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Caroline Williamson

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Painting, poetry and the difficulty of Barbara Guest

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My friend was writing an essay on painting and poetry for her Masters — on poems, that is, that use paintings as their subject matter. ‘You must read Barbara Guest,’ I told her. She borrowed my precious copy of the Selected Poems with its lovely dust jacket of a Guest collage, promising to return it in good shape.


A couple of months later, she did return it — still immaculate. ‘Now,’ she said carefully, ‘could you possibly tell me what this woman’s work is all about?’


I thought it would be a good idea for us to have a look together at something I didn’t know well, hoping to recreate one of my own first encounters with a Guest poem. The book opened at ‘Winter Horses’ from Defensive Rapture. It looked to me more like a ‘poem poem’ than a ‘painting poem’, but we went ahead and examined the first of the four sections. There was a bit of a silence.


‘This one uses mediaeval imagery,’ I told her, hopefully, and listed some of the references. Feudal, fortifications, greensward, ‘idyll of the kings’, moat, splendor, cask, fable, snow: there’s a Tennyson anthology piece behind this, surely:


The splendour falls on castle walls
     And snowy summits, old in story.
The long light shakes across the lakes…


And there’s brilliant light and cold: a dazzling plate, sunset, freezing breath, snow.


That is about as far as we got. ‘Winter Horses’ is, of course, anything but nineteenth-century mediaevalism. I think I told my friend that any reading of Guest’s work has to be provisional. Pronouns, for example, may stand for any one of several nouns, possibly including some that are not in the poem itself. Perhaps there was another poem before this one, and Guest has used partial sentences to construct something different? It’s a difficult, late poem, and not all Guest’s work is quite as opaque as this.


As a quick demonstration of how to read Barbara Guest, it wasn’t very impressive. I should have remembered that there’s no one key to her work, and that even if you think you may have come to understand one of her more difficult poems, this does not necessarily mean that the next one will come to you more easily — or that your own reading will compare well to anyone else’s. For the time being, I think my friend has decided that Guest’s work is impossibly abstract, disconnected, out of reach.


My expectation of ‘meaning’, in terms of a central image, a pattern of feeling, an argument of some kind, may well be naively out of touch with Guest’s intentions. Charles Altieri writes that for Guest, ‘syntax becomes less a vehicle for ordering experience than a figure for what we might call “genial space”’. He sees her work as painterly in the sense that a painting does not rely on ‘a hierarchical structure of differences’ in the way that, for example, an electrocardiogram draws meaning only from certain small deviations from an expected norm — or as language depends on small differences between words and on hierarchies of meaning within sentences. Every part of a work of art has its own significance.[1] Guest’s work may be written not to be decoded but to be experienced as a pattern of words on the page, carrying their various levels of meaning in the same way that colour, shape and texture function in a painting.


Nevertheless, it’s difficult to give up on the search for the connections, the allusions, the deep structure of Guest’s more difficult poems, in the hope of some old-fashioned illumination.


The Arthurian references continue in later sections of ‘Winter Horses’, which may possibly refer to the walling up of Merlin by his enchantress lover, and possibly to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. There’s a movement from autumn to winter to spring. Each line has a kind of autonomy, as indicated by the relatively wide line spacing, though in some cases meaning does appear to travel from one line to the next: ‘something / borrowed’ — is there a wedding on the way? I’ve spotted one rock music reference (a minor speciality of Guest’s): ‘Fig Dish’ was an early 1990s Chicago rock band, not known to me but surviving on Google and Wikipedia.


Have lines of the poem come from somewhere else? Do I really need to read the whole of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King to find the origins of more of this imagery? Were there other poems before this one, ruthlessly dissected and reassembled? Maybe someone else has access to Guest’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale (rather a long way from Melbourne, Australia), and will find a few drafts of this one and come up with a helpful reading some time soon?


‘Winter Horses’ has become an object of contemplation for me: something to hold in the mind in the hope (most likely unfounded) of revelation in the not-too-distant future.


Guest herself has described a similar kind of bewilderment. In the mid-1940s, Guest moved from California to New York and found a room in a bleak little apartment (complete with bedbugs) rented by an ascetic Austrian artist. Her flatmate persuaded her to visit another artist (with an unromantically over-comfortable studio) who was doing some copying work for the Museum of Modern Art:


A painting, I was told it was by the artist Mondrian, stood in the center… The artist was unknown to me. His painting was unappreciated by me. I was afraid of the painting, of its emptiness. The carefully ruled, so I thought, spaces of color. The rigors, the hurdles of the painting, the sense of form from which it derived, the ‘emptiness’, the knowledge and spatiality, were lost on me. The imperviousness of the painting was lost on me.[2]


This memory of her own bafflement faced with a work of pure modernism came at the beginning of her engagement with the art world of New York. Her careful description of what she did not understand is a measure of how far she was to travel in her understanding of contemporary art.


This essay will attempt to show how the encounter with painting and painters structured and extended Guest’s practice as a poet, providing her with ways of thinking about the creative process and ways of using the material qualities of language that went beyond the practices of most of her contemporaries, and which allowed her to move into a life-long practice of abstraction, still radical in terms of contemporary poetic practice, and still ‘difficult’ for many readers.


