Guest, Harry

views updated

GUEST, Harry

Nationality: British. Born: Henry Bayly Guest, Penarth, Glamorganshire, Wales, 6 October 1932. Education: Malvern College, Worcestershire, 1946–50; Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 1951–54,B.A. in modern languages 1954; Sorbonne, Paris, 1954–55, D.E.S. 1955 (thesis on Mallarmé). Family: Married Lynn Dunbar in 1963; one daughter and one son. Career: Assistant master, Felsted School, Essex, 1955–61; head of modern languages department, Lancing College, Sussex, 1961–66; assistant lecturer, Yokohama National University, Japan, 1966–72; head of modern languages department, Exeter School 1972–91; Japanese teacher, 1979–99, Exeter University. Awards: Hawthornden fellowship, 1993. D.Litt.: University of Plymouth, 1998. Honorary research fellow, Exeter University, 1994. Address: 1 Alexandra Terrace, Exeter, Devon EX4 6SY, England.



Private View. London, Outposts, 1962.

A Different Darkness. London, Outposts, 1964.

Arrangements. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1968.

The Cutting-Room. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1970.

Penguin Modern Poets 16, with Jack Beeching and Matthew Mead. London, Penguin, 1970.

The Place. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1971.

Text and Fragment, The Inheritance, Miniatures. Southampton, Hampshire, Earth Ship 13, 1972.

The Achievements of Memory. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1974.

The Enchanted Acres. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1975.

Mountain Journal. Sheffield, Rivelin Press, 1975.

A House against the Night. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1976.

English Poems. London, Words Press, 1976.

Two Poems. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.

The Hidden Change. Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire, Grey-lag Press, 1978.

Zeami in Exile. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1978.

Elegies. Durham, Pig Press, 1980.

Lost and Found: Poems 1975–1982. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1983.

The Emperor of Outer Space. Durham, Pig Press, 1983.

Dealings with the Real World. Huddersfield, Yorkshire, Smith/ Doorstep Press, 1987.

Coming to Terms. London, Anvil Press, 1994.

Visit to an Unknown Suburb. Dunfermline, Fife, Raunchland, 1996.

So Far. Exeter, Stride, 1998.


The Inheritance (broadcast, 1973). Included in Text and Fragment, The Inheritance, Miniatures, 1972.

Radio Plays: Beware of Pity, from a play by Stefan Zweig, 1961; Trial of Strength, from a play by G.A. Golfar, 1964; The Emperor of Outer Space (broadcast, 1976).


Days. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1978.

Lost Pictures. Exeter, Albertine Press, 1991.


Another Island Country (essays). Tokyo, Eikôsha, 1970.

Mastering Japanese. London, Macmillan, 1989; New York, Hippocrene, 1991.

Traveller's Literary Companion to Japan. Brighton, In Print, and Chicago, Passport, 1994.

Versions. Nether Stowey, Somerset, Odyssey, 1999.

Editor and Translator, with Lynn Guest and Kajima Shozo, Post-War Japanese Poetry. London, Penguin, 1972.

Editor, with others, The Elek Book of Oriental Verse. London, Elek, 1979.

Editor and Translator, The Distance, The Shadows: Selected Poems, by Victor Hugo. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1981.


Harry Guest comments:

(1970) Lyrical analysis of personal relationships, bisexual love, landscapes, etc. Certain amount of intellectual demand; European rather than transatlantic; syllabics or stress-length lines; high premium on musicality.

I admire Klee, the early Godard, Debussy's piano music.

(1974) Private View is a poem in fourteen sections dealing with the relationships between art and reality, imagination and love. "Matsushima" (1967) examines the shadow line crossed when death is felt in the marrow as inevitable. "Metamorphoses" (1968) uses a highly condensed, elliptical language for its "Six Poems on Related Themes." The Place is fifteen connected meditations about a holiday on the west coast of Japan, and Miniatures is thirty-six brief poems recording a visit with the poet's daughter to a volcanic island.

The short poems in various structural forms are primarily lyrical or narrative—love poems like "The Summers of Nowhere" or "At Shoreham"; problems of perception like "Allegories," "Autumns," or "Nocturnes for the Dead of Winter"; or of art—"The Painter…," "Cinema."

The kind of poetry that most appeals to me has music and density, appeals to the senses as much as to the mind and spirit.

