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Will Montgomery

Sound Leads to Structure

Dissonant lyricism in Barbara Guest’s «Miniatures»

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In Barbara Guest’s writing there is a lively but unfinished conversation between the lyric qualities of the work and the musical models Guest alludes to or implies. For Guest, ‘lyric’ is itself a problematic term. The late-modernist variant of lyric she endorses is bound up with an idea of dissonance that stretches the ‘musicality’ of lyric. The sound effects of her late writing, in particular, are amplified by the poems’ brevity, their clipped syntax and the distribution of words on the page.


This later work sometimes signals its formal preoccupations through attributed citation. The epigraph to Miniatures and Other Poems (Hanover, London: Wesleyan University Press, 2002) is from Checkov: “I too am an ardent defender of Miniature Pieces”. The Red Gaze (Wesleyan, 2005), Guest’s last book, closes with a remark on the “genuine art work” from Adorno, whose thought was important to her in her last years. The epigraphs to the four sections of Rocks on a Platter (Wesleyan, 1999) also cite Adorno, along with Hegel, Hölderlin and Samuel Johnson. The Hölderlin quotation, “To live is to defend a form… ”, is more ardent even than Checkov, and took on a modernist afterlife through Webern’s approving use of the quote. It is the citation from Johnson, however, that best captures the intellectual climate of late Guest: “To invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity has always been the right of poetry” (13).[1] The idea that poetic form might concretise something harder to grasp – abstraction, sound, utopian potential – is the subject of this brief essay.


In the first of the four sequences of Rocks on a Platter, the theme of sound is broached in the following way: “Behooved us to welcome tonality, / or succumb to the theme of inharmony… ” (11). The possibility of tonality is countered by an impulse to “succumb”, as to a temptation, to the “theme of inharmony”. Tonality and inharmony are not straightforward alternatives. Instead, we are offered the choice of welcoming the former, perhaps against our will, or succumbing to the latter – perhaps, again, against our will. Both harmony and inharmony (an adept archaism) seem perilous; a structural imposition is set against a risky temptation.


Guest may be taking her cue from Schoenberg: “[… ] consonance and dissonance differ not as opposites do, but only in point of degree; [… ] consonances are the sounds closer to the fundamental, dissonances farther away; [… ] their comprehensibility is graduated accordingly, since the nearer ones are easier to comprehend than those farther off.”[2]


Consonance and dissonance, then, are points on a spectrum of ‘comprehensibility’. In Guest’s world, they may represent the relative comprehensibility of the poem. Nothing of any value is so dissonant that it is meaningless, in Schoenberg’s view – we simply need to learn to hear differently.[3] A different future, amenable to dissonance, in other words, is gestured at. Guest’s poetry expresses itself in the semantic or syntactical equivalent of dissonance more frequently than it offers up full or consonant units of meaning. Sound, however, sometimes seems to pull in the opposite direction: often the poems have an integrative aural impulse that works against effects of semantic or syntactical dispersal.


Marjorie Welish writes of Guest’s lyric: “Mellifluous? Very.” She continues: “More than once in conversation [… ] Guest has said, I heard it first and wrote it afterwards. By this, I take it she means that the formal and material stuff of composition set the terms of the poetics and determined the practice. And that from the outset her text comes about by way of syllabic acoustic relations at the expense of given subject matter.”[4]


Alongside Johnson’s bringing of form to an antecedent abstraction, “Heard it first and wrote it afterwards” helps us think about the lyric temporality of Guest’s late writing. I’d like to place that question of temporality alongside the formal quality of compression in Miniatures, published three years after Rocks on a Platter.[5] “Sound is Structure” and “Musicianship”, the closing poems in the sequence “Miniatures”, are illustrative of the way Guest uses musical metaphor within a self-reflexive lyric setting.



“Sound leads to structure.” Schönberg.

On this dry prepared path walk heavy feet.
This is not “dinner music”. This is a power structure,
heavy as eyelids.
Beams are laid. The master cuts music for the future.

