Willis Barnstone talks about poets & the poetry of Jesus

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.In Part 1 of our coverage of Willis Barnstone, we published an overview of his new book along with some samples.
Also, we published a new poem that Willis wrote on the occasion of this interview.
TODAY, we publish ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Willis Barnstone:


DAVID: You rank among the most prolific poets, so let’s start with a question about your poetry. You’re famous as the author of more than 1,000 sonnets. A new volume of them is forthcoming. How did you write so many? Are lines of poetry always swimming around in your head? Are your pockets stuffed with scribbled-up slips of paper? Tell us how you have written so much poetry.

WILLIS: No one has ever asked me that very sweet question. Well, for example, I was working on a poem when the telephone rang for this interview. (Now published in completed form.) I am always writing and I don’t mind interruptions. But, let me start by explaining that half of the poetry I write is formal, and half of it is free verse.

The first poem I published was actually in a French magazine. I was a 20-year-old graduate student at the University of Paris in 1948 at the time. Then, the second poem I published was a sonnet, a somewhat artificial piece of work. I wrote a few more sonnets over the years, but not too many. Then, 18 years before The Secret Reader, my main collection of sonnets, came out—I was riding in my car at night going up to Purdue from Indiana, when I began to think about two sonnets. I had a very bad recording device with me, but I tried to use that as I went along in the car. However, when I got home, the recording quality was so bad that I could hardly hear my own words. I wound up listening to it over and over until I could decipher each word. That was the start and, then, I planned to write a total of 25 sonnets. Suddenly, that became 100. I won various prizes with my work and eventually I got this letter from Knof, I think it was, asking if I wanted to publish these sonnets.

I decided to wait and I’m so glad I did because it took me many more years to finish all 501 that appeared in the first collection, The Secret Reader. After that was published, it took me a while to de-sonnet-ize myself, but I learned to do that, too. And, then, of course, I began to write many more.

Where do the words come from? You get a feeling, an emotion, and if it is genuine then you can write. Sometimes at night when I’m dreaming or perhaps while taking a shower, words may come to me. Then, I write with whatever I have handy. If I have a computer handy for writing, then I write on a computer. I like seeing the final form take place on a computer. But I write nine out of ten of my poems by hand because that’s usually the first thing available to set down my words.


A 12th-Century illuminated manuscript looks back to St. John as the legendary Gospel writer contemplated lines in Greek.DAVID: Your work as a poet, translator and educator circles the globe. Back in my own undergraduate days in the mid 1970s, I studied under the poet Joseph Brodsky, who managed to master both Russian and English. But you’re accomplished in so many languages, certainly more than Greek and English. You’ve worked with Chinese, Spanish, French and other languages. So, this is a rare opportunity for our readers to hear from a master of world poetry: Can you name a few poets who we should seek out from other world cultures?

WILLIS: Oh, so many! People should read Sappho, Pindar, John Donne and, of course, Blake. They should read more of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson. And Borges, too. There are so many!

DAVID: The poetry of Jesus comes to us from Greek Gospels, so let’s focus on Greek poets. You’ve mentioned Sappho from the ancient world. How about more contemporary Greek poets?

WILLIS: Well, there’s George Seferis who won the Nobel Prize, I think at least in part because of the very fine translation by Edmund Keeley. And then, oh yes, C.P. Cavafy and I would have to recommend the translation by my daughter Aliki Barnstone.

DAVID: Great suggestions. I love Cavafy’s Myris Alexandria, which evokes this 4th Century pagan, named Myris, who winds up becoming part of the early Christian community. Myris dies and the poem is written from the perspective of an old pagan friend who looks in on the memorial rites. It’s haunting. I remember first reading and memorizing some of Cavafy in the early 1970s not long after some of the Keeley books on Cavafy came out. I still recall the opening lines of Myris:
When I heard the terrible news,
that Myris was dead,
I went to his house, although I avoid
going to the houses of Christians,
especially during times of mourning or festivity.

I realize it was Keeley’s rendering that we memorized as students, at the time. Now, we will also tell our readers about your daughter Aliki’s edition, The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy: A New Translation. In fact, I’m enough of a Cavafy fan myself that I’ll order a copy of that edition, too.

