Hongcun. willis

Willis Barnstone in 2008. Photo by Sarah Handler. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Willis Barnstone
Born November 13 1927 (1927-11-13) (age 92).
Lewiston, Maine
Nationality United States American
Occupation Professor, Poet, Literary Critic, Memoirist, Translator, Biblical and Gnostic Scholar
Children Aliki, Robert, and Tony
Parents Robert Barnstone and Dora Lempert

Willis Barnstone (born November 13, 1927) is an American poet, memoirist, translator, and academic. He has translated the Ancient Greek poets and the complete fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (Ἡράκλειτος). He is also a New Testament and Gnostic scholar.


Born in Lewiston, Maine, Barnstone grew up in New York City. He lived on Riverside Drive, facing the Hudson River. He went to the World Series with his father to see Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth play.

Billy and the babe

Willis "Billy" Barnstone (left) with Babe Ruth and friend, New York Daily News, May 1, 1939. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One day in spring 1939, Joe the elevator man took him upstairs to Babe Ruth's apartment on the 18th floor. He was in his boy scout uniform. A newspaperman handed him a pile of baseball diplomas which the Babe would give out the next day at the World's Fair to raise money for poor school kids. The picture appeared on the front page of the Sunday edition of the New York tabloid The Daily News.

He went to Stuyvesant High School, the George School, and Phillips Exeter Academy. He earned a B.A. from Bowdoin College in 1948, an M.A. from Columbia University in 1956, and a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1960. He also studied at the University of Mexico, 1947, the Sorbonne, 1948-1949, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, 1952-53.

While in high school and college he worked as a volunteer with the Quaker American Friends Service Committee in Aztec villages south of Mexico City. Addicted to foreign tongues, in 1973 he studied Chinese at Middlebury College in their summer language program. He taught in Greece at the end of the Greek Civil War from 1949 to 1951 and in Buenos Aires during the Dirty War from 1975 to 1976. He was in China in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution. A decade later he was Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University, 1984–1985



Barnstone's 1st teaching position was instructor in English and French at the Anavryta Classical Lyceum in Greece, 1949–50, a private school in the forest of Anavryta north of Athens, attended by prince Constantine, later king of Greece, who was then 9 years old. In 1951 Barnstone worked as a translator of French art texts for Les Éditions Skira in Geneva, Switzerland. He taught at Wesleyan University, was O'Connor Professor of Greek at Colgate University, and is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Spanish at Indiana University where he has been a member of East Asian Languages & Culture, and the Institute for Biblical and Literary Studies. He started Film Studies at Indiana and initiated courses in International Popular Songs and Lyrics and Asian and Western Poetry.

In 1966 he founded and was director of Artes Hispánicas/Hispanic Arts, a slick, bilingual journal of Spanish and Portuguese art, literature, and music, published biannually by Macmillan Books and Indiana University. Two of its issues were published simultaneously as trade books: The Selected Poems of Jorge Luis Borges, guest editor Norman Thomas di Giovanni, and Concrete Poetry: A World View, guest editor Mary Ellen Solt. In 1959 he was commissioned by Eric Bentley for the Tulane Drama Review to do a verse translation of La fianza satisfecha, an obscure, powerful play by the Golden Age Spanish playwright Lope de Vega; his translation, The Outrageous Saint, was later adapted by John Osborne for his A Bond Honoured (1966). In 1964 the BBC Third Programme Radio commissioned him to translate for broadcast Pablo Neruda's only play, the surreal verse drama Fulgor y muerte de Joaquin Murieta (Radiance and Death of Joaquin Murieta), which was also published in Modern International Drama, 1976.

His poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The New York Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement. His books have been translated into diverse languages including French, Italian, Romanian, Arabic, Korean, and Chinese. Barnstone lives in Oakland, California. A full-time writer, he gives poetry readings, often with his daughter Aliki Barnstone and son Tony Barnstone.

With BorgesEdit


Jorge Luis Borges and Willis Barnstone, 1975. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jorge Luis Borges had already lost his sight in 1968 when Barnstone met him backstage at the 92nd Street Poetry Center in New York after a poetry reading he had arranged for the Argentine poet. So began the literary friendship of his life. In 1975-76 in Buenos Aires he collaborated with Borges on a translation of his sonnets into English. In Barnstone's poem “A Blind Man”, blind Borges looks at an infinite mirror, false and infinite that he cannot see, but which reveals all:

I do not know what face looks back at me
When I look at the mirrored face, nor know
What aged man conspires in the glow
Of the glass, silent and with tired fury.
Slow in my shadow, with my hand I explore
My invisible features. A sparkling ray
Reaches me. Glimmers of your hair are gray
And some are even gold. I’ve lost no more
Than just the useless surfaces of things.
This consolation is of great import,
A comfort had by Milton. I resort
To letters and the rose––my wonderings.
I think if I could see my face I’d soon
Know who I am on this fare afternoon.

