Jacket magazine     link More Author Notes        link Jacket Homepage
Photo of Barbara Guest by Judy Dater 2004

Photo of Barbara Guest by Judy Dater 2004

Barbara Guest

Born in the South, but growing up mainly in California, Barbara Guest attended the University of California (at both Los Angeles and Berkeley). Upon completing her degree at UC/ Berkeley, Guest moved to New York in the early 1940s. She soon met Frank O’Hara, and along with James Schuyler and John Ashbery, became known in the 1950s as a first-generation member of the innovative New York School of poetry, which took issue with took issue with Confessional and closed-form New Critical aesthetics then dominating the academy.
      Like the other New York School poets, Guest’s poetry was influenced by the Abstract Expressionist and Action painters of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as by Surrealist poetry. In Forces of Imagination, Guest describes her feeling of coming of age “in the shadow of surrealism:

In that creative atmosphere of magical rites, there was no recognized separation between the arts... One could never again look at poetry as a locked kingdom. Poetry extended vertically, as well as horizontally. Never was it motionless within a linear structure. Assisting in this poetic mobility would be an associative art within whose eye the poet might gaze for reassurance, and for a glowing impersonal empathy. (FI 51)

Guest describes herself here as learning from the Surrealists how to make a poem move in ways other than by linear narrative: by introducing a more mobile, associative element into the poem, a sense of the “magical” (or unrealistic) originating force from which the poem derived, and a blurring of boundaries among the poetic, musical, and visual (even plastic) arts. Although the romanticized image of Woman (what Marianne Moore protested in Ezra Pound’s early Cantos a generation earlier as “feminolatry”) was foundational as well to the Surrealist project — as Rachel Blau Duplessis observes, its “marvelous” was decidedly gendered — it afforded Guest the all-important intellectual “liberation” of “breaking rules.”[1] Guest herself wryly (and perhaps equivocally) notes, in the conversation/ interview with second generation New York School poet Kathleen Fraser and this volume’s editors that follows, that in the inspiring artistic world in which she moved in her youth, she was redolently aware of being both “object” and peer to her male contemporaries.
      During the 1950s, Guest worked as a writer for Art News magazine, and began to craft the distinct poetry for which she fast became known: abstractly visual (what Fraser calls a “painterly witness”[2]), surrealistically nonlinear, and conceptually musical. Writing many poems about paintings, collaborating with such contemporary women artists as Grace Hartigan and Mary Abbott,[3] Guest explores in her work the poetic possibilities of syntactic openness, assemblage of lyrically intense fragments and perspectives, and improvisation.
      Guest’s many books include the novel Seeking Air (1978), the collection of essays on writing, Forces of the Imagination (2003), a recently reissued biography of H.D., Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (1984), as well as twenty-six collections of poetry, among them Miniatures and Other Poems (2002), Selected Poems (1995), Defensive Rapture (1994), Fair Realism (1989), Quilts (1980), and The T ürler Losses (1979). Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and the 1999 Robert Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement from the Poetry Society of America. She lives in Berkeley, California with her daughter Hadley. The following conversation/ interview took place on a brilliant fall day over four, intensive hours at Barbara Guest’s home in Berkeley, on October 16, 2003.

[1] See Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “The Gendered Marvelous: Barbara Guest, Surrealism and Feminist Reception,” in The Scenes of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, ed. Terrence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller (Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001), 189-213, for a trenchant analysis of Guest’s gendered relationship to Surrealism.

[2] See Kathleen Fraser, “The Tradition of Marginality,” in Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa, AL: U of AL P, 2000), 29; also quoted in DuPlessis, “The Gendered Marvelous,” 189.

[3] For a rich discussion of Guest’s relationship with these two women Abstract Expressionists and the contemporary visual arts scene more generally, see Sara Lundquist’s ground-breaking essay, “Another Poet among Painters: Barbara Guest with Grace Hartigan and Mary Abbott,” in Diggory and Miller (eds.), 245–64.

Biographical note by Cynthia Hogue.
Photo of Barbara Guest copyright © Judy Dater 2004

Barbara Guest: Links

button Jacket 10 - Wendy Mulford on Barbara Guest’s The Blue Stairs
button Jacket 10 - Charles Bernstein Introduces Barbara Guest
button Jacket 10 - Geoff Ward reviews Barbara Guest, If So, Tell Me
button Jacket 10 - Sara Lundquist on Barbara Guest’s The Countess From Minneapolis(1976)
button Jacket 10 - Ramez Qureshi - Review of Barbara Guest, Rocks on a Platter, Wesleyan, 1999
button Jacket 10 - Susan Gevirtz - on Barbara Guest
button Jacket 10 - Barbara Guest - Five pieces from The Confetti Trees
button Jacket 10 - Marjorie Welish (on Barbara Guest) - The Lyric Lately
button Jacket 10 - John Tranter - poem - ‘The Twilight Guest’
button Jacket 15 - Barbara Guest - (note) To Kenneth [Koch]
button Jacket 16 - Angel Hair feature - Barbara Guest: Homage (1968)
button Jacket 21 - Jane Sprague reviews Barbara Guest, Miniatures and Other Poems
button Jacket 25 - Barbara Guest and Kathleen Fraser talk to Elisabeth Frost and Cynthia Hogue
button Jacket 25 - Barbara Guest reads from The Red Gaze [links to PennSound, an archive of poetry sound recordings at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania]
link Jacket 28 - Timothy Gray: ‘Fictions Dressed Like Water’: Aqueous Imagery in the Poetry of Barbara Guest (15,000 words)

Selected works by Barbara Guest

Forces of the Imagination (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St. P, 2003)
Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984)
Miniatures and Other Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002)
Quill, Solitary APPARITION (Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press, 1996)
Selected Poems (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press, 1995)
Defensive Rapture (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press,1994)
Fair Realism (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press,1989)
The T ürler Losses (Montreal, Canada: Mansfield Book Mart,1979)
Seeking Air (novel) (Black Sparrow, 1978)
The Countess of Minneapolis (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1976)

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.

The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/bio/guest-b.html