Be truthful, one would say, and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting. Comedy is bound to be enriched.
— Virginia Woolf
Barbara Guest (b.1920) began her career as part of a crew of funny poets, the New York School poets, who used “extravagant powers of wit and invention to enlarge the sphere of the poetic,” in the words of David Lehman describing Kenneth Koch. The original five in this group — Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, as well as Guest and Koch, employed unusual quick-mindedness, high energy, intolerance of sentimentality, spots of outright silliness, intimate and irreverent acquaintance with their cultural inheritance, incapacity for boredom, and an attraction to risk, to produce poetry of exhilarating freshness and comic verve. Collectively they pushed back against a notion of poetry which learned from modernism more of its solemnities than from its capacity for change and play, more from its earnest fears about “modern alienation” than from its freedom and delight in both experiment and experience.
The five loved incongruities of all kinds; they sought relief from restraints linguistic, social, and sexual; they wrote their poems for each other, and thus for an audience of superior wit and willingness to laugh, at the world and at themselves. “If I ever get to be a construction worker,” writes O’Hara whose loopy desire and upside-down ambition doesn’t preclude fashion-sense, “I’d like to have a silver hat please.” “Summer in the trees,” Kenneth Koch proclaims as if in rhapsodic praise of nature and then continues: “‘It is time to strangle a few bad poets.’”
And here is one of Ashbery’s edgy, elegiac, parodic word spins: “There are still other made-up countries / Where we can hide forever, / Wasted with eternal desire and sadness, / Sucking the sherbets, crooning the tunes, naming the names.” And Schuyler ends a love poem with the comedy of laconic American embarrassment in expressing emotion: “not to be in love with you / I can’t remember what it was like / it must’ve been lousy.” No one, it seems to me can read these poets without some acknowledgement of their ways with humor, which seldom is expressed in outright jokes, yet is crucial to the enterprise.
I believe it is time to say why Barbara Guest belongs securely among these poets not least for her humor, and to characterize her particular brand of comedy. This paper will show why, when reading Barbara Guest, it is best to answer the question “Is this supposed to be funny?” when it arises, in the affirmative, because, with the opening of that possibility, the poems, often deemed formidable or difficult, become suddenly generous, accessible, and intimate.
This is partly because her moments of humor tend to correspond with rich veins of metapoesis, that is: the comments of the poem on its own processes and procedures, its music and form, its idiom, its fortunes in the world, its relationship to its creator and its readers. Words and compilations of words, are for her, characters that own themselves, and which might at any point, strike out on their own, behave mischievously or outrageously, get into trouble, transcend trouble in the way only a comedian can, form incongruous alliances with each other.
This is how she puts it: “The poem is quite willing to forget its begetter and take off in its own direction. It likes to be known as spontaneous. Some poets then become firm and send out admonitory hints. Others become anxious. A few become pleased with the trickster and want to adopt it. There are moments when mistaken imageries can lead into interesting directions. Poets even try to charm the poem. We have all taken these positions” (“A Reason”).
Guest’s comedy is, therefore, more often than not, a linguistic comedy, having everything to do with using words and being used by them. To be clear, this is not to say that it is a comedy divorced from life, or hostile to meaning. John Vernon, one of a very few critics who has written on comedy in poetry, disparagingly puts the “so-called New York school” into the first of two groups of funny poets, claiming that their comedy is forever “an index of the split between language and the world,” that it expresses a profound epistemological skepticism, a refusal to mean or respect meaning.” Since these poets experience “the obligation to mean [as] an insufferable burden,” they release language to “play around for its own sake, like someone making faces in front of a mirror.”
I cannot, in this short paper, defend even the first generation of New York School poets from the charge that they refuse to mean or respect meaning, although I believe even Kenneth Koch can be so defended. Nor do I think that to claim that poetry investigates the split between language and the world is identify a new kind of poetry, that it particularly damns that poetry, or that poetry aware of that gap cannot seek to bridge it in poignant and poignantly funny ways. To be merely ridiculous or to show off (in front of a mirror) is not usually the point. Why shouldn’t poets, who of all people, suffer daily the “split between language and the world,” express this experience with antic eloquence, with witty exaggeration, with joking defiance, with ironic persistence nonetheless.
But to argue only the case here only of Barbara Guest, I believe her humor never presents itself as a rejection of meaning or of seriousness. “They,” writes Vernon, “make an automatic series of associations: seriousness = high art = artificiality = pomposity.” This would seem to limit the uses of humor to mockery. Guest, for one, doesn’t play that game; her world is full of art; she practically breathes it; she laughs at its jokes and, sympathetically, with its trials and triumphs. In intimate aesthetic involvement such as hers, there is nothing automatic; no occasion for such glib dismissals by way of labeling. She is not interested in exposing art’s pomposity, but rather in enjoying art’s own deep knowledge about the (nearly always comic) limitations and ramifications of pomposity. She is not afraid that the slant truths of artifice might rather be lies or tricks. She is as serious in her humorous way about “high art” as anyone can be, seldom conceding that it can get so high as to spurn her attentive intellect, never so high as to lose its grounding or its permeability.