(1985) The six Elegies come as near as anything I have yet written to a statement of poetic faith—the role of memory, the mysterious commands of religion, the problem of meaning in the heart of language, this last reinforced by my experience in translating a selection of Victor Hugo's work.

English Poems celebrates a return to familiarity after six bewildered and thrilling years in Japan. The tantalizing clues of prehistory inspired several poems about Avebury, sites in northern Arizona and Brittany.

The attempt is always to show the surprise latent in the everyday, as well as to display the relevance of the extraordinary.

(1994) Coming To Terms collects the poems written between 1983 and 1990; Trans-Siberian records a journey taken across Europe and Asia by train in order to attend a poetry conference in Japan. There are poems inspired by paintings by Poussin, Boecklin, William Dyce, Sickert, and Klee; poems celebrating marriage and parenthood; poems in strict form; landscapes; dramatic monologues; legends; problems; analyses of past loves.

Apologia pro Vita Sua is a wry definition of my aims—to avoid catchpenny themes, to ignore fashionable and temporary trends, to stick to originality, to write as a member of the late twentieth century yet remain aware of the poetic tradition in earlier cultures.

As poetry is a different language from prose, a successful poem should have an idiosyncratic shape, be more than a three-dimensional focus on experience, though never less than this, by using the sound and look of words so as to communicate to reader and listener the excitement or wonder or rage that went into the writing.

To concentrate only on performing a poem in public, as many now do, seems to me to be dealing with merely one-half of the poetic potential, as a poem which only makes its impact aurally and for the moment is perilously close to journalism. Craftsmanship—professional technique—although present in the service of meaning, ought never to be discounted. The poems by others I most value are those I reread.

*  *  *

Harry Guest was first introduced to the reading public with two booklet collections in the Outposts Modern Poets Series—Private View and A Different Darkness. Private View is a series of reflective poems arising out of a visit to an art exhibition; it is largely concerned with the relationship between the artist and his subject, as well as the part played by the artist himself:

   If I could catch his eye, we'd bolt for the pub
   And over Guinness alternate the old crude gags
   With laments for oh the brevity of beauty,
   The change within a year of the expression on flesh,
   The slender moving to the coarse,
   Metamorphoses of the delicate.

Although he treats his theme with respect, Guest's sense of humor does not allow him to become unduly earnest.

Like much of Guest's poetry, Private View makes its impact by means of skillfully manipulated images and association of ideas. In Arrangements the poems are grouped under such headings as "Problems," "Relationships," "Criticisms," "Narratives," and "Techniques," but this classification tends to obscure Guest's real strengths and virtues as a poet. One might remark upon his skill and note the interest he displays in the techniques of other writers, reflected in such poems as "Statement," "About Baudelaire," and "Elegy for Jean Cocteau." "Sterility and regret are the only muse," he says in one of the poems, which would seem to be true for Guest, for he writes most effectively about his regrets over lost opportunities, situations not grasped, failures of communication and response. Some critics have praised his "travel" poems, but he has a style all his own and rarely writes a simple descriptive piece. "Matsushima" and "A Bar in Lerici" demonstrate his use of the environment to effect new insights into the human situation:

      We talk of love,
   Balanced as always between the recollection—
   The afternoon spent across the bay in sunlight—
   And anticipation of the stars
   Tending to disappoint.
   After being born should be familiar
   And natural as the scenery of the Milky Way.

Perhaps best of all are his poems celebrating the relationship between men and women, the marital relationship in particular, on which he can be lyrical and tender without losing control over his material.

In The Cutting-Room, written in Japan, Guest extended his range of subjects and treatment and produced the "Metamorphoses" sequence of six poems, his most ambitious work to that time, but again the more personal references to lover, wife, and daughter show his capacity for dealing with intimate relationships. In continuing his experiments with form and diction, however, Guest in later work adopts a much shorter line and exercises far tighter control of both diction and imagery, and, except for "Anniversary," he seems deliberately to avoid the warmer aspects of human relationships. "I am a man for whom the external world exists," he says in an earlier poem, and he would appear to be exploring the external world at much greater depth than before in order to find himself and to define his own psychological limits, as in "Lacunae":

   These distant images bring pain.
   The tors stood out,
   first greyness on the silence.
   If there was laughter
   the echoes carried isolation,
   struck stone.

All this adds up to an unusual austerity reflected to a lesser extent in the later pamphlets.

—Howard Sergeant