In the States they went together to the universities of Indiana, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago to give talks (charlas) that appear in Borges at Eighty: Conversations (1982). In his memoir biography of Borges, Barnstone describes the genesis of a short story that would appear posthumously. One morning at dawn he went to poet’s apartment. From there to the airport to fly to the Andean city of Córdoba:

"These were days of the Dirty War with bombs exploding off all over the city. When I arrived, Borges was wide awake, tremendouly excited. He told me his dream. ‘I wasn’t wakened by my usual nightmare, but by a bomb, a few buildings away. So I remembered the dream and knew it would be a story. I was tramping through downtown London, looking for a bed-and-breakfast place. Above a chemist’s shop I found a shabbily respectable place and took a room.
The owner, a tall, ugly, intense man had me alone and said, "I have been looking for you."
His glare paralyzed me but in the hour of my dream I could see him perfectly well.
You can’t get what I don’t have,” I said defiantly.
"I’m not here to steal. I'm here to make you the happiest man in the world. I have just acquired Shakepeare’s memory.”
I took his bundle of papers, read one gloriously lucent page clearly from an unknown play, picked up the phone and wired Buenos Aires for my savings, cleaning out my miserly lifetime account. I heard the bomb and woke. By then I could not remember a word of the burning text of Shakespeare's memory. The words in gold on velum were there, in beautiful script but intelligible. I came out of my Shakespeare business quick, clean, and empty handed. Except for the story."
With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires (Bloomington/London: Indiana University Press,1993), 70.
In 1996 Barnstone published a sequence of 501 sonnets, including this poem on Adam and Eve who live the first morning of the globe:

On the first morning of the moon, in land
under the birds of Ur before the flood
dirties the memory of a couple banned
from apples and the fatal fire of blood,
Adam and Eve walk in the ghetto park,
circling a tree. They do not know the way
to make their bodies shiver I the spark
of fusion, cannot read or talk, and they
know night and noon, but not the enduring night
of nights that has no noon. Adam and Eve,
good beasts, living the morning of the globe,
are blind, like us, to apocalypse. They probe
the sun, deathray on the red tree. Its light
rages illiterate, until they leave.

Borges commented: “Four of the best things in America are Walt Whitman’s Leaves, Herman Melville’s Whales, the sonnets of Barnstone’s The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets, and my daily corn flakes--that rough poetry of morning.”


Willis Barnstone - Poetry

Willis Barnstone - Poetry.LA Interview Series

Barnstone's center is poetry, but his books range from memoir, literary criticism, gnosticism, and biblical translation to the anthologies A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, 1980 (with Aliki Barnstone) and Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1998 (with Tony Barnstone), and collections of photography and drawings. Funny Ways of Staying Alive, Poems and Ink Drawings, 1993, contains 103 dry brush drawings. His New Faces of China, 1973, a volume of photographs and facing poems, reveals China during the catastrophic Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Children play and smile wildly while austere adults, in identical prisonlike attire, sit on the pavement in empty Tiananmen Square.

File:Restored New Testament Cover Photo.jpg

New TestamentEdit

Barnstone's pioneer biblical work is The Restored New Testament, Including The Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Judas. In this annotated translation and commentary, he restores the Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew names to their original form. For Pilate, Andrew, Jesus and James, one reads Pilatus, Andreas, Yeshua, and Yaakov. To reveal the poetry of the New Testament, in the gospels he lineates Jesus's words as verse and renders Revelation and the Letters of Paul into blank verse. In his introduction he calls Revelation (Apocalypse) the great epic poem of the New Testament.

The Library Journal in its 7/15/09 issue wrote, "In an achievement remarkable by almost any standard, and surely one of the events of the year in publishing, renowned poet and scholar Barnstone has created a new and lavish translation—almost transformation—of the canonical and noncanonical books associated with the New Testament. In part a continuation of his work in The New Covenant, Commonly Called the New Testament (2002) and The Other Bible (2005), and in many ways the completion of the pioneering efforts of other modern translators like Robert Alter, Reynolds Price, and Richmond Lattimore, The Restored New Testament offers a completely new version of familiar and unfamiliar texts, restoring the likely Hebrew forms of names, and strongly emphasizing the poetic and almost incantatory passages that have been obscured within the New Testament. Barnstone also substantially reorders the traditional arrangement of books for reasons he ably expounds in an extended and learned yet accessible preface. The high bar Barnstone has set for himself is the creation of an English-language Scripture that will move poets much as the 1611 King James Version moved Milton and Blake. Only time will tell if Barnstone has achieved his goal, but his work is fascinating, invigorating, and often beautiful."


