Barbara Guest Essay - Guest, Barbara

Barbara Pinson

Guest, Barbara


Barbara Guest 1920-

American poet, dramatist, novelist, essayist, and biographer.

The following entry provides criticism of Guest's life and works from 1997 through 2002.

Guest was one of the core members of an informal group of writers called the New York School of poets in the late 1950s and 1960s. Their approach to poetry was influenced by the visual arts, especially surrealism and abstract expressionism. Although Guest eventually moved away from these early influences, critics continue to describe her work as “painterly” for its visual variety, linguistic texture, and use of language to evoke images and illusions of light and space.

Biographical Information

Guest was born Barbara Ann Pinson in Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 6, 1920. She grew up in southern California, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and moved to New York City as a young adult. In 1952 a poem she had submitted to Partisan Review caught the attention of Frank O'Hara, one of the original poets in the group that would become known as the New York School. She soon became an integral member of the group, which also included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. Guest's poetry appeared in various literary journals, and she worked for a time as the poetry editor of Partisan Review. Her first collection of poetry, The Location of Things (1960), marked the beginning of a prolific career as a poet and essayist. However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, Guest's visibility as a poet was eclipsed by other women poets, including Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, whose work was more overtly political or feminist. As a result, Guest was all but forgotten by critics and scholars as a founding member of the New York group. She continued to work steadily, nonetheless, publishing volumes of original poetry regularly throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998 she was awarded the Robert Frost Medal of the Poetry Society of America. Since the late 1990s, her earlier work has enjoyed renewed critical attention and additional volumes of new poetry and essays have appeared, including Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999), Miniatures and Other Poems (2002), and Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (2002).

Major Works

Guest's early works, including The Location of Things, were strongly influenced by the efforts of the New York group of poets to use language to capture the tactile properties of modern art, abstract paintings, and other visual imagery. The work was vivid, fresh, and unlike previous trends in American poetry. Guest's personal knowledge of painting and painters, drawn in part from her work as a reviewer for ArtNews in the early 1950s, has been successfully employed in her literary collaborations with visual artists over the course of her career. Works such as I Ching: Poems and Lithographs (1969; with Sheila Isham) and Symbiosis (2000; with Laurie Reid) have been called creative innovations that transcend their visual and linguistic components, becoming more than poetry illustrated by art, or art enhanced by poetry. Many individual poems Guest has published over the course of more than four decades, including “The Poetess” (1973), and “The Farewell Stairway” (1989) were written for or about specific works of art.

A frequent traveler, Guest also infused her poetry with images garnered during international and domestic journeys. The diction and rhyme of Guest's poetry in The Blue Stairs (1968) evokes sensory richness and the influences of visits to such places as Siberia, Vladivostock, Yokohama, Morocco, Granada, and the Sierra Nevada. Standing in contrast to the wide-ranging experience of travel as an overt theme of this collection is Guest's strong sense of being centered in a place to which one returns gratefully, having left for the journey with mixed emotions.

Between 1973 and 1989 Guest published three major collections of poetry: Moscow Mansions (1973), The Countess from Minneapolis (1976), and Fair Realism (1989), along with smaller works, some of which were done in collaboration with visual artists. Among these are The Türler Losses (1979), Biography (1980), and Quilts (1980). In 1984 she also published the well-received biography of Hilda Doolittle, Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World.

In the 1990s Guest's work began to incorporate more of what she terms “space, sparseness, and openness.” Her 1993 collection Defensive Rapture contains poems that have been described as oblique and elusive, traversing the spectrum of themes that appear throughout earlier works, including travel, nature, art, perception, and love. Following the death of her husband in 1990, Guest returned to Berkeley, California, and volumes of poetry began to appear more regularly. In 1995 came Stripped Tales and Selected Poems; in 1996, Quill, Solitary APPARITION. The Confetti Trees: Motion Picture Stories, a series of prose poems, was published in 1998. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, new works have appeared, including a collection of essays, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing, and a volume of verse, Miniatures and Other Poems.

Critical Reception

Having played a central role in the birth and development of Modernist poetry in the early 1950s, Guest was not long thereafter excluded from the living legacy of that time by critics, anthology editors, and commentators who preferred to canonize the New York School of poets as yet one more coterie of young men dedicated to leaving their mark on the American literary scene. The slight was only temporary, however. Renewed reader and critical interest in Guest's entire oeuvre at the turn of the twenty-first century, while she is still actively writing, has led to a reconsideration of her significant influence on the direction of poetry at the midpoint of the twentieth-century and beyond. Catherine Kasper characterizes Guest's poetry, throughout the evolution of her career, as “radically individual, and less easily summarized” than the works of her early peers, suggesting that Guest's exclusion from the roster of literary artists of the New York School is due to aesthetic preference as well as gender discrimination. In a similar way, Robert Kaufman describes Guest as “a supreme poet's poet,” noting that throughout her career she has been “perhaps the most genuinely experimental, aesthetically fearless and uncompromising artist” of the original core group of New York School writers. Sara Lundquist likewise commends Guest's unique voice and “blithely individualistic” approach to writing and participating in the literary life of American poetry, asserting that she has remained “true to her own lights” and confident in her life's work regardless of critical attention, or the lack thereof. Lundquist writes, “Her poetry is still doing what it wants to do, and is ahead of what has been written about it.”

Principal Works

The Location of Things 1960

Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies 1962

The Blue Stairs 1968

I Ching: Poems and Lithographs (with Sheila Isham) 1969

Moscow Mansions 1973

The Countess from Minneapolis 1976

The Türler Losses 1979

Biography 1980

Quilts 1980

Fair Realism 1989

Defensive Rapture 1993

Selected Poems 1995

Quill, Solitary, APPARITION 1996

The Confetti Trees: Motion Picture Stories 1998

If So, Tell Me: Short Poems 1999

Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature 1999

Symbiosis (with Laurie Reid) 2000

Miniatures and Other Poems 2002

The Ladies Choice (play) 1953

The Office (play) 1961

Port (play) 1965

Seeking Air (novel) 1978

Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World (biography) 1984

Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing (essays) 2003


Sara Lundquist (essay date summer 1997)

SOURCE: Lundquist, Sara. “Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze.” Contemporary Literature 38, no. 2 (summer 1997): 260-86.

[In the following essay, Lundquist discusses gender perspective in Guest's ekphrastic poems—that is, poetry inspired by or written about specific works of art.]

