Sunday, September 6, 2009
BARBARA GUEST b AUGUST 6 1920
"Guest, who was born in 1920, died in Berkeley on the day after St. Valentine’s Day, 2006; she was a poet at all times close to, yet decisively out of synch with, the rites of lyric voicing. Indeed, her work, more than any other poets of her generation, enacted a "lyric negation," as critic Robert Kaufman has noted, singularly inhabiting and disavowing poetry’s ability to mime personal utterance. Guest’s unsparing aestheticizing created a new horizon for alyric verse in which saying cedes seeing, composition concatenates context, and palette elides figuration. For these reasons, she is the direct heir to Hopkins’s sprung rhythm and to the idea of imagination that she found in Coleridge and Stevens. 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 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.
No ideas only surfaces, no surfaces only words, no words only textures, no textures only contingent connections . . . The proofs of poetry often take a long time to develop.
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—Guest used no hooks. This allowed her to create a textually saturated 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. 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." CHARLES BERNSTEIN