Robert Motherwell, with whom Guest would later collaborate,[3] examined the response of New York artists to the influx of Europeans. ‘The Americans were filled with bitterness at the end of the Depression. They resented the Europeans for their prestige. I had come out of that golden university world; I didn’t have that defeated quality. I floated in and out of the Surrealist milieu because I had no stake — I wasn’t thought of as a painter’.[4] This direct contact with the Surrealists was short-lived: ‘I moved away from Surrealism around 1944 almost as quickly as I had moved into it’.[5] The impact, however, had been profound: it was ‘like King Arthur finding that he could pull the sword from the stone… I still shake when I think how that opened the door’.[6]


Jackson Pollock’s work was also transformed as a result of his contacts with the migrant Europeans. The painter Grace Hartigan, younger than Motherwell, visited Pollock’s studio in 1949: ‘I spent day after day staring at those paintings in the barn like something I’d never, ever seen in my life. And I was astonished and stunned and couldn’t understand. The allure was enormous’.[7]


In a late interview, Guest spoke about the impact of the Surrealists: ‘We were saved by these artists. We were taught so many things. All this wisdom that came over. I met many people then who had come here to escape Hitler’.[8]


This is Kristeva’s inter-textuality at work: Guest lost for words faced with her first Mondrian; Motherwell as an old man still shaking as he remembered his first encounters with Surrealism; Grace Hartigan overwhelmed, fascinated and bewildered by Jackson Pollock’s paintings. The old position has been destroyed and a new one created, to the bewilderment of those who have not yet taken the artist’s difficult journey.

See versions of Mallarmé’s poem in Jacket 29 here
and here – Ed.


As Kristeva put it, poetic language and mimesis ‘no longer act as instinctual floodgates within the enclosure of the sacred and become instead protestors against its posturing’.[9] Throughout the writing of this essay, I have been aware that Guest follows so closely in the steps of Mallarmé, one of Kristeva’s chosen poets — and particularly the astonishing, late ‘Un Coup de Dés’ — that Kristeva’s theoretical writing is likely to ‘fit’ Guest’s work closely.


In ‘The Shadow of Surrealism’, first written in 1986, Guest remembers painters as ‘the revolutionaries to whom writers turned in their desire to break from the solemnity of the judicious rules of their craft.’ She described the ‘creative atmosphere of magical rites’ in which she became a poet, identifying it with a similar cultural milieu in early twentieth-century Paris. The crucial inheritance from the Surrealists was the breakdown in the isolation of the creative arts from each other: ‘One could never again look at a locked kingdom’. She goes on to describe the impact of the arts on poetry itself, which came to extend ‘vertically, as well as horizontally’.[10]


In other words, the word and phrase come to represent far more than a section in a syntagmatic flow. Each fragment of meaning within a line of poetry carries its own musical sounds which bring another dimension to the poem, its own echoes of other texts, its own weight of multiple meanings, both archaic and contemporary, embodying its own linguistic prehistory and contemporary existence. Throughout her long writing life, Guest would allow these multiple fragments of sound, meaning and history to resonate on the page, unfettered by the grammaticality of the sentences in which they appear.


The aesthetics of abstract expressionism had major implications for Guest as a writer. Frank O’Hara said of Jackson Pollock that ‘Very few things, it seems, were assimilated or absorbed… They were left intact and given back. Paint is paint, shells and wire are shells and wire, glass is glass, canvas is canvas’.[11] Guest’s lifelong exploration of the materiality of language — its letters, its sounds, the placing of the written word on the page, the multiple meanings and remembered earlier uses that accrue to words over time — is comparable to the painter’s foregrounding of paint, canvas, and other materials, rejecting representation or returning to it with new eyes, equipped with an understanding of the autonomy of colour, form and texture.


The painters’ work challenged the poets in other ways. Guest wrote, comically and rather wistfully, of the poets’ envy of their colleagues in the visual arts:


We ended by admiring not only the work of painters with its ‘action,’ which meant breaking the rules, acting upon the canvas the otherwise concealed emotional and environmental state of the painter; we became envious of the activity of their personal lives.


This may appear to be a frivolous remark, but it contains a metaphor in which the natural gravity of life is replaced by the gratification of secret desires. Art as reflection became more instantaneous, willful, enthusiastic, freed by action. Painters naturally gravitated toward expensive cars, lofts and chateaux, while poets take buses, settle in dim rooms (with the exception of Rilke) and until the event of the word processor satisfied themselves with modestly turned print… [12]


This difference in relative cheerfulness was only partly due to the fact that these painters were becoming well known and able to sell their work. There is also, Guest says, a fundamental difference between poetry and the visual arts, which was particularly acute in the early days of abstract expressionism, and which can function as a powerful stimulus to the writer:


The physical extravagance of paint, of enormous canvases can cause a nurturing envy in the poet that prods his greatest possession, the imagination, into an expansion of its borders.[13]


Guest began to absorb other powerful influences with her marriage in 1947 to the editor and translator Stephen Haden-Guest. Many years after their divorce, she wrote with nostalgia of his Bloomsbury-style glamour: ‘Stephen Guest was much older than I when we met in the sort of apartment H.D. might have frequented. It was a combination of manuscripts, clutter, worn furniture, dried flower petals, foreign languages — a bohemia of tastes and circumstance’.[14] His knowledge of medieval literature and of the early twentieth-century ‘imagism’ of Ezra Pound and HD would resonate throughout Guest’s later work


Stephen Guest was the son of a London doctor who became the Labour MP for the then very poor inner-city constituency of North Islington; in 1950 his father would receive a political peerage, which has given rise to the rumour among some American writers that Barbara Guest married a British Lord. His prewar work had included translations from medieval French literature. He worked in British military intelligence during the war, and afterwards found work with the American Geographical Society as an editor. Their daughter was born in 1949.


By the early 1950s, younger painters were exploring abstraction and sometimes reacting against it, and poets such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery were finding their best audiences at the artists’ bars. Poets collaborated with painters, poets wrote about painters, and poets developed their awareness of the creative process by spending time in painters’ studios and listening to them talk about their work.