Composer John Gruen, in his reminiscence of the New York arts scene during the 1950s and 1960s, employs both photographs and text to show how ardent artistic endeavor merged in those days with fervent socializing. He chronicles the doings of a group of people whose admiration of each other's as-yet-unrecognized work coincided with delight in each...

(The entire section is 9534 words.)

Robert Kaufman (essay date July-August 2000)

SOURCE: Kaufman, Robert. “A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest's Recent Poetry.” The American Poetry Review 29, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 11-16.

[In the following essay, Kaufman examines how Guest's poetry “dramatizes this critical process of discovering reality by means of lyric negation” and he predicts that the poet's reception among readers and critics will continue to grow.]

Remember Borges' great figure Pierre Menard? The difficult Symboliste poet was discovered to have written—not to have copied, parodied, or pastiched, but actually to have imagined and written, word for word and line by line—nothing less than the Quixote of Miguel de Cervantes. Now consider a Borgesian tale that, in complex fidelity to our own moment, goes Borges one better, establishing itself not only as true fiction but as true fact:

For decades, a brilliant poet is excluded from American poetry's higher honors and publicity loops, excluded as well from a surprising number of alternative anthologies. But in a perverse and too-common form of recognition, she is regularly identified in the critical literature: she's the woman in one of American poetry's initiatory moments of post-Modernism, that of the first generation of New York School poets. Yet she is known also, by a sizeable readership, as a supreme poet's poet, as the New York School's perhaps most genuinely experimental, aesthetically fearless and uncompromising artist. And then on April 23, 1999, Barbara Guest—amidst an extraordinarily prolific output of luminous work during her eighth decade—is awarded the Poetry Society of America's Robert Frost Medal. The honor officially places her in the select company of such previous Frost-Medal recipients as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and John Ashbery (Guest's New York School colleague).1

At which point, the literary world, belatedly turning its attention to the oeuvre of this pioneer in a post-Modern experimentalism that can at last be accepted and codified, discovers in shock or chagrin that she's been a card-carrying, militant Modernist all along! Moreover, careful reading of the later work reveals an increasingly relentless investigation of the Modernist versus post-Modernist question itself, and the concomitant emergence of a powerful, apparently unexpected claim made in Guest's writing. The claim? That post-Modernism, far from having superseded Modernism, has actually prevented the latter from coming fully into being.

If this rehearsal of Guest's career appears structurally as a Borgesian reshuffling of historical sequence, its implicit form and content sound the overarching aesthetic and political themes of another great Modernist voice, that of the Frankfurt School philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno. There are many paths into the experimental modernity of Guest's poetry. But rumors about the comeback of both experimental Modernism and Adornian aesthetics make it especially interesting to approach Guest's work (and her plottings of a future for Modernism) via her poetry's intense engagement with Adorno. Indeed, it's worth backing up to note one of literary history's wonderful accidents, the sort of accident or contingency that art by its nature turns into necessity (at least, that's what art does until post-Modernism). It so happens that two of what Guest deems her most important early poems first appeared in a 1960 issue of the journal Noonday. The second of these two lyric poems, “Lights of my Eyes,” begins

Lights of my eyes
                                                  my only
they're turning it off
                                                  while we're asleep on this shore

and the poem later concludes,

… I'll go on singing ‘adieu’

By whatever quirk of fate and Noonday editorial decision, on the very page following Guest's poems appears the first English translation of Adorno's “Looking Back on Surrealism”; the brief essay was one of Adorno's attempts to reroute the theoretical efforts of his friend and colleague Walter Benjamin, whose 1929 essay on Surrealism in many ways is the point of departure for Adorno's later undertaking.2 There has long been heated debate about the effectiveness, in his own lifetime, of Benjamin's Marxian advocacy of those Surrealist and allied artistic experiments that had highlighted what Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction”: the attempt to jettison traditional notions about the “aura” created through an individual artist's imaginative labor, and likewise to abolish the contiguous concept of “aesthetic autonomy.”3 Whatever the merits of the positions expressed in that debate, the strong consensus is that the real life of Benjamin's mechanical-reproduction theory has occurred during its posthumous celebration in post-Modernism. So Adorno's Surrealism essay is particularly relevant here, as would be his “On Lyric Poetry and Society” (1957) and his final work, Aesthetic Theory (1970).4 These texts are motivated by a desire (articulated largely within the Marxian vocabulary Adorno shares with Benjamin) not to relinquish what Adorno deems the “critical” nature of Modernism, by Adorno's refusal to ratify the theory and practice of “anti-aesthetic” mechanical reproduction.5

One could not do better, when seeking an exemplary site for Guest's and Adorno's meeting on the terrain of late Modernism, than those 1960, back-to-back pages of Noonday. Guest's two early lyrics are already characterized by the sustained grace, radiance, and imaginative reach for which she will become known. The poems exhibit deep, multiple, elegant and musical intuitions of experimental, in-process structure, where intense yet deft acts of intellection are informed by melody, where song quickens thought.

We are living at an embarkation port
                                        where the gulls
                                        and the soft-shoed buoys
                                        make Atlantic soundings
This air of ours is photographing fish
and the rice and the white antelope pelts
are asleep in the dark orchid hold
where old women have sent their black lids to be parched
and young bronze boys are tying knots in their limbs
while spume and the salt
                              send thick-painted pictures to
                                        the hatchway

(from “In Dock”)

Guest fills the atmosphere, the air of her embarkation port, with song (with “an air,” as was once said) whose Atlantic soundings make buoys and boys float into one another. That melodic atmosphere in turn yields—almost surreally, one wants to say—visual conceptualization, as the air “photographs” fish, carries spume and salt as “pictures.” And just as Guest's two lyrics finally transport their readers to the next page of Noonday—transport them, that is, to a rigorous theorization of critical aesthetic subjectivity by someone named Adorno—so will the very theorizations in Adorno's essay come to depend on Adorno's historical valuation of a complex of song and intellectual construction, a complex that Adorno will elsewhere identify as lyric, a term that for him means the modern lyric traditions whose trajectory runs from Romanticism through the twentieth century.