That’s one of the reasons her work is funny: she surprises with her strangely irreverent reverence, with her tendency to “immensely befriend, with her peculiar questions,” the art one has been taught to idolize, or at least to idealize. In work finely wrought, and multi-dimensional she finds much to love and tease, much pleasure, much sensory delight, emotional excitement, thrilling personal and poetic connections with the artist’s problems and discoveries.
Many of Guest’s readers and critics (myself included) have admired and analyzed the various ways the language in Guest’s poetry resists transparency, how constantly and intensely it draws attention to itself as a medium. Her poetry must always speak in at least “two voices, one joking” to use a phrase from a very jolly Steinian love poem from Rocks on a Platter (1999). Often that joking second voice is mischievously metapoetical, trying to tease the poem’s “straighter” side into acknowledging its own artifice, its own circumstances of coming into being.
A long poem, “The Screen of Distance” (Fair Realism, 1995), began as a poem in which the speaker relates her experiences talking with a therapist or psychoanalyst, while looking in session after session at an empty screen on a wall in his office. In manuscript versions he is called “Dr. M.”; in the published version, he dwindles to a “he” who attempts to fill the screen with a plot from the “narratives . . . in the room,” presumably the stories she has confided to him. The struggling poet uses her analysis (as did H.D. before her) to prod back towards poetry as a primary mode of understanding self and the world. In ten sections of “lavish self-reflection and contemplation of the forms and dynamics of the artistic process” (Kathleen Fraser), Guest proffers description after strangely comic description of her renewed and willing thralldom to poetry, its volatility, its saltatory surprises, its waywardness. “I entice this novice poem with a mineral, Beryl,” “I am caught in the wind’s draft,” “words glittered from a dark cover,” “I created a planned randomness,” “domestic / remarks reel into a corpus known as stanzas,” “there appeared a mobile fiction. . ., “ she seized like wands the poem I hand her.”
Other writers have used such an opportunity to mock and expose the language or the insights of psychoanalysis, by now something of an easy target (nevertheless still a worthy one, in my opinion). But here the protagonist is not given to satire, but instead to a wryly stated, self-humbling revelation about what particular human failing her therapy is encouraging: in that room, she claims “Narcissism [with a capital N] lived in a silver hut.” She begins to need to fill the doctor’s screen with poetry instead, which has its ways (not always availed of by writers in our time) of sidestepping narcissism. She portrays herself as a witness of poetry’s sly seizure of the grounds of self-knowledge.
Consider the poet’s seemingly helpless entanglement with words in section 4. The poet portrays herself almost as comically unprepared and unexpectedly inundated, during a “lighter time of year” when every phenomenon or experience transforms into a thing made of words:
In the lighter time of year words arrived
concealed in branches. Flaubert exchanged
himself for words, night became a night of
words and a journey a journey of words, and
Words became “a superior joke”, I trembled
under a revolutionary weight, a coward fleeing
from a cloud. The ego of words stretched to
the room’s borders assuming the sonorous
movement of a poem.
Guest portrays herself as the archetypal eiron, one who can only watch as words surreptitiously arrive, assemble themselves, and begin gobbling up reality, playing on her a superior joke. And yet it is implied that her deferential, mock-fearful stance toward words is in the end a fortunate one: she has allowed words to “act out” until they become a (sonorous, rhythmic, moving) poem — this is ultimately a sign of her especial sensitivity, intelligence, and sanity. The self-deprecating eiron is also a savant.
The poem is also Guest’s buoyantly ironic take on the poststructuralist claim of il n’y a pas de hors-texte (Derrida), specifically how such a notion feels to the poet both like nightmare and her dearest hope. To be subject to such a paradox more often than not presents itself to a sensibility like Guest’s as deliciously comic — a surprisingly necessary humbling that true poets must endure, perhaps even enjoy. The sheer imaginative range and lavish diversity of “The Screen of Distance,” its perversity and plentitude: all serve as proof of her suspicion that poetry’s texte is a more elastic, exacting and exhilarating one to inhabit than the one woven by psychoanalysis: “Shelley,” she writes, embracing a favorite poetic agitator: “Shelley sailing into the loose wind, / the storm of neurosis hindering the formal plan.” No wonder “Dr. M.” is obscured in the poem in favor of no less than ten developing demonstrations of ars poetica. I believe it must be Dr. M. (and other men of formal plans, clinical expertise, and professional power) who, collectively represented as “the Baron,” fade away entirely in the last section of the poem, no longer necessary.
