making sure everything gets cataloged and copyrighted. “It’s been more work than I expected,” she said.
There’s a lot of unpublished poetry and letters between Barnard and Pound, she said — much of which might end up at Reed College and Yale University, both of which have Barnard collections. Bell also launched marybarnard.com. Meanwhile, British literary scholar Sarah Barnsley published a serious analysis and appreciation, called “Mary Barnard, American Imagist,” in 2013.
“What I want to do” at today’s talk, Bell said, “is take people through the journey of her life, and read poems she wrote in the many places she went. She was such a brilliant writer. She’s such a treasure for Vancouver.”