Of course, a view that comes to one of its great apotheoses in post-Modernist art and theory—a view Adorno always seeks to refute—is that a critical poetics should react against the Romantic and Modernist legacy of auratic lyric subjectivity and the latter's allegedly “aestheticizing” propagation of poetic false consciousness. A critical poetics, the apparently Benjaminian and post-Modernist argument goes, should be anti-lyric, anti-aesthetic, and committed to methods associated with technologically oriented reproduction, all in order to effect radical defamiliarization and the renewal of sociopolitical commitment. But, playing careful variations on Benjamin's themes, Adorno holds throughout his work that—at least since Baudelaire—the critical force of poetry depends precisely on its ability to make lyric itself critical. This is quite distinct from abolishing or getting beyond auratic lyric subjectivity and modern aesthetic autonomy. Preserving Benjamin's insights about how Baudelaire brilliantly makes lyric vocation confront the destruction of its own historical preconditions—the kind of temporal-reflective experience no longer possible, Baudelaire's poems seem to declare, in a radically commodified, high speed, high capitalist modernity—Adorno nonetheless effectively defends a lyric whose exponentially raised via-negativa aura survives Benjamin's intermittent proclamations of aura's death. Hence Adorno maintains (with Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Celan as pathfinders) that the refusal of lyric aura tout court is for poetry the refusal of critique.6

It's not as if the 1960 accident of Noonday publication and pagination somehow imprinted Adornian aesthetics into the DNA of all Guest's subsequent poetry. That poetry now makes up quite a body of work, from Guest's early The Location of Things all the way to her 1995 Selected Poems and, most astonishingly, the five volumes she's written since publication of her Selected.7 Across these years Guest certainly hasn't channeled Adorno, hasn't read his Aesthetic Theory—or any other philosophy, for that matter—as blueprint for poetry. (Though, truth be told, she has been known to paint onto canvas, as something of an ars poetica, Adorno's severe yet complicatedly lyric aphorism that “with Schönberg, affability ceases.”) For all her decades of reading in philosophy and critical theory, Guest's genuine affinity with Adorno, and her on-going commitment to Modernism, prove themselves precisely because she doesn't apply theory to poetry. Rather—and I'll perversely take my formulation here, about experimental artistic constructivism, from Adorno's Aesthetic Theory—Guest enacts a

subjective paradox of art: to produce what is blind, expression, by way of reflection, that is, through form; not to rationalize the blind but to produce it aesthetically, “To make things of which we do not know what they are.”8

I'll turn shortly to the way Guest dramatizes this critical process of discovering reality by means of lyric negation (the dynamic whereby in poetry, to quote the title of a Guest poem, “An Emphasis Falls on Reality”). But I want first to note the related Adornian concern, explicitly articulated in Guest's prose, about the preservation and expansion of a critical lyric Modernism. This is an aesthetic with commitments far afield from parody, pastiche, and either nose-thumbing or solemnizing registrations of techno-mechanical reproducibility, the culture of copy and simulacrum. Guest's concern is present when, in “Poetry the True Fiction,” she makes a constellation that stretches from Cowper and Coleridge to Mallarmé and Stevens, linking them all to the way that Willem de Kooning locates, in Renaissance drawing, a proto-modern sense of “plastic,” “movable” form—a notion crucial to much of Guest's thinking about poetry's palpable and musical structures.9 The concern appears in a review of the poet and critic Susan Gevirtz's study of Dorothy Richardson, where Guest writes suggestively, in classic Enlightenment aesthetic vocabulary, of “enlargement of the scope of field” and the need to relate a dynamic “empathy” to “an extending modernity.”10 And it appears in Guest's powerful if unfashionable revivification of Romantic-Modernist poetic irony; not as a too-knowing cynicism, but as something qualitatively different—something fundamental to poetic experiment—is how Guest conceives the “bittersweet laughter” that “brings us closer to irony, the mole of poetry.”11 All of which, Guest has indicated on several occasions, are encapsulated for her in Norma Cole's “The Poetics of Vertigo”; delivered as the 1998 George Oppen Memorial Lecture, “The Poetics of Vertigo” had thought through Oppen's exploration of poetry's ways of knowing (and thought through the path, Guest has emphasized, that led a poet as politically committed as Oppen to adumbrate an “asocial radicality claimed by and for poetry”).12

Still, Guest's poetry always flows back in, even or especially back into the issues raised in the prose. So it's appropriate to quote as well from her remarkable poem “Leaving Modernity” in the award-winning volume Quill, Solitary, APPARITION (1996), a poem whose resonances seem to replay as undersong Adorno's repeated incantations of Rimbaud's il faut être absolument moderne, watchword for a sense of Modernism not as style or canonized authority but as continued experiment, as critical-exploratory approach to the given. In “Leaving Modernity” the poet makes us encounter musically “the idea of departure (simmered between brackets),” which she presents as the poem's difficult question. We confront too a “leaving (without ending)”; the poem enables us virtually to hear how

                                        “a disorder between space and form”
                              interrupts Modernity
with an aptitude unties
                                                            the dissolving string
and thought of your vanishment, Modernity
          on the roadway

The poet and critic Marjorie Welish, an especially acute commentator on Guest's work, has rightly emphasized that Guest's recent poetry threads a terrifically distilled musicality and a disjunctive spatialization through each other, at once preserving and unsettling the lyricism.13 One might add that Guest accomplishes this in a manner whose consonance with Benjamin's description of the Baudelairean lyric counter-tradition (and its constant, ever-increasing wager with/against aura) is readily evident. Since Baudelaire, that is, the poet can choose from two modes of resignation: the poet can blithely sing away, as if capitalist modernity had never happened, had not profoundly affected the experiential preconditions for intellectual and emotional processing of lyric and its contents; or, in awareness of how drastically modernity has altered the conditions for aesthetic experience, the poet—not wishing to participate in false comforts and illusory consolations—can just throw in the towel on song-based poetics. A third, admittedly paradoxical and ever-tentative alternative is the one Benjamin and Adorno try to chart in Baudelaire and the tradition of formal experiment associated with him. Here the poet begins with something like an attempt to sing, but does so haltingly, fragmentarily, or with confessions of paralytic bad faith, and so forth; yet the poet also or thereby seeks to reconjure beauty while simultaneously representing the unprecedented complexity—in all too many cases, the out-and-out horror—of really existing society. The poet begins with an attempt to sing song's apparent impossibility.

Guest's poetic is experimentally modern and Modernist in this Benjaminian-Adornian sense. Guest simultaneously invokes and takes leave of lyric, calls forth and questions modernity, places opulence of sound and suggestion of depth alongside ruthlessly stripped down narrative gesture. The technique more than recalls Adorno's notion that Schönberg's great achievement, in Moses und Aron, was first to have radically compressed and then interwoven monumental construction and extreme polyphony; indeed, Guest virtually courts melodic decomposition as her means toward reinventing poetry's version of “through-composed,” architectonically conceived musicality. But the pre-condition for these particular modes of experiment—and this is Adorno's point about the Baudelairean tradition in poetry, not to mention Schönberg—is the necessarily difficult, almost constitutively negative reanimation of aura, the spectral presence-ing of aesthetic autonomy.

