Herself redefined

Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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although I don’t enjoy real lakes

Barbara Guest, Biography

Barbara Guest (1920-2006) once told me she shared a taxi in Manhattan with Marianne Moore. Seeing Guest unsuccessfully hail a cab, Moore impulsively instructed the driver of the one she was in to pull over and pick up the young poet. Moore didn’t know Guest was a poet, and Guest was too intimidated to confess it, though they had a pleasant chat before Moore dropped her off at her destination.

There’s something fitting about this encounter. Although she most strongly identified with H.D. among modernist poets — even writing 1984’s still-standard H.D. biography Herself Defined — Guest is perhaps more like Moore in terms of her relative position within the New York School. Of the original members — including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch — she is the most obviously difficult. Unlike her relatively postmodern colleagues, she primarily engaged with a high modernist aesthetic attuned to both the arch formalism of The Waste Land-era T.S. Eliot and the strident irrationality of surrealism. The result was a truly singular aesthetic, yielding, as The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan University Press, $40) demonstrates, one of the most radical bodies of work in 20th century literature.

Difficulty is, of course, a vexed question; poetry’s perceived difficulty frightens off even readers of the most abstruse fiction. Some of Guest’s poetry is admittedly taxing — a book like Rocks on a Platter (1999) is nearly impenetrable to me, despite my appetite for such work. But the bulk of Guest’s writing is difficult only if you assume the goal of poetry is to make sense, which it isn’t. The greatest poetry exceeds meaning, suggesting more than it says, suspending language’s sense-making capacity in favor of the word as thing. If you forego the demand that poetry deliver a coherent picture or scenario, Guest becomes much less difficult. You simply follow, without worrying where you’re headed.

In Symbiosis (2000), for example, one of Guest’s increasingly abstract later works, we find these three lines: "In no climate whatsoever / noise traveling up the tower<0x2009>/ bronze green in the tournament … " Quotation out of context hardly distorts the passage because it’s never clear what the context is, the lines appearing apropos of nothing before or after. They remain stubbornly themselves, resisting meaning. You can propose a tower "in no climate," but the very definition of "climate" presupposes its ubiquity; everywhere has a climate. More pertinent to Guest’s concerns are the subtle musical echoes between "noise traveling" and "bronze green," or the disposition of the word "tower," scrambled throughout "whatsoever" and translated into French as the "tour" of "tournament." These are hardly Guest’s greatest lines, but they indicate some of her procedures. The poems are generated less by "the real" than by words themselves, their use as material objects, which is what I mean by "the word as thing."

To see early work like The Location of Things (1960-62) and The Blue Stairs (1968) back in print is thrilling, while the bird’s eye view of Guest’s career is revealing: nearly half the collection was written in the last 10 years of her life, indicating the mastery she attained. The array of forms is remarkable — just when she seems to embark permanently into a Mallarméan scattering of phrases across the page, she shifts to the microfictional prose poems of 1999’s The Confetti Trees. A short section of new work at the end suggests yet more possibilities. But as the Collected Poems shows, Guest had done enough.