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Frank O’Hara’s quick, witty ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ (1959), like other documents of counter-cultural poetics of the 1950s, has a place for female figures, though its general drollery and joke-y qualities makes it hard to want to notice his throw-away, teasing moment. Indeed, noticing this moment in the essay puts you, the reader, on the dull, humorless side of the on-going fun, type-cast as boring spoiler of the archness.
The female figure in this essay represents stolid conservative normativity and even cultural enforcement powers. Amid the happy wiggles of ‘Lucky Pierre’ sex sandwiches, the tight pants, the relative speed of track stars for Mineola Prep, amid the poets and friends fondly called by their real-life names, the only female is a mother force-feeding / over-feeding her child the
potatoes, and over-cooked meats of mainstream poetry.
Once more, as so often in the fifties, female figures are positioned in an asymmetrical binary system through which they are habitually left behind as all too normal, all too tedious. Indeed, they must, by definition, be left behind for anything amusing and lively to thrive. As Robert Creeley said, in a parallel, equally throw-away assertion in another essay about the 1950s,
‘You’ll have to tell mother we’re still on the road’ (Essays 376).
Part of O’Hara’s joke is that he mockingly echoes banal, contemporaneous psychology that blames the mother for the child’s homosexuality, in an associative chain that moves from the word feed to effete.
‘Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete).’
Amusingly, her concern for health is downright unhealthy, punitive. Even female writers might not want to cozy up to this ‘mother.’ It’s much more fun elsewhere.
Binary gender formulations seem so primary, so easy, and so recurrent in culture that one may never be able to credit all of them and assess their impacts. Unless cued by feminist reception, who could want to bother for one second with a lumpish mother and her invasive, insistent concerns? Yet it’s precisely O’Hara’s gender-laden binary that stands out in his prose, as it’s an immobile oddity in the gay-inflected and rococo universe of his mock manifesto otherwise so track-star mobile and so welcoming to feminine gestures and modes.
Indeed, one must acknowledge that in this ‘manifesto,’ female and feminine come through as quite disparate — something that could be quite as useful to women as it is to men. For O’Hara and others, separating the feminine from the female is one key strategy in the construction of a male feminine subject position. Although this throw-away line even in the otherwise-so-charming O’Hara leaves the one female figure unsympathetically behind in the dust and flattens her, still, his rejection of this stolid female is — let me say this carefully — constitutive not only of his charm but of his cultural usefulness.
All these swirling bits of gender and subjectivity are on my mind in turning to O’Hara’s friend and peer poet, Barbara Guest. I propose that Guest has made every effort to multiply subjectivities and sightlines in her work, in an effort to leave nothing at all behind, nothing treated as the wrong half of some sturdy, structuring binary, nothing immobile.
Guest produces enormously mobile subject positions in her work, something she repeatedly emphasizes in her writings in poetics. It’s as if everything that enters that work is speaking its own words, from its own worlds, with its own justifications. The reason Guest’s work seems so odd, so evanescent, so shimmering, is that she listens to (that is, invents words for) all foci in the poetry. This poly-subjectivity, its eroticism, wondering affection and ever-mobile empathy all contribute to the work’s difficulty.
Our reading strategies are often keyed to binaries and to at least one fixed position with which the reader can identify, in which the reader can inhabit; therefore, there is often an explicit position which one needs to reject (cf. the mainstream, ‘drippings’-laden mother). This commonplace of reading is often frustrated in a Guest poem. Every single thing mentioned in a Guest poem, every phrase, every single word (it sometimes seems) is given the status of an object that stares back with a gaze both sensuous, erotic and mobile, seeking to enter a loop of desire and pleasure, curiosity and examination with other objects and entities in a poem. That is, everything is eroticized, but rarely with any sense of abasement. This is comparable to the effect of many O’Hara poems; hence the moment in his poetics that concerns this mainstream ‘mother’ then becomes a curious period piece, and one that must be taken seriously.
I think this erotic effect in Guest is caused by what Guest terms ‘imagination,’ a goal, a term of praise, and an infusion of force that she evokes repeatedly. Her late book of essays on writing, is called, precisely Forces of Imagination. Each thing is invested with force enough (of language choice, diction shifts, word beauty — but never only beauty, as Guest interestingly insists) and every single item (often set in separate lines) seems to respond to the other items. This effect is fully visible in her work in, for instance, Miniatures. Since many of those poems are short, one can see this erotic-empathetic play among the lines/items quite dramatically.
The origins of (or the most dramatic instance of) this poly-subjectivity in Guest might well be the dialogue, negotiation, play and even ‘conflict’ between the poet and the poem, the poem often depicted as asserting its will. When the poet recognizes that ‘audacity,’ then ‘unexpected dramas have entered the poem’ (21).
When she speaks about these dramas of a plastic, audacious poly-subjectivity, Guest’s model is Las Meninas of Velasquez (39). Autonomous looking, intertwined reasons for looking, confrontational looking, covert looking, mirrors and mirroring relationships, networks of interior looking, a painter represented inside a painting, networks of relationships of patron and court, and figures looking out toward the viewer — all these are compellingly produced in that painting. Along with this and perhaps because it is a large painting, there is enough space so that the travels of any one look can attain a presence and even velocity that helps establish that sense of recognition — the erotics of presence — about which Walter Benjamin was so eloquent.
Guest did indeed know Walter Benjamin’s argument that there is a look of mutual recognition between spectator and artwork, that the ‘objects’ named inside an artwork or a poem gaze back at the viewer as from a richly loving, saturated distance. She alludes to this argument in Forces of Imagination, when she states that one does not enter a painting’s space, but rather the space ‘thrusts itself forward’ toward the spectator, creating a mutual site — a third terrain in ‘corners and angles’ which are very evocative for our individual memories (55). What she has done is to extend this argument to the elements inside a poem, so that they all gaze at each other, as well as at the viewer.
Guest is familiar with the question of the gaze in lyric poetry, the point of view problem that can be summed up by saying that generally female figures don’t ‘look back’ out of the poem, but are only looked upon. Guest transforms these cultural traditions of gender and the gaze, rejecting any binary negotiation with these terms, any notion that disadvantages any initiator or receiver of gazing. In Guest’s work, multiple gazes, erotic saturation of looking and being looked at, ‘things’ speaking for themselves and negotiating among themselves in language taken all together reveal that Guest alters considerably some of the historically normative materials of lyric.
But further, she takes the poem as an autonomous entity, almost like a person, whose will, ego, desires, longings, directions, and autobiography overwhelm the poet. That is, Guest depicts the poet becoming overwhelmed by her creation, the poem. The poem has
drive (40). It has inside it a
‘concealed person’ (42).
There is a vibrant and hermetically described exchange among the person writing a poem, who is almost a
‘bystander,’ or ‘spectator,’
the poem itself in the particular
‘vibrations of its ego,’
‘witness, positioned inside the work of art’ (41).
This multiplication of personalized forces (the actual writer, the poem in its needs, and a witness in the diegetic space inside the poem) work together and intersect so
‘we may work our way through to the pitch of the art before us, the center where the writing rocks back and forth before taking its plunge into space’ (41).
This rocking feeling, the back and forth of the interchange among personalized elements constructs the undoing of any hierarchical binary, certainly of gender, but also of any asymmetry of valuation and power that distorts mutuality. It is a maternal and also sexual rocking that seems to precede a pleasurable vertigo both of and beyond understanding. Guest describes again and again this sense of multiple exchanges and their pleasures, not from one point, but in an evocative unfolding beyond single-point perspective and single point Logos.
Another term she uses for this desirable interchange is
“The windows are normally independent of one another, although you may pass back and forth from one view to the other. This absurd interdependence is like a lark at break of day. The altitude is assumed by the upper window. The lark song. The other window is the lark’ (36).
The exchanges among these few elements (window, lark, song, dawn, you) along with the interplay between the opposites ‘independent’ and ‘interdependent’ that bring them to simultaneous, mutual potential are of striking import. Together these exchanges and interplays construct one of Guest’s non-hierarchical scenes that helps stage the poem, a site in which one enters the sensibility, subjectivity, and emotional propulsion of a set of materials crossing on their own miniature compositional field of action, not the less compelling for being constituted of familiar lyric elements like dawn and song and bird.
‘The other window is the lark’: one sees as well through that window as through one’s own. In fact, there is no ‘one’s own.’ It is all available, all airy. Mobility, empathy, and non-binary thinking construct Guest’s female version of the feminine.
The ‘back and
forth’ motion of the writing itself is paralleled by the ‘back and
forth’ motion of a ‘you’ examining this site. Nothing is set
in one place, reified, fixed or immobilized. Nothing in this alba-like scene is
given the stolid, unlovely role of O’Hara’s ‘mother.’ It
is good to know, after all, that this is
Creeley, Robert. ‘On the Road: Notes on Artists & Poets, 1950‒1965 .’ The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Guest, Barbara. Forces of Imagination. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2003.
Frank. ‘Personism.’ Any convenient edition.
 In Blue Studios, I take Benjamin’s argument about, and his own desire for, the look of mutual recognition into another, though related direction, also concerned with its gender implications for Guest’s work, 162‒64.