This would go a long way toward explaining the place in Guest's work of a lyric music rarely heard (or so frequently misheard) today, along with at least two of its interconnected forms of difficulty: that of hearing lyric at all in our culture; and of hearing a specifically difficult lyric whose seeming abstractness or hyper-distillation may appear wilfully recondite. The first sentence of Benjamin's “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” echoes still: “Baudelaire envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties.”14 Adorno later begins unpacking the multiple meanings of such difficulty in Baudelaire (and in Benjamin) when he states that, with and after Baudelaire, “lyric poetry became a game in which one goes for broke.” The modern experimental lyric poet risks audience incomprehension not out of a rebellious desire for obscurity but actually because he or she seeks to bring to light, through poetic form and with as much precision as possible, aspects of a modern social complexity whose reality can hardly correspond to socially available, already established, status-quo conceptions of present society. Nor will an older, ready-to-hand lyric language's formulae and concepts necessarily prove adequate for describing, understanding, and engaging those facets of the social. Moreover, the dynamic nature of the basic equation means that—with some possible exceptions that would, at a minimum, probably depend on the confluence of a culturally shared sense of social crisis (or at least of imminent and important transformation) coupled with a relatively large readership for “advanced” poetry—Baudelairean poets after Baudelaire will court ever greater risk, as the social and aesthetic problems that the poets engage in relation to lyric aura seem necessarily to increase in complexity, making formal failure and/or audience refusal exponentially more likely.15

The ambitions, then, of Guest's poetry comprehend levels and combinations of difficulty that have at times, perhaps inevitably, caused it to be side-stepped or misunderstood in all the ways Benjamin and Adorno posit, and then some. Misreadings have ranged widely, and have often been based on interpretive options decidedly ironized or tweaked by the poems themselves. For example, Guest's evident interests in painting and the visual has led to hasty pronouncements that she is—with all the traditionally gendered connotations the term implicitly carries in modern poetics—merely a pictorialist. Meanwhile, awareness that lyric music matters tremendously to Guest has led to assumptions that she is a straightforward (if especially demure or muted, again because female) singer, in the line of Baudelairean-formal-experiment-and-its-aftermath-never-occurred. Finally, recognition of the emphatic disjunctions and dissonances in her work, and confusion about the ways that Guest has occasionally used the term lyric to signify the non-problematic strain that makes a wide detour around Baudelaire et al., have led to judgments that Guest must be some species of language poet.16 Guest is none of these, but the relative familiarity of these options within poetics today makes them all too readily available as explanations of her work. This has meant that for various readers, Guest's poetry has beckoned with intriguing mystery, only to remain mostly mysterious. Put differently, the work—judged, for example, in terms of the language poetry or mainstream lyric which it is not—does not behave according to any current canons.

What probably makes the work appear to some as mysterious or frustratingly unrecognizable is the incomprehensibility today—the sheer foreignness—of the very notion of experimental vocation at the heart of Benjamin's and Adorno's readings of modern poetry (no small irony, given that the Frankfurt School authors are so often cited to lend ballast to championings of post-Modernist experimentalism). That is, Guest's lyric may seem inscrutable or unassimilable because it undertakes nothing less than to reimagine the ur-problem that modern lyric experiment poses for itself, a problem that, to be sure, harkens back to a task lyric poetry broaches long before modernity: how to build a solid artistic structure out of something as delicate and ephemeral as subjective song?

To this the Baudelairean poet must add the maddening fact of lyric aura's specifically modern “impossibility.” That impossibility may be traced, in the Benjaminian-Adornian view, not only from the subjective perspective of the one who would voice or hear the song, but also from the direction of objectivity, of structural analysis of a capitalist modernity characterized by an all-pervasive structure that nevertheless, given the impressively fluid and everchanging character of capital itself, proves notoriously difficult to delineate and objectify. An earlier poetics had approached analagous if simpler conundrums by relying on achieved form as the principle of dynamic synthesis of subjective utterance and objective ground. The modern twist, visible in Baudelaire and accelerating thereafter, is the sense that the very categories of subject and object seem disconcertingly to have been erased well before they can be elegantly transmuted, via poesis, into each other.

Renderings of the social, formal, or musical look—thankfully—different among different poets within experimental traditions. Guest has gravitated toward what in Benjamin's and (especially) Adorno's eyes is the most ambitious task within lyric experiment: that of realizing poetic form anew in an architectonically-conceived structure, built, as it were, from hard to grasp musical materials. (Shared dedication to that confluence of powerful structure and lyric play is also, of course, one of the great bonds between New York School painters and poets.) In poem after poem, Guest constructs the edifice by musical phrase; the result is usually an architecture at once monumental and ghostly, seemingly held in place by the vibration of phrase-blocks one against another.17 The sense of musical phrase testifies to an uncanny blending not only of poetic history's ways with melody, meter, and breath, but equally with those of musical performance, one ear pitched toward the classical, the other toward jazz (and with decided partiality in each toward the human voice and its string or reed kin). The architectural ambition, the sense of musical phrase as constructive unit, of music as metaphor that also metaphorizes into something provisionally concrete enough to build with, is perhaps nowhere so pronounced as in “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” (from Fair Realism, 1989). This poem's radical understanding of the nature and conceptualization of reality begins with its title, which posits apprehension of the real as a process of understanding that occurs through the imagining, making, and/or naming of figures that, in their “emphasis” on aspects of reality, fall like grace notes upon the latter. The act of apprehension—ultimately, the act of poetry—becomes part of its object, reality:

Cloud fields change into furniture
furniture metamorphizes into fields
an emphasis falls on reality.
“It snowed toward morning,” a barcarole
the words stretched severely
silhouettes they arrived in trenchant cut
the face of lilies. …

If the cloud (continually forming, disintegrating, reconstituting itself), metaphorically seen as field, turns into furniture and back into field and then both literally and metaphorically falls onto reality (earth) as snow, the whole transmission—“stretched severely”—turns into a musical form, a barcarole. Music moves like the air and its elements, moves through or rises and falls in time, and the barcarole (taking its name from the gondolier, who takes his name from the boat itself) is both literal and metaphorical instantiation of such movement. The gondolier's song, the barcarole, moves—like all music—in time, but also on the boat and water from which it is originally sung. That song moves historically into a form that is not only sung but also played instrumentally without words (the barcarolles of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Fauré), yet still in imitation of boat and water movement. In Guest's poem, the whole process signifies the mutually constitutive identity of metaphor, music, and movement. The complex of terms designates the activity of emphasizing: of figuratively understanding, making, imaginatively comprehending, moving reality and thereby becoming it. Musical cadence gently though swingingly sounds the desire for reality; with rhythmic grace and assonance expressive of that desiring subjectivity, it marks its difference from its object by recognizing musical metaphor's difference from, and effect on, the reality it seeks to know:

