Born in Vancouver in 1909, Mary Barnard died there 91 years later. In between, she traveled to New York City and became one of the leading poets of the 20th century. Yet very few in Clark County recognize her name.
She may not have gained the prominence of her poet friends — William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound — but her contribution to poetry was solid. She’s best-known for her graceful translation of Sappho from Greek to English, which appeared in 1958 and remains in print. In addition, she crossed literary lines into biography, poetry and prose, including a literary memoir, “Assault on Mount Helicon.”
In her memoir, she says she was a lonely child who memorized the rhymes of Robert Lewis Stevenson and James Whitcomb Riley. Her mother worked for Riley before Mary’s birth in Vancouver on 11th Street.
In 1914, Mary’s father lost his job at Pittock & Leadbetter Lumber Co. and moved his family to Buxton, Ore. Mary was 4.
“Vancouver was the Paris of the West compared with Buxton, which was hardly more than a clearing,” she later recollected.
The family returned to Vancouver in 1918 and resided on E Street. Her hometown had grown. Prohibition closed its 33 saloons. World War I work at the Standifer Shipyards increased the population. And the Interstate Bridge linked Vancouver and Portland. When she recalled the Roaring ’20s in Vancouver, she mused they “hardly roared.”
By the Depression, Mary was at Reed College. She later recalled that it was rumored to be a haven of “atheism, communism, and free love.” She instead turned to Greek texts and, when not studying, slung hash in the college commissary to make ends meet or gardened. After graduating, she returned to E Street, found a job with the Emergency Relief Administration, and wrote poems.
The fall of 1933, she bravely sent six poems to Ezra Pound. His haranguing response asked: “Age? Intentions? Intention? How MUCH intention? I mean how hard and for how long are you willing to work at it?” That Pound, whose friends called him touchy and cantankerous, responded suggests he recognized Barnard’s potential.
He became a sort of mentor to Mary, and they corresponded regularly, including after she moved to New York City in 1935. Pound knew she struggled to work and write, so he arranged a research position for her at the University of Buffalo with Carl Van Doren, who was working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Published in 1938, his book won a Pulitzer Prize the next year. Then in 1940, Mary found herself the sole woman in the “Five Young American Poets” anthology series, alongside John Berryman and Randall Jarrell, who would become notable poets.
As Barnard’s stature as a poet rose, Marianne Moore proposed her for the Library of Congress poetry chair. However, in 1951, Barnard nearly died of hepatitis B.
Back in Vancouver and bedridden, she restarted translating Sappho, finishing in 1953.
Although a very private person, Barnard was open and friendly. She often entertained Reed College literary students in her home, serving them tea as they chatted about what she loved best, literature.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.