Before looking at another funny metapoetic passage in another important long poem, I’d like to link Guest with a perhaps unlikely ally, Luigi Pirandello, who speaks of his work as having a similar two-ness of consciousness, that sense of ‘two voices, one joking,’ that I am ascribing to Guest’s work. He calls it “a phenomenon of doubling it the act of artistic conception” (120). Instead of voices, he uses the metaphor of a body and its shadow, which I take to correspond roughly to the straight and comedic aspects of a work. As in Guest’s work, these frequently align themselves, respectively, with the poetry and the metapoesis.
“The humorist,” Pirandello writes, “concerns himself with the body and the shadow at the same time and sometimes more with the shadow than the body. He notes all the fine turns of that shadow, how it stretches this much or grows that much fatter, as if to make fun of the body, which all this time does not concern itself with the shadow or its size” (quoted in Holland 25). The reader must perforce have one eye on the ‘body’ and the other on the ‘shadow” in order to appreciate the entire incongruous show, the earthy body anchoring the flighty, excitable shadow, and the lissome shadow leavening the body’s gravity.
For Guest’s metaphor, and for her work, one needs two ears, one that hears the steady thrum of thematic content, and the other that discerns the gracefully ironic “making fun” that lifts the theme from too great an earnestness and pulls it free of sentimentality and self-importance. I am fond of Pirandello’s phrase “as if to make fun,” which reminds that “making fun” is sometimes a kind poesis of its own, a favorable loosening up rather than a denigration. Guest speaks of her joking voice as part of her “poetics of survival”: “And then there is saving laughter. I don’t mean by ‘laughter’ what is known as ‘comic relief.’ My laughter is bittersweet and brings us closer to irony, the mole of poetry. Irony is a coagulant of pain when the subject of the poem (the interior meaning) begins to draw blood. Robust poets, it seems to me, too seldom acknowledge this poultice for poetry’s sores, the most suppurating of which is sentimentality.”
This brings me to “The Türler Losses.” As its title alerts us, the poem is about loss, time passing, and death, those obsessive themes of poetry. (“Whoever reads a poem overhears someone’s dialogue with mortality” as Charles Simic would have it). Like so many of Guest’s poem, “The Türler Losses” is a formidable poem, paratactic, an abstraction made of concrete images, ambiguous in its connections, elusively allusive. Luckily, humor is an essential concomitant to elegy in Guest’s world. The poem has been described as a “twenty-two page epic about the loss of two wristwatches” (Knight). Indeed, the plot, which is fragmented and achronological (is this itself a kind of fictive joke on time?) does concern the losing of two Türler watches. An internet purveyor of vintage time-pieces asserts that Türler “is probably the finest jewelry and horological store in the world, based in Zurich, Switzerland.” Türlers are bound to “surround themselves with danger,” writes Guest, with tongue-in-cheek personification, doing Elizabeth Bishop’s “filled with the intent / to be lost” one better. They are “Expensive signals flashed in moonlight. Semi-serious / stones wearing themselves out on wrists reaching / for decanters.” There is something ludicrous about owning an expensive watch, the poem implies, its unapologetic worldliness yoked constantly to a memento mori.
“The Türler Losses” is full of appreciations of the great cosmic joke, as Pirandello succinctly puts it “We’re here today and we won’t be here tomorrow.” It concerns those many many moments in a life, particularized by seasonal weather, by other people’s presence, by accumulating memory: all relentlessly ticked-off in the unperturbed faces of the clocks that surround us. The first Türler loss is a kind of ritual substitute for suicide, in which the protagonist comically feels obliged to obey the one-word imperative of a sign which unlike most signs recommends against caution and safety:
... she came to a sign saying
FLING. Actually she was too troubled by heights to
throw herself over, but she did observe that tokens were
necessary, so she took off her old watch and FLUNG.
Such a loss occasions at once a mock-quest with its mock-dangers, into “Zurich even if it meant encountering slipshod vowels / all the way,” pointed on her way by a “kindly Zwinglian curate.” A second watch is purchased only to slip away a year later “at Lexington Avenue and Eighty-sixth.” “The second Türler loss” begins what is a time of rueful pragmatism: “the Timex phase.” It is the use of the word “the” in these phrases strikes me as apt and funny; you can almost not read them out loud without an exaggeration of a certain faux solemnity, as one does when caught mythologizing the personal. Perhaps in a disavowed corner of our consciousness, we do name the stages of our lives after the things we own, so greatly do we desire them to speak for us.
“The Türler,” writes Kathleen Fraser, “becomes the object around which the rest of the world is organized and understood.” Yet because it insists on getting lost, on slipping from our wrists without warning, “it mocks our belief in solidity, our half-ashamed delight in . . . expensive trinkets” (130). Yet, ironically, the disappearance of a watch cannot delay by one nanosecond the inexorable passage of time itself. “Timex is ripeness,” says Guest in a haunting, hilarious reference to King Lear’s fearsome wisdom about facing death.
