The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

“Winter Horses” is a poem in four short sections of thirteen, eleven, nine, and eight lines, respectively. The first and last sections’ lines are left-justified, whereas the middle sections’ lines are scattered on the page. The poem’s title provides a useful index to the poem as a whole: “Winter Horses” juxtaposes the idea of winter (stillness) and the idea of horses (motion). Readers can fruitfully consider the poem a meditation on the results of this juxtaposition. Seeming paradoxes are linked through logical associations which lead them to be viewed as complementary ideas instead of contradictory ones.

The first section catalogs the effects of winter on the land and the people. The first line, “placed two sticks upon a dazzling plate,” suggests the movement of the poem: How will readers reconceive the ordinary (the “two sticks”) on the “dazzling plate” of winter? Abruptly the poem moves from the landscape to people, invoking wars, memory, hearsay, and treachery in only two lines; apparently the emotional landscape of winter is neither still nor dazzling but turbulent and pained. The second stanza implies that readers remember the “tawnysplendor” of summer in glorious winter sunsets, despite the freeze that “shut[s] the moat.”

The next two sections, with their lines shifting on the page, work even more associatively. The conflict between winter (bearing cold stillness) and horses (living motion) persists but now appears to operate by an associative logic rather than by seeming contradiction. Further, the details begin to probe the greater emotional depths of the connotations of these ideas. For example, as the second section’s first stanza turns “sea grey cold” into “a door” and then “one boulder,” the cold and the forbidding size of a boulder suggest a closed door and thus the emotional connotations of such a door. The poem thus invites the reader’s fuller participation as the reader essentially rewrites the poem in trying to create a personal understanding of the associations. The emotional landscape darkens in the third section as the lines approach a more regular spacing, with some lines indented about half a line while others are left-justified. When an unidentified “they” bring the reader, posed as “you,” “a fig dish,” it appears as a luxury, but the next line offers a corpse. The winter appears increasingly menacing and powerful, despite its designation as la gloire (French for “the glow” or “glory”) at the beginning of the section; hence the closing lines, “the cramped space ran/ out of breathing.” Winter’s compass, left unchecked, would deny life to everything that breathes.

The poem’s last section brings readers to the start of the spring thaw as winter still clings. Though snow may “lance” the brightness, winter’s last attempt to reign over nature will surely fail. The sun, warm enough that windows are “flung” open, will soon dominate again. This moment between seasons, during which both show their force, creates a sense of awe, a “dazzlement” that urges new life. Yet this life arises from death, for the people who come out in their boots necessarily step on the invisible creature of the air, the sylph. Poet Barbara Guest suggests that the cycle of seasons is not pure; one cannot merely associate winter with death and spring with life. Rather, Guest evokes a far more complex layering of the promise and the threat of a season in the world and in the mind.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Guest builds the poem through an accumulation of fragments, of striking phrases that might be disturbing in their incompleteness for the reader of traditional poetry. In an interview, Guest described another one of her poems as working “on several levels and [moving] back and forthbetween levels as reality does.” In Guest’s poetic vision, reality is fragmented rather than unified. This is not to say that Guest does not believe there is any coherence but that coherence arises between the levels, between the fragments, in a process of association and accumulation. Guest’s fragmentary style urges a high level of participation from the reader. Readers cannot simply accept a given narrative or linear logic; rather, they bring their own associations to the poem and hence find the silence on the page (what Guest does not say) as the place for their participation and understanding. This does not mean that the poem can mean anything the reader wants it to, but that the fragments allow both a greater range of interpretation and any interpretation to remain subject to reconsideration by a different reader.

Guest’s use of capitalization and punctuation provide further guidance. There are no capitalized words, placing the reader in medias res. This evokes questions about the poem’s temporality: Is the poem going on now? The alternation between past and present tense suggests some narrative progression, some relation between what has passed and what is happening now, but the fragmentary nature of these phrases leads more to suggestions than to specific answers. Guest’s punctuation operates more definitively: Periods organize the fragments that came before it into a unit, and semicolons link fragments to evince a relation. At the beginning of the third section, the exclamation point at the end of the second fragment suggests that the “it” refers to winter, as the section’s beginning and the exclamation point enclose what comes between them and thus relate the two fragments to each other. Guest offers la gloire as the reader’s preconception of winter: “winter/ you know how it is la gloire!

Guest’s fragmented imagery provides something similar to a kaleidoscopic effect in the shifts of light, color, shape, and mood. Readers appear to view a medieval scene composed of “feudal wars,” “fortifications,” and a “moat” that represents the winter while being situated in it, and yet that scene constantly shifts as it accrues more detail. Some of the images require the reader’s invention, as when the reader, described as remembering feudal wars, appears to have not only a historical memory but also a historical imagination; for Guest, these may well be one and the same.

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