I was envious of fair realism.
I desired sunrise to revise itself
as apparition, majestic in evocativeness,
two fountains traced nearby on a lawn. …

Whether the i's that call to one another are sunrise or its revision, apparition of actual sunrise or apparition caused by metaphorical sunrise, a shadow is cast on earth: on a lawn. As the poem hums its way through the literalization of figures and the metaphorization of reality—as poetry and reality shadow and inflect one another, yielding a notion, in a fair realism both fine and just, of poetry as a form of reality—the architectural, along with modernity itself, make their joint appearance:

A column chosen from distance
mounts into the sky while the font
is classical,
they will destroy the disturbed font
as it enters modernity and is rare. …
The necessary idealizing of you reality
is part of the search, the journey
where two figures embrace
This house was drawn for them
it looks like a real house
perhaps they will move in today

The column that rises skyward from earth, and the classical, destroyed-as-it-enters-modernity font lead quickly to figures that may be actual people or just figures; they stand for both, and so for figuration as a process that would logically end in real embodiment. Figures of either kind are housed or “move into” structures that begin as “drawn” images, plans, blueprints: images that can be physically realized as actual houses. For Guest, critical lyric ideally aspires to the condition of works of art that are first made as figures, then made real enough for human beings to enter them; these ultimately would be weight-bearing structures, works of architecture. Yet the poem wants to build with foundations, girders, and beams composed of music, to maintain its structuring tensions through fluid sound and syntax: a barcarole built directly from—by severely stretching—the original barca, an architecture designed for flotation, movement, and song. The imagination's need to puzzle or stretch itself severely to project the creation or comprehension of such lyric architectonics appears as the price of an artistic-aesthetic ambition to apprehend, move on and into, reality. Or rather, in the wake of such necessarily idealized architectural-musical conceptualization (“The necessary idealizing of you reality / is part of the search”), reality is approached, made emphatic—fallen upon—through what looks like its photo-negation, as the poem's figures finally move

into ephemeral dusk and
move out of that into night
selective night with trees,
The darkened copies of all trees.

Grasping this poem's openly invoked architectonics—architecturalism in constantly decomposing and recomposing song-movement—allows us to perceive the same ambition in Guest's more recent, dramatically pared-down work, like the “Leaving Modernity” excerpt from Quill, Solitary, APPARITION quoted above. Call it experimental, barely or powerfully lyrical, Adornian; in any case, it helps to know that Quill, Solitary, APPARITION—if it makes sense to say this about a work that so courts the minimal—maximally references Baudelaire, from explicit naming and quotation to subtle allusion. Guest raises the stakes, so that musical architectonics investigates its conditions of possibility, internally explores its micro-units and simultaneously pushes outward; this poetic dares to enact “‘disorder between space and form’” and then with virtuosic “‘aptitude unties / the dissolving string.’” Even amid the volume's relentless compression, the coupling of a still achingly graceful literariness and a stark, spatially disorienting juxtaposition of poetic line recognizably extends the techniques of classical Modernism, while the poem's charged putting into relation of audible beauty and geometric abstraction further reminds us that we are in the realm of high aesthetic.

So it becomes necessary to ask: What makes Adorno in theory and Guest in poetry emphasize, against politically inflected critiques of elitist-aestheticist, canonical-Modernist false consciousness, this frankly aesthetic, seemingly transcendental phenomenon of lyric? How does an aesthetic commitment to lyric give us, as Adorno frequently puts it, the social; how does it provide a genuinely critical purchase on the modern? The answer involves Adorno's teasing out—from Immanuel Kant's aesthetic treatise Critique of Judgment (the Third Critique) and Kant's Critical Philosophy as a whole, and from a kindred Romantic-Modernist poetics—of a constructivist theory of aesthetic experience and human agency. This effort allows Adorno to uncover and begin working out a crucial distinction between aesthetic and aestheticization. At issue will be the non- or quasi-conceptual character of aesthetic thought-experience.

The idea is that although the aesthetic may look like conceptual, objective, useful thought, the resemblance is only formal. Aesthetic thought-experience in some way precedes objective, use-oriented thought; in that sense, art or the aesthetic is formal because, rather than being determined by, it provides the form for conceptual, objective thought or cognition. But aesthetic thought-experience itself remains free (relative to more properly conceptual thought) from pre-existent concepts or cognitive rules. The aesthetic—with ephemeral lyric traditionally at its apex—actually serves as mold or frame for the construction of conceptual thought in general. The aesthetic serves also as the formal engine for new, experimental (because previously non-existent) concepts: new concepts that may bring obscured aspects of substantive social reality to light. Consequently, the aesthetic can provide a prerequisite of critical thought by affording formal means for the development of new (not even necessarily utopian) concepts. Lyric experiment thus helps construct the intellectual-emotional apparatus for accessing, and to that extent helps make available the social material of, the new. In short, far from effecting a false-consciousness escape from society and politics, this constructivist theory and practice sees that experiment in lyric—lyric as experiment—helps make new areas of the modern fitfully available to perception in the first place.18

One last point of aesthetic theory and poetic history before returning to Guest's work. There's a fascinating issue that literary critics and historians concerned with nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry, and with Frankfurt School theory, have largely missed, perhaps because the issue is so subtly woven into scattered textual moments, its presence discernible largely in gesture and implication. Adorno's interest in Modernist constructivism, and in the relationship of critical human agency to processes of aesthetic and social construction more generally, of course traces itself back from his favorite twentieth-century exemplars: Celan, Beckett, Schönberg. But the tracing works back not just to later nineteenth-century lyric poetry and the well known case of Baudelaire; it goes back further, most specifically and surprisingly to a particular dynamic in the poetry of John Keats. The dynamic involves a constitutive tension between that famously ephemeral negative capability and Keats's equally celebrated monumental constructivism; the tension locates itself most memorably in Keats's lyric, but highly built and densely wrought, odes. Though it is possible to cull this history from the panoply of Adorno's writings, the connections are by no means obvious, a fact evidenced by the paucity of secondary literature on the subject.19

