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Channeling Sappho By Bill Donahue Calligraphy by Carol Erickson DuBosch
Mary Barnard ’32 (second from right) and fellow Reedies get their hands dirty for Canyon Day.
It all began, arguably, in the mouth of a crocodile. When the late Greeks and the Romans tired of Sappho, they treated the papyri bearing her work as something like old, coffee-stained newspapers. They used it as packing material—and one day in 1900, as a workman was digging in the Fayum basin of Egypt, looking for mummies on the site of an old Hellenist city, Oxyrhynchus, he unearthed the leathery body of a mummified croc. Inside its mouth were blackened papyri; hundreds more crocodiles were likewise stuffed. Most of the long-buried papyri were dross—IOUs, invitations, tax returns, laundry lists. But Oxford grads Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt kept probing through a nearby ancient garbage dump. They gathered scraps as small as postage stamps in reed baskets and brought them to England. By 1915, they’d reassembled texts from Euclid, Pindar, and Euripides, along with 56 undiscovered fragments of Sappho.
The new Sappho prompted great joy in London, for there a brash young American expat poet, Ezra Pound, was hatching a new literary movement—modernism—that was at war with Victorians like, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and their longwinded, fanciful musings. In founding a lit journal called Des Imagistes, Pound called on writers to present “images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.” He also advocated a vigorous mining of classical texts, sprinkling his own poems with snippets of Greek. Sappho’s clarity and elusive mystique thrilled him. And as the Sappho papyri were shipped to the British Museum during the nineteen-teens, Pound was often there in the refreshment room, sharing buttered toasts and cream puffs with his old flame, the poet Hilda Doolittle, or HD, as they argued over verse that Hilda had written in Sapphic style.
Mary Barnard was starstruck by the whole episode. In a letter to her parents, she asked that they give her both the poems of HD and a translation of Sappho for Christmas. At Reed she veered from an institutional mania for T.S. Eliot (“It was Eliot, Eliot, Eliot all the way,” she wrote) to embrace the man who edited Eliot’s antiepic, The Wasteland: Ezra Pound. “He knew more about the technique of writing poetry than any other living poet,” she says in her 1984 memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon, “and I had a sneaking suspicion that he might like the kind of poems I wrote.”
In 1933, with the ink still wet on her Reed degree, she was living at her parents’ house in Vancouver, babysitting here and there for 50 cents an hour and arduously writing. She finally screwed up the courage to send Pound six poems and a note beseeching advice. Pound responded as he did to all letters—with a garbled note that reads like an antediluvian text message. “Age?” he harrumphed. “intentions? how MUCH intention? I mean how hard and for how long are you willing to work at it? . . . Nice gal, likely to marry and give up writing or what Oh?”
Barnard responded with sass: “I’m a nice gal, yes, but not in the least likely to get married. I abhor kitchens, I’m scared to death of children, and I have an extraordinarily chilly disposition. That I should give up writing is inconceivable.”
Soon, the correspondence between Barnard and Pound was flowing. She played earnest student. He rattled off hoary advice—and launched her into the giddy swirl of literary life. With reference letters from her mentor, Barnard moved to New York in 1935 and befriended Marianne Moore. William Carlos Williams—26 years her senior, and a known philanderer—made an unrequited pass at her on the Brooklyn Bridge, then became a close pal. In 1940, New Directions Press included her, along with John Berryman, in a momentous slim volume, Five Young American Poets. She found work as an indexer and research assistant.
But still her life was not easy. Barnard was an odd bird—on the outside and alone in many a social setting. The only child of a traveling lumber buyer, she’d spent her freshman year at Reed with “no friends at all,” she writes. And when she traveled to New York, she was “green as grass” and “very shy, and more than a little terrified.” Her life was solitary, and small. In recounting her time in New York to James Anderson, she once told him a story about buying a warm winter coat. “That was the highlight of her whole year,” says Anderson.
She was never robust, and in late 1950, after losing her job, she came down with what her autobiography calls “the Bug-of-the-Year. I became more and more depressed, probably because I was already ill,” she writes in a rare confessional moment. “In January, when my landlord decided to put in a new boiler during a cold snap, it was the last straw.” Her weight plummeted to 105. She checked into the hospital. She spent a month convalescing at a friend’s apartment. In the spring she traveled home to Vancouver, so that her aging mother could tend to her in the family’s generous, tree-lined home near the center of town. Upon arrival, she came down with hepatitis B.
This bout of illness changed her life. She would lie in bed for about six months, and she would never again seek full-time work. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before she’d pull up stakes in New York. In 1957, she would leave the city and settle back into her parents’ home, on a permanent basis.
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