When Barbara Guest passed away in the winter of 2006, America lost one of its most fiercely independent and original artists. She had been writing poetry for sixty years. One might call her commitment to the art "heroic" but her primary task was rather, in her words, "to invoke the unseen, to unmask it." Hers is a poetry of revelation and of mystery. When Guest arrived on the scene in the mid-1950s, her work was characterized by an advanced lyricism that must have seemed already full-blown to her contemporaries. Yet as The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest attests, over the decades that followed, her poetry kept pushing the limits of the art with astonishing urgency, complexity, and daring. With only sporadic recognition along the way, most of it late, her work remained at the vanguard of the genre throughout her career.
Guest's poetry, like all great art, makes us reconsider tradition—not as a fixed canonical body that exists behind us or bears us up but as something we move toward. We find it reading back through those very works that were ahead of their own time, their readers, and even their authors—in the poems of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams, for instance. If this model of discovery teaches us anything, it is that tradition is, in fact, always just ahead of us. It is an occasion we rise to.
In her essay "Wounded Joy," Guest writes: "The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page so that we are aware of another aspect of the art. . . . What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page" (Forces of Imagination, 100). "The Türler Losses," one of her most adumbrated and yet literal poems, about the loss of a wristwatch, suggests the double bind of keeping and losing time, and the wonder of poems as timepieces. It is only, it seems, in reiterating temporal markers that one feels time expand within the poem, extending forward and looping back, incorporating and re-imagining the relation of future and past—and the difficult role of the poem in negotiating between them.
This desire to "delimit" the poem spatially and temporally has characterized Guest's work from the very beginning. Strictly speaking, her poems are not abstract; rather, they locate us always exactly where we already are, at the edge of meaning in an already impacted, developing world. Her poems begin in the midst of action but their angle of perception is oblique. In this way, the poem, like the world, exists phenomenally; it is grasped as it is coming into being, and she records the outer edges of the context of this movement, placing the poem at the horizon of our understanding.
Her early poem "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher" is a classic example of Guest's facility with paradox in the context of a complex emotional clarity. Suspension is the chief conceit of the poem: the suspension of disbelief, the suspension of a locatable time and place, the suspension of a shared amorous attachment, and the suspense of not-knowing—not knowing how to proceed and not-knowing as a human condition. It's a poem about being adrift but also about being alert to the elements, the medium of transport, willing to reconsider the terms of perception at each turn, as each line launches us into a variable reality.
Throughout her career, a contrapuntal tension between location and unlocatability would permeate her work. Guest was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1920, the daughter of James Harvey and Ann Pinson. As a child, she moved to Florida and to California, living at various times with her aunt and uncle and with a grandmother. Guest wrote, "I never really had a 'home.' That was hard and it created unnecessary anxiety." Perhaps the indeterminacy and expansiveness of her voice were an answer to the necessity of establishing a lived space within the work of art.
Guest attended UCLA, then UC Berkeley, receiving her BA in 1943. She moved to New York and married twice, to Stephen, Lord Haden-Guest in 1949 and to Trumbull Higgins, a professor of military history, in 1954. She raised two children: Hadley Guest and Jonathan Higgins. She wrote art criticism and was an editorial associate at Art News from 1951 to 1959. In this period she was also a poetry editor for the Partisan Review.
Her first book of poems was published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1960. It was titled The Location of Things, and, in fact, it located her within the New York poetry nexus in ways that both have and have not served the reception of her work. In that same year, her Berkeley classmate Donald Allen placed her among the New York School in his seminal anthology The New American Poets. Of the 65 contributors in the periods two major anthologies of American poetry (one edited by Allen in 1960 and the other by Donald Hall in 1962), she was one of only five women.
In the coming years she would publish Poems (1962) and The Blue Stairs (1968), followed by Moscow Mansions (1973), The Countess from Minneapolis (1976), and The Türler Losses (1979). Guest also wrote several plays, which were produced in New York in the Artists Theatre and the American Theatre for Poets, and a novel entitled Seeking Air (1978).
In a 1996 interview with the American Poetry Review, Guest described her process as similar to that of the abstract expressionists who believed in "letting the subject find itself." Reading her art writing, it becomes clear that her understanding of painting derived from—and in retrospect serves to elucidate—her own processes of composition. She wrote that Helen Frankenthaler's paintings are "landscapes of the interior" and positions them "on the margin of her universe." Disturbing the conventional relations of subjects and objects, of reality and imagination, is one of Guest's signature gestures. She writes that Frankenthaler "forces Nature to copy Art" (Dürer in the Window, 8).
