Guest, Barbara

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GUEST, Barbara

Nationality: American. Born: Wilmington, North Carolina, 6 September 1920. Education: University of California, Berkeley, A.B.1943. Family: Married 1) Lord Stephen Haden-Guest in 1948 (divorced 1954), one daughter; 2) Trumbull Higgins in 1954, one son. Career: Editorial associate, Art News, New York, 1951–54. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1958; Longview Foundation award, 1960; Fund for Poetry prize, 1978, 1994, 1996; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980; Laurence Lipton award for literature, 1989; San Francisco State award for poetry, 1994; America award for literature, Contemporary Arts Council, 1995, and Josephine Miles award for poetry, P.E.N., 1996, both for Selected Poems; America award for literature, Contemporary Arts Council, 1996, for Quill, Solitary, Apparition; Foundation for Poetry award, 1998; Robert Frost medal, Poetry Society of America, 1998; Robert Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Work, Poetry Society of America, 1999. Address: 1301 Milvia Street, Berkeley, California 94709, U.S.A.



The Location of Things. New York, Tibor de Nagy, 1960.

Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies. New York, Doubleday, 1962.

The Blue Stairs. New York, Corinth, 1968.

I Ching: Poems and Lithographs, with Sheila Isham. Paris, Mourlot, 1969.

Moscow Mansions. New York, Viking Press, 1973.

The Countess from Minneapolis. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1976.

The Türler Losses. Montreal, Mansfield, 1979.

Biography. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1980.

Quilts. New York, Vehicle Press, 1980.

The Nude, lithographs by Warren Brandt. New York, Art Editions, 1986.

Musicality. Berkeley, California, Kelsey Street Press, 1988.

Fair Realism. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1989.

Defensive Rapture. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1994.

Stripped Tales, art by Ann Dunn. Berkeley, California, Kelsey St. Press, 1995.

Selected Poems. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1995; Manchester, Carcanet.

Quill, Solitary, Apparition. Sausalito, California, Post-Apollo Press, 1996.

The Luminous, with Jane Moorman, Palo Alto, California, Handmade, 1999.

Strings, with Ann Slacik, St. Denis, France, Handmade, 1999.

Outside of This, That Is. Calais and Vermont, Z Press, Kenward Elmslie, 1999.

If So, Tell Me. London, Reality Street Editions, 1999.

The Confetti Trees. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1999.

Recording: The Location of Things, Watershed, 1984.


The Ladies Choice (produced New York, 1953).

The Office (produced New York, 1963).

Port (produced New York, 1965).


Seeking Air. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1978


Robert Goodnough, with B.H. Friedmann. Paris, G. Fall, 1962.

Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. New York, Doubleday, 1984; London, Collins, 1985.

The Altos, with Richard Tuttle. San Francisco, Hawk Hine Editions, 1991.

Rocks on A Platter. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1999.


Manuscript Collections: University of Kentucky, Lexington; Lockwood Memorial Library, State University of New York, Buffalo; New York University; Yale University Beinecke Library.

Critical Studies: "One Hundred and Three Chapters of Little Times: Collapsed and Transfigured Moments in the Fiction of Barbara Guest" by Kathleen Fraser, in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, edited by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1989; "The Artful Dare: Barbara Guest's Selected Poems" by Brenda Hillman, in Talisman (Jersey City, New Jersey), 16, fall 1996; "The Surface As Object: Barbara Guest's Selected Poems" by Barbara Einzig, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 25(1), January-February 1996; "Reverence and Resistance: Barbara Guest, Ekphrasis, and the Female Gaze" by Sara Lundquist, in Contemporary Literature (Madison, Wisconsin), 38(2), summer 1997.

Barbara Guest comments:

The poem gathers itself (becomes embodied) the way a narrative diffuses and is sustained by movements, auditory and visual.