I recount this literary and aesthetic history because of a remarkable poem in Guest's Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature (1999); the near-identity of the book's subtitle with Adorno's Notes to Literature scarcely seems haphazard. The poem in question originally appeared in the journal Avec in 1995, under the title “Others,” though in Rocks on a Platter, the poem bears no title other than its first line,

Intimacy of tone

—by which it is identified in the Table of Contents. The poem quickly reveals itself to be concerned not only with tone, but with form and form-construction as well; and that will be only the beginning:

                              Intimacy of tone
and form
beyond the tangible itinerary
                                                  mirror trap
at 30 degrees

Guest's poem is notable for many reasons, not least for the ways it unearths and vivifies—as only an artwork can—the very poetic and aesthetic histories that inform Adorno's theory of Modernist constructivism. Guest discovers and makes visible buried touchstones of the theory, apprehends its foundations in the interanimating tension between Keatsian negative capability and monumental construction. Her poem accomplishes this sheerly by giving itself over to its own imaginative acts of investigatory poesis, pursued via Guest's formidable erudition and ability to sympathize with her materials, and animated by her ceaseless examination of the literary-historical constituents of her own experiments in musical architectonic. It would no doubt have delighted Adorno that the first powerful understanding of the Keatsian elements in his aesthetic theory emerges from a work of poetic art rather than criticism, and from a work struggling to reimagine Modernist legacies at that. For it turns out that among Guest's earliest impulses for the poem originally called “Others” was her transformative meditation on two ideas or problems. The first involved Adorno's ruminations on the degree to which mimesis (artistic representation) is not a copying or transcription of the given, but instead, a dialectical or disseminative process involving what Adorno calls “the non-conceptual affinity of a subjective creation with its object and positive other.”

A second found-speculation spurred and informed Guest's thinking, in this poem, about art's relationship to otherness, about otherness in and as art. This second idea grew from her rethinking of the “camelion-poet” hypothesized in Keats's letter on the “poetical character,” a companion text to Keats's earlier “negative capability” letter. In the letter on the poetical character, Keats asserts that the poetical character “is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character.” And Keats consequently is led to insist that

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body …

… When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated.20

Out of these and other sources and experiences taken into Guest's imagination comes the final version of the poem, with its acute Keats-Adorno fusion, its making of plastic fictions from materials that put monumental construction into conversation with an ephemeral, melodic sense of negation or negative capability. Guest makes audible and concrete a paradoxically social solitariness, a sympathetic projection or filiation in and through poetry. This is a poetic filled always with song, in which things sound one another to discover their present, or yet-to-be-learned, affinities:

snow footprints adieu
cold tears splashed acre is intimacy,
                                                            and many chimed things,
                                                            future's conduit.

Keats's alone-in-the-crowded-room experience of self, together with the marmoreality or monumentality of construction by which poetic making enables such subjectivity, is likewise evoked (in almost microscopic, Webernesque units),

In a room
                              “not alone”
Cannot dream except in “two's” or be alone,
          is hollowed out.

Meanwhile this speculative, imaginative subjectivity transgresses the rules of utility and socially pre-determined options; the emergent, alternative mode speaks in a language of politics, sensuous particularity, and artistic metamorphosis. Cadence and diction conspire to make minimalism feel inextricable from lightness of touch, exclamatory impulse, and, above all, effortless swing:

dissident morning!
with no ulterior purpose
image exchanged for a feather
le poisson on the watered page.

It bears noticing what distillation and condensation mean to Guest, how her work on the text becomes part of the poem's own understanding of its subject. One of the earlier drafts of this poem (from which Guest had read publically in November 1994) included the full passages that I quoted above from Adorno and Keats. Guest had initially placed those passages within the body of the poem's text, into its twelfth, final page. Then, just weeks prior to the poem's first publication in 1995 (as “Others,” in Avec), Guest rethought the inclusion of the Adorno comment, which in the earlier draft had read,

mimesis: the non-conceptual affinity of a subjective creation with its object and positive other


Guest transformed that passage, and the longer quotation from Keats (about the poet having no identity or self and so always “filling some other Body”), into the following, finally revised, concluding page of the poem;

Bar of silence crossed the mouth
decorates it.
She watched skirts sweep the floor,
from that day of her sixteenth year
her skirt brushes the floor. What she
          is after
“trailing skirt,” blossom
in mimetic hair
fills some other Body.

There's alchemy here. Poetic brooding over a philosophical formulation (a formulation about artistic representation itself) passes into the poem's braided suggestions of an irreducible mixture between lived and literary history. We hear, envision, and feel mimesis, “non-conceptual affinity with the objective” other. How? As a skirt sweeping the floor, as a teenage girl imitating or assimilating that movement; as linked weight-and-rhythm traces (in the poem's images and sounds) that blossom in “mimetic” hair whose movement, in turn, echoes the original sweep of skirts (as does our reading experience).

The marvel is that Guest's realization of “non-conceptual affinity” has traveled in two different directions, establishing affinity with two distinct others, two discrete conceptual or historical objects. One object is the evanescent, elliptical yet lived human experience evoked by literal and then metaphoric movement-traces of skirt and hair. The second object is, of course, Adorno's and Keats's theoretical conceptualization of how art, in its very non-conceptuality, allows us to imagine and construct affinity with conceptual or empirical objects, and with other subjects. In this second case, rather than metaphorize an already existing object (hair and skirt metaphorizing not only one another, but also the objective experience of an incident in a personal history, wherein movement and perception were experienced as one), Guest's art now embodies—literalizes—an abstract concept (the poem as a whole concretizing something that began not as a phenomenological experience but as a theoretical-conceptual insight; and, the specific abstract concept to which Guest's poem lends concrete particularity wonderfully happens to have posited art's quasi-conceptual, particularizing character). As with metaphor generally, these two directions in which non-conceptual affinity travels keep turning back into each other, aided here by the gliding of lines that on the page—at least at first glance—look like they might read in staccato clip rather than the luxurious flow that the combination of punctuation, enjambment, and breath invites. And in an ultimate working-through of the haunting logic whereby art and conceptual-objective knowledge shadow and provisionally disappear into their opposite numbers, the poem's original, abstract, conceptual-sounding title, “Others,” finally disappears from—disappears into—the text. The poem henceforth will be known (as it appears in Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature) not by a name, but merely by a part of its own body, by its first line: “Intimacy of tone.”