Sound lays the structure. Sound leaks into the future.


The poem, after the quote from Schoenberg, begins with a near-iambic decasyllabic line and the movement of its “feet” is clearly found to be burdensome. The next line’s reference to “dinner music”, appears to reject the notion of lyric poetry as merely attractive or euphonious. In musical terms Guest may be referring to the Dinner Music or ‘Tafelmusik’ of the baroque period. It’s not about entertainment, Guest insists, it’s about power; and power is expressed through structures. On one hand, it is implied that such aspects of poetic ‘power’ as meaning, sound or parataxis are under discussion. Yet the stronger implication, itself a late-modernist theoretical trope, is that poetic form is implicated in indirect ways in much larger questions of power.


The “heavy” eyelids, hard to keep open, compound the feeling of inertia suggested by “heavy feet”. After this, “beams are laid” seems to contain the negative attributes of power structures: artifice is constricting, perhaps. Yet the phrase also looks forward to a more acceptable version of artifice. The master “cuts music for the future” – like the cutting of cloth, perhaps, or even the notion – not at all Schoenbergian – of “cutting” a disc.[6] The echo and obverse of “beams are laid”, which is in the passive voice, is “sound lays the structure”, which gives ‘sound’ a foundational presence in poetry. Sound – with its noncognitive aspect – has an anterior moment, preceding the formal realisation of the poem. That realisation is guided by Guest’s organisation of sound materials.


Sound, in Schoenberg’s terms, ‘leads’ to structure.[7] It comes first. But sound also has a posterior moment, the future it “leaks into”. In other words, the imaginative work that the modernist lyric poem performs in its sounding is incomplete, it gestures at a moment of future possibility. Perhaps, given the Adornian ambience of late Guest, a dimly apprehended intimation of utopian potential.


Guest has asserted the singularity of each poet’s relation to sound:“Each poet owns a private language. The poet relies on the pitch within the ear. The ear is also a private affair, and so is pitch.” So far so good – and so intangible for the critic or reader. But Guest goes on to describe the interdependence of sound and meaning:“Pitch and ear are the servants of language and cannot make their living anywhere else, even by escapades. Language can lead to trouble when words are selected solely for their sound, and meaning is then forced to hurry along after, trying to catch up.”[8]


Even if sound somehow comes first, it must immediately enter into a relationship with meaning. The privately sounded moment is only notionally anterior in a bargain that necessarily draws meaning into it.


The next and final poem of the “Miniatures” sequence, “Musicianship”, gives further attention to dissonance:



How far are you going in the culture program? Liszt draws nearer. Wagner overwhelmed us in that last demonic song.
       Where the snowline fell on its supple track, people lost their maps in advanced culture. And the faces, on the back row singing: rare tonalism, lying on its sides like a walrus, chords broken and chewed in liberation.


In the first paragraph the poem seems to parody an idea of cultural consumption as educational self-improvement (at such moments, Guest’s ear for the resonant everyday utterance recalls Ashbery). Yet the linking of Wagner with the demonic, in combination with the poem’s closing word, “liberation”, also suggest a post-Holocaust vision in which questions of form and aesthetics have large cultural and political implications.


The poem’s references to snow and maps imply that a process of effacement, blanking or blanketing, has led the avant-garde – does she mean the modernist ‘project’? – astray. With another shift, we’re… where?– in an opera house? on a bus? The choric back row ushers in the irresolvable last phrase, a miniature of unachieved transcendence: “rare tonalism, lying on its sides like a walrus, chords broken and chewed in liberation”.


