Barbara Guest has been, from her first work, an experimental, antitraditional poet. Having spent part of her early life in Florida and California, the poet allows traces of these locations to enter her work, although her quirky, elliptical style places it outside the casual category of “nature poetry.” Guest was associated with the New York school of poetry in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a group of poets who rejected both the formal poetry that was popular in the 1950’s and the then-new interest in personal or confessional poetry. The New York school included John Ashbery (b. 1927), Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), and Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), among others, and at the time few women were involved in this kind of experimental writing. For these writers, music and art replaced the domestic and the exploration of one’s own psyche as subject and model for poetry. Careful attention to the placement of each word on the page replaced formalist concerns of rhyme and meter. For Barbara Guest particularly, each poem became a carefully arranged piece which drew in concepts and practices from music, art, and philosophy. The poems came close to being performance pieces that performed themselves on the page, illustrating in sound and space the concepts that actuated them. In this they are reminiscent at times of the poetry of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).
Guest has been from the beginning an advocate and practitioner of open form, following Stéphane Mallarmé (1842- 1898) in space and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) in sound to create avant-garde writing which challenges the mind and senses. The work requires attentive rereading for understanding, and might be thought of as the equivalent of twelve-tone music in a verbal and visual form. Her work remains provocative and demanding, becoming more and more elliptical and innovative with each new collection. It may well be that Miniatures, and Other Poems is not the best way to enter the world of her work, because this collection is difficult, particularly for readers unfamiliar with her style and scope. Earlier collections, even the intellectually dense Rocks on a Platter (1999), provided epigraphs as guideposts, and meanings could be perhaps more easily pieced together from groupings. Yet for those readers acquainted with this kind of work and familiar with Guest’s style, Miniatures provides poems to savor and return to. Poet Fanny Howe comments that these poems are “Perfume in a bottle. Guest’s knowledge is here articulated in terms that delight and disturb—it is truly original.” Poet Rosmarie Waldrop comments that the book “engages with a full range of life, pushing toward the tenuous and toward open form, but always amazingly with perfect balance. . . .” Guest’s appreciative critics are innovative poets, and indeed her most satisfied readers are going to be those who think far outside any traditional boxes in both poetry and criticism.
This is a triptych of three sections: “Miniatures,” “Pathos,” and “Blurred Edge.” The poems of the first series are separate, tiny, and controlled, although they appear diffuse. They are indeed miniatures, each poem a distilled essence. The poems contain few words, each important, ranged in such a way to make the white space or the silence part of the poem. The poems in the group play with concepts of time, the nature of language, the relationship between creator and work. Much of Guest’s work is self-reflexive, showing the poem conscious of its status as artifact and the role of the creator in bringing about the work. “The poem gathers itself (becomes embodied) the way a narrative diffuses and sustained by movements, auditory and visual,” Guest has commented, and the gathering is seen and felt in these poems as picture and music in motion. Their motifs, often introduced in the title, serve to link and pace them.
Guest’s age—eighty-two at the time of the publication of this book—may suggest a reading of the poems as being about finalities, a summing-up of life and art. This is surely part, but not all, of their scope. They are, in their concerns although not in their style, similar to the late poems of Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), which also evaluated the meaning of a lifetime’s...
(The entire section is 1730 words.)