The poem's difficult structure and stringent lyricism help underscore its Modernism. Still, even without knowledge of Guest's linkages to Adorno, questions would arise about this Modernism's presumably nostalgic melancholia or pessimism, and about the use; the political efficacy, of such poetry and theory. We have to do here with an aesthetics admittedly susceptible to accusations of—in a word—formalism. The latter was, you'll recall, one of the repeated charges hurled (usually preceded by the modifier bourgeois) against both high Modernism and Adornian aesthetics as post-Modernism took center stage in art and theory. But post-Modernist culture and critique, by presuming that Modernist aesthetic formalism turns material, socio-political history into art's forgotten other, often miss the central point. For aesthetic form, as in Guest's poem, can be precisely the attempt to imagine or engage, however imperfectly and provisionally, otherness. From that perspective, modern lyric aura or transcendence simply signifies the imagining of positions and experiences beyond those already known to the subject—which is why Benjamin and Adorno so emphasize lyric's historical relation to critical thought and empancipatory possibility.

It would take another essay to explore the intriguing reception Guest's recent poetry has had in circles that, though seeing their poetics within experimental traditions, are known for far more explicit rhetorics of socio-political commitment than that which is legible on the surface, at any rate, of Guest's work. (Interestingly, this reception has included not only the U.S. and Western Europe but also Latin America, particularly among poets and critics whose literary and political work has involved attempts to remake and repoliticize public space, and whose previous work had involved the question of Argentina's, Chile's, and Brazil's “disappeared.”)21 It is tempting to say that such reception merely involves close and deep reading of Guest's sense of poetic form and vocation, that the reading locates itself in the hidden layers of places like the first epigraph—it is from Hölderlin—in Rocks on a Platter: “To live is to defend a form.” And whatever its future parameters, Guest's broader reception will one day profitably be read together with the perceptive commentaries on her work that have started to appear during the last few years.22

There are few bankable guarantees these days in poetry, aesthetics, or politics. But Guest's relentlessly investigatory, authentically experimental, pitch-perfect work—which always has been, and always will be, recent—may yet point to a future for Modernism.


  1. For thoughtful, interestingly heterodox analyses of Ashbery's and Guest's recent work—paying generous tribute to both poets' decades of achievement—see the poet and critic Garrett Caples' two reviews, “Ashbery Returns to Reinvention” [reviewing Girls on the Run], San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, April 4, 1999, p. 2, and “Masterful Variety from Poet Barbara Guest” [reviewing Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature, The Confetti Trees, and If So, Tell Me], San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, January 9, 2000, p. 12.

  2. See Noonday 3 (1960), pp. 13-20; see also “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” in Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. and with an Introduction by Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1986), pp. 177-192. Adorno's “Looking Back on Surrealism” (first published in German in 1956) can now be found in Adorno, Notes to Literature, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991) Vol. I, pp. 86-90.

  3. See, e.g., “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 217-251.

  4. “On Lyric Poetry and Society” in Notes to Literature, Vol. I, pp. 37-54; Aesthetic Theory, ed., translated, and with a translator's Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

  5. Within the field of what had once been broadly identified as experimental modern art, Peter Bürger has very usefully distinguished an “Avant-Gardist” desire to deconstruct or abolish aesthetic aura and autonomy from a “Modernist” commitment to art's provisional distance from reality and society. Thus in Bürger's particular terminology, Avant-Garde and Modernist are no longer synonymous, though both these tendencies within modern art are still seen to understand their projects as experimental. And, as Bürger and others have noted, progressive/Left artists and critics have been found on either side of this divide. Arguments for art-into-life (and/or for art's self-assimilation to advanced techniques of mechanical/technological reproduction), and counter-arguments for the value of aesthetic distance, have both been made in pursuit of a critical art that would contribute to emancipatory agendas. Numerous artists and critics have observed that post-Modernist culture—as the very term implies—has been far more often associated with Avant-Gardist reproductionism than with Modernist aesthetic aura or distance. See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

  6. See, e.g., “On Lyric Poetry and Society” and Aesthetic Theory; see too Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Illuminations pp. 155-200.

  7. Like much contemporary experimental poetry, a good deal of Guest's work has been published by smaller presses whose books may prove hard to find. I should therefore add that all or most of the texts mentioned in this essay are available through the (non-profit) Small Press Distribution, the leading such distributor in the United States, at 1341 Seventh Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, (510)524-1668 or (800)869-7553, fax (510)524-0852,, ‹›. Where it appears that SPD may not carry the text in question, I have tried to list the appropriate alternative resource.

  8. Aesthetic Theory, p. 114.

  9. Guest, “Poetry the True Fiction,” in Exact Change Yearbook No. 1, ed. Peter Gizzi (1995), pp. 97-102 [Exact Change, P.O. Box 1917, Boston, MA 02205; distributed by: Distributed Art Publishers, (800) 338-BOOK].

  10. Guest, review of Susan Gevirtz's Narrative's Journey: The Fiction and Film Writing of Dorothy Richardson (Peter Lang Publishers, 1996), in Sulfur 40 (Spring 1997), pp. 186-188.

  11. Guest, “A Reason for Poetics,” Ironwood 24 (1984), pp. 153-155.

  12. Cole's “The Poetics of Vertigo,” which Guest originally heard delivered to The Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University, has since been published in the Denver Quarterly 34: 4 (Winter 2000), pp. 71-99; the passage about the “asocial radicality claimed by and for poetry” appears on p. 86.

  13. Marjorie Welish, “The Lyric Lately (a work-in-progress),” Jacket #10.

  14. “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” p. 155.

  15. See Adorno, “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” pp. 43-46. [Adorno's “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” in accord with his work in general, often uses the terms totality and/or objectivity to signify society, or rather, to designate the genuinely social, objective reality that dominant forces in society do not and/or cannot articulate about the society they dominate.]

  16. Far from rejecting or condemning lyric, Guest has tried to suggest that her impulse toward it is so powerful that, if her musicality is to figure in the tradition of critical lyric and not simply overwhelm it, lyric impulse must be initially resisted: that is, it must be kept in tense relationship to what would seem the non or minimally lyric (i.e., kept in something like charged suspension, as an intensely stretched undersong, an apparently mute but in fact barely beneath the surface verbal music). For an excellent discussion see Welish, “The Lyric Lately (a work-in-progress).” See also Terence Diggory's insightful contrast between Guest's work and language-identified poetics, “Barbara Guest and the Mother of Beauty,” presented at the Barnard College conference “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women,” April 1999; the essay will be published in a special issue—focussed on Guest and edited by Catherine Kasper—of Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal.