The beached walrus is a remarkable intrusion here. Is it somehow stranded? Is it capable of mellifluous sound? Is it merely a sound effect? A surrealist flourish? The chords are “broken and chewed in liberation”: does this music remain tonal? Or have the mashings and fragmentings of modernist form eviscerated that tonal quality and opened the way to a more dissonant and challenging music? Is Guest thinking of Schoenberg’s famous phrase “the liberation of dissonance”? Is the delirious back-row sing-song to be welcomed? Or should we “succumb” to something else? The poem refuses to resolve its own contradictions. Indeed, the dyadic structure of contradiction is itself put under great pressure in these deceptively relaxed sentences, which are reluctant to provide any settled argumentative scaffolding for the apparently opposed terms that they invoke.


In the poems I have discussed, then, Guest does not seem to be setting up an opposition between ‘tonality’ and ‘inharmony’; ‘tonalism’ and the ‘broken’. The poems appear to want to speak instead of the coexistence of differing degrees of coherence and incoherence spread across different functions of language – syntax, meaning, sound. Any notion of fullness is resisted; at the same time the fragment does not become a fetish or a modernistic totem. What remains is the lucid, vigilant resistance to sense-making that constitutes lyric for Guest.


Guest has remarked in interview that, “If I feel there is too much music I deliberately make something awkward, whereas, I know perfectly well how it could go. But that awkwardness destroys the liquidity of the line and I feel that’s necessary.” Asked if this is an “anti-lyrical device”, she retorts, “It’s anti-lyrical because I struggle against lyricism constantly and I struggle against my ear.”[9]


Guest’s recalcitrant relationship with lyric is also a preservation of lyric: the refusal of a false consonance that would destroy the integrity of these late poems. The brevity and density of the work is crucial to its effects. Such curtailment is a kind of self-cauterisation. The poems pull the curtain down on themselves almost as soon as they have appeared. Brevity might, of course, merely bring banality or prettiness, but in Guest’s case it has the effect of magnifying the impact of each choice she makes. Extreme concision is a mode of amplification. In this way, this quiet poetry is nothing if not vocal about the nature and responsibilities of lyric.


[1] The source of the Johnson sentence is his The Life of Milton. The Hölderlin quote was used by Webern in a 1944 letter to his friend Willi Reich, who describes it as “his most important remark to me”. See Reich, Willi “Anton Webern: The Man and His Music”, Tempo 14, March 1946, pp. 8-10; 10. Rocks on a Platter is given the Adornian subtitle “Notes on Literature”. For discussion of the role of Adorno in Guest’s late work see Diggory, Terence “Barbara Guest and the Mother of Beauty” Women’s Studies, 30, 2001; and Kaufman, Robert “A future for modernism: Barbara Guest’s recent poetry” The American Poetry Review July/ August 2000.

[2] “Opinion or Insight” (1926) in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, trs Leo Black (Faber: London, 1975), 260.

[3] In her interview with Mark Hillingrouse (American Poetry Review, 21:4 July/ Aug 1992), Guest mentions Schönberg and dissonance, remarking, “if I’m becoming dissonant then I’m becoming dissonantly lyrical at the same time”. See her poem “Dissonance Royal Traveller”, from Defensive Rapture (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1994).

[4] “The Lyric Lately: A Work in Progress” in Jacket 10, October 1999 Last accessed 1 November 2007.

[5] Of this sequence, Guest has said: “I went through it and deliberately left [things] out, and I found that extremely satisfactory. I think I was beginning to despair, because I didn’t like what I was doing. And the leaving out has helped me. Now I believe it’s always more powerful when something’s left out. But it’s very hard for me to know when to stop. See “Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser in conversation with Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue” Jacket 25, February 2004 Last accessed 1 November 2007.

[6] The poem also echoes Guest’s earlier poem “The Blue Stairs” at this point (in The Blue Stairs, NY: Corinth Books, 1968): “Reading stairs/ as interpolation/ in the problem of gradualness// with a heavy and pure logic// The master builder/ acknowledges this”.

[7] I have been unable to find the source of the phrase “Sound leads to structure”, which Guest attributes to Schoenberg at the head of the poem.

[8] Guest, “A Reason for Poetics”, Forces of the Imagination (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St Press, 2003), 22.

[9] Interview with Hillringhouse, 26.

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