Interview: Willis Barnstone '48

by Maria Hummel

Photos by Seth Affoumado

Willis Barnstone '48

Web Exclusive: The complete interview

On a sunny weekend in August, Willis Barnstone '48 H'81 has just returned from Athens, where he spent his last night attending a concert at the Roman Herodian theater at the foot of the Acropolis. "Subject was popular Mediterranean song. Went on from 9 in the evening to 1:45 a.m. and not a soul left the huge marble amphitheater," the 76-year-old writes via e-mail, giving the impression that his own enthusiasm far outlasted that of most ordinary men and women.

Boundless passion for his favorite subjects is a hallmark of Barnstone's literary career, which unofficially began with a 1948 letter to The Nation regarding Bowdoin's fraternity system and has carried him through numerous languages, literary forms, and nearly 60 books. In the past year alone, he has published a complete translation of the New Testament , a memoir entitled We Jews and Blacks , a hefty collection of mystical texts called The Gnostic Bible , a poetry translation, Antonia Machado, Border of a Dream , and more is on the way.

From his home in Oakland, Calif., he answers questions about his work:

On writing:

There's a portion of an Antonio Machado poem that you translated thus: "In my heart I had/the thorn of passion./One day I pulled it out./Now I feel no heart."

Many writers' greatest fear is that they will lose passion in their work. You have been channeling the muse for so many years, and, it seems, without break. Do you have any advice on longevity in the literary life? What drives your own passion?

When I'm asked about "what drives my passion" - Ruth Stone in a blurb writes "Does he ever sleep? - my stock answer is "Insecurity." And really, it's true. I do believe in what I do, but like Oliver in Oliver Twist, I want more. I think it means I love the act of creation. It takes me elsewhere, I've gotten good at taking the trip, and if I do write, I am not satisfied unless it is my best, at least by my vision. So unless it comes as a complete gift-that happens too-I work till it clicks. That is joy.

As for longevity, excuse my clichés, but at 76 I'm in good health, dance, do a hundred pushups a day, right weight, and while I could die tomorrow, for now I'm young. In my work, while I depend on memory and experience in the art, I also feel very much at the beginning. I've sworn I won't do any more huge projects, yet have just a few I need to do.

w_poeticsofecstasy.jpg There are some writers who fade - W. H. Auden, ee cummings, both so full innovation at the beginning and then began, somewhat dully, to imitate themselves, becoming a self-parody. Eliot just stopped the last 20 years. But Yeats got better and better and so did Rilke. I like my early work. But I also feel more young and starry-eyed now. Illusion? OK, illusion. My favorite, or surely one of my favorites since I don't want to forget Plato, Spinoza, Bergson and Wittgenstein - see how old fashioned I am - is Plotinos (I use Greek spelling), the 3rd century Alexandrian neoplatonist. When his student asked him whether he could have a painter paint him, he answered "Why paint an illusion of an illusion?" I am with him, believing in the illusion, the other, the double. Did a whole book on it once, called The Poetics of Ecstasy: From Sappho to Borges. Well, you see where this monologuing chatterbox comes from.

Your own poetry has a worldly countenance, much of it chronicling journeys and journeys within journeys. In your sonnets, the sentence rhythm often stops and starts like a train going through stations. Where did you get your poetic ear from?

Barnstone was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 1997 for this collection.

I am always on Kafkian and Cavafian journeys where the destination is, as in Cavafy's "Ithaca," just a pretext for the trip, and in Kafka, whose messenger will take five centuries and still not bring news to the emperor in Beijing from the Great Wall, again we have the infinite or impossible make the fantastic realistic now interesting and throbbing.


I have many models, and now, nearly finished with a sequel to The Secret Reader, which combines a number of new books of unpublished sonnets, and to be called A Rose in Hell, I am also becoming self-parodic, but I do love change, which keeps me alive. One of my favorite poets, Wang Wei, the Tang poet whom Tony and I translated (Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei) used a very limited classical Chinese vocabulary. But in each poem his subtle variations of syntax, his new slant, gave ultimate freshness to his deep plainness. He "danced in chains" as they said about this great period of very formal poems (much like the sonnet in having a short story and lyric at once) and yet completely natural overheard conversation. A beautiful combination, best caught in great popular song.

Well, influences on the sonnet. From English for me the obvious: Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Wilfred Owen. I steal from them all. In Spanish, very much the six poets in Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet, a book I love. spanish.jpgThey are Quevedo, Sor Juana de la Cruz, Machado, Lorca, Borges, and Miguel Hernandez. In French it is the 16th-century French poet Louise Labé, whose 24 sonnets I've translated. They are in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now I did with Aliki, my daughter. And among the other influences in the sonnets are all the poets I love best, Seferis, St John of the Cross, Cavafy, Sappho, Rilke, and some Russians.

