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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 in Paris.

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 that period.

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 spring.

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. I rejoice.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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