Willis Barnstone's first 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, the later ill-fated king of Greece, who was then nine years old. In 1951 he 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.

His 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 prison like
attire, sit on the pavement in empty Tiananmen Square. 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.

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 four times been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and has had four Book of the Month Club selections. 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, with his wife Sarah Handler. A full-time writer, he gives poetry readings, often with his daughter Aliki Barnstone and son Tony Barnstone.

 

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