Barbara Guest was born Barbara Ann Pinson on September 6, 1920, in Wilmington, North Carolina, to James Harvey Pinson and Anna Mae Pinson. Her parents were in Wilmington a very brief time while her father looked for work. Guest had two brothers and two sisters. The family moved around a great deal, and the young Guest bounced between Charleston, West Virginia, where her grandparents lived, and small towns near Miami, Florida, where her parents were staying. The lack of a stable, consistent home and a secure place within her family created an anxiety-based tension in Guest that revealed itself later in her writings. Her work often reflected an undercurrent of impermanence and a sense of timelessness and lack of definitive parameters. Guest’s early education was completed in small, rural rustic schools, where she outdistanced her classmates, having learned to read at age three.
Because the young Guest showed high aptitude at a very early age, her West Virginia grandmother thought it wise to encourage her talent by exposing her to a good liberal education. She was therefore sent to live with an aunt and uncle who lived in Los Angeles. Guest graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1938. She then attended the University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in English literature. She met her future husband, painter and sculptor John Dudley, during her freshman year. Dissatisfied with the poetry classes, she transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, earning a B.A. in English literature in 1943. After returning to Los Angeles, Guest obtained a social work job and married Dudley. The couple moved to New York City in 1946 and were divorced later that year. Guest married Englishman Stephen Haden Guest and began writing poetry under the pen name of Barbara Guest. She gave birth to a daughter, Hadley Haden Guest, in 1949. Guest was divorced from her husband in 1954, and she soon married war historian Trumbull Higgins. The couple had a son, Jonathan Higgins, in 1955.
In the 1950’s, Guest became a pivotal member of the New York School of poets and shortly thereafter began writing for Art News. Her play The Ladies Choice was staged in New York City in 1953. Her first major volume of poetry, The Location of Things, was published in 1960.
Guest continued to write more highly acclaimed poems and poetry collections, and two more of her plays, The Office and Port, were staged. She wrote several other plays during this time, but they were not staged. Her one novel, Seeking Air, was published in 1978. For this effort, Guest received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Fund for Poetry Award.
Guest spent five years writing Herself Defined, a biography of the poet H. D. After its publication in 1984, it became one of her most noted prose efforts. Her choice of subject was inspired by the impact that H. D.’s works had on her; H. D. was famed throughout Europe as the poet who popularized a tightly constructed free-verse type of writing that became known as Imagism. That H. D. was a childhood sweetheart of renowned writer Ezra Pound only added to the appeal and widespread interest in her life and poetic works.
Guest continued to write poems, prose, and plays throughout the 1980’s, 1990’s, and up to her death in 2006. Her last publication was the poetry collection The Red Gaze, which appeared in 2005. After her death, her daughter, Hadley Haden Guest, published The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, which contains all her published poems and some previously unpublished poems.