A Guggenheim fellow, he has 4 times been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and has had 4 Book of the Month Club selections.


  • Guggenheim Fellowship, Madrid, Spain, 1961-62.
  • American Council of Learned Societies, Athens, Greece, 1968-69.
  • Fulbright Senior Teaching Fellowship, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1975-76.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities (senior research fellowship), New York, 1979-80.
  • Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, Madrid, Cantabria, Spain, 1981-2.
  • National Endowment for the Arts, Madrid, Spain, 1983-84.
  • Fulbright Senior Teaching Fellowship, Beijing, China, 1984-85.


  • Pulitzer Prize Nomination for poetry for From This White Island, Bookman, N.Y., 1960.
  • Cecil Hemley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, 1968.
  • A Breakthrough Book for China Poems, University of Missouri Press, 1971.
  • Indiana University Writers Conference Award for the Most Distinguished Work of Children's Literature for A Day in the Country, Poems by Willis Barnstone, Pictures by Howard Knotts, Harper & Row, 1971.
  • Pulitzer Prize Nomination for Poetry for China Poems, University of Missouri Press, 1977.
  • Lucille Medwick Memorial Award for God of the Poetry Society of America, 1978.
  • Colorado Quarterly Annual Poetry Award for Stickball on 88th Street, 1978.
  • Gustav Davidson Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, 1980.
  • Chicago Review Annual Award for Best Poem of the Year, 1980.
  • Bowdoin College Doctor of Letters, 1981.
  • Lucille Medwick Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, 1982.
  • Emily Dickinson Award of the Poetry Society of America, 1985.
  • W.H. Auden Award of the New York State Council on the Arts, 1986.
  • Gustav Davidson Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, 1988.
  • National Poetry Competition Award of the Chester. H. Jones Foundation, 1988.
  • PEN American Center / Book of the Month Club Translation Award for Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet, 1994.
  • Choice’s “Outstanding Academic Book, 1993” for Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet, 1994.
  • Pulitzer Prize Nomination for Poetry for The Secret Reader. 501 Sonnets University Press of New England, 1996.
  • Pulitzer Prize Nomination for Poetry for Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948-1998, 2000.
  • Midland Authors Award in Poetry, for Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948-1998, 2000.
  • Lannan Literary Awards, 2003 for Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, 2004.
  • Northern California Book Awards for Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, 2004.
  • American Literary Translators Association 30th Anniversary Honors Award, November 9, 2007.



  • Poems for Exchange. Institut Francais d'-Athenes, 1951.
  • Notes for a Bible. Malaga, Spain: Hermanos Hernandez, 1952.
  • From This White Island. Twayne, 1959.
  • A Sky of Days. Indiana University Fine Arts, 1967.
  • Antijournal. Sono Nis Press, 1971.
  • A Day in the Country. Harper, 1971.
  • New Faces of China (with photographs). Indiana University Press, 1973.
  • China Poems. University of Missouri Press, 1976.
  • Wonders: A sequence of 10 fish staring & very dumb. privately printed, 1976.
  • Stickball on 88th Street: A child's New York memorysongs (illustrated by Karmen Effenberger). Colorado Quarterly, 1978.
  • Overheard (illustrated by wife, Helle Barnstone). Raintree Press, 1979.
  • A Snow Salmon Reached the Andes Lake. Curbstone Press, 1980.
  • Ten Gospels & A Nightingale: A sonnet sequence containing the dedicatory poem & concluding section of a sequence of 202 sonnets to Be called 'The Book of Breath'. Triangular Press, 1981.
  • The Alphabet of Night (limited edition). F. Brewer, 1984.
  • Five A.M. in Beijing. New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1987.
  • Funny Ways of Staying Alive. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993.
  • The Secret Reader: 501 sonnets. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1996.
  • Algebra of Night: New and selected poems, 1948-1998. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 1998.



  • Luminous Reality: Critical essays on the poetry of Jorge Guillen (Contributor; edited by Juan Marichal and Ivar Ivask). University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
  • The Poetics of Ecstasy: Varieties of ekstasis from Sappho to Borges. Holmes & Meir, 1983.
  • The Poetics of Translation: History, theory, and practice. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet: Quevedo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Miguel Hernandez (essays and translations). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.