In Guest's hands, art can say something about itself without becoming pedantic; it can be absorbed in the quandaries of perception without getting lost. Her poems more often evoke the joy of being found. There is a tenderness in Guest's ability to view experience as a composition in its own right, taking it in at a respectful distance as one might view a work of art; or as lived experience might be triangulated and compounded through a work of art, as in a poem like "Roses," with its gestures to both Gertrude Stein and Juan Gris or in her masterful poem "The Nude."
Her poems bespeak a long engagement with literary and artistic tradition, less by establishing allusive signposts than by exposing and exploring the difficulties that acts of imagination have always presented. She would find herself at home in Modernism, influenced by H.D.'s imagism and by other manifestations of the high modern, including Surrealism and Dada. Guest drew from Imagism a sense of the impacted history of objects and of words and how they can be "set" within a poem. In a sense, Guest's work reflects a natural progression of imagism into literary abstract expressionism. That is, if an image is but a fragment of a larger field, it has already become abstract. It bears the traces of a human context but is not immediately locatable within a specific time or place. For Guest, "the poem begins in silence," not noise, and it is quietly drawn into polyphony with its own echoes (FI, 20).
She had an integrity that predisposed her for telling the truth as she saw it, and writing poetry as she understood it, even when it ran contrary to popular trends. As the women's movement was gaining strength and might have offered her a sense of context, Guest eschewed overtly polemical and political poetry—though it is worth noting that at this time she spent close to a decade writing the definitive biography of her great modernist precursor, H.D.: Herself Defined (1984).
Her later poems were often characterized by the bridging of antagonistic dualities, as expressed in two of her most influential books, Fair Realism (1989) and Defensive Rapture (1993). Even a title like "Wild Gardens Overlooked by Night Lights" implies a frisson between the forces of nature (wild) and the cultivated (gardens). In its brilliant control of framing and juxtaposition to build emotional intensity through narrative compression, the poem exemplifies the heights of contemporary lyric practice. One doesn't think of Guest as a narrative poet, but her poems are laced with dramatic tensions and an engagement with invisible, imaginary, phantasmagorical elements, inexplicable turns in the path, and a mysterious sense of inevitability. Her most recent poems in Rocks on a Platter (1999), Miniatures (2002), The Red Gaze (2005), and after, take the reader quietly from one realm to another, as evidenced in one of her last poems, "Shelley in the Navy Colored Chair" (dedicated to her editor Suzanna Tamminen). As in Wallace Stevens' late poems, the relation between reality and imagination has become seamless.
Guest spoke eloquently—and defensively in the sense of Shelley's "Defence"—about mystery, about poetry and its spiritual dimension, a theme that permeates her recent collections of prose, Dürer in the Window: Reflexions on Art (2003) and the magisterial Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2003). She wrote that "vision is part of the poet's spiritual life of which the poem, itself, is a résumé" (FI, 27). The poem "should not be programmatic, or didactic, or show-off"; rather, one should "go inside the poem itself and be in the dark at the beginning of the journey" (FI, 80). Her statements on poetics were direct ("Respect your private language") and, at times, as practical as a survival manual ("When in trouble depend upon imagination") (FI, 78, 79). Implied always was a sense of poetry's charge—its energy and intensity but also its responsibility—and the understanding that writing was, in many ways, playing with fire:
The forces of the imagination from which strength is drawn have a disruptive and capricious power. If the imagination is indulged too freely, it may run wild and destroy or be destructive to the artist.…. If not used imagination may shrivel up. Baudelaire continually reminds us that the magic of art is inseparable from its risks….." (FI, 106)
She was fearless and, to those who knew her, sagacious and outspoken.
Her last book, The Red Gaze, ends with a sentence by Theodor Adorno: "In each genuine art work something appears that did not exist before." This is the Promethean power of which Guest's poems never lost sight and which have thus, in their own way, changed our world.
Guest, Barbara. Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2003). Kelsey Street Press.
Guest, Barbara. Dürer in the Window: Reflexions on Art (2003). Segue Foundation.