by Jane Simonton
In a room comfortably crowded with students, faculty and community members, Professor Emeritus of Classics Bill McCullough introduced his friend visiting poet Willis Barnstone.
Barnstone, an American poet and translator who spent 30 years teaching a myriad of subjects at Indiana University, read selections from his personal poetry in Peirce Lounge on Monday night. His newest book, Moonbook and Sunbook, will come out in May.
The 55-year friendship between McCullough and Barnstone was apparent as the evening began. The introduction was a delightful exchange between the two men, with McCullough making several jokes — including one about the two men’s disagreement about the pronunciation of Sappho — while Barnstone, seated in a chair next to him, giggled along and shared his own anecdotes to match McCullough’s lecture.
When Barnstone took over, he did not disappoint. The poet began by explaining to attendees the privilege of Kenyon students, pontificating on their ability to take the time to come to a reading such as his — a poignant yet interesting lead, given that the first piece he read was entitled “Funny Ways of Staying Alive.” The poem had short, quippy rhymes such as “to feel the naked truth / undress and pull your tooth,” “if sex is stress / don’t undress,” “when you need to pee / nicest is the sea” and “a man with a gun / is a barrel of fun,” the last of which he looked up after and commented, “You see? Very grim.”
Barnstone’s reading was full of anecdotes; he stopped to tell stories between every poem and sometimes even during, if he felt it would enrich the experience. His informality created a light, relaxed environment.
Barnstone’s penchant for unpretentiousness was only furthered by the fact that he had prepared very little before coming to speak.
“I wanted to read things I’ve seldom read before,” Barnstone said, explaining that most of the poems he was reading were ones he had not looked at for years until reviewing them on the plane on the way to Kenyon.
“It’s interesting to discover yourself,” he said. “I’ve written so much, it’s all fresh.”
Barnstone shared poetry he had written in both Spanish and French, and much of his work was based on people he had met or issues of social justice and happiness. Poetry has been a way for Barnstone to reflect on parts of his life and how they have changed, exemplified by a poem he wrote about his time at the George School, a Quaker boarding school.
“They teach all kinds of love at the George School,” the poem went, “except between bodies in a bed.”
After reading this line, Barnstone stopped and added that he had since returned to his alma mater, which now gives out condoms to students upon graduation, and remarked how much the times had changed.
His quirkiness and anecdotes also kept the reading lively, as he paused while searching through poems to do various activities like hold up an old photograph and say, “Here’s a photo, if anyone would like it, of Babe Ruth and me, 11 years old, in my Boy Scouts uniform,” or remark that he once “put up Allen Ginsberg for a weekend in Beijing in 1981.”
Barnstone’s delightful performance was nothing if not lively, and listening to him was a treat. By the end of the reading, it is safe to say the crowd enjoyed him so much that no one cared how Barnstone chose to pronounce “Sappho.”