WILLIS: One good thing that my daughter did in her version is to place the poems in their chronological order. That’s interesting because, during his lifetime, Cavafy rejected some of his poems that later were found in Alexandria. But in the past, they were just put at the end of the book, regardless of when they originally were written. She puts them all together including the earliest poem, which is a wonderful poem about Julian the Apostate. Here’s a good example of different approaches to translation. Keeley did a splendid job on Seferis and Seferis is almost exclusively free verse. But, Cavafy is almost exclusively formal and what’s magical about his formalism is that he wrote this way in the best sense of modern poetry. My daughter’s translation of Cavafy restores more of the original music in Cavafy’s lines.

DAVID: One more question on world literature: Our readers have a long interested in China and writings like The Analects, which collected around Confucius. There’s even more interest in this today, given the growth of China as a world power and the recent release of a Hollywood-scale epic, based supposedly on the life of Confucius. It’s simply called Confucius, and it’s available in DVD and Blu-ray. But here’s the problem: I’ve seen the movie and it is full of high adventure, but it’s more Hollywood than actual precepts of Confucius. Then, if we turn to Amazon, we find hundreds of books on Confucius. You’ve worked on some Chinese projects, like Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei with your son Tony. Tell us what translations you recommend on Confucius.

WILLIS: Well, there are various people who have done them well and certain people who don’t do them well at all, so that’s a good question—but it’s also a difficult question. I would say that, for his time, Arthur Waley did a very good job on The Analects. But I would recommend others, like the translator Burton Watson who gave us his version of The Analects. And then there’s some wonderful work from Michael Nylan in books like Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages.


Ancient fragment of Greek Gospel of MarkDAVID: Turn to biblical poetry, our readers will recall that we just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible last year. Probably our most popular story in that series was: Can You Tell the Bard from the Bible? What do you think of the King James version? I gather from what you’ve written that you admire much of it.

WILLIS: Yes, I say that in the preface. I love everything they translate and it’s amazingly accurate given the bad texts they had to deal with. They were working with copies of copies of copies. For example, they had texts that were translated from the Latin Vulgate back into the Greek, and you can imagine what other kinds of bad versions they were using as their sources. Their best copies went back to the 13th or 14th centuries. Today, we have texts that go back centuries further.

Generally, they did not make mistakes in terms of misunderstanding things. But every translator changes each new version according to what’s politically or religiously correct at the time. And those translators did some of that, too. Overall, the magnificence of the King James Bible is both its glory and its defect. From that era, I would say that the Tyndale translation is much closer to the original, but it isn’t as easy to read as the King James today.

DAVID: We should point out to readers that your new Poems of Jesus Christ is actually from a much larger translation you completed. I would urge people to go ahead and order a copy of the new book, which I think is great for inspirational reading and small-group discussion. If they like the way you handle these lines, they should know that these texts also are part of The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. Is that right?

WILLIS: Exactly. In the course of doing this book, I did look back at the Greek again and I made a few changes here and there. But 90 percent of the texts in this new book are the same as what you’ll find in the Restored New Testament. The prefaces to each book in this edition are all new. Some are based partly on the prefaces in the earlier book, but they are all freshened.

DAVID: I’ll close with a question we always ask: How do you describe your religious affiliation?

WILLIS: I am a Jew and there’s no secret about that. I’ve written about it in other books. Has that influenced my translations? I suppose that as a Jew, and knowing other cultures as well, I want to make it clear to readers of my translations that Jesus wasn’t a fellow from Kalamazoo—he was a person from the Middle East.

DAVID: That’s certainly a big part of the teaching that comes from the whole spectrum of today’s leading Bible scholars: properly remembering Jesus’s origins and context.

WILLIS: That’s right. But I also want to say that the distinction as a Jew does not define me. In fact, I try to tackle the vital questions of religious harmony vigorously and I prefer to do that without typing myself as Christian, Jew or Buddhist. I prefer my words to be read as neutral and fair. In fact, if I were to name an official denomination I’ve attended, I would have to list the Unitarians or, earlier in my life, the Quakers, based on my Quaker schooling.

The problem I’m trying to describe is the same issue described by John Shelby Spong, who has written about growing up in a community where he just assumed that Jesus must be a Swede.

I make no secret of my background. In fact, I wrote part of a book about relations between Jews and blacks. But I want to transcend these tribal associations. I think that is the great challenge we all face if we are ever to mend the hostilities between the religions of Abraham.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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