A staple of the comedian’s art is the huge digression that threatens to take over the body of the fiction. Midway through “The Türler Losses,” a page-long parentheses looms up, remarkable amid the other short airy sections of the poem for its 23-line density. What at first reads as an interruption becomes Guest’s necessary qualifying self-consciousness, a simultaneous metapoetical amplification and deflation of the poem’s thematics. Here is the section:
(I wondered if he had taken my poems away with him.
I could find no smell of it, the poem. . . .
Perhaps even now the poems lay in his valise,
unpacked. Perhaps they were unwritten. The poems were
huddled somewhere. They might be picked over by now.
Tossed from bed to bed or hand to hand. Greasy, losing
the glossy surface. I still refused to believe they
would disappear like the Türler watches. He could not
be so careless as to drop a poem on the street, let it slip
from its black strap like a watch struggling, embittered,
neglected, slipped off the broken stem of a watch band.
I read the letter from a firm called “White Walls”, the
revered immaculate surface on which words pleaded me to
place a photograph of my poem about a photograph or
leniently, if I wished, to send a poem pasted to a white
wall. I thought of the white poem I had written whose face
might even now be speckled with dust, and the white pen
used to which I attached the poem’s name, “The White Pen”.
Surely among the belongings in the kit where the shoe polish
was kept there might be my “White Pen” with cream in its
This aside makes comedic use of an old and prevailing poetic trope — that of the poem or book of poems as child, who must leave its parents’ fond care for the larger world in which it might be misunderstood, or unsympathetically handled. Perhaps Guest had in mind Anne Bradstreet’s poem titled “The Author to Her Book” (1678), where the poem/ child, addressed on its departure as “thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,” is described as a “rambling brat,” with an unclean, blemished visage and hobbled feet. It is advised in no uncertain terms to take the back roads and “in critic’s hands beware thou dost not come.” Similarly, Guest’s imagines her poems in the hands of a kidnapper who won’t have their best welfare in mind.
Unlike Bradstreet, who exaggerates her offspring’s unsightliness, Guest worries that hers will lose their beautiful glossy surface; like refugees or hostages, they might be huddling vulnerably together, disvalued, picked-over like third-rate merchandise, greasy from handling. Surely this expresses, in part, Guest’s anxiety about critics who were ill-disposed toward the beauty, elusive humor, and obliquity of her style. It is typical of her that she is also amused by her anxiety, that she defuses it with a very piquant mixture of exaggeration and understatement. “How neglected are my poems?” lurks as the straight man’s question behind the very funny mock-suspicion that “perhaps they were unwritten,” that is, neglected right back to their unmaking, their de-conception. In portraying the poet as classic over-protective mother, Guest applies a poultice of laughter to a sore: poems which ought to serve as their author’s purchase on immortality, can and do disappear as did the second Türler watch: “slip[ping] / from its black strap . . . struggling, embittered, neglected.”
The remainder of the passage jokes, I believe, in multiple directions. There is a certain self-mockery here, that acknowledges the illogic of having created a poem too white (too precious, too immaculate, too minimal, too stringent) for the world, as the poet reads wistfully a letter of solicitation for such a poem from a firm called “White Walls.” The lost or kidnapped poem that particularly worries her, is after all, rather stubbornly and ludicrously, a poem written using a white pen, presumably on white paper, titled “White Pen,” which is, strangely, an ekphrastic poem about a photograph without specified content, which the firm called “White Walls” wants a photograph of for its “revered immaculate surface.” Or if the poet prefers, they will take the poem “White Pen” already pasted to a white wall.
I can only read this as an elaborately snarled representational mise-en-abyme, with its ultimate joke being that the representation is practically invisible in its white-on-whiteness, like a painting by Agnes Martin. But no, the poem probably lies neglected in somebody’s toiletry kit, perilously close to the black shoe-polish. This despite the creamy white richness of the poem, its every orifice stuffed with whiteness, a beguilingly far-fetched trope for the paradox of simultaneous presence and absence.
Like the classic fool, a poet who persists with such a poetics is both willful and helpless, wise and foolish. There is a kind of dare in her comedy, a warning to the reader not to expect the dull, the obvious, the usual, the confessional, the traditional lyric “I.” She plays a bewitching and exhilarating game; risking a very great deal (ranging from misunderstanding to neglect to hostility). Agnes Martin and the composer Arnold Schoenberg are indeed her models in such an experimental enterprise: “I’d like to go as far as I can in poetry,” she said in a videotaped interview, “which is what Schoenberg did in music. And not everybody liked it.” Laughing, she added, “But I don’t really care.” Yet, in her charming, mocking, teasing, daring metapoetical passages, Guest teaches the receptive good-humor needed to chase her elusiveness and delve her profundity.