  • With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires: a Memoir. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  • Sunday Morning in Fascist Spain: A European memoir, 1948-1953. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.


  • Antonio Machado, Eighty Poems. Las Americas, 1959.
  • Margarita Liberaki, The Other Alexander (novel) (with wife, H. Barnstone). Noonday, 1959.
  • Greek Lyric Poetry (translated and edited). Bantam, 1962
    • enlarged edition, Indiana University Press, 1966.
  • Ignacio Bernal, Mexico before Cortez: Art, history and legend (translated and introduction). Dolphin Books, 1963.
  • Theobaldus Episcopus, Physiologus Theobaldi Episcopi de Naturis Duodecim Animalium (woodcuts and lithographs by Rudy Pozzatti). Indiana University Press, 1964.
  • Sappho, Lyrics in the Original Greek with Translations. Doubleday/New York University Press, 1965.
  • The Poems of Saint John of the Cross (translated, edited, and introduction). Indiana University Press, 1967.
  • Shir Hashirin, The Song of Songs. Athens: Kedros, 1970.
  • The Poems of Mao Tse-tung (with Ko Ching-po). Harper, 1972.
  • Pedro Salinas, My Voice Because of You, (translated and introduction; preface by Jorge Guillen). State University of New York Press, 1975.
  • Fray Luis de Leon, The Unknown Light: The Poems of Fray Luis de Leon (translated and introduction). State University of New York Press, 1979.
  • A Bird of Paper: Poems of Vicente Aleixandre (with David Garrison). Ohio University Press, 1981.
  • Antonio Machado y Ruiz, The Dream below the Sun: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado (introduction by John Dos Passos). Crossing Press, 1981.
  • Sappho and the Greek Lyrical Poets (editor, annotator, and translator; introduction by William E. McCulloh; drawings by H. Barnstone). Schocken Books, 1988.
  • Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (with son, Tony Barnstone, and Xu Haixen; critical introduction by W. Barnstone and T. Barnstone). University Press of New England, 1992.
  • B. Volkova, The Courage of the Rainbow: Selected Poems (with Bronislava Volkova). Sheep Meadow Press, 1993.
  • Sappho, Sappho: A New Translation. Sun & Moon Press, 1998.
  • To Touch the Sky: Metaphysical and spiritual books in translation. New Directions, 1998.
  • The New Testament (with a study and literary translation). Penguin-Putnam, 1999.
  • The Apocalypse. New Directions, 2000.


  • Miguel de Cervantes, Riconete y Cortadillo (with Hugh A. Harter). Las Americas, 1960.
  • Luis de Gongora, Soledades (translated by Edward Wilson). Las Americas, 1965.
  • Modern European Poetry: French, German, Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish (anthology). Bantam, 1966,
    • revised edition, 1978.
  • Edgar Lee Masters, New Spoon River (edited and introduction). Macmillan, 1968.
  • Concrete Poetry: A world view (with Mary Ellen Solt). Indiana University Press, 1969.
  • Spanish Poetry from the Beginning through the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
  • Eighteen Texts: Writings by contemporary Greek authors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
  • A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (edited with daughter, Aliki Barnstone). Schocken Books, 1980,
    • revised edition (with Aliki Barnstone). New York: Random House / Pantheon, 1992.
  • Borges at Eighty: Conversations (editor and photographer). Indiana University Press, 1981.
  • The Other Bible: Jewish pseudepigrapha, Christian noncanonical apocrypha, and Gnostic scriptures,. Harper, 1984.
  • Literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (edited with Tony Barnstone). Prentice Hall, 1998.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[1]


  • Christian, Graham. LJ Talks to Willis Barnstone: Poet, Translator, Scholar, 7/21/2009, Library Journal, New York.
  • Library Journal, 7/15/2009 | The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels, Thomas, Mary, and Judas. Norton. Oct. 2009. 1504 pp. index. trans. from Greek by Willis Barnstone. ISBN 978-0-393-06493-3.
  • Contemporary Authors, 1976, pp. 52–53.
  • Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, vol. 15, 1992, pp. 47–108.
  • Contemporary Authors New Revisions Series, vol. 68, (1998), pp. 20–23.
  • Something About the Author, vol. 20, 1980, pp. 3–4.


  1. Willis Barnstone b. 1927, Poetry Foundation, Web, Aug. 4, 2012.

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