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.
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).
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.
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.”