Willis Barnstone Highlights National Poetry Month Event

SOCORRO, N.M. April 8, 2010 – Renowned poet and author Willis Barnstone will make a special appearance at New Mexico Tech on Monday, April 12 to celebrate National Poetry Month.

“I’m thrilled that we were able to get Willis Barnstone to come to Socorro,” said Tech associate professor of English Dr. Mary Dezember. “He’s a fascinating speaker and a world renowned poet and scholar.”

 Dr. Willis Barnstone, writing while on a recent trip to China.

Barnstone is also a multi-linguist and master translator. His most recently publication, The Restored New Testament, from Norton, which he translated from the original Greek, “gives the philology of all names of place and person and restored the original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew names, indicating that these people were from ancient Israel and not London or Kalamazoo,” he said.

The latest of his 58 books is receiving rave reviews from critics around the world.

Dezember, who is also the chair of the CLASS Department said the special event is noteworthy not only because Barnstone is a top scholar, poet and writer, but because he is an engaging personality who can capture an audience.

“He’s spellbinding,” she said. “He’s interesting and personable; plus he’s a fascinating presenter.”

Barnstone will read from a variety of texts, starting with his own poetry and sprinkling in passages from his new book, including the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and Revelations. He said he’s most looking forward to discussion about religion, spirituality, Jesus’ message and the Bible.

“There’s nothing more fascinating and interesting that debating religion,” Barnstone said. “I’ve been on a lot of media programs and I always look forward to that.”

To close the event, he will sign books and greet those in attendance. The event will begin at 7 p.m. Monday in the Tripp Room of the Skeen Library.

Dezember has a special connection with Barnstone. When she was a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, she studied with Barnstone.

“As an 18-year-old, I discovered Sappho’s poetry,” she said of the ancient Greek poet. “I later found out about the translation process and realized that you could get a very different translation depending on the translator.”

The version of Sappho’s poetry that captivated the teen-age Dezember was translated by Willis Barnstone.

“I went to grad school and found that Dr. Barnstone was there,” she said. “I went to meet him and introduce myself and I was in awe. Here was the person who had translated this poetry and influenced me so much … and he was accessible and friendly and good to work with.”

Barnstone became one of Dezember’s mentors and sat on her dissertation committee at IU. They have stayed in contact over the years and she is excited to bring Barnstone to Socorro for the first time.

“He has known about New Mexico Tech since I came here in 2000,” she said. “He’s fluent in Spanish and has translated several famous Spanish poets. He always reminds me that I’m not pronouncing ‘Socorro’ correctly. He’s always been in interested in coming here.”

A native of Maine, Barnstone has traveled the world. By the age of 25, he had already lived in Mexico, France and Greece – and was fluent in the languages of those countries. He’s always been fascinated with the American West, but the prime reason to visit is that his former pupil is in Socorro.

“One of the main attractions at New Mexico Tech is Mary,” he said. “She is a bright star.”

A graduate of Columbia and Yale, Barnstone has been said to be “addicted to foreign languages.” He has taught literature and language around the world, including Greece, Argentina and China. 

Dezember said his adroitness in translating is rooted in his natural talent as a poet, his love of language and his knowledge of foreign tongues.

“He’s mastered the sonnet form and has done amazing work in poetry,” she said. “He has the additional gift of somehow connecting with the original poet and connecting with their intentions.”

Now a resident of the Bay Area in California, Barnstone retains the position of Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University and is the former O’Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University. He was a Guggenheim fellow and his titles include The Other Bible, The Gnostic Gospel (with Marvin Meyer), The Poetics of Translation, Life Watch and The Complete Poems of Sappho. He has published more than a dozen volumes of his own poetry.

Judging from the reviews, The Restored New Testament is Barnstone’s crowning achievement.  Reviewer Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News wrote that Barnstone’s publication is one of the two most important books of 2009. He wrote that “The Restored New Testament is the Samson attempt of one great scholar and translator to knock down ancient pillars of error, injustice and persecution. In that endeavor alone, it may be the most important book of the year. Barnstone, in his magnificent, indeed historic, new translation of the New Testament — into both poetry and prose – … intends nothing less than a secular reformation through new translation — a ‘restoration of openness’ in blood-drenched Western conflict.”

On the Amazon Books website, reviewer David Karpook wrote that Barnstone’s translation is a “towering achievement … he unveils a poetic beauty that adds to the spiritual beauty of the lessons. Finally, his commentary and notes are extraordinary. If I could give this book six stars, I would.”

Barnstone has received similar praise from book reviewers in print and online.

“I worked on this book for 20 years and I’m delighted with the reviews,” he said. “But it would be nice if someone were angry about it. That would tell me that people are taking it seriously.”

Barnstone said his prime message is understanding. He said most religions tend to promote tribalism and patriotism instead of Jesus’ true message.

“The history of the world is full of examples,” he said. “My whole take is the opposite.”

Barnstone, 82, has received the highest awards in literature and poetry. He has won the Emily Dickinson Award of the Poetry Society of America, W.H. Auden Award of the New York State Arts Council, and four Pulitzer nominations. His work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, Poetry, The New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement.

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech