Isabel Harriss Barr
THE FORMATIVE YEARS OF MY LIFE
WERE SPENT in Oklahoma City. Those were the years when the dry,
bitter if brief, cold of winter, the early springs, the prairie
winds and the long, Indian summers made their indelible impression
on my mind. Weather is a whetstone for the five senses of an
adolescent and the greyish-green sky that introduced a dust storm,
the sound of hail on a shingled roof, the tangy, after frost
taste of ripe persimmons or the smell of melted tar on a July
day in Oklahoma, all added to my store of concrete, sensory images.
Good fortune was always with
me in the matter of schooling. It would not exactly be called
the luck of the Irish, as I am of Scots-English-French descent,
a tenth generation American, born in Greenville, Texas. My good
fortune during high school years was a remarkably able teacher
of English, plus my maternal grandmother's belief in my ability
to write. My first poem was published when I was thirteen years
old. The juxtaposition and the sound of words, the making of
rhymes intrigued me. To this day, the excitement peculiar to
the shaping of thought into a pattern, with rhythm of one kind
or another and the pleasure of listening to end rhyme or inner
rhyme has seldom left me.
When I was seventeen, my family
moved to New York, where my father was later to become president
of the New York Cotton Exchange. My father's lifelong connection
with the world of cotton brought many colorful personalities
into our home: Indians from Bombay, charming Japanese acquaintances,
the Premier of Australia with accompanying Secret Service men,
Georgian princes and many others .... Senators and writers.
At the College of New Rochelle
I found myself entering new fields of composition; publication
gave me confidence. While I was still in college, the composer,
R. Huntington Woodman, chose a small lyric of mine to set to
music, published by Schirmer. A year of study in Paris added
a new dimension to the sound and meaning of language for me.
In my subconscious, there was always a close bond between poetry
and music, and, in Paris I had the opportunity of studying music
with Mme. Barrire Monteux, former wife of the conductor, Pierre
Monteux. One memorable April evening, I played Chopin at a concert
Marriage and children did not
dim my enthusiasm for writing. The more I had to do, the faster
my mind worked. Outside Shanghai, I had met John Barr, a Scotsman,
whom I later married. Both my husband and my sons were always
pleased when something I had written appeared in print. Needless
to say, they had most likely heard various versions of the same
piece, before it was published. Short stories, informal essays
and book reviews kept me at my typewriter. I am afraid that buttons
were not always sewed on shirts or socks properly darned when
a manuscript was in the making. Life was good.
As time passed, more of my poems
were set to music and requests came for permission to reprint
my verse in anthologies, probably fifteen to date. I tried my
hand at light or seasonal verse and within a moderate length
of time, the New York Herald-Tribune, alone, published twenty-five
of my poems. I became associate editor of the Poetry Chap-Book
for several years and made many friends - and perhaps a few enemies--during
The idea of writing religious
plays in verse began to develop in my mind. Wherever I went on
trains, buses or subways, the thought of the plays remained with
me. When I reached the stage of setting the words down on paper,
I wrote three plays in twenty-three days, then spent three months
in revising them. Walter H. Baker of Boston, one of the oldest
play-publishing houses in the country, accepted the script of
this trilogy, In the Beginning (1946), and Station WQXR in New
York featured the Christmas play, "The Coming;' with special
music for it. My next group of one-act plays, celebrating the
Miracles of Christ, was also written in verse form. However,
Baker decided against the verse rendering. In a matter of days,
I deleted the rhyme and returned the manuscript, which Baker
accepted and published under the title of Jericho Road (1949).
The six plays in these two volumes have been produced by college,
church, and other non-professional groups all over the country,
every year since publication.
A winter visit to Williamsburg,
Virginia, resulted in a book of verse relating to that colorful,
Colonial settlement. By this time I had an agent and was at work
on a novel. I sent my manuscript to one publisher after another,
my agent had a few tries at it, then, almost in desperation,
I sent it to Dietz in Richmond, Virginia. I had an immediate
acceptance and the little book, Let Time Relate (1947), was published
with fine illustrations. Dietz was the thirteenth publisher to
read the manuscript.
My mother is an artist and her
sculpture has had excellent recognition. Whether from inheritance
or association from childhood with turpentine, canvas, paint,
and later, clay, I have enjoyed working with color or with mass,
movement and line in sculpture. My work has been exhibited at
the National Academy of Design and at various Art Shows in and
near New York. My sculptured Madonna, "Our Lady of Letters,"
was chosen to represent the Gallery of Living Catholic Authors,
of which I am a member.
Two years ago, six months after
the death of my husband in 1957, I was given the opportunity
of teaching a group of students at Fordham University. The course
was called Experiments in Writing, and was under the aegis of
the Communication Arts Department. I learned a great deal that
In the fall of 1958, I had been
given an appointment by the Dean of Fordham College to conduct
a tutorial in connection with the Honors Program. I had ten handpicked
students, some knowing as many as six languages. I was given
complete freedom as to my program and, textually, we moved from
country to country, from plays to novels to poetry. I was rapidly
losing weight trying to keep ahead of my ten Honors men. I am
still amazed at the intellectual level of those sophomores and
at the splendid discipline and training behind the work turned
in during the year. Two National Merit Award students were included
in my tutorial.
My first son, Douglas, a cum
laude graduate of Princeton, was one who enjoyed being read to
as a child. He learned to like poetry and to use the language
of poetry. I am a firm believer in reading to children, unless
they have a special aversion to it. My second son, Richard, an
art major at Dartmouth, did not enjoy being read to as a child.
Today, television robs most mothers of the privilege of reading
aloud Alice-in-Wonderland stories and a wealth of poetry to their
children. How compete with Westerns and Space-men?
For many years I have been a
member of the Catholic Poetry Society of America and for the
past few years a member of its Board of Directors. The magazine,
Spirit, published by this Society, has set a high standard in
the matter of poetry and criticism from which the young poet,
Catholic or non-Catholic, may profit. The anthologies, published
at five-year intervals, have made their mark in the field of
poetry. Through my association with the Society, I have made
many lasting friendships.
In 1959, my marriage to Pietro
Aria, an Italian musician and composer, has given me further
insight into the manner of linking sound, meaning, and words,
of the meticulous work required when special knowledge, skill,
and economy form an organic whole. The title piece of my trilogy,
Jericho Road, is now being made into a musical play by my husband.
He is recreating the mood of the play, strengthening the text
by his interpretation of each line in sound. Day-by-day, under
his hand, my characters develop and gain stature.
Poetry, music, and the graphic
arts, along with family and loyal friends, make a full life.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.