It is my extraordinary honor to say a few words about a poet whom I admire enormously and whose work has been an abiding presence for me throughout my writing life. A writer's achievement is not only measured in books but also in performances, encounters, exchanges, and in that hard-to-track aura that shapes our perception of the author's work as well as the literature of her time. In any case, a starting point for any response to Barbara Guest's work would have to start with this list:
The Location of Things, 1960.
Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies, 1963.
The Blue Stairs, 1968.
Moscow Mansions, 1973.
The Countess from Minneapolis, 1976.
Seeking Air, 1978.
The Turler Losses, 1980.
Quilts, 1981. 1984.
Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World, 1984.
Fair Realism, 1988.
Defensive Rapture, 1993.
Quill, Solitary Apparition, 1996.
Rocks on a Platter, 1999.
If So, Tell Me, 1999.
The Confetti Trees, 1999.
These works have become an integral part of the fabric of contemporary American poetry, touchstones crucial for understanding not just the poetry of the generation of poets born in the 1920s—but also for the understanding of the activity—I want to say the possibilities—of poetry in the postwar period. Guest was born in 1920, which means of course that she turns 80 next year, a fact that we celebrate here tonight. Yet I read Guest, and I think I share this with many of my contemporaries and also with a large number of younger poets, not as an historical figure whose achievement has been assimilated, but rather as a contemporary, a poet for whom each new poem seems to exist in that very difficult to define now. That is, Guest is not only an important influence on contemporary American poetry but also someone who is actively creating its present terms and tense. In a period of American poetry in which the most visible and indeed much of the very best poetry has been written with hooks galore—whether outrageous or flamboyant or hip or morally uplifting, the arrogant or agonized or transcendent—Barbara Guest has used no hooks—and this has allowed her to create a textually saturated and satisfying poetry that embodies the transient, the ephemeral, the flickering in translucent surfaces that we call painterly for lack of a term to chart the refusal of a pseudo-depth of field that remains a ghostly presence in much of the poetry of our time.
It would be easy to dwell on the exquisite surface refraction in Guest's work while eliding the significance of this insistently modulated diffusion and liminal warping and woofing that pervades her later work. Barbara Guest is not a lyric poet, as least this is what she told me last week when I visited her at the apartment in which she was staying, just a half a block from where the Whitney Museum's "American Century in Art" was being installed. I take Guest's aversion to the lyric to mean that her work is not an extension of herself—herself expressed—that is, not a direct expression of her feelings or subjectivity, but rather is defined by the textual composition of an aesthetic space—herself (itself) defined. And while I would not call her an Objectivist (or in the parlance of another media "nonobjective") I think the link is there, both to the American Objectivist poets and to nonobjective painting.
At the Barnard Poetry Conference, just two weeks ago ("Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women," April 8-10), Barbara Guest was an incandescent center, illuminating the entire proceedings. At a panel discussion at this milestone conference, Guest told a packed crowd that she had come to us unprepared. I want to thank Barbara Guest for a lifetime of poetry for which we have been unprepared, for continually testing the limits of form and stretching the bounds of beauty, for expanding the imagination and revisioning—both revisiting and recasting -- the aesthetic. As readers we have been unprepared for Guest, she has never quite fit in to our pre-made categories, our expectations, our explanations. She has written her work as the world inscribes itself, processurally, without undue obligation to expectation, and with a constant, even serene, enfolding in which we find ourselves folded. We are unprepared for Barbara Guest and for that we thank her, for this lifetime of work that is still unraveling before our eyes and ears, unraveling so that we may revel in it. It has taken so long to recognize Barbara Guest's work, to acknowledgment it, perhaps because this work seeks neither recognition nor acknowledge but that a fair realism may awake in us as we read, inspired not by the author but by the whirls and words and worlds that she enacts.
The forces of the imagination from which strength is drawn have a disruptive and capricious power. If the imagination is indulged too freely, it may run wild and destroy or be destructive to the artist. "The frenzied addiction to art," writes Baudelaire, is a canker that devours.
If not used, imagination may shrivel up. Even in old age Goethe wrote that he feared the wild tricks of a lively imagination. "What is the good," he says, "of shaping the intellect, securing the supremacy of reason? Imagination lies in wait."
Plato also suspected the imagination. He thought man could be transformed by the imagination and suggested laws that would prohibit the miming of extravagant evil characters. He advised changing from dramatic to narrative language if writing became overwrought. It is the fear of what begins as fiction ending as reality.
Plato says, "If any poet were to come to us and show his art we should kneel down before him as a rare and holy and delightful being, but we should not permit him to stay. We should anoint him with myrrh and set a garland of wool upon his head and send him away to another city."
These words express fear of the possibility of a destructive risk that lurks in poetry. Baudelaire continually reminds us that the magic of art is inseparable from its risks. And this risk is also a necessary component of poetry as it performs its balancing act between reality and the imaginative force at work within the poem. The poet enters the poem with a hood over the poet's eyes. The poet has arrived from a distance from a real world and the poet is a conjurer balancing on the barre of risk like a dancer, or an acrobat. Have you ever wondered why the painter is prone to painting acrobats, and not only in the famous painting of Picasso? it is because in all the arts the practitioner, the poet, the artist, even the musician with a new set of rules maintains a balancing act between reality or rules, and the imagination. And there is where the risk lies, in that balancing act, so filled with fervor and terror as the little word is placed on its spool of light.
When I was a young poet, I was immensely influenced, as you know, by painters with whom I circulated. Their ideas of painting took up my young life. I envied their freedom. I began to use some of their methods. Often titles arrived after the poem was finished, as O'Hara illustrates so humorously in his poem, "Sardines."
The idea belonged to Picasso, who says about subject matter: "You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea. It's always something else in the end." This idea of Picasso's also, for some reason, lends an idea of space to the poem.
Painters also gave me a sense of being unconfined to a page. I became experimental without using that word. I wrote "Parachutes, My Love, Could Carry Us Higher" without considering whether my parachutes went up or down.