Barbara Guest in 1965 (photo by John Roth, 1965)

Recalling her early days in New York, poet Barbara Guest relates a painter friend’s comment on a poem-in-progress visible only from its title on the otherwise blank page: “Never give a poem a title,” the painter warned her, “let the poem find its subject.” 

This advice, related in the essay “Wounded Joy” from Guest’s Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2003), reinforced the poet’s instincts, as Guest turned to a practice that involves “no preplanning,” a poetry motivated, like the canvases of Abstract Expressionists, by the “spontaneous” and geared toward “movement” rather than representation. In those New York days, she collaborated with like-minded painters, including Mary Abbott, Grace Hartigan, and Sheila Isham — and these artists created work in response to her poetry. Her involvement in that storied clique has long been a cornerstone in a career that carried her far beyond that milieu.

To be sure, Guest’s writing brims with the urbane ironies and verbal playfulness long associated with New York School poets, yet she was in that scene, but not of it. She stands apart as a radical traditionalist, committed to poetry’s clairvoyant, mythical potentials, what she describes in “Wounded Joy” as “something that appears to be in back of everything that is said” (italics in original). In The Red Gaze, a final volume published one year before her death in 2006 at age 85, she continued that visionary mission, transmuting the everyday into something that is at once part of recognizable reality and beyond it: 

     I saw the stair mount upward and could not stop
     its climb until the heavens opened blinking,
     until we felt suspension.
     An odyssey parades in stripes. 

Elsewhere in that valedictory collection, she observes that “Hours become young days” and frames language as means for amplifying existence, declaring that, “Our lives are composed with magic and euphony.” These capacities serve poetry’s obligation,

     To invoke the unseen, to unmask it. Reality in a glass
     of water. The mirror [that] reveals heartstrings of reality. 

Often relegated to the status of “poet’s poet,” Guest saw her profile wax and wane throughout her career. That peripheral standing has been changing, as her legion of supporters argue for the centrality of her work. The Collected Poetry of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan University Press, 2008; released in paperback in 2016) testifies to how much her later poetry surpassed the work of those formative New York days, gathering together six decades of writing stretching across some 20 previously published collections. Since most of her oeuvre initially appeared in special editions, often through collaborations with visual artists, assembling it into this massive single volume required occasional compromise with original page breaks and typographies, graphic and spatial elements that Guest employed to highlight what she termed the “plasticity” of her writing. 

Barbara Guest, The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan University Press, 2016) (image courtesy Wesleyan University Press)

And Guest’s nomadic cosmopolitanism might in part explain how her poems manage to generate rich melodies and quicksilver enigmas from a plainspoken American diction. Born in North Carolina, she was raised in between family households in West Virginia and Florida, and later educated on the West Coast, first in Los Angeles and later at Berkeley. 

In postwar New York she met the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), progenitor of what Ezra Pound branded “Imagism” — a condensed, pictorial form framed in dramatic monologues that read like divinations from ancient Greek theater. Guest adopted that concentrated, image-based, melodic approach, expanding on it through her collagist layering, oblique perspectives, and changeable personae. Decades later, she repaid that inspiration by writing Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (1984), the first literary biography of the American poet who settled in Britain. 

Guest’s piercing inquisitiveness toward concrete realities pushes the language of her poetry beyond its basic signifying functions. The word combinations become strange presences, themselves — like juxtaposed colors in a painting and shifting registers in song. 

In her most often cited poem, “Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher,” from her debut collection The Location of Things (1960), new lovers materialize through aquatic imagery, as the speaker pictures herself metaphorically swimming while sinking, diving while soaring. These physical transpositions culminate into ambivalent avowals:

     […] I am no nearer
     Air than water. I am closer to you
     Than land and I am in a stranger ocean
     Than I wished. 
Barbara Guest, The Location of Things (Tibor de Nagy Editions, 1960) (image courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York)

Her writing swims far into its strange oceans. In a long poem from The Blue Stairs (1968) called “A Handbook of Surfing,” the apprentice surfer’s “artful dare” in learning to ride breaking waves parallels creative disequilibrium often indicative of language arts — the narrating wordsmith negotiating unpredictable line rhythms and the syllabic acoustics of words, coequal practitioners who emerge as “surf kindlers in the riddle splash.” 