*  *  *

Barbara Guest was originally associated with the so-called New York school of poets, which included Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. Throughout her career her work has retained contact with the visual arts and music, the tendency toward "painterly" abstraction, and with the notable formal experimentation that characterized the writing of all of these poets. Guest's work, however, embodies a tension between two opposed impulses: a lyric, or purely musical, impulse; and a graphic impulse that emphasizes the materiality and arrangement of words in the poem. Both elements vie for dominance in her individual poems and determine their character.

A key aspect of Guest's work, in keeping with her interest in the arts in general, is its self-reflexiveness. She often considers the problem of artistic composition and consciousness itself, and it is within this context that the interartistic metaphor of poetry as painting or music functions in her work. In the poems "Roses" and "The Poetess," from Moscow Mansions, or in "Dora Maar" and "The Screen of Distance," from Fair Realism, for example, Guest explores the tension between the black-and-white, depthless sense of words and the dimensional, coloristic sensuality of painting. "The Poetess" (after Miró) employs a Gertrude Stein-like literary cubism to dramatize the difference and interaction between figure and discourse:

   A dollop is dolloping
   her a scoop is pursuing
   flee vain ingots  Ho
   coriander darks   thimble blues
   red okays adorn her
   buzz green circles in flight
   or submergence?       Giddy
   mishaps of blackness make
   stinging clouds what!

Analogously, in "Expectation" (Defensive Rapture), which makes reference to Arnold Schoenberg's atonal composition Erwartung, Guest explores the sonorous qualities of poetic language and the expressive possibilities of form and variation:

   masked throat—
            gradual broken ascent
            —means intensify
            through an aperture—the tilt

This dichotomy of coloristic effect and musicality is not considered only thematically, however; it is also formally enacted by the poems in Guest's handling of syntax and form. In its symbolistic luxuriance, her coloristic use of the line recalls the late work of Wallace Stevens. This can be seen, for example, in "The Rose Marble Table," from Fair Realism:

   Sea whose translucence disturbs inferior atoms,
   that passage from ice to shallow removes familiars
   as glass changes to foam, the parallel lake diminished,
   combs drop into fur.

But elsewhere Guest stresses the musical qualities of language, mobilizing its latent capacities for pulse, rhythm, volume, euphony, and notation. Here, as in "Musicality," from Fair Realism, her poetry takes on a performative quality:

   Hanging apples half notes
   in the rhythmic ceiling red flagged
   rag clefs
            notational margins
            the unfinished

For the early Wittgenstein the syntax of propositions, the hierarchy of their relations, and their order of succession gave a "logical picture" of the world. In an analogous way Guest explores the world-picturing or world-making—she leaves the question open—properties of the language of poetry. In her exploration of "what is the case," she is deeply concerned with syntax and with other modes of connection between words, including spatial form, lineation, and typography. Two antipodal features of Guest's poetry follow from this concern. One is her use of parataxis and typographical fragmentation, illustrated by these lines from "Ilex" (Fair Realism):

                 we lost him. he disappeared.
   rinds of gold stitched to his aura—
   at the entrance armed with blocks—
   the stylus blunt—
                  mood of helmeted star light

The second is her use of a self-consuming, self-enfolding syntax, as seen in "Prairie Houses" (The Countess from Minneapolis):

   Unreasonable lenses refract the
   sensitive rabbit holes, mole dwellings and snake
   climes where twist burrow and sneeze
   a native species
   into houses
   corresponding to hemispheric requests
   of flatness
   euphemistically, sentimentally
   termed prairie.

Guest conceives of poetry as open-ended, contingent, and risky. Poetry is suspended in a space between the world of perception and the world of imagination. Again, this is a Stevens-like view of poetry that is illustrated by lines from "Heavy Violets" (Fair Realism):

   The world makes this division
   copied by words each with a leaf
   attached to images it makes of this
   half in air and half out
   like haloes or wrists

But Stevens's supreme fiction of a world "revolving in crystal," the utopia of imagination, may unexpectedly shatter, again reopening the question of reality in the ambiguous movement of liberation and pain ("Look now forwards and let the backwards be," from Fair Realism):

   A wrist for every watch
   releasing doves
   In the blown haze
   a search for crystal
   Broken glass

—Tyrus Miller