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Her translation turned Sappho into a modernist icon

Mary Ethel Barnard ’32

A picture of Mary Barnard

Mary E. Barnard ’32 in her home in Vancouver, Washington, circa 1990. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Renowned poet, writer, and translator, Mary Ethel Barnard ’32 died August 25, 2001, in Vancouver, Washington.

She is perhaps best known for her elegant, powerful translations of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, which liberated the Attic author from a prison of Victorian verse and transformed her into a feminist icon.

The daughter of a Washington logger, Mary came to Reed in 1928, just before the stock-market crash of 1929 plunged the nation into the Great Depression. She majored in general literature and graduated, as she put it, "in the worst year of the Depression."

Mary moved to New York City and struck up a correspondence and friendship with the poet Ezra Pound that was to last until Pound’s death in 1972. Mary's first published collection of poetry, Cool Country, appeared in the volume Five Young American Poets, 1940. Other works include the prose collection Three Fables (1948) and A Few Poems (1958). In 1957 Barnard returned to Vancouver, where she lived for the rest of her life. There she published Collected Poems (Breitenbush, 1979), the autobiographical Assault on Mount Helicon: A Literary Memoir (Breitenbush, 1984), and Nantucket Genesis: The Tale of My Tribe (Breitenbush, 1988).

Her essay-in-verse, Time and the White Tigress (Breitenbush, 1986), won the 1986 Western States Book Award for Poetry.

Mary is perhaps best known for Sappho: A New Translation (University of California Press, 1958), a clear and elegant translation that has never been out of print. By 1994, the book had sold more than 100,000 copies.

In 1978 Reed awarded Mary the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

Her deft touch is apparent in her translation of a fragment of Sappho’s poetry:

Although they are

only breath, words

which I command

are immortal.

Read more about Mary's life and career:

Afternoons with the Muse: Poet Mary Barnard Dispenses Tea and Inspiration

Channeling Sappho: How Mary Barnard ’32 Liberated the Ancient Greek Poet from a Prison of Rhymes

Appeared in Reed magazine: November 2001

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