By 1952, Guest was recognised as a poet among her New York contemporaries. She was thirty-two in that year, and her daughter was three, while O’Hara, who was to become her closest friend among the poets, was twenty-six. She managed to maintain a long-term presence in that hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bohemia while raising her children. However, she and her husband divorced in 1954, and the following year she married Trumbell Higgins, a military historian. Their son was born in 1955; Higgins died in 1970.


Much later, Guest would talk about the incompatibility of motherhood and writing: ‘I never wrote at home… I do think you have to get away. I think it’s the real solution. The way a painter goes into the studio to work’.[15]


Guest’s description of poetry as extending ‘vertically, as well as horizontally’ operates at a number of levels. Allowing the sound of a word to determine its presence in the text alongside its meaning or meanings was a process comparable to the practice of a painter such as Helen Frankenthaler, who experimented with the material properties of unprimed canvas and paint flowing from the can without the intervention of a brush. A painting by, say, Jackson Pollock, does not lose its individuality because of the random element within the process of its making; on the contrary, a Pollock painting is immediately recognisable as his work. Similarly, when Guest allows sound to intrude on the construction of meaning in her work, the combinations of words that result are entirely her own: words brought together as if for the first time, placed alongside each other like unexpected colours.


The level of abstraction in some of Guest’s writing — passages from which ‘meaning’ appears to have evaporated altogether —allows a multitude of possible readings, yet to be identified. Are there Joycean puns embedded in these texts? Are we reading phonetic transcriptions from other languages? Would a close study of Finnegans Wake enable a more responsive reading of Guest’s work?


Guest’s work is ‘vertical’ in other ways. It is notable for its openness to the multiple meanings of some words. She finds words in the English language which have accumulated multiple meanings over the centuries, and places them in a line or a sentence with such care that every possible definition is allowed free play.


Guest does not restrict herself to allowing various definitions of nouns to come into play. In her hands, the syntax of a line can shift: nouns and verbs change places, alternative readings of a passage are syntactically different. Even the title of a book — Rocks on a Platter — can as we shall see offer multiple readings, both in terms of the meanings of words and their syntactical functions.


Furthermore, words and phrases bring other texts into play in Guest’s poetry, which is inter-textually dense with allusion and quotation. It may not be possible for any one reader to identify every allusion within, say, Rocks on a Platter, though individual scholars have identified particular borrowings in detail. She takes material from the Bible, from classic English poets including Marvell and Keats, she quotes philosophers such as Adorno, her work has echoes of Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot. ‘Verticality’ includes this literary–historical dimension. Word and phrase are marked by human hands; the ‘elevator / of human fingerprints’ in ‘The Blue Stairs’ could apply to her own use of language as aptly as to the painting it describes.


The poem ‘Heroic Stages’ appeared in Guest’s first book, published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1960 and reissued in the longer Poems: The Location of Things; Archaics; The Open Skies (1962). It is dedicated to the painter Grace Hartigan. In 1952, Hartigan had based a series of paintings called ‘Oranges’ on a sequence of prose poems by Frank O’Hara; the collaboration was memorialised in O’Hara’s poem ‘Why I am not a painter’.


Hartigan has said that the work ‘coincided with a time when I was moving out of completely abstract work into imagery. So he was handing me image after image after image in these things’.[16] This subversive shift towards representation, hand in hand with a poet, led to confrontations with some of the more committed abstractionists among her colleagues, including Clement Greenberg and Joan Mitchell, to whom she had been close. She was not the only artist working in this way, and she was not completely isolated, but it was a painful and difficult time for her.[17]


As well as turning to the poets for imagery, Hartigan began to look at the history of art. The first of these reworkings of images from the old masters was ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’ — a 152 x 133 cm painting based on Albrecht Dürer’s 23.5 x 19 cm engraving of 1513. The painter Larry Rivers saw Hartigan’s painting in the studio, and recognised the scale of her achievement:


In a hard but interesting winter you’ve reached something that warrants lots of things. You are going to want to do many different ‘subjects’ in this present feeling but through enthusiasm you will find changes taking place that were unthought of a month previous, although to yourself at the moment it will feel very logical and of course ball breaking.[18]


Hartigan herself wrote at the time: ‘I like Knight, Death and the Devil, but fear I couldn’t exhibit it. Very puzzled as to my motivations, but I must trust my instincts.’[19] Her creative work was clearly well ahead of her own critical judgement.


Sara Lundquist has drawn on Guest’s papers to give a vivid account of her relationship with Grace Hartigan, particularly in relation to their collaborations.[20] Guest wrote a suite of poems entitled ‘Archaics’ based on Hartigan’s paintings, and her ‘The Hero Leaves his Ship’ responds to Hartigan’s sequence of the same title. ‘Heroic Stages’ relates to one of Hartigan’s paintings, but goes well beyond any one work of art in its exploration of the artist’s struggles with her work.


‘Heroic Stages’ is a complex and intimate response to the creative work of another woman. The narrator acknowledges that she has not trusted the painter: she has imagined her friend’s work to have been retrograde, overreaching itself and heading for ruin.


I thought you were disappearing
under the desperate monuments of sand


With a touch of comic exaggeration, Guest alludes to Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, comparing Hartigan’s painting to the wreck of an ancient, arrogant civilisation.. Instead, perhaps after a time without communication between the two women, the narrator discovers that instead of sand, the painter is ‘leaning on grass’, adding cryptically that this ‘after green is noble’. There is a sunny breakfast scene, reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’ — ‘late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair… / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.’[21]. Guest describes ‘oranges and white bottles’, and the delivery not of a newspaper but of a Quest, recalling perhaps the arrival of a white hart or a damsel in distress at the table of the king and his knights. There may also be a humorous echo here of the poet’s own family name; was she staying with Hartigan at the time, and turning up hungry for breakfast every morning?