Where did I get my poetic ear? I wonder. I hope from popular song. I love Cole Porter. After all, he is from Peru, Indiana, and wrote about Boston baked beans making love. What could be more familiar? I love all popular song, from Mexico, Greece, Spain, France, Buenos Aires, it goes on.

In all this I've forgotten to mention Robert Frost and Dante and Dylan Thomas. I was lucky to know Frost, to have had a fine lunch with him along with the Wesleyan poet Wilbur Snow - lunch with Snow and Frost while I was teaching at Wesleyan. His "Stopping in Woods on a Snowy Evening" haunts me. Everything about the ear, about music is contained in that poem. And in Machado. So there.

On race:

Your first publication was a 1948 letter to The Nation about the ghettoization of Jews and blacks to their own fraternity. It became a major instigator of change on campus and Bowdoin emerged as one of the first colleges to integrate its fraternities. How did it feel then and how does it feel now to be a part of the College's history?

I think all my mistakes have saved me. It was a mistake (then) to go to Bowdoin. I had fine professors, a few good student friends, at the time the most extreme anti-intellectual and bigoted environment I've ever experience (all changed) no women then, which added to the intense misery and weird wildness, and all of this darkness, tramping through the snow to have all my meals the first few years, since they shut Moulton Union down for those living in dorms (22 of us in all), and all of the beauty of the chapel, the wood, my native Maine, and Bowdoin's gloomy Hawthorne fire, plus great philosophy profs, made me, to my surprise, a poet.

I thank Bowdoin for that. Yes, I'm full of nostalgia for all that darkness. Now it is a bright sunny school, with beautiful women, prestige, modernity. When I went there after the earlier enlightened schools I had attended, Stuyvesant in NY, a science high school, the George School, and Exeter, Bowdoin was exile. And that's why it saved me. The whole world is exile, which is why we're alone and moving, and remember, the world is a handkerchief, as the Spaniards say, El mundo es un pañuelo. So I love that pañuelo, which was Bowdoin. My earliest experience with Bowdoin was actually through a young law student, named Pierce, who when I was 11 lived with us in Manhattan. He was killed in WW2, a great friend and a direct descendent of the Bowdoin graduate, in or in next class with Longfellow and Hawthorne, who became president.


In We Jews and Blacks, you write about how, in childhood, you acutely felt the differences between your mother's refined New England background and your father's "raw" New York heritage. Did these two halves of your self contribute to your lifelong fascination with the 'other'?

Perhaps. My mother gave me shyness, perhaps, my father (well it was more Boston than New York rawness, since he was born and grew up there, and left home and school at 12 there) gave me all the rest. I adored them both, but my father gave me hope and confidence. I think of him always. You have read the poems, and the theme continues in Life Watch. As for the other, I think that too happened at Bowdoin. My senior year was mainly philosophy and I lost a sense of my geographical self inside, and still have. That nowhereness, the search and terror to find something, led me to poetry, which seemed a tangible touchable image, not an abstract thought, though good poetry - Shakespeare - always has both. As for my New York heritage, well, I've written a novel I hope soon to publish, A Swan Over Manhattan. New York, which I seldom, alas, visit, is my hometown, my provincial neighborhood, my cosmopolitan fancy.

This 2003 poetry collection earned Barnstone nominations for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award, along with his fourth Pulitzer Prize nomination.

There's a moving anecdote in We Jews and Blacks where you and your father take your black maid Leah to see Paul Robeson in "Othello." Afterwards you drive home in complete silence. Can you comment on this silence now, especially in light of the relationships you underscore in this book-was there nothing to say or too much?

I don't know. I think my head was filled with all the thoughts described in the episode, especially because Leah was like a mother, a smart one, an unprivileged one, who was both friend and teacher. That she was also a victim, earning I think $10 or $12 a week, with meals, and returning each night to Harlem, with its old Dutch name, to an apartment I never visited. All these contradictions were in my mind, but also so was Othello himself. Silence, you must know, in music and life, is dream time. It is creation time; it is the theater of introspection. I may have been there.

In your youth, you admired both poet Robert Frost and activist Bayard Rustin when you heard them speak, but you credit Rustin most of all for inspiring you. Could you talk about your experience hearing him and how it influenced your life?

Well, Rustin was an angel who deserted his winged messenger service to be a nightingale of song and action. I have liked dangerous places - he was in federal jail, I believe, for refusing to register for the draft-and Rustin was a model for all the dangerous. So I was glad to be in Greece at the end of the civil war, in Buenos Aires during the dirty war, in China during the Cultural Revolution, and I still regret not getting on a plane to go to China when Tien Amen Square started. I could have, but I was working on some literary thing and didn't. Now I look forward to a month in Syria. It's not the quietest place in the world, and Greek friends tell me don't go, which makes me more eager. Thank you, Mr. Rustin.


