Vancouver’s Mary Barnard Shined as One of the Leading Poets in the 20th Century

Clark County’s Mary Barnard was a world-class poet and literary figure in the 20th Century. An only child, her inspired life began on 11th Street in Vancouver on December 6, 1909, to parents Samuel and Bertha. Before her passing on August 25, 2001, Barnard’s life journey revealed itself as highly textured, vibrant and engaging. 


Mary Ethel Barnard  headshot
World-class poet Mary Ethel Barnard was born in Vancouver, Washington and lived a good portion of her life there. Photo courtesy; Betty Bell

“Mary was absolutely devoted to her work and was very self-disciplined because it meant a lot to her,” says Betty Bell, Barnard’s literary executor and close friend. Bell, a successful pianist, is also a retired English teacher. “She was a great talent. She was a very private, kind, and generous person. She was a great friend.” 


A devoted poet first, Barnard also penned fables and was a novelist, playwright, essayist, mythologist and editor. Her extensive body of published books and works included her sharp observations, clarity of thought, honesty of purpose and love of peeling away the superficial to reveal the essence of things. She had mastered the craft of writing and done so with a dry wit, keen eye and warm spirit. In addition, Barnard served as a translator, archivist and social worker, among her many skills and talents. She earned multiple awards and recognitions between 1935 and 1999 in Clark County and Portland as well as nationally.


“I consider her to be one of the finest mythologists of her time,” says Jan Anderson, a retired English professor specializing in world mythologies. Anderson has also authored articles about Barnard for the Clark County Historical Museum. “She wrote a book called the ‘Mythmakers,’ and from page one to the end, it is absolutely stunning.” 


Mary Barnard shown in her early years with her grandmother.
Mary Barnard shown in her early years with her grandmother. Bell writes that Barnard loved to track down an answer or solve a problem by ruthlessly searching for the primary source. Photo courtesy: Betty Bell

Mentored by some of the literary greats, including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, Barnard’s contributions to the poetry and literary world are significant. One of her best-known works is the translation of “Sappho” from Greek to English in 1958, which sold well over 100,000 copies and is still in print today. Among her published books, she penned a literary memoir, “Assault of Mount Helicon,” which dives into her career, poets, and writers she came to know and her arduous navigation through the publishing and literary world. 


“She read everything, all kinds of things that she could get her hands on,” remembers Bell. “She was just brilliant.”   


Buxton Beginnings 


In 1914 when Barnard’s father, Samuel, lost his job at the Pittock and Leadbetter Lumber Company in Vancouver, he was appointed to head the mill in Buxton, Oregon, and moved his family there. Barnard was 4 years old. Barnard learned to read during these early years but not with any great encouragement from her mother. One day, when Barnard’s mother was too busy to read to her, she looked at a poem and found she could recite it! She knew the poem, which set off a chain of events that led Barnard to discover even more poems in newspapers and magazines and any place that featured these literary delights. 


Returning to Vancouver


Mary Barnard sitting with a paper in her hand, reading
Mary Barnard had the soul of a poet in spite of sojourns in other career fields and forays into other genres of literature, writes Jan Anderson. Photo courtesy: Betty Belle

The Barnards returned to live in Vancouver in 1918, where they would live for the next 45 years. Samuel was now a timber broker, and Barnard and her mother, Bertha, would enjoy going with him on buying trips into the mountains and through the Columbia River Gorge. Historical notes reveal the natural beauty of these trips and summer treks to Long Beach, Washington, influenced Barnard’s poems.


“She was very emotionally disciplined,” says Anderson. “She knew the rivers, the trees, the mountains. She had startling, brilliant images that come from being an imagist and just part of who she was.” 


Gaining Ground 


Barnard attended Vancouver High School and graduated from Reed College in 1932 during the Depression. In 1933, Barnard felt she needed a mentor. So, she sent six of her poems with a request for guidance to Ezra Pound in Rapallo, Italy. Barnard had admired Pound’s poetry in college. She received a quick reply, and the poets would correspond until Pound died in 1972. 1n 1934, Barnard found a job as a social worker with the Emergency Relief Administration. She began to communicate with notable poets William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, who encouraged Barnard to submit her poems to Poetry Magazine. This led to national attention and the first of many distinguished awards.


East Coast, Abroad, and Home


a selection of Mary Barnard's works on a table
Mary Barnard’s expertise with verse is evident in other literary forms, among which is her best-known work, ‘Sappho: A New Translation,’ published in 1958 and written while ill after she returned to Vancouver in 1951. Studying Greek and the fragments of Sappho alleviated the boredom of being bedridden. Photo courtesy: Betty Bell

In 1936 with her status on the rise, Barnard travels to New York upon Pound’s advice. She meets well-known poets and writers, including Williams, Moore, E.E. Cummings, and Robert Fitzgerald. Notable events, among many, in her life include becoming the first curator of the poetry collection at Lockwood Memorial Library at the University of Buffalo between 1939 and 1943, where she would lay the foundation for one of the most unique and complete 20th Century poetry collections in the country. In 1940, Barnard was the only woman in the “Five Young American Poets” anthology series with “Cool Country,” her debut collection of 31 poems. In 1949 the first of several trips abroad furthered her literary connections. In 1951, Barnard fell ill with hepatitis and returned to Vancouver, where she worked on Greek metrics while recovering. She continued to write and publish work until her passing in 2001. She was 91. 

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