The days of chivalry have passed, but there is always the possibility that Valhalla (a Nordic afterlife with its parallels in Arthurian tradition) will give up its dead, in which case, the painter’s Quest — ‘this grey silent space’ — would be the appropriate place for the rather disorganised knights errant (‘usually seen wandering’) to pursue their destiny: a site of danger and adventure in the otherwise prosaic world of mid-twentieth-century America. Guest dramatises the painter’s creative journey — and possibly the heretical challenge to abstraction — in terms of chivalric myth.


Lundquist reads ‘this grey silent space… orchestrated / for their maneuvers’ as directly descriptive of the canvas of ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’; she also interprets Guest as describing Hartigan as one of the knights returning from Valhalla.[22] ‘Heroic Stages’, however, also appears to focus on Hartigan’s creative methods, developing a sense of her work in progress which has moved beyond the poet’s expectations to find a new, warmer, more relaxed creative space.


This has not, it appears, been an easy journey. The ‘grey silent space’ may represent the terrifying prospect that faces the artist every day, as reliably as the delivery of a newspaper; her assault on this emptiness is as heroic as the quest of those long-dead knights. And within that grey space, ‘way over there / shining by itself in the blue twilight / a misunderstood Chalice.’ The object of the Quest is no longer a straightforward object of reverence but a rather neglected, isolated thing, still shining and still powerful but not generally recognised or acknowledged as such.


The Quest confronts what has been considered natural, and takes the artist into new and frightening places:


the river has turned from its bed
rocks have no moss they have plumes
the chiaroscuro results in serpents.


Guest appears to see the poet’s journey as tentative and almost passive, ‘held to the routes by the tender-eyed peasants’, compared to that of the painters ‘who have drawn those deep lines on the globes’. As Lundquist points out, however, both poets and painters have ‘purged themselves of both “anger and starvation”’.[23]


In the last two stanzas of the poem, the narrator’s address to her ‘penitent self’ — who failed to trust the painter’s courage and persistence — merges with her address to the painter: the ‘you’ of the earlier part of the poem becomes the narrator’s self as well as the painter. Both women are in ‘a kindergarten / of giants’, on a difficult road to achievement; both of them ‘face a park’ instead of a wilderness; there are ‘wings in this atmosphere’ for both of them. They have moved from the terrible struggle through the menacing, surreal forest in which nothing is as it seems, into another season, ‘in the Spring air with leaves posed above benches’.


In the last two lines, it seems that life has moved on for the painter, and the writer expresses a tenderness towards her friend: ‘Biography removes her gauntlet / to cast care from your brow.’ Biography — a female figure, perhaps the life and the living conditions within which the painter works — has freed her hands from the tough leather gloves of the armoured knight (traditionally thrown down, of course, to issue a challenge to an opponent) ‘to cast care from your brow’: to banish precisely the stress created by that heroic struggle. Things are easier than they were.


Assonance and alliteration are prominent in the poem: the plosives ‘d’ and ‘g’ recur in the first stanza, for example, contrasting with the murmuring nasal vowels ‘m’, ‘n’ and ‘ng’. That plosive ‘d’, for example, which marks the first three lines — ‘disappearing’, ‘desperate’ and ‘discovered’ — is repeated once in the second stanza — ‘delivered’ — and once more in a final flourish — ‘Danger!’ — at the beginning of the fifth stanza. It seems to be associated with the poet’s fear that her friend was on the wrong track, and with the fear of the difficulties of the creative process. Four of the stanzas end with the fricative ‘s’: ‘Quest’, ‘Chalice’, ‘serpents’ and ‘atlas’: all of them associated with the artist / knight’s long journey; ‘s’ is also prominent in those first three lines. The final stanza is the only one to end with a vowel, the diphthong ‘au’, in ‘brow’; it leaves the mouth half open, as though to continue speaking.


The ‘grey… space’ which may represent the silence in the mind of the artist in which the Quest is about to begin, or more literally the empty canvas, is echoed in the following stanza: ‘Grand breaks!’ The initial ‘gr’, the repeated diphthong of ‘grey’, ‘space’ and ‘breaks’, the terminal ‘s’, move along from that moment of stasis to an epic moment of terror in the work: an out-of-control forest, a river that’s left its bed. The diphthong appears at the beginning of the fifth stanza: ‘Danger!’


That repeated fricative ‘s’ could be interpreted as a hissing reminder of the dangers of the Quest; it reoccurs however throughout the sixth stanza, which describes the fertility and peace that the artist has achieved:


The wind is southerly,
You face a park. There are wings in this atmosphere,
sovereigns who pour forth breezes to refresh
your atlas.


Including the closely related fricatives ‘z’ (‘wings’, ‘sovereigns’, ‘breezes’) and ‘sh’, there are eleven examples in these four lines. These repeated sounds do not appear to be linked mechanically to a particular state of mind. The poem’s musicality has a rhythm of its own, linking words, phrases, a train of thought.


The poem constitutes a celebration of the conflicts and resolutions of a long friendship between painter and poet. It alludes to literary tradition in the same way that Hartigan drew on a sixteenth-century engraving for her own painting; it allows the materiality of the word — vowels, consonants — a place in its formation in much the same way that the abstract expressionists allowed their materials to break free from the tasks of representation. It addresses the creative struggles of one visual artist in terms that almost begin to blur the distinction between the visual and the language arts.


‘The Blue Stairs’ was the title poem of Guest’s second collection, published in 1968. The poem did not find its way into her Selected Poems (1995), but it was reprinted in her (mostly) prose collection Forces of the Imagination: Writing on Writing. Helen Frankenthaler produced an arresting image for the original book’s cover: a sweep of blue paint and a wandering blue line to the right – the poet Wendy Mulford remembers being ‘swept away’ by the image when she first saw it some time in the late 1960s.[24] Unusually for Guest, this particular poem reads as though written as much for the voice as for the page. The lines fall into natural phrases: short and simple enough to be read out loud in a crowded bar, perhaps, over the noise of clinking glasses and other people’s conversations, to a friendly audience familiar with the issues she’s examining.