On Translating:

In your introductions to your Biblical translations, you mention translators from ages past whose lives were endangered by their work. As you've labored on the New Testament, have there been any passages where you wondered if your own choice of words might be considered threatening to prevailing beliefs?

Of course, throughout. That, and the literary love I have for demotic Greek, is one of the main reasons for doing that 10-year project. This is a huge subject, so I should probably stop here. But in my Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice (Yale, 1993), I do talk a lot about such things. gnostic_web copy.jpg Yes, restoring the biblical Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew names of place and person, may be threatening. Actually, my response from people, from right to left, from atheist to believer, is that what I've offered is not a threat but good information. We're in a fine ecumenical period, and people want to know more. Hence the luck now with The Gnostic Bible. Silence now.

Why the "New Covenant" instead of the "New Testament"?

The words in Greek mean a new covenant. Jerome made a mistake to call it Novum Testamentum. The Greek is base on the Abrahamic notion of a pact, or covenant with God. Paul calls it more correctly "The New Circumcision." He uses the Greek word, but knows the Hebrew word brit, meaning both a circumcision or cutting (the ceremonial act for his pact with God) and its abstract meaning of covenant. Paul said we need a new circumcision of the heart not the flesh, and quotes Deuteronomy to prove it. I didn't think it quite right to call the New Testament The New Circumcision, but Paul would have applauded, since those were his words for it. In virtually all translations of the New Testament not based on Roman and Western Saint Jerome, the title is New Covenant. And in most recent standard editions of the New Testament, if you look in a bookstore the title is The New Covenant (in small letters) commonly called The New Testament (in very big, so as not to lose the reading public). So what I have done is not original, but I or the designer decide to go all the way and put New Covenant in big caps.

In your translation of the New Covenant, you restore the line breaks to Yeshua's (Jesus's) words, making him one of the world's most venerable spoken-word poets. How did you come to this decision and why does the poetic form make a difference?

newcoveneant_web.jpgOh dear, it does. It gives him flight. And I would like to tell you that it does for Revelation (Apocalypse), which is in blank verse (New Directions did a beautiful separate edition) and now I've translated most of the great letters of the New Covenant into blank verse. It really works wonderfully for the authentic seven letters of Paul, and also for James and John. Here is some famous Paul, and see if you agree. Paul is usually considered boring. I love the crank. He is a master rhetorician, and it really comes out in blank verse. Here is the famous chapter in Corinthians. Maybe you'll agree:

1 Corinthians, Chapter 13

Of Love
If I speak in the tongue of men and angels
but have no love, I am but sounding bronze
or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophecy
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge
and if I have full faith to remove mountains
but love I do not have, then I am nothing.
If I give all I own to feed the poor
and give my body to be burned, and love
I do not have, in all I have gained nothing.

Love suffers long and love is kind. Love has
no jealousy and cannot boast and has
no pride. Love isn't crude and doesn't seek
things for itself, is not provoked to anger,
nor counts up wrongs. Not gloating in misdeeds,
its happiness is truth. Love bears all things,
believes all things; it hopes and it endures.

Love never falls.[1] Yet prophecies will cease
and tongues turn dumb and knowledge also end.
We know a thread, we prophesy a thread,
no more, yet when perfection[2] comes,
the thread, a tiny part, will disappear.

When I was a child I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child and reasoned like a child.
When I became a man I put an end
to childish things. For now we look into
an enigmatic mirror.[3] One day we will gaze
face to face.[4] Now I know in part, but then
I will know in full as I myself was fully
known. Now faith, hope, and love remain,
these three. Of these the greatest one is love. [5]

The Apocalypse is the one book of the Bible that we still project on the future rather than the past. How did it feel to translate that text?

Like heaven. A disturbed heaven, and like hell. I've been to Patmos where Yohanan (names are all imaginary) supposedly wrote it in a grotto, during a period of two-year exile or in Ephesos, nice, but not as good a place. Each time I've gone to Patmos I read Apocalypse in the Greek in the grotto of the monastery. You know it is an attack, they say, on Nero, but is actually on Augustus (too long to explain here) because Augustus in 4 B.C. after Herod the Great's death sent his Syrian general to crucify some 4,000 Jews (a small uprising during the chaos) and among those who died, says the Dead Sea Scrolls in two hymns, was the Essene Messiah figure named Menahem, Hebrew for comforter, and in Greek translation The Paraclete, which is the mysterious word that only John (the Gospel) uses for Jesus the savior. Strange that the Essene messiah (in Greek messiah is Hristos or Christ in English) disappeared on the third day after his crucifixion, from the streets of Jerusalem.

