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    Kate Barnes; virtuoso poet in Maine published often

    Ms. Barnes was appointed Maine’s first poet laureate by Governor Angus King.
    Ms. Barnes was appointed Maine’s first poet laureate by Governor Angus King.

    Born into a writing household, Kate Barnes followed her mother’s path into poetry, although at her desk she often was as intense and lingering as her father, who could spend an entire morning crafting a single sentence.

    “Very often you get a first line and you can keep it for half a year or more,” she said in a 2007 interview posted on “And the time comes when it is right and the rest of the poem comes out.”

    Her father was Henry Beston, whose book “The Outermost House,” set in Cape Cod’s dunes, is a classic of nature writing. Her mother, Elizabeth Coatsworth, published more than 100 books in nearly every conceivable genre, including a children’s story that was awarded the Newbery Medal. To the younger of their two daughters they bequeathed the required writer’s tools.


    “I did have two necessary heart’s affections in place, a love of poetry itself and a love of language,” Ms. Barnes said in an interview posted on The Writer’s Almanac. “I also had, from watching my poet mother, some sense of the way people write what wells up in them and then work hard to bring it to completion. I understood that poems never just flow (or hardly ever — and if one does come that way it’s a gift, a recompense for the concentrated work we’ve already done).”

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    Ms. Barnes, who grew up in Hingham and whose work a Globe critic praised in 1995 as “transcendently beautiful,” died of complications of leukemia June 10 in Harbor Hill Center in Belfast, Maine. She was 81 and had lived in Appleton, not far from Chimney Farm, the Maine home where her parents wrote for years.

    “Nobody ever said to me, ‘Be a poet,’ ” she said in an interview on a website devoted to her father, “but I guess I was just drawn to it.”

    Appointed Maine’s first poet laureate by Governor Angus King, Ms. Barnes began serving in 1996 and was succeeded by Baron Wormser in 2000.

    Her parents had purchased Chimney Farm in Maine before her birth in 1932, and she spent summers there throughout her Hingham childhood.


    “The Farm, they called it, and now people ask what they raised,” Ms. Barnes wrote in Down East magazine. “The answer is clear. Although they had flowers and herbs and vegetables in the garden, hay in the fields, apples and pears and cherries on the trees, their only real crop was words.”

    Ms. Barnes proved an adept cultivator herself, publishing books including “Talking in Your Sleep” (1986), “Crossing the Field” (1992), “Where the Deer Were” (1994), and “Kneeling Orion” 2004.

    She published poetry in journals and magazines such as The New Yorker, in which her work first appeared in 1955, when she was only 23. That poem, “Cocktail Party,” begins:

    This bitter grace of summer afternoons

    When women sit in lawn chairs and their bodies

    Are beautiful as dried and hollow gourds

    And words are like the brittle grasses hissing

    “We have nearly forgotten what a difficult art the word-music of poetry is, how delicate a balancing act of sounds, clicks, lines, beats, slant and full rhymes, weights and measures,” Liz Rosenberg wrote of the collection “Where the Deer Were” in a 1995 Globe review. “Barnes reminds us, because she is a virtuoso. She writes as well in rhyming couplets as she does in colloquial speech that breaks into an outcry from the heart.”

    In her poem “Where the Deer Were,” Ms. Barnes writes:

    Now the mist

    closes my eyes.

    When it lifts once more

    I see nothing over there

    but a hollow in the long grass

    like the places where deer have been lying,

    and the only thing I hear

    is shallow water making excuses to stone.


    Her life found its way into her poetry, and Ms. Barnes was frank in interviews as she dispelled notions readers might hold about those who ply the writing trade.

    “People often ask me how it was to grow up in the household of two working writers,” she told The Writer’s Almanac. “They ask this wistfully. It’s plain that they idealize the thought of it; that it sounds like a creative paradise to them, interesting and exciting. . . . Artists’ and writers’ households are not known for their peacefulness. Our family had enough tension to go around. But it had a lot else, as well. The people who ask about it are right in a way; it may not have been a paradise, but it was interesting and exciting.”

    Ms. Barnes went to Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., where she used the spending money her parents sent each month to rent and board a horse, which she rode as often as possible.

    In 1953 she married Richard G. Barnes, who became a professor at Pomona College in Claremont. He was a writer, too, and was a translator of the poems of Jorge Luis Borges.

    Ms. Barnes had four children with her husband before their marriage ended in divorce. He died in 2000.

    Their son Harold of Claremont said Ms. Barnes returned to Maine in the early 1980s to help care for her mother.

    Just as Elizabeth Coatsworth had read poetry and stories to her as a child, Ms. Barnes “would read out loud to us children every night,” he said. “It was part of our ritual.

    “And singing,” Harold said. “We had an upright piano. As babies, we would sit in her lap, and she would sing carols, ballads, a wide, wide plethora of music that she enjoyed.”

    Services will be announced for Ms. Barnes, who besides Harold leaves two daughters, Elizabeth of Boston and Isabella of Eugene, Ore., and another son, Henry of Pomona, Calif.

    “I went through all the usual stages: rhyming in childhood, blurting in my teens, and then, bit by bit, picking up the manner of my own time and also becoming a passionate reviser,” Ms. Barnes told The Writer’s Almanac. “At one point the process came to a complete halt; I stopped writing for more than 20 years while I was raising four children.”

    Upon returning to writing, she published poems into her 70s, even after the leukemia diagnosis, “which uses up some of my strength — I write less and revise even more,” she said. “As Stanley Kunitz put it at 95: ‘The poems are there, but they lie under the debris of life.’ ”

    In “The Logging Sled,” a poem in “Where the Deer Were,” Ms. Barnes writes about standing next to horses as the sled gets loaded:

    . . . I am as gray and heavy

    as a badger, the pockets of my old coat sag

    with carrots and books. The horses nose at my hands,

    the wood thunks onto the sled, and I hear the blue jays

    squalling behind me among the pines; I smell

    a dampness in the air that promises spring.

    To whom can I say how happy this all makes me?

    Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@