The poem appears to be addressed not to an individual artist but to a community; the ‘artists / in their dormer rooms’ are described however in the third person, and the first and second persons are only used once: ‘Now I shall tell you / why it is beautiful’. The poem sets out a credo, drawing on many years of writing and living alongside visual artists.


Arielle Greenberg describes it as having ‘a voice of declarative authority which seems to be calling for courage, ambition and dignity — a climb up a flight of metaphorical stairs’; and she reads it as ‘a gendered quest. The speaker knows her own mind and her goal… Once she has finished her journey to the pinnacle, she does not want to relinquish her position’.[25]


If gender is central to this quest, as Greenberg suggests, its presence is very subtle. The poet is a woman, and she is presenting a hard-won knowledge of the creative process that she shares with a community of artists. Her acknowledgement of the fear and uncertainty experienced by an artist at work could perhaps be interpreted as representing the relative lack of confidence of women working in a male-dominated art world, but I cannot see anything in the poem that refers to gender directly.


The women artists to whom she was close carved out creative spaces for themselves in the conservative climate of the 1950s, and were inclined to deny at the time that gender was anything but a minor inconvenience to them in their work. Grace Hartigan, who had a child in her teens and raised him with the help of his grandparents until he was twelve, said of her early life: ‘To be truthful I didn’t much think about being a woman. I thought about how difficult it was to paint.’[26]


‘The Blue Stairs’ incorporates elements of the pattern poem. A number of lines are indented to give a visual impression of steps; these indented lines can be interpreted as ironic asides, comments on the main argument. As the metaphor shifts for a while from stairs to elevator, these ‘steps’ vanish, and are later restored: as being made of composite rather than marble, as creaking under a foot, as leading up to the dormer rooms in which the artists live. The metaphorical stairs apparently refer to the elaborate main staircase of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.[27]


Consonants and vowels cluster throughout the poem:


In a few years
it was forgotten


It was framed
like any other work of art
not too ignobly

                                  kicking the ladder away


The repeated soft ‘f’ sounds running across two stanzas are followed by the contrasting plosives of ‘ignobly’, ‘kicking’ and ‘ladder’; the gentle amnesia of the earlier lines interrupted by the violent and comical ‘kicking the ladder away’ — the painting’s existence on a wall in a kind of stasis, after the fluidity of its birth, perhaps preventing younger artists from learning from the drama of its production.


Vowel sounds also congregate: for example the repeated ‘o’ sound of the terminal ‘popes’, ‘precocious’, ‘code’ and ‘emotions’ — which almost acquire the status of half rhymes. The attention paid to the texture of the word is parodied by a near-anagram, ending successive lines; even the letters of the words used have a kind of autonomy from the words’ meaning:


Waving the gnats
and the small giants


The signifier is here a thing in itself, as well as a conveyor of meaning; and the almost-anagram contains its own quiet joke: add an I to a gnat and it becomes a small giant: an inflated sense of oneself may allow one to have a disproportionate effect on others.


Guest’s choice of words and their positioning in the text is also determined by the multiplicity of their meanings. Over and over again, there are multiple possibilities in reading a word or a phrase.


In the lines ‘disarming/as one who executes robbers’ (which are indented to form one of the poem’s steps), ‘disarming’ can mean ‘depriving of weapons’ but also ‘charming’. Similarly ‘executes’ can mean ‘carries (something) out’, as in ‘executes a painting’, or ‘kills (judicially)’.


The second meaning is given emphasis by the word ‘robbers’ (though robbery was not usually a capital offence in 1960s America); but a painter can also of course execute a painting of robbers; neither meaning is excluded. And these robbers join a small gallery of apparent rogues in the poem: popes, giants and gnats, all it seems obstacles to the artist’s work.


The line ‘disarming/as one who executes robbers’ is also syntactically unclear. Does ‘disarming’ qualify ‘Radiant deepness’ or the thumb that passed over it, or neither? If ‘disarming’ qualifies ‘Radiant deepness’ it refers to the quality of the painting in progress. Or is it the thumbprint that charms the viewer of a ‘difficult’ abstract painting: the touch of a human hand on a work of art?


Either way, the comparison to ‘one who executes robbers’ could be interpreted as referring to the democratic, accessible content of a portrait of an ordinary criminal. Alternatively, the ‘one who executes robbers’ could refer to a portrait painter with wealthy crooks for clients; and the fingerprint might just possibly acquire forensic significance.


The precise significance of the words is left open: first one possible reading comes to the foreground and then another. As Kristeva wrote of Gérard de Nerval, the poem ‘appears to favor the network of intensities, sounds, significances rather than communicating univocal information’.[28] The effect on the reader is comparable to that of an abstract painting: while the viewer may discuss the painting’s use of form, colour and so on, she may at the same time be subjected unwillingly to a kind of Rorschach blot experience, in which the brain imposes a sequence of possible realistic images on a canvas which was never intended to be representational.


Taken as a whole, however, with all its joking ambiguities, the poem follows the creation of a work of art or the development of an artist; these readings are inextricably enmeshed. The chivalric Quest of ‘Heroic Stages’ has been replaced in ‘The Blue Stairs’ by the more mundane business of getting from ground level to the top of a tall building. The stairs that open the poem:


… the first step
or the second
or the third


— fade in the central section as the painting itself asserts its own presence: an original design, its completion, its framing for display. It appears to have lost something in the process:


… framed
like any other work of art
not too ignobly

                                  kicking the ladder away


— but at this point the narrator’s voice contradicts her own description of the artwork’s decline:


Now I shall tell you
why it is beautiful

Design: extraordinary
color: cobalt blue


Though the drama of the painting’s production is in the past, its aesthetic qualities have if anything developed with familiarity in the eyes of the viewer. It has ‘secret platforms’ that when discovered can lift its viewer to another level of awareness — a ‘treat’; and this part of the painting’s life does not involve the hard slog of its creation. It is not, however, a mystical thing; it is humble, practical and made of some composite material rather than the marble of classical sculpture and architecture.


