Poems where the heart is

Willis Barnstone

Willis Barnstone believes poetry is the basis of literature and of life.

Willis Barnstone believes poetry is the basis of literature and of life.

While driving through Reno at age 15, Willis Barnstone thought it seemed “a nice, small town.” He and his father continued on their journey and put the small town behind them, in search of larger places. Now in his mid-70s, Barnstone has spent his life on the move. For the second time in as many years (he came to Reno in April 2002), he returns to Reno for a series of talks about those larger places he has found, in poetry, translation and the Bible.

Willis Barnstone is probably not a name you recognize; he’s been too busy to worry about that. He has been a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing University and currently is a professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, where he founded the Institute of Biblical and Religious Studies. He can translate from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek and biblical Hebrew. He has published more than 60 books and been a Pulitzer finalist twice. His books include The Poetics of Translation (Yale, 1995), The New Covenant (Putnam Penguin, 2002), Life Watch (Boa, 2003) and The Gnostic Bible (Shambala, 2003). This April, his newest translations, Border of the Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, will be released by Copper Canyon Press.

It’s difficult to guess where he finds time to eat, much less write his own poetry.

Despite anonymity, Barnstone has been a distinguished and influential translator of ancient religious texts. His 1984 tome, The Other Bible, a collection of apocryphal books that were either left out of or rejected from early forms of the Bible, arguably sparked, or at least was on the leading edge of, the current renewal of interest in the recovery and translation of early Judeo-Christian texts.

Barnstone subscribes to no particular established church himself. He does, however, recognize the historical significance, not just of texts as artifacts, but as a means for understanding the foundations that culture is founded on.

“I’m not a person of faith, but I like religious works,” he says. “I want to try and translate everything in the most beautiful poetry.”

This desire comes from his conviction that poetry is essential. He points to Psalms and Song of Solomon as examples of the living tradition of poetry in religious texts.

“Have you ever been to Temple? The Hebrews chant. They do not speak their religious texts,” he explains over the phone. “This should be carried over in translation. … Virtually everything is poetry—but much of it was never lineated.” Lose the line breaks, and it’s a bunch of verses but no poetry.

“The center of everything is poetry,” he says, “and I’m lucky enough to be a vagabond poet.”

Barnstone says poets do not have the corner on the market for poignant moments, but that literature, writing and the human experience go back to poetry.

Barnstone’s visit to Reno is made possible by Nevada Humanities. Steve Davis, assistant director for Nevada Humanities, is enthusiastic about the Barnstone visit, which will culminate with a poetry workshop, on Feb. 28, guided by Barnstone and his children, Aliki and Tony, who are also accomplished poets.

“We’re happy to welcome Willis back to Reno,” Davis says. “The reading with his children should be a wonderful event, and we hope people can make it for his talks throughout the week as well.”

Barnstone gives free presentations to the public Feb. 23-28, all of which will be interpreted for the hearing impaired. He’s looking forward to the upcoming talks and the chance to come to Reno again. And anybody who appreciates poetry ought to be glad he’s back.