And first-time readers may feel like amateur surfers learning to ride her poetic currents, occasionally capsizing in their disorienting wake. But patient attention to those rhythms acclimates the reader to the writing’s perpetual motion and to a gradual understanding of how its meanings arrive, as she puts it in “Now,” through fissures or gaps in historical time, 

     before works of art break off an if 
     in the middle region where
     whereness commences a reign. 

This time-defying realism informs Moscow Mansions (1973) and The Countess From Minneapolis (1976) colored by transnational and trans-historical visitations — mostly based in the Great Plains. The poems groove into trippy and melancholy meditations on rivers and names, Russian classical music and upper Midwest winters, sassafras fields and medieval romance. 

In a similar vein, the extended poem “The Türler Losses” (1979), which charts a succession of lost wristwatches, alternates metaphysical wit and domestic pathos, zigzagging  among settings that range from Zürich to New York’s Upper East Side, the lost watch appearing like an alternately absent and present talisman that punctuates the epiphanies. The poem’s conceptual tailwinds propel the experimental syntax to further extremes as, 

     Time calls hoarsely for sorbets and gestures
     of sparrow; when locked in rhyme the door
     sways and whines like a thief
     “the thief of time” […] 

A collection entitled Quilts (1980) equates words with fabrics and poetry with patchwork, showing how patterned language can fruitfully trouble the line between reality and artifice: 

     Once you start looking at real
     you see art everywhere. 

More than any other American poet in her generation, Guest realized ideas about free verse laid out over a century ago by French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, who believed — as Guest’s poetry continually demonstrates — that “verse makes up for what languages lack”; as the unfolding poem adapts to those deficits, it extends language beyond itself until it “fashions a single new word which is total in itself and foreign to the language — a kind of incantation,” a language that produces “orchestrated shiverings.”

In Forces of Imagination, Guest’s essay “Poetry the True Fiction” pledges her allegiance to Mallarmé’s additional notion that poetry is “an art dedicated to fictionalization, an ‘art consacré aux fictions’ where the concrete object is ‘bathed in a new atmosphere,’ lifted out of itself to become a fiction.” 

Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination (Kelsey Street Press, 2002) (copyright Kelsey Street Press, jacket image Laurie Reid, “X-I” (2000), color spit bite aquatint, 2000)

And her late-period volumes — noted by critics at the time as high-water marks in her long career — prove that emotionally resonant verse can brim with philosophical reflections about poetry as the vital crossroad between the real and the fictive. In “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” from Fair Realism (1989) the speaker observes that, 

     willows are not real trees
     they entangle us in looseness,
     the natural world spins in green. 

And in Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999), thoughts about poetry as producing an actual imaginary and an imagined actuality arrive interspersed with images that exemplify that interplay:

     Swimming off in the twilight
     is the Dolphin, what occurs
     absorbed in the skin.
       Grandeur oversteps
       artificial and strange, lifting 
           a leg above glitter

In these productive final years, Guest was a bona fide avant-garde legend in the Bay-area arts scene, continuing cross-disciplinary work through successive collaborative books with visual artists like Fay Lasner, Anne Dunn, and June Felter. Speaking about her own projects with the poet, Berkeley-based artist Laurie Reid told me that, “collaborating with Barbara left me more breathless than she found me. Her creative mind worked incessantly; everything was fodder for contemplation, elucidation, transformation.” 

Barbara Guest in 2005 (photo: © Judy Dater, 2005)

In that shape-shifting spirit, Guest also carried on her lesser known vocation as a playwright, with her Three Plays produced in 2000 at the California College for the Arts, closing a circle she’d begun decades earlier through productions in downtown Manhattan’s Artists’ Theater. 

Her body of work demonstrates how written words can generate an internal dramaturgy that resonates beyond the page and comes upon the reader like,

     […] a sudden disturbance of the nerve ends
     that startled the fibres and made them new again.  

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Tim Keane

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe...