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Catherine Kasper

Barbara Guest’s Career

Defensive Rapture

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Reading through Guest’s letters at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, there are several things immediately noticeable: her particular, unique phrasing and way of looking at the world; her intelligence; the barbs of her wit when she is forced to defend her work; and how often she is forced into that defense.


Certainly there are numerous factors that made it difficult for Guest to have a career: being a heterosexual woman from the south and west in a group of predominantly homosexual men in the north; leaving that group on less than the best of terms; being a private person, with a family who was also involved in a number of affairs, while at the same time needing to be a public person who wanted to expand readership; and lastly what has often been called the ‘difficulty’ of her work.


The word ‘difficult’ is somehow wrong, insufficient. Guest’s work is not of the digestible sort; it requires multiple re-readings, reading other work as she has, and living with the work. This living with literature is something we do less and less, as we quickly read and discard things, rush, and fail to savor.


Complexity might be used, a now-much criticized measure of art. Guest’s work has a complexity kinship with Modernism, a kinship Guest was pleased to acknowledge. But simplicity and complexity need to be re-examined, as art that most immediately grasps the ungraspable may have a simplicity that captures reality’s complexity; simplicity is not simplistic. But this is not a new argument, and one said to be ‘difficult’ to defend. Poetry cannot be paraphrased, and captures in words what there are no words for.


We know that careers can be built on more than the work itself; they are built on associations, finances, the state of publishing, the individual tastes of editors. In her letters, Guest says she owes a much to the New York School, but that she didn’t want to be considered a life-long member. Her own work diverges significantly away from the characteristic work of that group of poets, as did her person. Her work cannot be thoroughly identified with any one group or literary movement, and this posed another difficulty for her career.


Guest’s work thrives in the area of the indescribable, the un-‘theorizable.’ At its best, it arrests what might be insufficiently named the soul; it stuns and simmers, and continues to open and change when you return to it. ‘Dissonance Royal Traveller’ is one of my favorite poems because it defies paraphrase and explanation and lives, like music and painting do, in sharp contrast to the prosaic:


Dissonance Royal Traveller
sound opens sound
shank of globe                          strings floating out
something like images are here
.         opening up avenues to view a dome
a distant clang reaches the edifice.
understanding what it means
to understand music
cloudless movement    beyond the neck’s reach
an hypnotic lull in porcelain  water break  mimics
tonality  crunch of sand under waddling
a small seizure
from monumentality
does not come or go   with understanding (DR 64‒5)


Guest’s poetry is concerned with epistemological examinations of understanding, what ‘understanding’ means, what the possibilities are for an art that reaches beyond the comfortable and well-worn spaces.


One of the achievements of Guest’s poetry is the interesting architecture of content and form moving together. Guest traveled often, and spent, by her own account, ‘many years in London.’ There she developed friendships with many artists and writers, among them her life-long friend, Peter Ackroyd. Western European art and architecture were as much past of her work as America. What reoccurs in her overall correspondence is certainly the sense of being an outsider, of not belonging to a particular place or time. Some might argue this is an essential position for an artist, the only position that can afford clarity and honesty.


The poet Lorenzo Thomas has noted that midway through her career, ‘Guest refashioned herself as a poet’ (interview December 2001). I don’t know if this is essentially true or not; certainly, like James Schuyler, she often felt ostracized from the ‘Harvard boys’ and while she respected the work of Frank O’Hara in particular, she never wanted his aesthetic goals associated with her own.


In the last decade of her life, Guest published twelve books, which may represent this ‘refashioning’ or simply a poet who not only was coming into her own, but was finally being recognized more fully by a number of publishing houses and small presses. Again, this prolific end period is inspiring, but rare. Scholarly criticism often dismisses the waning years of a writer; Guest again defies expectations by producing, what she and other writers have said is some of her best work. We cannot forget that she devoted many years to the now essential biography of H.D., writing art criticism, numerous plays, and at least one other unpublished novel (that she destroyed). Clearly, poetry was the place she loved most once she was free to dwell there.


and what is consonance—the recluse—
entering and exiting
as often as a monarch butterfly
touches a season;
by accident grips the burning flowers.
in the stops between terror
the moon aflame on its plaza. (DR, ‘Dissonance Royal Traveller’ 67)


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