The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest
Saturday-Sunday, February 11-12, 2012,
Barbara Guest (1920–2006) was a poet, art critic, novelist, and biographer often encamped within the New York School of Poetry, a famed group that bucked against the dominant school of confessional poetry and was deeply influenced by those manic male action painters of the 1950s and 60s. But the idea of a school does little to clarify the nature and significance of Guest’s particular achievements with a pencil. Better just to say that Guest was alive to a time when the words modernism and avant-garde didn’t come with air quotes around them. Her poetry has a wide range of effects and reaches out beyond the pleasures of the brain; it gives the ear new sounds. That’s something. She is typically read as a ‘painterly’ poet, a poet whose poems (especially her late poems), like abstract paintings, are best analyzed in terms of their materiality, not their referential meaning, or at least not their narrative content. “Guest’s experiments with spacing—her textual arrangements—can call our attention away from the narratives of arrangement (placement, framing, etc.) within the poems, and the distrust of narrative among many innovative poets has perhaps contributed to an emphasis on the visual and sonic attributes of her complex poetic constructions. This emphasis makes sense for a variety of reasons, but attending to the specific relationship between Guest’s formal arrangements and the dramas of arrangement the poems narrate is, I believe, essential to grasping the power of her work. The way the poems can shift between being art objects and narrating engagement with art objects is one of the principal ways subject-object relationships are kept fluid throughout her books. By formally dramatizing the interplay of arrangement and its narration Guest’s poems suspend themselves between objecthood and representation; they seem to shimmer between states. They can make the experience of reading a Guest poem like Chad’s experience of Paris in The Ambassadors: ‘It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.'” (Ben Lerner, “Selfish Enchantments: Barbara Guest and the Nature of Arrangement.” New American Writing, Issue 27)
Her posthumous Collected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) brings together over 20 books published between 1960-2005. The book will be read in its entirety over two afternoon sessions with Spare Room, from 3-8pm in our kitchen.