How did it feel to translate it? Well, I thought it an extraordinarily important text, the early Christian Jewish attack on the hated Romans, which could never be said if Christianity were not to be wiped out-hence the Gospels as an apology for Rome and Pilatus, the huge murderer, even too much for the Romans-and so he used the metaphor of the Babylonian captivity, 6th c. BCE, and spoke of the whore of Babylon instead of a Roman emperor. That he could get away from, but the readers understood. How did I feel? I felt like Milton or Shakespeare or Yohanan the author while translating it. That's the only way you can make a partnership with the original author of the art.

What was the hardest thing about translating the New Covenant?

The time, the 10 years, and it was also the best. I thought the last three years to finish Book 2, Acts and Letters, half the New Testament, would really kill me. I turned into a hermit, from dawn to midnight, canceled talks, but got it done. It should have been done by a big committee over a decade or two, as my friend Marvin Meyer tells me. But the impossible and hardest is the nicest part of translation. Sappho's fragments are just that. So I've worked on her poems in her Ailolic dialect since before 1965 when the bilingual Doubleday Anchor version came out. I've just finished a much added to version that will be out in early spring with Shambhala.


You once translated Mao Tse Tung's poetry. Did you find beauty in his work, and if so, was it hard to reconcile with the deeds of the man?

Yes, it was hard, because in the end he was a Stalin type. But he was China's best 20th century poet, and I think there are few literary Chinese, and almost everyone is now against the old killer and famine creator, who would not agree on the classical beauty of his old-fashioned poems. He allowed no one else to write in the old forms, and gave the "modest" excuse that he was too old to know anything else. During the Cultural Revolution the bookstores had only five authors for 10 years (the rest temporarily out of print) and they were Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

As you've roved around the world and through the literature of numerous countries, has one language/literature influenced you the most? Or do you find that different traditions have influenced different phases of your life?

Oh, I'm asked about what country and language I like best, and there is only one, but it keeps changing its name. Its name is English, French, Greek, Spanish and Chinese, and the lands that go with those languages, which in the case of Spanish is Spain, Mexico, and Argentina (and Peru for Cesar Vallejo).

Willis Barnstone '41

Do you find yourself thinking/writing like Rilke or Machado or Sappho when you translate their poetry? i.e., do you feel you have a chameleon voice or is there an essential Willis Barnstone who appears throughout your translations? How do you recognize him?

I'm a monkey with languages. I really have a good ear, like a child, though I have a terrible ear for keeping a tune (which kills me), poca voz perod desagradable, my Basque friend told me, a small voice but disagreeable. Yes, I do feel like these poets, but I think I feel also like a self of my own. A friend of mine, Breon Mitchell, once said to me, you are so diverse but it's all related. I think Saint John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz) is everything in thought, mysticism, lyricism, and absorption of the self into the other. We have little more than a dozen of his own poems, including the long "Spiritual Canticle" based on the "Song of Songs." I am a chameleon. Or a whore with a lot of lovers.

I have begun to be friends with and recognize Willis Barnstone (I prefer to call him Pierre Grange), though I don't always like him, and try to reform.

This past year, Willis Barnstone has published:
(click on a cover to purchase the book through the Bowdoin Bookstore.)

The Gnostic Bible, edited with Marvin Meyer (Shambhala)
Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, translation (Copper Canyon)
We Jews and Blacks: Memoir with Poems (Indiana University Press)
Sweetbitter Love: The Poems of Sappho, translation (Shambhala)
The Sonnets to Orpheus by Ranier Maria Rilke, translation (Shambhala)

Nuit de demain / Night of Tomorrow, bilingual poems (Sheep Meadow Press of New England)

To find out more about Willis Barnstone, and to see a complete list of his publications, please visit:

Maria Hummel is a poet and novelist living in Los Angeles.

[1]Or more freely, "fails."
[2]It may signify "perfection," one of its Greek meanings, in the sense of the day of perfection or salvation. It can also be read also as "completion," since it contrasts with the partial. It also may signify the completion of the circle of life, salvation, or any ultimate transcendence. The meaning is deciphered diversely and remains uncertain, which is one of its strengths.
[3]The KJV gives us the insuperable "2For now we see through a glass, darkly." "Glass" must be understood as a mirror, probably of bronze, since there were no mirrors then of glass. The Greek word ai[nigma (aínigma) means "indirect or indistinct" but also carries the meaning of enigmatic, that is, dim, obscure, and mysterious.
[4]Presumably looking at the face of God.
[5] In this brief chapter, presenting an ultimate yet atypical Paul, we hear the poet Paul who is Shakespeare, or the poet Shakespeare who is Paul.
While there are words in Paul's verses that may be read for specific theological meanings, here the means are metaphor and poetry. God and the Messiah, the synagogue and clergy, go unnamed. This deeply moving meditation on love, directed largely to human love of other human beings, remains a miracle of the spirit.