At this point the metaphor of the stairs itself becomes the subject.


Spatially selective
using this counterfeit
of height

To substantiate
a method of progress

Reading stairs
as interpolation
in the problem of gradualness

                                  with a heavy and pure logic


The image counterfeits height as a way of representing the development of the artist’s work. The ‘problem of gradualness’ is inherent in the slow, uneven, uncertain progress of the painting; the image of the stairs clarifies what can feel at the time to the artist like going backwards, sideways or round in a circle. While there may not be much sense of forward movement during the production of the work, the painting is finally there, ‘with a heavy and pure logic’.


In the final stanzas, Guest pokes fun at the tragic plight of her audience of impoverished artists


in their dormer rooms

                        eternal banishment.


The narrator asserts the role of the poet-critic at this point —


… anyone who prevents them
from taking a false step


— who may or may not receive gratitude for their guidance. Artists banished to isolation and poverty of their dormer rooms may also, of course, be at the peak in aesthetic terms, but she teases them about the fragility of their achievement: they


would like to stay there
even if the stairs are withdrawn.


In which case, presumably, they will find themselves either starving to death or back at ground level and having to start the climb all over again. Cue for rueful laughter from an audience of practitioners.


Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature is a book that can be read as a single poem with four sections, and also as a series of poems distinguished from each other by page breaks. The book, or poem, demonstrates an austere, humorous ‘late style’ in Edward Said’s terms: ‘what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction?’[29] In the words of the publisher’s blurb, which may also be those of the poet, Rocks on a Platter is ‘an attempt to write about the making of a poem… a meditation on the difficulty of assemblage’. At the time of its publication, Guest was in her eightieth year.


Guest’s memories of her first confrontation with Mondrian’s work illuminate the initial bewilderment of many readers, faced with this text: ‘The rigors, the hurdles of the painting, the sense of form from which it derived, the “emptiness”, the knowledge and spatiality, were lost on me’.[30] Rocks on a Platter can be read as a guide to readers attempting to understand some of her late and difficult work.


One of the fundamental misreadings of Rocks on a Platter would be to claim that it may be possible to produce a definitive reading at all. Guest alludes to a wide range of literary and historical sources: so lightly, in some cases, that the reference is barely there; and it may in any case be jostling for position with other such references within the same word, phrase or line. Every new reading of the poem has the opportunity of recreating the work; and every attempt at a reading is likely to be open to challenge by subsequent readers, alert to different aspects of the text.


In this article, it will not be possible to present a reading of the whole poem. I want to focus on two passages: the title, and a passage in the fourth section in which words from the title — ‘rock’ and ‘platter’ — occur again.


In his otherwise incisive and meticulous review of the book, Ramez Qureshi offered up a hostage to fortune in his interpretation of the title, which he described as ‘not a conceit in the Eliotic sense, not meant to be delved into for a deeper meaning; rather the rocks on the platter are pure image, and the book itself is the conceit developing it as idea’.[31]


The title can also, however, be read as an exercise in polyvalency, to use Kristeva’s term. The word ‘rocks’ can be read as a plural noun: pieces of stone, ranging in size from pebbles (in American usage) to massive monoliths; and in this sense it has acquired meanings that include diamonds, ice blocks, and a kind of hard sugary stick traditionally sold in British seaside resorts that has letters running all the way through.


The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary also provides an archaic meaning: a distaff, which holds just-spun wool ready for weaving or knitting; and quotes Ben Jonson: ‘The three Parcae [Fates],… the one holding the rock, the other the spindle, and the third the sheeres’. A distaff came to be used as a metonym for the female sex in its entirety, as in ‘the distaff side’ in genealogy. It would be interesting to pursue an analysis of gender in the poem from this starting point.


As a verb (either transitive or intransitive), the word’s basic meaning is to move rhythmically from side to side. It has been applied to the rocking of a cradle, to rock music, and to a number of specialist uses, from engraving — ‘to roughen the surface of (a copperplate) with a rocker preparatory to scraping a mezzotint’ (Macquarie) — and gold mining — ‘to use a rocker in gold-digging’ (Shorter OED). It would be a mistake to think that the poet was unaware of any of these usages.


Furthermore, ‘rock platter’ is a term used in music journalism to describe an LP (and possibly by derivation a CD) of rock music. While I have been unable to find a definition of the phrase in any dictionary of contemporary English, it is a complimentary term, referring to a well-chosen selection of an artist’s current work. It may be more carefully defined: an indie rock platter, a pop-rock platter. Like the phrase ‘fig dish’ in ‘Winter Horses’, this use of the words lurks in the book’s title as a found object, a little piece of late twentieth-century slang picked up and put to a different use by a poet who had a sharp eye for such things.


The platter also has its resonances. To offer something up ‘on a platter’ is to make something easily available. This reads to me like a small Guestian joke; she would have been well aware of the difficulties that her text would present to the reader. Qureshi’s dismissal of the title as ‘pure image’ is an underestimation of Guest as a writer. Nothing in this text is simple.


The word ‘rocks’ recurs throughout the poem. On the first page of the first section, rocks appear in relation to a ship and a shoal (either rocks on which the ship may founder, or the rocking movement of the ship), and then in the memorable lines:


Rocks, platter, words, words…

                                             mammoth teeth


in which words are ancient survivors carrying a freight of prehistoric meanings. Rocks offer shelter in terms that recall Eliot’s The Waste Land (p. 6), and they shatter (p. 11) in a passage that is followed by a short meditation on the necessity of brokenness.