  17. See Welish's discussion in “The Lyric Lately (a work-in-progress)” of Guest's composition processes.

  18. For sustained discussion of these points see Kaufman, “Red Kant, or The Persistence of the Third Critique in Adorno and Jameson,” Critical Inquiry 26:4 (Summer 2000).

  19. For extended treatment of the topic see Kaufman, “Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno, and the Theory of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 27:2 (Winter 2001). For discussion of a somewhat parallel dialogue between late twentieth-century and Romantic experimentalism see Kaufman, “Everybody Hates Kant: Blakean Formalism and the Symmetries of Laura Moriarty,” Modern Language Quarterly 61:1 (March 2000).

  20. Keats's letter to Richard Woodhouse on the poetical character is dated October 27, 1818; the negative-capability letter, written to George and Tom Keats, is dated December 21-27, 1817. The texts are included in most editions of, or anthology excerpts from, Keats's Letters.

  21. I am grateful to Francine Masiello for directing my attention to the scope of this Latin American reception.

  22. See, e.g., Kathleen Fraser, “Barbara Guest: The location of her (A memoir)” and “‘One Hundred and Three Chapters of Little Times’: Collapsed and transfigured moments in the cubist fiction of Barbara Guest” in Fraser's Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000), pp. 124-130, 161-173; Marjorie Welish, “The Lyric Lately (a work-in-progress)” [cited in n.13 above] and Welish's review of Fair Realism in Sulfur 26 (Spring 1990), pp. 213-215; Susan Gevirtz, “Belief's Afterimage,” Jacket #10; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “The Flavor of Eyes: Selected Poems by Barbara Guest,” Women's Review of Books 13 (1995), pp. 23-24, and “‘All My Vast/Journeying Sensibility’: Barbara Guest's Recent Work,” Sulfur 39 (1996), pp. 39-48; Barbara Einzig. “The Surface as Object: Barbara Guest's Selected Poems, American Poetry Review (Jan/Feb 1996), pp. 7-10; Brenda Hillman, “The Artful Dare: Barbara Guest's Selected Poems,Talisman 16 (Fall 1996), pp. 207-220; Sara Lundquist, “Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze,” Contemporary Literature 38:2 (1997), pp. 260-286; and Norma Cole, untitled poem with dedication “for Barbara Guest” in Cole, The Vulgar Tongue (San Francisco: a+bend press, 2000), p. 3 [a+bend press is distributed through].

For their responses to earlier versions of this essay, I am indebted to Charles Altieri, Adam Casdin, Joshua Clover, Norma Cole, Terence Diggory, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Robert Hullot-Kentor, Michael Kelly, Laura Moriarty, Michael Palmer, and Marjorie Welish.

Catherine Kasper (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Kasper, Catherine. Review of Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature. Chicago Review 47, no. 3 (fall 2001): 145-48.

[In the following essay, Kasper offers a review of Rocks on a Platter: Notes on Literature.]

Rocks on a Platter contains some of Barbara Guest's most obscure and compelling lines since Defensive Rapture (1993). It has been interpreted by other reviewers as one long poem that examines the “implacable poet” as subject and vector in the process of creative production. While that may be the case, these poems are also literally “notes” on literature, as its subtitle suggests. The book can be seen as Guest's own jottings in...

(The entire section is 1257 words.)

Sara Lundquist (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Lundquist, Sara. “The Fifth Point of a Star: Barbara Guest and The New York ‘School’ of Poets.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30 (2001): 11-41.

[In the following essay, Lundquist examines Guest's literary reputation and places her among the five writers who were the originators of the New York School of poets in the 1950s and 1960s.]

James Schuyler wrote in 1971 (with exasperated humor) to his friend and fellow poet, Barbara Guest, about what he believed was a general but mistaken belief that only Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, and Frank O'Hara constituted the originators and core group of New York poets. “They do not realize that the...

(The entire section is 10392 words.)

Arielle Greenberg (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Greenberg, Arielle. “A Sublime Sort of Exercise: Levity and the Poetry of Barbara Guest.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30 (2001): 111-21.

[In the following essay, Greenberg traces the evolution of humor and wit in Guest's poetry from 1960 through 1980.]

Much of the recent critical work on Barbara Guest has focused on the importance of painterly light in her poems. I would like to discuss the importance of a different kind of light—light in the sense of levity, humor. I would ask that we read Guest as a poet possessed of great wit, and as a poet employing feminist strategies. I argue that these two characteristics can be seen...

(The entire section is 3060 words.)

Garrett Caples (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Caples, Garrett. “The Barbara Guest Experience.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30 (2001): 123-29.

[In the following essay, Caples discusses how Guest's later poetry incorporates the theme of “wandering.”]

going to your desk in the meadow
finding a token in the drawer …

—Barbara Guest, “Knight of the Swan,” Selected Poems

“Poetry,” Barbara Guest insists, “is an experience,”1 and I quote these lines from “Knight of the Swan” (1973) freely out-of-context, for they strike me as very like the experience of reading her work. There's much imagery of wandering, then finding...

(The entire section is 2093 words.)

Linda A. Kinnahan (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Kinnahan, Linda A. “Reading Barbara Guest: The View from the Nineties.” In The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller, pp. 229-43. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001.

[In the following essay, Kinnahan offers an overview of recent critical assessment of the poetic work of Barbara Guest.]

Miss Guest abolishes relationship, and consequently abolishes value. … Where Miss Guest abolishes relationship, Miss Plath asserts it as central.

-William Dickey (“Responsibilities” 758, 764)

While O'Hara's...

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Barbara Guest (essay date September-October 2002)

SOURCE: Guest, Barbara. “Three Essays.” The American Poetry Review 31, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 13-15.

[In the following essay, including three pieces that appear in Guest's 2003 publication, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing, the poet considers the aim of poetry, the role of imagination, and the many aspects of art at large.]


The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page, so that we are aware of another aspect of the art. This will introduce us to its spiritual essence. This essence has no limits. What we are setting out to do is to delimit the work of art, so that it appears to...

(The entire section is 3475 words.)

Further Reading


Diggory, Terence. “Barbara Guest and the Mother of Beauty.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 30 (2001): 75-94.

Examines Guest's role as a central figure among contemporary American poets.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “The Gendered Marvelous: Barbara Guest, Surrealism and Feminist Reception.” In The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets, Terence Diggory and Stephen Paul Miller, pp. 189-213. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2001.

Considers feminist criticism of Guest's poetics through an examination of works including “The Poetess,” “The Farewell Stairway,”...

(The entire section is 232 words.)