Mary Barnard, American Imagist
State University of New York Press, 2013

Sarah Barnsley ’95


Mary Barnard ’32 is justly known as the preëminent translator of Sappho, but seldom has she been properly appreciated as a poet in her own right. Sarah Barnsley wants to change that. Contending that Barnard has too long been a footnote to more familiar names in American modernism, she aims to “fully investigate the character of Barnard’s poetry and lift the footnote to the center of the page in the story of American modernism.” She makes the case that the devotion to lyricism, natural speech, and telling detail that made Barnard’s translation so powerful also places her centrally among the ranks of American Imagists. Barnard’s poetry was informed by a combination of her study of Greek at Reed, her austere upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, including time spent in “spare, desolate spaces” along the Long Beach Peninsula and the sawmills she visited with her lumberman father, and the influence of the modernist poets—including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and H.D.—whose work she first encountered in a creative writing class taught by Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English & art, 1929–69]. 

Imagism took modernism a step further in its emphasis on compression and minimalism, simplicity and restraint. Sarah, a lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, explains that “spare plainness” also was a hallmark of Sappho’s poetry. Although Pound and other Imagists had modeled work on Sapphic fragments, it was Barnard who combined plainspokenness, musicality, and movement in a way that made Sappho accessible to a modern American audience in her acclaimed 1958 volume Sappho: A New Translation (which has been in print continuously since, selling more than 100,000 copies). Barnard’s experiments with Greek metrics led her to come up with what she called “weighted syllables” and “balanced lines” to create a new, natural rhythm for American verse, in much the way that William Carlos Williams, who became Barnard’s close friend and champion, landed on the “variable foot” in his quest for a voice “in the American grain.” Barnard and Williams shared what Sarah calls “a desire for an American poetry based on the gritty specificity of lived reality,” equally manifest along Barnard’s deserted beach at Ocean Park, Washington, or Williams’ industrial Paterson, New Jersey.

—Karen Pate ’79