The phrase ‘rock platter’ occurs once, in the fourth section. This section has been described by Sara Lundquist[32] as almost an instruction manual for poets, based on a lifetime of modernist writing:


The rule of thumb under glitter
is that glitter disturbs, and

pales, finds painting

a wild grape loosens

from the rock platter.


Guest’s reading of Nietzsche appears to be central to these few words. In the second section of Rocks on a Platter, we have already encountered a ‘Nietzschean thumb’ — the philosopher’s name helpfully included when, as Robert Kaufman has shown, so many other references must have been deleted.


In ‘A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry’,[33] Kaufman includes a privileged insight into the prehistory of the third section of Rocks on a Platter, ‘Intimacy of Tone’. He saw early drafts of the section, and heard Guest read a version in public in November 1994. At that time, she included and identified quotations from Theodor Adorno and John Keats, which would later be pared away to leave only the most delicate references for the alert reader to catch as they pass. This is a rare and tantalising insight into Guest’s working methods: incorporating other writings as in a collage, then stripping the text back until the original quotations have almost, but not quite, disappeared.


In relation to the earlier reference to Nietzsche, Sara Lundquist commented: ‘I don’t know what a Nietzschean thumb is, but it doesn’t sound good.’[34]


Her instinct seems to have been correct. With the help of Google I was able to find a quotation from Nietzsche’s autobiographical Ecce Homo: ‘Scholars who at bottom do little nowadays but thumb books — philologists, at a moderate estimate, about 200 a day — ultimately lose entirely their capacity to think for themselves. When they don’t thumb, they don’t think.’[35]


The ‘rule of thumb’ in this later passage therefore seems to relate to that inability of certain scholars — and writers? — to think beyond the received canon.


The word ‘glitter’ is italicised: an indication perhaps that it’s also being used in some specialised sense of the word — a quotation? Again, an electronic search reveals a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. In this passage, the spirit in the wilderness ‘becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness’. It faces a great dragon named ‘Thou-shalt’:


The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaketh the mightiest of all dragons: ‘All the values of things — glitter on me.

‘All values have already been created, and all created values — do I represent. Verily, there shall be no “I will” any more.’ Thus speaketh the dragon.

My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? Why sufficeth not the beast of burden, which renounceth and is reverent?

To create new values — that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating — that can the might of the lion do.[36]


So Guest’s ‘The rule of thumb under glitter / is that glitter disturbs // and pales’ can perhaps be taken to refer to those hidebound scholars and their books, and to the dazzling literary traditions of the past. In contrast the task of the contemporary writer is to ‘create itself freedom for new creating’.


In the light of this reading, the line ‘pales, finds painting’ — which stands alone, with a double line space on either side — acquires some obvious meanings. As the literary tradition becomes inadequate for the contemporary writer, the work of visual artists becomes crucial. The next lines expand on this: ‘a wild grape loosens // glitter / from the rock platter.’ Here we have another area of creative work: rock music, the collection of songs on an LP which parallels the poet’s assemblage of verse. We have already encountered vines in the first section of Rocks on a Platter, though they were cultivated by an entrepreneur who employed people to work for him, and they were laden with ideas rather than grapes. The grape in this section, however, is wild, and its effect is to loosen the glitter: to detach the weight of tradition from the compendium of the poet’s work. I suspect there may be a delicate allusion here to the amount of alcohol consumed at the Cedar Bar in the 1950s: a lubricant of cultural exchange between artists and poets. The word ‘wild’ might apply to the consumers of the wine as well as the grape itself.


In the next passage, on the same page, Guest goes on to quote a line from Ovid (and again helpfully supplies the author’s name rather than deleting it along with Keats and Adorno). It comes from his Festi, and describes the flowers that entranced Persephone and made her vulnerable to abduction by Pluto. The earth (humus), says Ovid, shone with these flowers. This seems to be the glitter again: in the translated line, Guest italicises ‘shone brightly’. The young woman, fascinated by the flowers (the glitter of tradition?), was taken into the realm of death. As advice to a young (woman?) poet, this is stern stuff.


Lundquist does however have a different reading of the Persephone myth, as implied in Guest’s ‘The Farewell Stairway’.[37] In this version, Persephone, Ceres and Hecate descend willingly down a spiral staircase to Hades, leaving flowers on the landing for some unknown friend. If the version of the myth in that poem holds for this one, my reading would have to become more complex; the poet’s interaction with tradition more a matter of deliberate risk than the possibility of being kidnapped.


This has been one, possibly over-literal reading of a short passage from this long and complex poem — a reading that discovers the passage as ‘generous, accessible and intimate’, in Sara Lundquist’s words.[38] In my own defence, I’d say that I think it would be possible to examine many other pages in Rocks on a Platter and discover clarity and humour lurking below its opaque surface. I am aware that I have almost definitely missed other allusions, and that another reader may have a completely different take on the passage. However, the effort of ‘decoding’ Guest’s references seems worthwhile, this one page of poetry now acting for me as a key to the whole. It offers me hope that in future other difficult passages will open up and reveal themselves. I might even get a handle on ‘Winter Horses’ one of these days.


