Afternoons with the Muse

How poet Mary Barnard ’32 inspired me to find my voice.

By John Sheehy ’82 | August 2, 1999

I first became acquainted with Mary Barnard's writing while living on Lesbos, one of the far-eastern Greek islands strewn along the Turkish coast. I was summering there, in the small coastal village of Molivos, at the end of a two-year grand tour of sorts before entering college. I passed my days on the beach reading and debating the works of the ancient Greeks with some of their present-day descendants—most of them young Greek fishermen and sailors on summer sojourn. In the evenings, we headed up to the village cafés for drinking, dancing, and impromptu poetry readings.

One of those nights in the cafés, a woman stood up and read some lyrical poems of Sappho, a sixth-century Lesbian poet, from a little book of English translations. They were short poems—only fragments of Sappho's verse have survived the ages—but they spoke with a simple directness sparked with flashes of elemental emotion. Recited together, the poems created a vivid picture of life among Sappho and her friends on Lesbos 2,500 years earlier. I was hooked. For weeks after leaving the island, I scoured bookstores on the continent until I found a copy of that little book of Sappho's poems translated by Mary Barnard.

Several years later, in my junior term at Reed, I again encountered the work of Mary Barnard while working on Reed's literary magazine, Exile, in the shop of master printer John Laursen ’67 of Press-22. There I spotted a book of her collected poems that Laursen had recently designed and printed. Learning that she was a Reed alumna and that she lived across the Columbia River in her native Vancouver, Washington, I wrote to her, asking if she would contribute a poem to a special alumni edition of Exile. She wrote back, graciously inviting me over for tea.

Lacking a car, I rode the bus to Vancouver, where Mary picked me up and drove me to her condominium overlooking the Columbia River. Her apartment was a world away from the disheveled Reed house I occupied at the time. Looking over her small but selective library, I felt as though I had walked into a literary salon.

Mary wasted no time getting down to business. Tall and dignified, with clear, knowing eyes, she sounded me out on what poets I read, what I liked, and my opinions of modern poetry. Nervous and dumbfounded, I managed to blather something about a verse in T.S. Eliot's poem "Little Gidding," at which she drew down from the shelf a hardbound copy of The Four Quartets, opened to the poem, and began to read the verse aloud. Her high, melodious voice was unlike the contemporary poets I was accustomed to hearing at the Reed Poetry Forum. She read the verse in a natural conversational style but with a distinctly measured cadence that flowed beautifully. "Little Gidding" never sounded better. This, I thought to myself, was literature.

Other visits would follow, often with my classmate Marianne Jones '82, who was writing her thesis on a German woman poet. Mary generously shared with us stories of her own time at Reed and of her mentors: poets Ezra Pound, with whom she struck up a correspondence shortly after graduating from Reed; William Carlos Williams; and Marianne Moore. She talked about her experiences in the New York literary world of the '30s and '40s, where she rubbed shoulders with other young aspiring writers such as Delmore Schwartz and Muriel Rukeyser, and later worked for years with historian Carl Van Doren. She recounted her time at the Yaddo artist colony and her stint as curator of the University of Buffalo's poetry collection. We learned that in the early 1950s she came down with two potentially fatal illnesses and returned to Vancouver, where, during her convalescence, she began working on her translations of Sappho's poetry. Sappho: A New Translation has been in continuous publication for the last 40 years and has sold more than 100,000 copies, a remarkable feat for a book of poetry.

These stories were all offered in a gentle, self-ironic manner, many of them fresh in Mary's mind, since she was working on her memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon, which would be published in 1984 by the University of California Press.

The afternoons I spent with her ignited my imagination in many ways. Her description of the literary life in New York and of her friendship with legendary literary publisher James Laughlin of New Directions, who published her first group of poems, "Cool Country," in a 1940 collection called Five Young American Poets (Mary being the only woman in the book, cheek-to-jowl with the likes of John Berryman and Randall Jarrell), would in part inspire my own move to New York City after graduation to work in the field of literary publishing.

But perhaps Mary's most inspirational gift to me that year was her thesis. Struggling myself to write a creative thesis of short stories, I went to the Reed library tower and pulled down her collection of poems, The Horae of Mary Ethel Barnard, which she had submitted as a creative thesis 50 years before. There, in a foreword called "Confessional" and a preface titled "Creed," I found two of the most elegant and moving declarations of student intellectual independence I had ever read. Too intimidated at the time to discuss them with Mary, I taped them above my thesis desk in the library to help sustain me through months of writer's block.

At age 89, Mary Barnard is still at work. Her latest publication will be of great interest to anyone who has struggled with the muse of the Reed thesis experience. Erato Agonistes, Writing a Creative Thesis at Reed College in "The Golden Age," recounts her thesis journey in faithful detail from her student letters home during the years 1931 and 1932. The story captured in these letters is of a young student put through the paces by her professorial mentors, and of that triumphant moment when the student moves out beyond the mentors' influence into a territory of her own.

In Mary's case, she was coached and prodded by four of Reed's most illustrious professors: Victor Chittick [1921–48], the professor of romantic and modern literature whose Gawd-Awful Society provided an encouraging workshop for her poetic efforts; Barry Cerf [1921–48], the classics professor whose readings aloud from Homer's Greek inspired her to register for Greek classes in her sophomore year; Lloyd Reynolds [1929–69], then teaching literature and creative writing, who persuaded her to relax her style and work at free verse instead of conventional meter and form; and finally, Rex Arragon, the high priest of Reed's humanities program, who would become her lifelong friend. With the exception of Reynolds, then new to campus, these professors were in mid-career at Reed, having been recruited during the college's early years and destined to remain there until retirement. It was a time still commonly referred to as Reed's "golden age."

With their diverse styles and academic interests, these four men come to life with surprising intimacy in Mary's letters, reminding us that apart from the professors one studies with, Reed hardly exists. Matching wits with fellow students may polish the corners of a developing intellect, much like stones rubbing against one another in a river bed, but interactions with professors supply the current that moves the river along. Carried forward on the energy of a dynamic teacher, the fortunate student comes to find that most intangible of qualities: a voice.

So it was for Mary. As evidenced in her letters, she emerged from the messy swamp of the thesis process in triumphant voice, gratefully acknowledging the influence of her mentors and confidently proclaiming her truth in the "Confessional" and the "Creed." After reading Erato Agonistes you can easily imagine how she had the courage, only a year out of Reed, to strike up a correspondence with Ezra Pound. Nor is it difficult to see the threads of her poetic creed—perhaps best characterized by literary critic Molly O'Hara Ewing as seeking the complex beauty of the simple—woven through her sixty-odd years of creative output, from lyrical poetry to short stories, verse translations, an essay in verse, and a book on the origins of myth. Never an imitator, she has invariably gone her own way, often with resounding results. Victor Chittick foresaw and acknowledged as much when he praised Mary's thesis back in 1932 as a "beautiful example of the pedagogic juggernaut overturned by a butterfly."

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