The poet Kathleen Fraser, who first met Guest in 1964, saw a painterliness in her work that derives from a familiarity with the visual artist’s day-to-day practice:


Guest’s words are clues along the path that is actually a painting of that path. Her page can be dense and opaque with the brushed overlays of a fully covered canvas, but as often trusts the phrasal conviction of minimal gesture — the swift notation invited by sketchbook practice. She has always worked with language, as if from the live model, trusting the living fragment of the one-minute sketch, listening for musical associations as they emerge from grids of words caught in flight.[39]


Fraser’s words catch at the unpredictable, constantly changing nature of Guest’s work, its responsiveness both to the visual and the musical qualities of language. Each of these poems works in its own way, has its own texture; what is constant is uncertainty, musicality, the materiality of language. Every reader of one of these poems will interpret it differently. The close reading of one poem does not necessarily facilitate the reading of the other. A definitive reading is impossible.


To understand the indissoluble link between poetry and the visual arts for a poet such as Barbara Guest is to understand the potential for cross-fertilisation among the creative arts — which has it seems to be rediscovered by every generation of creative workers. What happens to Guest’s language — soaked in the visual arts — is written in every phrase. The process of coming to ‘read’ a book such as Rocks on a Platter is a long one: slowly, over many rereadings, the poem begins to reveal itself: elusive, delicate, humorous, and massive in the range that it covers.


A lot of people were generous with their time and knowledge while I was working on the Melbourne University masters minor thesis that led to this essay. Philip Salom guided me through the writing of the thesis. Michelle Aung Thin read and annotated an earlier version at a crisis point in its production. Kris Hemensley loaned me his own copy of The Blue Stairs, otherwise unobtainable. Members of the Women’s Poetry mailing list were generous with their knowledge of Barbara Guest’s work. Janet Holmes and Chris Wilson helped me find books published by Kelsey Street Press in Berkeley, California; Chris even drove past their offices for me, to make sure they were still in existence. Cynthia Hogue shared her memories of interviewing Guest. Julie Kizershot, Charlotte Mandel and Catherine Daly pointed me towards internet sources I would otherwise have missed. Thanks to all of you.


[1] Charles Altieri, ‘Barbara Guest and the Boys at the Cedar Bar: Some Painterly Uses of Language’, in Chicago Review, summer 2008, vol. 53/54, issue 4/1/2, pp. 82–7.

[2] Barbara Guest, Dürer in the Window: Reflexions on Art. New York, Roof Books, 2003, p. 12.

[3] Barbara Guest, ‘All elegies are black and white’ in Robert Motherwell: A Retrospective Exhibition. Pasadena, Pasadena Art Museum, 1962.

[4] Martica Sawin, Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1995, p. 183.

[5] Sawin, Surrealism in Exile, p. 346

[6] Sawin, Surrealism in Exile, p. 410

[7] Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Grace Hartigan: A Painter’s World. New York, Hudson Hills Press, 1990, p. 12.

[8] Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue, ‘Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser in conversation with Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue’. Jacket magazine #25, February 2004, (also in Frost and Hogue, Innovative Women Poets. Iowa City, Iowa University Press, 2006, pp. 351–73, plus selection of poems).

[9] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language (trans. Margaret Waller, introduced by Leon S. Roudiez). New York, Columbia University Press, 1984, p. 61.

[10] Guest, Dürer in the Window, p. 16

[11] Quoted in Terence Diggory, William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 5

[12] Guest, Dürer in the Window, p. 16

[13] Guest, Dürer in the Window, p. 16

[14] Barbara Guest, Herself Defined: The poet HD and her world. New York, Doubleday & Co Inc., 1984, p. ix.

[15] Frost and Hogue, ‘Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser in conversation’.

[16] Brad Gooch, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, p. 206.

[17] Mattison, Grace Hartigan, pp. 20–2.

[18] Mattison, Grace Hartigan, p. 22

[19] Mattison, Grace Hartigan, p. 22

[20] Sara Lundquist, ‘Another Poet Among Painters: Barbara Guest with Grace Hartigan and Mary Abbott’, pp. 253–64, in Terence Diggory, The Scenes of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets. Orono, Maine, The National Poetry Foundation, 2001, pp. 245–64.

[21] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (first published 1954). New York, Vintage Books, 1990, pp. 66–70.

[22] Lundquist, ‘Another Poet Among Painters’, p. 254

[23] Lundquist, ‘Another Poet Among Painters’, p. 254

[24] Wendy Mulford, ‘The Architecture of Dream’, in Jacket magazine # 10, October 1999.

[25] Arielle Greenberg, ‘A Sublime Sort of Exercise: Levity and the Poetry of Barbara Guest’. Women’s Studies, March 2001, vol. 30, pp. 111–12,.

[26] Cindy Nemser, Art Talk: Conversations with 15 Women Artists. New York, Harper Collins, 1995, p. 128.

[27] Barbara Guest, Forces of the Imagination: Writing on Writing. Berkeley, California, Kelsey Street Press, 2003, p. 50.

[28] Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (trans. Leon S. Roudiez). New York, Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 170.

[29] Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York, Pantheon Books, 2006, p. 7.

[30] Guest, Dürer in the Window, p. 12.

[31] Ramez Qureshi, ‘Review of Barbara Guest, Rocks on a Platter’. Jacket magazine #10, October 1999.

[32] Sara Lundquist, ‘Dolphin Sightings: Adventures in Reading Barbara Guest’, in How2 Journal, 2000, vol. 1 no. 3, at

[33] Robert Kaufman, ‘A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry’, in American Poetry Review, July/August 2000, pp. 11–16.

[34] Lundquist, ‘Dolphin Sightings’.

[35] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: how to become what you are (trans. Duncan Large). New York, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 31; Guest used an earlier translation which I have been unable to locate.

[36] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, accessed at

[37] Sara Lundquist, ‘Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze’, in Contemporary Literature, XXXVIII, 2, 1997, p. 280.

[38] Sara Lundquist, ‘“Two voices, one joking”: the Metapoetic Comedy of Barbara Guest’, in Jacket magazine # 25, February 2004.

[39] Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000, p. 125.

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